How to use the Scientific Method to Elevate your Daily Yoga Practice
Both yoga and science transcend their cultural origins. Yoga was created as a practical path towards enlightenment about 2000 years before the European Enlightenment that gave us Renaissance art and the scientific method. Today, both science and yoga have gone global, but live in generally different cultural spheres: rarely are yogis the academically trained scientists. While we do have a growing field of scientific studies on the effects of yoga practice, what has been more useful to me has been bringing the scientific method (the way I approached my work in Neuroscience) into my daily yoga practice.
To be scientific is to be systematic, observant, and experimental. And just as in yoga, in science we need the flexibility of being unattached to the initial hypothesis, the first results, and the ego, so that we are free to find the best procedure/ practices that take us to our desired results.
Perhaps you are getting into yoga for fitness and your hypothesis is that your work will result in your body looking thinner and stronger, while feeling lighter, more agile, and energetic. Perhaps you’re interested in the mental clarity, creative thinking, focused awareness and productivity. Or emotional well being, inner stability, the healing of old wounds. Keep your results in mind as you approach your practice with scientific awareness:
Designing your practice
Our approach to the practice determines our results. Stepping onto the mat with intention is beautiful and important; you can step up your practice by stepping onto the mat with an idea of your independent variables (things you can control), dependent variables (what you do not or cannot control). You’ll also need presence of mind to make keen observations for outcomes of your work, in mind, body, and breath.
What you keep steady
In the beginning, it’s easiest to see results when you create a lot of constants in your practice: time of day, length of practice, teacher, diet, sleep, the general style in which you live your life. Then when something changes in your body/mind, you’ll be able to tell whether it was something you did on the mat, and you’ll also be able to see when a change that you make in your life creates positive changes in your practice on the mat. That way you can keep enhancing the elements of your life that you can control, in a way that systematically elevates your life and your yoga.
This is one of my favorite reasons for practicing Ashtanga daily: moving through the same sequence of postures daily means that class difficulty, or the mood of a teacher, has nothing to do with the results of my time on the mat. The stability of sequencing allows the postures themselves become an experimental field: you’ll notice differences in your ability to enter, hold, and exit particular poses in ways that you couldn’t with led vinyasa classes.
What you cannot keep steady
Most of life is out of our hands: pandemics, weather, the moods of the people around us, surprise stress at work, the dynamic relationships we have with family and friends, etc. Everything that comes into our perception has an influence in our body-mind, thoughts and feelings, and will show up in some way on the mat.
Be observant of how these elements interact, and you may be inspired to change the way that you approach not just your yoga but also your relationships and your work so that they support rather than detract from your current well-being and future goals.
What you observe
The scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena into discrete, describable, detailed principles. A good place to begin is the depth and duration of your breath, both the inhale and the exhale. Perhaps you’ll want to focus on physical sensations of lengthening the spine, or drawing back the navel, or the mental acuity of staying present with the practice. Stay consistent with which elements of your body-mind you choose to observe day after day, and you will see the changes.
In the beginning, while we get used to applying method to practice, our observations are at the surface level. With time and continued awareness, our observations become more subtle, and your initial goals may transform in ways that surprise you. Be open to the changes and keep applying method, staying in tune with your time on the mat.
It has been helpful for me, in my solitary practice, to keep a notebook and write before and after my time on the mat. I am also close with my teachers and find it invaluable to stay close with them, and my students, keeping open and intimate relationships to exchange notes and evolutions on our practice.
We begin with the simplicity of easily described goals, observable variables, and results we seek to enhance or alter. Over time, the goals and observations will become more subtle, refined, more energetic and less attached to achievements. Then the practice transcends method and becomes an intuitive space, sacred and stable because of the steady structure you created through science method.
Stay centered in your practice, and good luck with your goals!