Experiential Insight versus Experimental validation?
by Dr. Kausthub Desikachar, Ph.D
On its journey to gain acceptance into mainstream society, Yoga Therapy is at a very interesting place now. From being an obscure discipline that was reserved to saints living in caves and mountains, Yoga has found such a formidable acceptance by people around the world, that even 177 countries celebrated the International Day of Yoga on the 21st June 2015. Yet for all its current popularity, there remain many skeptics, who question its validity, especially as a form of healing.
Chief among the reasons for resistance are its philosophical differences with modern medicine, also known as allopathy. There are many significant differences between the two systems and it is important to understand a few of these to gain perspective.
While trying to explore these, it is important to remember, that the clarification is only to understand the differences in approach, rather than to conclude whether one approach is better than the other.
So kindly read on with that orientation.
First and foremost, Yoga Therapy views the human as a multi-dimensionalentity, rather than only a physiological structure which is controlled by a complex mechanism called the mind (or brain). Fundamental to Yoga, is an entity called Prana, which can be loosely translated as life- force. Yoga is of the opinion that apart from many other aspects, it is through the fluent flow of this Prana, that health and wellbeing are strongly established. And it is of the view that the Prana is influenced by all the multiple layers of our system, including physiological, energetic, mental, emotional and spiritual structures. Hence disease is viewed more as a holistic concept, rather than just a biological one.
Surely modern medicine does not imply that disease is only biological, but includes psychological aspects as well. But it is with reasonable surety that we can assume that modern medicine ignores dimensions such as spiritual and energetic structures, especially in the context of healing, which are also part of our overall structure.
Secondly, modern medicine has an approach that is based on invasive intervention, while the one of Yoga Therapy is non-invasive.
So when something goes seriously wrong, allopathy mainly takes one of two approaches. The first one is surgery, where something is chopped off from the affected part of the body, and usually gets replaced with tissue or flesh from another part of the body that is healthy. Or the alternate approach of antibiotic warfare is taken. The antibiotic approach seems similar to the approach of a war fought in modern times.
When a country has to destroy a trouble making leader or dictator, they send special forces armed with the most heavy bombs to take out the entire city or region where the dictator is hiding. Well the dictator gets killed…for sure. But what about the other civilians killed?
Well, they are collateral damage. Oops. We are sorry.
The approach of antibiotics is something like that. The drugs are so strong that they kill many things in the target area of the body, including the bacteria that is causing the problem. Sure it is life saving in many cases. No question about that. But it also destroys other very useful things as well.
Either way, allopathy is an invasive approach.
While on the other hand Yoga Therapy usually takes a non-invasive probiotic approach. Yoga Therapy uses body’s own resources such as the limbs, breathing, mind, voice etc., to address the problems using a process of practice and detachment. This can be a limitation of Yoga Therapy as well, as many illnesses that need quick or strong intervention cannot be addressed. For example, Yoga Therapy cannot cure conditions like cancer, HIV or mental retardation. However, it can facilitate those with such illnesses to improve their quality of life, or serve as an adjuvant after medical interventions have been first applied.
Another significant difference between the two systems is that, allopath tries to fit everyone into compartmentalised boxes, while Yoga Therapy views individuals as unique and beyond boundaries. Modern Medicine tends to lean on the method of standardisation. Be it in determining the normal parameters of physiological entities — How much one should weigh? How much should be the blood pressure? What is the ideal glucose level in the blood? What should the heart rate be? etc., or in offering interventions to maintain the parameters to its “normal average range” of values. This approach is based on average values determined by statistical tools, primarily because allopathy basically regards everyone the same. Therefore the approach to solutions too are based on standardised experimental trials, that are based on controlled conditions, usually taking a double blind approach.
But are we all the same? Can we all fit the same box?
This is the question Yoga Therapy asks? And also provides the answer. Yoga Therapy views each individual as unique, and even says that we experience the disease in a unique way. It puts forth the view that no two individuals will experience the disease in the same manner, even if its the same disease. Hence it does not diagnose nor prescribe the same approach to all care seekers. Take the case of two people with depression and obesity. One could have depression as the cause of obesity, while the other could have obesity as the cause of their depression. So how can the experience of both be the same? And therefore how can the approach to heal them be similar? This is the uniqueness of Yoga Therapy, that it views each individual as an unique entity, having their own individual experience. So the concepts of self-inquiry and self-reporting are very fundamental to the premise of Yoga Therapy.
Combine this with the theory that Yoga acknowledges that each of us are made of different constitutions, whose dominance is also being influenced by parameters such as age, job, gender, stage of life, environment, diet, seasons and a whole range of other meaningful parameters. What you get is a complex yet intelligent approach that is extremely context sensitive,rather than a standardised protocol.
When you combine the concept of self-report along with intangible entities such as Prana, how can these be measured?
Self-reporting is essentially a subjective phenomena, and it is unique to the individual’s experience, especially at that moment. So how can this be measured, let alone standardised.
This combined with the most intriguing aspect of Prana, which is palpable, but not measurable. We all feel the energy flowing in us. Sometimes we report that we feel more energetic, than at other times. Yet how can we measure this with an instrument? Prana is a central aspect of Yoga, and if this is rejected, then we are fundamentally rejecting the approach of Yoga.
This is why you can’t call something Yoga Therapy if it only offers standardised protocols of practice to people, irrespective of their differences. It is contrary to the very philosophy of Yoga Therapy.
When evidence based research is conducted on standardised Yoga Therapy protocols, it is no more Yoga Therapy. And when unique individualised practices are offered to care seekers, evidenced based research becomes unfeasible. This is why there is still so much skepticism towards Yoga Therapy in the modern times.
So how to address this conundrum?
Yoga Therapy has a solution, that it has been following for millennia. But prior to exploring this, we need to reflect on yet another question.
Is lack of evidence, evidence enough that something is lacking?
Just because certain parameters are immeasurable by instruments of the modern era, is it proof enough that they don’t exist or they don’t matter. If such were the case, our world would be a purely materialistic place to live in. How can we measure the love a mother has to her child? Or for that matter, the love one has towards their dear one? How can we measure the compassion a care provider has for a care seeker? How can we measure the affection an owner has to his/her domestic companion (also know as a pet)? Howe can we measure the degree of pain a person experiences when having a migraine? Just because these aren’t measurable, can we conclude that they don’t exist?
Further is there a standardised measure of love that a mother must have for her child? Is there an average value of care that a care provider must offer his care seeker? Or a normal range of affection towards a pet that falls within a quantifiable scale.
Aren’t these real and subjective experiences, which form such an important part of our daily life? But then how do we know these exist, and are real?
This is where the approach of Yoga Therapy provides an answer. The sages of Yoga were wise and intelligent. They did not reject evidence based proof. But they did not limit validity of a reality to only this approach.
Yoga offers three methods of establishing a reality — Pratyaksa, Anumana and Agama.
Pratyaksa is sensory perception. When an object is in front of our senses, and the senses are able to grasp it, then we know its a reality. So for example we see a rose, smell it and can feel it. We know it is real.
Anumana is inference, where we measure a part and project it to the whole. For example, we see smoke and we know there is a fire. Or we taste a bit of the ocean water, and conclude that the entire ocean is salty.
These two would equate to what we today call evidence based approach of establishing a valid reality. This approach isn’t new and has also been in existence for a long time, especially by schools that were purely materialistic. Such as the Carvaka and the Lokayata schools. Like modern medicine and science, they were of the view that only what is visible or measurable is real.
However, schools such as Yoga and many others, went further and established that our world is not only made up of matter, but also made up of immeasurable entities such as Prana, consciousness and the divine. So how do we establish this as a reality. This is where the third method of establishing a valid reality, known as Agama comes in.
Agama can be understood as experiential understanding or intuitive insight. Humans and probably other forms of life are gifted with insight or intuition, that is defined as perception when we are connected to the light within our hearts.
It is by no means imagination or hallucination that sometimes people confuse it to be. It comes out of a process of silencing the mind and linking with our hearts. And this is the domain where we can experience all the intangibles of the world — love, care, compassion, Prana etc.
And this is where it gets complicated, because intuition or insight is not automatically available for everyone at all times. Its something that has to be earned and merited, through practice and discipline. But it is possible. And when it becomes possible, it opens the doors to many perceptions that are beyond the normal means of perceiving.
Yogi-s relied on this intuition very much, in their method of observation and diagnosis, and could not only go closer to the root of the problem, but also could evaluate how to evolve a yoga practice. The intuition may also give a feeling to the Yoga Therapist, about the emotional condition of the care seeker, which also needs to be considered when evaluating the process of healing. This is more relevant in a Yoga Therapy Context, rather than in medicine, as Yoga Therapy offers a comprehensive and holistic process for healing.
It is for this reason that the Yogis of the past were continuously disciplined in their practice so that they could remain connected to their hearts, so that this insight or intuition was always available to them.
If we reject this form of perception, then essentially we are rejecting a very fundamental tenant of Yoga in establishing a reality. And hence we are no more in the field of Yoga.
Yoga Therapy by no means rejects the evidence based approach to establishing reality. But rather encourages us not to limit ourselves to the measurable materialistic method. It encourages us to experience the light in our hearts so that insight and intuition become our friends in the healing process.
As Yoga Therapists, we need to develop methods of self discipline and practice that will take us closer to our hearts, so that we can develop this intuition as an ally in our work in working with patients with suffering. It is then that we can have compassion towards the care seeker, feel their pain, understand their capabilities and most importantly connect with them in the sacred relationship of a care-seeker and care-provider.
There exists also another dimension for our consideration. Some things become valid through the test of time. It is so common now in the medical field to talk about the shelf life of a drug. Often its gauged to be a few decades. Many drugs that were used in the 1950's and 60's, because the evidence at this time suggested so, are no more in practice today.
While on the other hand, methods like Yoga Therapy that did not only depend on evidence have lasted more than two millennia. Its shelf life seems to have been longer than any method of intervention that modern medicine suggests. Is that not evidence enough for its validity.
It is time to call for a new way of thinking to move forward. It is important that Yoga Therapists remain open to be tested through the measurable instruments of modern science. At least wherever possible. And it is equally important for modern science to embrace methods of validity that are beyond the scope of tangible parameters.
When this happens, It is my intuition that we will transcend our own boundaries and become focused on finding the best solutions for humanity. Rather than try to promote the dominance of one system over another.