Yoga as laboratory

In what follows i would like to suggest that the practice of yoga bears a strong resemblance to the modern idea of a scientific laboratory setting, and hence that certain aspects of yoga might be relevant to a broader set of moral practices.

The idea of a laboratory in the natural sciences encompasses a number of features. (1) a laboratory is a dedicated space that is (2) insulated as much as possible from outside influences. In a laboratory (3) various experiments are performed and reproduced usually by (4) a team of senior and junior researchers. The purpose (5) of such a laboratory is to produce new knowledge in a specific scientific discipline. Hence a laboratory is also (6)generally equipped with reliable instruments specific to the discipline which enable the scientists to easily construct and measure new experiments.

If we follow Patañjali’s classic exposition of yoga, we can locate, at least in nuce, all of the above six features of a laboratory. One important difference should be noted from the outset. Whereas the natural sciences are a theoretical endeavor looking for truth, yoga is a practical endeavor, which does not produce true statements but good practices. This one translation will inform how each of the above features is reinterpreted when applied to yoga.

Yoga is a practice of meditation that aims to control and mold consciousness. As such it has a clear and distinct purpose (5), which however aims at producing an outcome rather than knowledge. Though yoga is often practiced in a dedicated space, this is not the most interesting equivalent to (1). The dedicated space of yoga is the asana: the seated position, which the practitioner can always assume again in the exact same fashion. This provides the clean and regular environment (2) that is so crucial to a laboratory. The yoga practitioner is always assuming the same position and using the same physical, breathing and meditative practices (6) to come to a usual, basic state of mind. It is at this point that the practitioner can (3) set out to try new techniques and observe their effects, say, modifying a breathing rhythm or adopting a new type or object of meditation. The same new technique can be tried day after day, allowing the practitioner to notionally eliminate any extraneous influences, and hence establish the exact effect of said technique. Finally, each practitioner learns from a yogi, usually within a group (4), so that any new techniques are tested by many people over time, and only finally adopted if most everyone’s conclusions gradually converge.

We can now attempt to generalize this into a somewhat broader concept. If we take our goal (5) to be peace of mind (or alternately a solid character), then the laboratory concept must be expanded beyond the asana. The best way to maintain the important idea of an “dedicated, insulated space” (1, 2), is perhaps to define specific areas in one’s life in which you are going to experiment (interactions with a specific kind of person, a general type of task, an emotion). Then various practices (6) can be defined and tested (3). It should be noted here that it is crucial that everyone of these situations and practices be formulated in such a way that it can be understood, applied and tested by other people (4); but also the practice must be articulated like an asana or a breathing exercise in that it can be gradually tweaked, as any laboratory instrument would. Finally, the role of the yogi (also 4) should probably be expanded to encompass any moral tradition that can offer an initial set of practices to jump start the research. Only, one must be willing to question and experiment with every aspect of that tradition until the overall goal comes within reach.

 

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