The Ancient Science of Yoga

science of yogaI humbly dedicate this writing to my Guru, BKS Iyengar, who passed away in August at the age of 96. On death, Guruji had this to say:

(Abbreviated, from The Tree of Yoga, BKS Iyengar, c 1989.)

The western mind has a tendency to separate matters of spirit and science. Western religion can seem unscientific. Not all spiritual paths are created the same. The philosophies of yoga are ancient.  The Yoga Sutras are a younger text among Yoga doctrines, and scholars debate their origin as sometime between the fourth century BC and the fourth century AD. (The belief of most in the Iyengar tradition places the age of the Sutras at around 2,000 years old.)

Is it possible for an ancient text to contain truths that are scientifically verifiable? Once one is familiar with the spiritual texts of yoga, you’ll know the answer is YES! The entire framework of the Yoga Sutras speaks in depth about breathing and meditation as ways to alter brain and body behavior. Beginning with the development of EEG technology in 1929 by German scientist Hans Berger, after thousands of years as a guideline for spiritual work, the instructions in the text have been verified and recorded as scientifically accurate.

Yoga is frequently simplified in the west to practice of Asana (physical postures.) According to Yogic texts the practice of Asana is preparation for learning to calm and thus control consciousness. Through learning to create balance in the body, one finds balance in the brain waves.  With the practice of Asana, awareness of breath begins. The practitioner is advised to become conscious of breath, and inhale and exhale well while practicing postures. These basic steps prepare the body systems to function on a dynamic level. As muscles and tendons are stretched, twisted and balanced, with good inhalation and exhalation, fresh oxygen is delivered to the tissues, enlivening and balancing the body. Physical practice creates a solid foundation for deeper exercise and study of the breath, called Pranayama, and Meditation, called Dhyana. The Yoga Sutras teach that through these practices, the mind can be controlled and every aspect of our physical, mental, and emotional experience as humans can be manipulated for improvement.

The concepts contained in the Yoga Sutras were unheard of in the west until the 20th century.  With the exception of certain sects of monks and nuns, meditation practices were virtually nonexistent in western culture until the publishing of Paramahansa Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi in 1946. BKS Iyengar’s fundamental treatise on Yoga, Light on Yoga was first published in English in 1965. These two books ignited the study of Yoga in the western world and scientists raced to begin using the Electroencephalography (EEG)EEG technology to study if the claims made by these men and the ancient texts of their spiritual path were scientifically verifiable.

EEG technology has been refined over the years, mainly with the addition of digital features, but is still the benchmark to monitor and study brain waves. Thousands of studies have now been done all over the world regarding the effects of breath and meditation on brain chemistry. Scientists have defined five main types of brain waves: Delta, Theta, Alpha, Gamma, and Beta.  At least two thousand years ago, Yoga Sutra 1;5 referenced five kinds of thought wave.

During normal daily tasks, Beta waves dominate brain activity. As one begins to practice conscious control of the breath, and still the mind as prescribed in the Yoga Sutras, Beta waves lose their dominance and Alpha waves become abundant in the posterior parts of the brain. Passive meditation is taught through control of the breath and allowing thoughts to pass through the subconscious peacefully:  Yoga Sutra 1; 18:  The other kind of concentration is that which the consciousness contains no object-only subconscious impressions, which are like burnt seeds. It is attained through constantly checking the thought waves through the practice of non-attachment. Yoga Sutra 1:34:  the mind may also be calmed by expulsion and retention of the breath.

As the meditator becomes more practiced, Theta waves become abundant in the frontal brain. These types of waves indicate deep relaxation. The more experienced a person is in meditating, the more dominant Theta waves become. The frontal area of the brain is responsible for monitoring other parts of the brain. It is the source of personality and cognition of memory.

Scientists have proven that increasing Theta, Gamma, and Alpha waves can be used to treat a number of physical and psychological disorders, even deep disturbances such as schizophrenia.  An increase in Gamma waves can end depressive states. An increase in Alpha waves forces the normally dominant sympathetic nervous system to take a back seat to the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turns lowers stress hormones, the source of many physical and psychological imbalances, from weight gain to infertility.  Many medications are developed to alter these same hormone levels but a simple meditation practice may be more effective. An increase in Alpha waves has also been proven to lower blood pressure.

The science of altering brain waves through meditation is so promising that studies continue across the globe. An industry has sprung up around the use of music and tones to induce meditative states more easily and thus gain these same benefits with less effort. These ideas are also thoroughly explored in other ancient Yoga texts, especially in the various Vedas. Traditional methods of achieving mind-body harmony through the use of sound are thoroughly taught by many excellent masters in the related fields of Kundalini, Japa, and Swara Yoga. The Yoga Sutras take the study of meditation and its effects much deeper. The Sutras proclaim that in the deepest states of meditation (Samhadi,) the yogi can ascertain their moment of death, surround the body with blazing light, and manipulate the heartbeat to a standstill. These are just some examples of how the Yogi develops the power to completely manipulate every manifestation of the body-not just from disease to health, but for instance, the Yogi can become small or large. Such ideas may seem preposterous, and these claims have yet to be proven with western scientific equipment. Given the veracity of the texts as proven over the last 60 years, in subsequent years, perhaps what once seemed outlandish fantasy will gain scientific acceptance and become as commonplace as meditation CDs. It is certain, the sacred texts of Yoga will continue to spur decades of research into transcendental methods to obtain physical and emotional health. To the steadfast Yogi, the answers of scientists matter very little. A practiced Yogi is a living example of the truths contained in Yoga texts. This was the case before western science experiments began, and will continue to be so as scientific equipment advances and uses the practices and texts of Yogis as a rich source for physiological study.  There is no doubt the findings of scientists will continue to pour in about the benefits of Yoga.