5 Reasons Science Does NOT Prove Yoga Works


Creative Commons License photo credit: Patrick Hoesly

The findings of modern brain science utterly enthrall most people. And today’s journalists have gotten quite adept at trumpeting scientific findings in ways that captivate and simultaneously mislead the masses. Search the word “yoga” and “neuroscience” on Google and you’ll find an amalgam of sexy-sounding articles… everything from “Researchers find God-spot in the brain” to “Yoga heals the brain from depression.” Sounds pretty fantastic

These are overly-simplistic and tragically misinformed headlines.

And unfortunately, yoga practitioners are some of the worst about falling prey to the antics of hype-loving journalists. As much as I love that there’s such an interest in science in our community, I have to say that most articles attempting to explain the findings of neuroscience to yogis irritate me to no end.

I think part of the problem is that when we run across a scientific finding that appears to confirm our existing view of the world we are less likely to rationally assess the claims being made. And what we don’t realize is that those headlines have a set of unwieldy assumptions hidden behind the words.

So before you go re-posting that next ‘Science Proves ____ Works’ article, consider these 5 things all yogis should know about science:

1. There ain’t no spirit in science.

The very premise that neuroscience rests most of its claims upon is this: The mind is the brain. Simple as that. There’s no “vital energy” that gives you life, no Higher Self that’s reincarnated from body to body. You are, very simply, your flesh. Take a look at what Francis Crick, the Nobel-prize winning discoverer of the DNA molecule, had to say about who (or what) “you” are:

“You—your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will—are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

According to neuroscience, if it can’t be measured… it doesn’t exist. And since “chakras,” “prana,”, and other esoteric-sounding concepts the ancients referred to in their texts on yoga don’t reveal themselves using the current tools of neuroscience, most researchers would deem them a bunch of hooey. So when “Science proves yoga works” (who is this Science guy anyway? I’m dying to meet him!)…. well, not exactly.

2. Yoga changes your brain. . . And so does brushing your teeth.

Oh, how I’ve come to LOATHE reading that ridiculously overused headline: “______ changes your brain.”

Yes, yoga changes your brain. But so does every single other thought, action, or behavior you repeat over time. The brain is tremendously plastic; you create new neural pathways anytime you do something novel… and if you do it over and over again, you better believe those pathways will become deeper and change the structure of your brain over time. It’s called neuroplasticity.

But that bestows absolutely no credibility to yoga, meditation, or any other spiritual practice. So what if meditating changes your brain? What’s it doing for your life?

3. Science doesn’t “prove” anything.

A single scientific experiment never — and I mean NEVER — definitively proves anything. That’s not how science works.

How come? Well, to start off with, one of the first things you’ll learn in a basic research methods class is that any scientific experiment will undoubtedly be convoluted with extraneous variables. Think of an extraneous variable like interference on a radio. When you try to tune into a particular signal, you don’t just hear the signal you’re interested in, but also extra static from other signals being broadcast on that channel. That static can very easily distort the findings of a scientific experiment.

Let’s take that idea to a real world example. Let’s say a scientist is interested in figuring out whether doing 30 minutes of yoga a day improves the mood of depressed individuals. The signal we’re trying to tune into here is the relationship between yoga and mood. The problem is that there’s all kinds of interference that can alter that signal.

For instance, let’s say at the end of the study the researcher does find a significant improvement in mood. How do we know that the improvement was due to the yoga and not to the instructor’s loving and compassionate presence? Or perhaps the improvement was due to the fact that our participants were no longer so socially isolated — because the yoga was done in a group setting? Those, my friends, are extraneous variables. And there’s LOTS of these in studies on yoga and meditation. I can tell you from experience, yoga is not an easy topic to study scientifically!

Here’s another bit of interference to consider:  The measuring devices scientists use don’t always give very precise measurements. One measure of mood psychologists use quite a bit is something called a self-report questionnaire — a survey that asks study participants to rate their feelings on numeric scales. The problem with self-report is that if I ask you to fill out a scale about how you’re feeling, your answers will be affected by what you think I want to hear as well as what you want to believe about yourself. This is something psychologists call ‘social desirability concerns.’ To put it simply: We’re rarely completely honest when a researcher asks us to share our feelings.

Here’s a question to get the discussion going: Do you think we need scientific research on yoga (or other spiritual practice) to prove it’s worthwhile? If not, what do you think the value is in such research?

Loving the nerdiness so far? Stay tuned for the final two points in Part 2: When Brain Scans Deceive and Scientists Lie

Posted by:

- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

25 Responses

  • Chelsea,
    I am not clear what your concern is?
    No, 'scientific' studies don't prove causal connections. Yes, most people don't know that. So what?
    You seem to be missing the point of correlating variables too. Quantitative scientific studies simply seek to demonstrate a relationship stronger than CHANCE among the variables studied under specific circumstances- all of which should be clearly identified in the study. Any results require interpretation of the meaning of the relationship and further investigation to close in on PROOF.

    The fact that an author of a study disagrees with other people's extrapolations or interpretations from his/her study results doesn't prove the alternate interpretations wrong.

    Just because the Catholic Church didn't believe Galileo didn't make him wrong. Calling him a heretic still didn't make him wrong.

    What about this is so distressing to you?

    Anne Schanz, PhD

    • dsunshine says:

      –Apple-Mail-24-718882466 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

    • Chelsea says:

      Hi Dr. Schanz,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. My intention with this article was to provide some information about the methodologies behind scientific research to the general public– not to call out the researchers doing these studies. Hopefully that will be a little bit more clear with Part 2 of this post, which should be released tomorrow.

      I can see how it might have appeared that I'm "missing the point" of correlational studies, but perhaps I didn't make myself very clear. I believe correlational research is immensely valuable for what it is– as you said, research designed to understand the relationship between two variables. What I find disconcerting is the fact that the press chooses to communicate the findings of such studies in a way that conflates correlation with causation. I think that subtle manipulation of the facts is incredibly misleading.

      Another thing I find "distressing" is the unspoken implications behind many of the popular science headlines. Statements like "Yoga heals your brain" imply that we're inherently broken… or that all our suffering can be fixed by simply "changing your brain chemistry". This undercuts the complexity of our experience and leaves out the possibility that cultural and social forces may be at work. Perhaps I expect too much from journalists, but I wonder about the long term consequences of those oversimplifications.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, and I hope you'll stay engaged in the conversation for Part 2. I'd like to see more researchers engaging directly with the public — I think they do a lot better job at communicating the results of their studies than journalists.

  • yoga-adan says:

    1) Do you think we need scientific research on yoga (or other spiritual practice) to prove it’s worthwhile? – no

    2) If not, what do you think the value is in such research?" – because yoga is, i believe, not only a spiritual practice, but also a physical practice, with the aim of connecting the two, the value is toward that half of the equation we are on earth ;-) plus, if there "is" a connection to be made, obviously the research would eventually bring something of that to light

    wanted to add, found myself agreeing with both chelsea and dr schanz – figures ;-)

    • Chelsea says:

      No need to pick sides. Lots of gray area in between. :)

      I agree, Adan, and I think some of the research is indeed beginning to bring it to light. I think the research is particularly valuable for non-profits and organizations that depend on "evidence-based practices" to ensure they're funding.

  • yogiclarebear says:

    Great post Chelsea. I just finished reading Kundalini Tantra by Saraswati, and he devotes a good portion of his book to Kundalini research. Though his sources are well cited, I felt the research overall was dry and sparse. However, he fully points out that the research is not vast and, like you said, yoga and the "energy" sciences are very hard to study. What it comes down to is that meditation, yoga, etc, are so PERSONALLY experiential beyond what can be "measured."

    I really had to LOL at your #2! So true. Everything changes the brain, duh! I think the thing with yoga and meditation though is that, with intention…the changes are hopefully positive to one's brain and life. Which again, is hugely personal. Neuroplasticity is fascinating, and I believe that it is something that could be tangibly studied in the scope of yoga and meditation. I has been studied with placebo, and more recently spirituality and prayer. (http://yogiclarebear.com/2010/02/25/placebo-prayer-and-healing%E2%80%94the-divine-design-of-faith/)

    Again, great post. I have to watch myself too not fall into spouting random science+yoga headlines that don't have valid support. Thanks.

    • veloyogi says:

      Kundalini Tantra is a fabulous book, both as a study and in its practices. It was the required text in one of my trainings with ParaYoga.

    • Chelsea says:

      Hmm. For some reason I couldn't get your link to work, Clare, but that does sound fascinating.

      Brings a whole different topic to mind– the placebo effect! I'm a big "fan" of the placebo effect, if you can be one I suppose. I think a lot of things we say "oh, it's just placebo" and shrug it off like somehow the healing is not valuable if it's due to placebo effect. I say, are you kidding me?! That's self-healing in action! The fact that our belief that we should be getting better due to some fictitious treatment actually activates the body's immune and endocrine system to make us better is pretty darn amazing. If only we could sell placebos. :P

  • veloyogi says:

    Synchronicity? The new issue of Yoga International journal just arrived, with an article entitled "Mapping your yoga rain!"

  • veloyogi says:

    Synchronicity? The new issue of Yoga International journal just arrived, with an article entitled "Mapping your yoga brain!"

  • streetyoga says:

    Thank you Chelsea for your thought-provoking article! While we support, drive and even explore yoga research, I find it an important concept to remember the experiential quality of yoga.

    Especially your follow up comment:
    "Statements like "Yoga heals your brain" imply that we're inherently broken… or that all our suffering can be fixed by simply "changing your brain chemistry"."

    If we accept suffering as the inherent nature of life in this world, then we can focus upon living within that paradigm and finding the causes of suffering in our lives, rather than fighting the symptoms of suffering. No amount of brain research is going to cure the human condition, which is life!

    • Chelsea says:

      Thanks for responding, Street Yoga. I'm a big fan of the work you all are doing (supported by science or not!), and I'm glad to hear you take such a holistic approach.

      You make a very good point. Perhaps if we could just settle into the fact that yes, life is replete with suffering (that's part of the glory of it), we wouldn't be anxiously searching for some type of all around cure. Even yoga, I think, is often given more credence than makes sense. Heck, I sometimes notice myself falling into that trap. Back ache? Try yoga. Depressed? Here's some yoga. Climate change? Oh, well if we all just did some yoga…

      Sounds silly writing it now, but you know what they say… if you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think a gentle acknowledgment on our part that not everything needs fixing, that suffering is an inherent part of life, would probably remedy a lot of the suffering in and of itself.

      Hmmm. Thanks for sharing, nice thing for me to meditate on today..

  • Jt Clough says:

    Just this morning there is an article in Newsweek about how all the health test (based on science) are not helping and sometimes harming people's physical well being.

    Measuring mental and spiritual scientifically is impossible so I tend to watch all the good that yoga has done for me both physically and mentally as well as the many I have practiced with over the years.

    It's proof enough! :)
    Aloha Wags!

    • Chelsea says:

      Hmmm. I appreciate what you're saying, but I'm not sure I agree that measuring these things scientifically is impossible. Perhaps measuring mental and spiritual experiences DIRECTLY isn't possible, but there are many indicators we can examine to derive conclusions about what's going on in someone's subjective experience (if of course, we're following the scientific method with the appropriate rigor).

      For example, pain is at it's essence a "mental" experience but scientists have developed many ways to determine whether someone is experiencing pain…. If you touch a hot coal and pull your hand away, I can be pretty confident you experienced pain. That's a behavioral measure of pain. Scientists also have many physiological and self-report measures used in studies about pain. Now, these may not be perfect measures of the pain experience, but they are nonetheless extremely valuable tools in learning about the nature of pain and how we might treat it in the future. Just because our measures aren't perfect, doesn't mean they're not valuable.

  • L. Woolley, Ph.D. says:

    Hello Chelsea and others. Thank you for your insightful comments regarding the uneasy relationship between yoga and social scientific research. Chelsea, I think you did a lovely job of pointing out some of the weaknesses common to quantitative research. Yes, no study is perfect. Hence, most researchers always end journal articles with . . . "more research is needed." However, as a psychologist and yogini who did her dissertation research on yoga, I think it's important that medical and social science researchers continue the arduous task of trying to study yoga with both quantitative and qualitative studies. Studies illustrating the benefits of yoga in peer-reviewed scientific journals are needed in order for the medical and psychology professions to fully embrace yoga as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Those of us who practice yoga know it's beneficial. However, medical and mental healthcare professionals are called upon to use interventions that are "evidence based."

    • Chelsea says:

      I completely agree, Dr. Wooley! In fact, I mentioned in some of the other comments here that I think scientific research is particularly valuable to non-profit organizations who depend on those "evidence bases" to obtain funding. In an ideal world, I think what we define as an evidence base would be more expansive than just scientific research (for example: testimonials, larger impact on community, etc). But I agree, research on yoga is certainly important to determine whether there are measurable benefits of therapeutic yoga programs.

  • L. Woolley, Ph. says:

    Secondly, Chelsea you also highlight the all-too-common phenomenon of media taking a piece of scientific research and misrepresenting it to the public. It is a reminder that all of us need to be critical consumers of research no matter how closely the information aligns or does not align with our own beliefs.

    Thanks!
    Lauren

  • .L.Woolley, Ph.D. says:

    Secondly, Chelsea you also highlight the all-too-common phenomenon of media taking a piece of scientific research and misrepresenting it to the public. It is a reminder that all of us need to be critical consumers of research no matter how closely the information aligns or does not align with our own beliefs.

    Thanks!
    Lauren

  • threehighlights says:

    Chelsea, thanks for this provocative piece. Some journalists and editors do often over-simplify scientific studies, extrapolate what they want to find (or what will sell), and confusion correlation and causation. I also agree that many of us place too much faith in scientific findings without acknowledging the very limitations of the scientific method itself. One of those limitations is, yes, that prana/chi/energy cannot be measured. It's for this reason, too, that scientific studies of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine also inevitably fail.

    Still, I find invaluable the dialogue happening between Western science and Yoga, between scientists and yogis. We need not feel as if science validates yoga when, say, a study demonstrates that Sun Channel Piercing Breathing directly arouses the sympathetic nervous system.

    However, together, Western science and Yoga texts can provide practitioners an increased lexicon for understanding their experiences. I for one do want to know what's happen to parts of my brain's physiology, synaptic activity, and brain wave patterning when I'm engaging specific yogic skillful means. Yogis whom I respect know how to use specific yogic tools for specific purposes, and both scientific studies and yogic texts together often help me understand the effects of my own experiences as well as guide my own experimentation as well as my own consulting with clients.

    A few kind challenges to your claims and your presentation:
    "There ain't no spirit in science": In #1 I believe you commit the over-simplification you generally criticize among journalists reporting on science. Your quotation of one scientist – Francis Crick, no less, a renowned materialist – is what we might call "insufficient evidence" to support your claim. The relationship between the mind and the brain has dogged neuroscientists for over 100 years. In fact, the staunch materialists among them denounced any 'heretic' who might give credence to neuroplasticity and neurogenesis largely because the idea that the mind's intention and focus can influence the brain directly challenges the assumption that "The mind is the brain." Several, several scientists in neuroscience and in other fields of science now challenge the materialist absolute claim that the mind is the brain. Norman Doidge – a scientist and a fine journalist – covers some of this territory in the book The Brain that Changes Itself.

    I also wonder if your second point about how "anything" can change the brain is itself also misleading and over-simplifying the phenomenon of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis – at least from my understanding of them. Isn't what you describe – any thought, action, etc. – that you repeat over time samskara? Those patterns do make deep impressions on our psyche but I am not sure they make observable changes in our brains' structure, do they? You might be confusing brain stimulation with neuroplasticity. I'm not sure.

    And finally the attention-grabbing headline "Science doesn't prove anything" sounds frighteningly like what a certain presidential candidate or two might say. :-) And yet your points that follow this headline are astute and spot-on. I think we have to be careful not to extrapolate that because science does not prove anything definitively or because scientific methods are faulty (all points that any reputable scientist would acknowledge) that, therefore, science is not valuable to the study and practice of yoga. Right?

    Finally, here's the conundrum that most responsible writer-bloggers such as yourself find yourself in: Your over-simplifications come in part from the very medium in which you (and I) often write: blogging. A blog article is not the venue for too much complexity and over-explanation else we'll lose our audience who mainly seeks to glance and 'gobble.' I bring up these points of over-simplification in part to raise the idea that writers and bloggers like journalists and editors often make compromises with complexity in favor of pithiness and readability.

    All that said, I appreciate your writing and thinking that is, I'm confident, stirring some rich synaptic soup in my gray matter.
    Cheers,
    Jeffrey

    • Chelsea says:

      Wow! What a great comment, Jeff. Lots to respond to here:

      Point 1: Touche, sir! I certainly didn't provide sufficient evidence for my claim there, but as you mention later in your comment… The blogging medium does not exactly provide space for me to give due time and effort to laying out the justifications for all of my claims.

      Doidge's book (which I cite later in the book) was certainly a favorite of mine, but I found that he too– trying to appeal to a popular audience I imagine– committed vast oversimplifications and generalizations in his book. I think what you say about the compromises we make when trying to reach a general audience is spot on.

      I would say the main justification for my claim here is merely my personal experience working in research labs (which of course is not sufficient evidence). While I've certainly exposed to scientists who challenged the materialist claims you mentioned in my personal readings, I never once met a researcher at my university who was willing to even entertain the idea that the mind is not the brain. In fact, I got laughed at several times for even bringing the possibility up in class discussions. At least in Texas, the non-materialist perspective seems to be in the extreme minority.

      Point 2:
      "Isn't what you describe – any thought, action, etc. – that you repeat over time samskara? Those patterns do make deep impressions on our psyche but I am not sure they make observable changes in our brains' structure, do they?"

      According to my studies in neuroscience… Yes, repeated (and repeated is key) activities do seem to make observable changes in the brain's structure (remember "neurons fire together wire together" from Doidge's book) — although those changes may be so minuscule that they are undetectable by cruder measures like fMRI. Animal researchers especially have an increased ability to observe these changes, as they can use more invasive (but more precise) tools to measure even the changes in a single neuron after repeated activities. In simple terms, when a neuron fires repeatedly, the threshold level that it takes to make it fire again lowers. I'm thinking specifically of recent findings on long-term potentiation here. If you're interested, Wikipedia has a pretty decent write-up: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-term_potentiati

      Point 3:

      " I think we have to be careful not to extrapolate that because science does not prove anything definitively… that, therefore, science is not valuable to the study and practice of yoga. Right?"

      Absolutely. I think that perhaps my tone in this article was a little too heavy-handed, as many readers seemed to come back with this point. I by no means meant to suggest that the scientific study of yoga is not valuable simply because our methodologies are imperfect or because science can't provide certain answers. In fact, I am an ardent supporter of the scientific study of yoga and still have research proposals written up for studies I hope to carry out myself someday… pending the necessary funding.

      What I wanted to call for in this article, more than anything, is just a willingness among everyday folks to see and appreciate the uncertainty– the mystery, if you will– embedded in any pursuit of knowledge (whether it be through science, self-study, etc). I think the uncertainty is part of what makes science so exciting, and even if it can't present us with certain answers it can provide a great deal of insight into the way the world appears to work.

      Thank you again, Jeff, for your rich and thought-provoking comment. You got my synaptic juices a 'flowing as well. :)

  • jeffreydavis11 says:

    Chelsea: I really appreciate the thoughtful responses, admissions, and clarifications here. Very helpful in my own pursuits and questionings as well. By the way, in the Aug 18 issue of The New York Review of Books, H. Allen Orr takes to task the many writers (myself sometimes included) "who, enamored of science, are bound and determined to import the stuff into their thinking." In the essay-article-review called "Fooled by Science," he takes to task David Brooks in his latest book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement." I actually like Brooks' albeit conservative commentaries in the NYT and have often found him a fellow champion of the burgeoning dialogue between science and spirituality; however, Orr's take (and yours) make me step back and question my own assumptions about science's import. Curious since I'm often one to challenge others' "blind faith" in science.

    Cheers,
    Jeffrey