The Science of Yoga and the Joy of Bhakti

“All that I am, I offer on the altar of love”

Six days in the desert under the stars, surrounded by the haunting, sometimes comical postures of Joshua trees, a celebration ensues; a panoply of music and devotion, community and spirituality, yoga in its grounded, mystical and myriad forms – this is Bhakti Fest.  In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Philip Goldberg described it as the “garden” for yogis – and I wholeheartedly agree.  A garden is a place for cultivation, growth, nourishment, and beauty – and in this desert oasis we tend our souls and hearts, cultivating not only strong bodies and clear minds, but also love, joy, friendship, gratitude, and “god” – the direct experience of the divine.

I find myself writing in grand, poetic tones, and yet such is precisely where this wonderful gathering took me – to a grand and poetic place, to a taste of life not described by poetry, but life experienced as a divine poem.  As I passed from one extraordinary teacher to another, practicing physical yoga, partner yoga, breathwork, meditation, attended spiritual and historical lectures, met the shining eyes of yet another fellow bhakta, and sang and danced like a maniac to the ceaseless stream of intoxicating music, something hard inside me began to soften, what was rigid began to melt.   Places in my heart that had been cold and heavy for months and years suddenly surged with new life.  It was my own personal resurrection of the soul; my body felt radiant.

 

Photo by Michael Schennum

Bhakti is a Sanskrit word meaning devotion or worship of the divine.  One of the beautiful things about the festival is that there was no necessary agreement on what “divine” meant – each teacher had their own interpretation, and each individual had their own path.  Divinity could mean a personal God such as Christ or Krishna, a tantric path of immanence in every moment and every breath, an abstract concept of unity, a deep perception of mystery, or a felt sense or relationship, such as love or gratitude.  We weren’t there to fight each other over whose spiritual system was right – we were there to celebrate it, whatever it was!  As renowned teacher Shiva Rea whimsically put it at the end of a sunrise meditation,  “Crazy-God-People Unite!”

If it sounds a little absurd and over-the-top, that’s because it is!  That’s what makes it so much fun.

The experience left me pondering the way we view yoga here in the west.  There are many popular misconceptions, chief among them that yoga is about physical stretching and is only meant for flexible people.  Nothing could be further from the truth – in my opinion, yoga is about developing a more intimate relationship with yourself, and with the vast reality in which your self is interwoven.  Far from being a hobby for the physically flexible, true yoga is available even to those whose bodies are fully disabled.  Traditionally, yoga is an eightfold path, with the physical practice (Asana) being only one of the eight limbs.  The other branches include systems for meditation, contemplation, conscious breathwork, ethics, purification, and devotional union with the divine.  It is this last one, with its air of the mystical and the ecstatic, which perhaps feels most foreign and threatening to an American culture so sadly resigned to unexamined scientific materialism.

I mean no disrespect to science, of course.  Science, properly practiced, is at least as important as everything I’ve described above.  In fact, I see true science as being largely at odds with the philosophy of scientific materialism:  true science is a powerful method of humble inquiry and discovery, while scientific materialism is an unverifiable belief system inspired by incomplete scientific data.  (In forthcoming essays, I will argue that scientific materialism is best understood as a kind of religion).  Ken Wilber put it well when he said the attempts of science to colonize and control the realms of the ethical and the spiritual was a “total disaster”, a movement in the 19th and 20th centuries which led to a kind of flattening of reality in the collective psyche, a deadening of life.

Science and yoga have begun an uneasy dance in the last decade, riding the coattails of the longer history of neuroscience studying and ultimately affirming the benefits of Buddhist meditation.  It’s a project ripe with possibility and danger.  How wonderful to know that yoga can help to manage stress, balance the autonomic nervous system, ease anxiety & depression.  And insofar as yoga practice is undertaken as an embodied meditation, it should offer many of the benefits of meditation that neuroscience has already corroborated.  From the psychological perspective, it is increasingly clear that a safe, gentle yoga practice can be a therapeutic path towards a more fulfilled and wholly embodied sense of self.  Neuroscience tells us again and again that any neural pathways we consciously engage grow stronger – thus the more deeply and intimately we consciously engage with our own physiology, the more harmony between mind and body will be cultivated.  On the other hand, it’s also helpful to be reminded that a yoga practice undertaken for the wrong reasons, with the wrong teacher, and without mindfulness and compassion about the limits of the human body – can and does lead to injury.

And yet any devoted yogi will tell you that to truly study yoga – to truly understand it – one must practice.  For a comprehensive scientific study of yoga, we will need scientists who are also yogis – lest how will they know which hypotheses to pursue, how best to design experiments, how to sort and meaningfully interpret the data?  It’s the difference between studying your child through one-way mirror in a laboratory – or coming to know that child by being in relationship with it.  The latter way of knowing – the relational way – is the deeper and more meaningful way of understanding.   We love and marry our romantic partners, we don’t study them at a distance in laboratories.   And yoga, which means “union,” is in its most intimate nature and experience of relationship – relationship with body, self, and universe.  No matter how many miracles science produces, it will never be able to cross the boundary of objective study to subjective understanding without giving up a part of itself, and becoming something else, something pseudo-scientific, something vaguely spiritual – and this is no crime!  It is merely a recognition that the human condition must encompass more than the merely rational, valuable though the rational must be.  No matter how many chemical processes science can point to in trying to describe love – none will change the fact that the deepest meaning of love lies in its direct experience.  So it must be with experience of the divine, the “beloved” to which Rumi wrote his verse; it is a relationship first, and a concept at distant second.

One of the things I discovered at the festival is that my own yoga practice has become too scientific, too rational, and as a consequence, my world had become a little smaller, a little darker.  The yoga classes I teach are very grounded in physiology and neuroscience – I’m not one to ask my students to chant or dance.  And I imagine it will be so for some time, as this grounded approach is what I naturally have to teach:  tangible methods for integrating the physical, the emotional, and the mental aspects of being.  I personally believe that in this integration, the spiritual emerges, but I don’t talk about it much in class.  I leave it to my students to experience and explore for themselves.

But Bhakti fest showed me how many inner doors I’ve left closed of late.  Just as relaxation and mindfulness can be cultivated, so too can we cultivate in ourselves unconditional love, joy, gratitude, compassion and even the most terrifying one of all, spiritual ecstasy.  In a world so full of suffering, disappointment, anxiety, and pain, it seems the bhakti path is one which should be embraced as a resource for good, for healing and inspiration, rather than casually mocked and dismissed as a gathering of blissed-out hippies (which is, in a sense, also true).  I have no doubt that in the next few decades, astonished neuroscientists will publish papers corroborating all of this, “the health benefits of yogic cultivation of ecstatic states” and whatnot – but we don’t need to wait for them.  Spirituality can be strengthened by support  from science, but any spirituality completely beholden to scientific verification is a spirituality that has been eviscerated and enslaved.   Bhuddist meditation benefited mankind for thousands of years before neuroscience gave it permission to do so, and so it is with yoga.  If we are to truly integrate science and spirituality, it means fully respecting each on its own terms, and disavowing any attempt of either one to colonize and control the other.

As for the abuses of spirituality – or for that matter, the abuses of science – I humbly suggest that the question of ethics is another conversation entirely, albeit a vital one.  Science & spirituality both have tremendous potential for unethical behavior, as Nazi doctors and the Spanish Inquisition attest.  Neither can be reliably depended upon to provide unerring ethical systems of their own accord, and so we must honor ethics as a realm unto itself.  True, ethics can be strengthened by support from science and spirituality (this is what we mean by “integration”), but barring that support it must retain its own sovereignty.   We must stop insisting, as both religious and atheist fundamentalists do, that morality can somehow derive solely from religious or scientific systems.  Such claims are too often an attempt at colonization and control by one sphere over the other – they are an act of aggression and will only lead to further conflict.  It’s time to grow up as a species and move beyond these grasping power games.

How ironic, to make an admonition of growing up in the same essay in which I extol the virtues of exuberant dancing in the desert!  Have I painted a too-bright a picture of this jubilant garden of spiritual seekers?  Make no mistake, it has a shadow too.  Every person, every organization, has a shadow, and sometimes the brightest lights are trailed by the deepest darkness.  I write my praise of bhakti from a grounded place of balance and hard-won equanimity, accepting both the pleasure and pain in life, the good and the bad, as part of the “union” which yoga implies.  But certainly there were teachers at Bhakti Fest who were ungrounded, scattered, a bit lost in fantasies of the spirit, and perhaps more  often, a bit lost in the fantasy of celebrity.  (One doesn’t put on a festival two hours out of Los Angeles without inviting the phantoms of celebrity and commercialism to work their mischief!).  And for every bright eyed yogi genuinely practicing the devotion of their path, there was certainly a dabbler far more interested in the appearance and image of yoga than in its deeper meaning.  Nor are we unaware of these elements; shadow is inevitable, and many of the best teachers work to bring it into consciousness.  I was struck when celebrated teacher Saul David Raye – a mystic if ever there was one – warned his students of the danger of “spiritual bypass” – that is, the cultivation of spiritual states as a way of dissociating and escaping from the pain in life, instead of facing reality.  On the contrary, yoga asks us to be present to life when it is difficult – perhaps especially when it is difficult.

Life is vast and complex and often hard, and yoga is best understood as a practice of integrating it all – one cannot have “union” with the self – much less with the divine – while locking our pain and hardship in the cellars of the unconscious.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Bhakti to balance the excess of the rational, rationality to balance the excess of bhakti.  Science and spirit, light and shadow, material and transcendental.  Wisdom is cultivated in discovering, from one moment to the next, which way of knowing to pick up –  and recognizing when to put it down.

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