Contemplation, Ashtanga, science and evolution

It may be my Western mind, but I’m finding talk of the marriage between science and yoga — Ashtanga specifically — to be fascinating. Judging by comments here, and emails we’ve received, I don’t seem to be alone.

Meditation laboratory of the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, via

Just to recap the highlights: In the past few weeks, there has been news about the $12-million gift from the Tudor Jones (of Jois Yoga fame) to the University of Virginia to establish a center for contemplative studies. And I saw news of a study on yoga and meditation’s effects on hypertension that includes Eddie Stern’s input.

Now I see that Richard Freeman is teaching during the upcoming week at the International Symposium of Contemplative Studies in Denver. Here is a description of the event:

The purpose of the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies is to bring together academics and other interested attendees for presentation, discussion, and collaborative networking in the fields of contemplative basic science, contemplative clinical science, contemplative philosophy and humanities, contemplative education, and those domains of contemplative practice that relate to and interact with these fields of research and scholarship. These distinct, though overlapping fields of contemplative study each focus on advancing our understanding of the human mind and how training the mind through the use of contemplative practices can lead to a reduction in suffering, enhanced health and cognitive/emotional functioning, greater happiness, and increased social harmony.

There has been growing consensus on the need for a regular and recurring venue in which researchers, scholars, and students in these emerging contemplative fields can come together to share new research and scholarship and network with established and potential collaborators. Such a venue is intended to be the most  important vehicle for shaping and encouraging an interdisciplinary and cohesive field of contemplative studies in which basic and applied science, scholarship, and contemplative traditions collaboratively develop an integrated way of knowing in which first- and third-person perspectives are equally and synergistically included.

There is yoga each morning on the schedule; I’m not sure if he is leading any of that. But here’s what he’s listed on the program as doing:

Concurrent Master Lectures 3

Basic Science / Neuroscience and Education

Amishi JhaMeditation, Attention, and Neuroscience

Arthur ZajoncReflections on Contemplative Practice in Non-Traditional Settings

Education and Basic Social Science / Positive Psychology

Mark Greenberg – Applied Mindfulness Intervention with Parents and Teachers

Barbara Fredrickson – Positive Emotion, Social Connections and Loving-Kindness Meditation

Contemplative Practice – Yoga

Lorenzo CohenYoga Research

Richard FreemanYoga Practice

Stephen PhillipsYoga Scholarship

Here are some other topics:

  • Contemplating the Restless Mind: How Can Scientific investigation of Mind Wandering Refine Our Understanding of the Human Condition?
    Jonathan Smallwood, Daniel Margulies, Malia F. Mason and Mathew Killingsworth
  • Pain and Mindfulness Meditation
    Yoshi Nakamura, Joshua Grant, Fadel Zeidan and David Vago
  • Mindfulness Meditation and Anxiety Disorders: Effects on Emotion, Attention, and Brain Responses
    Elizabeth Hoge, Sara Lazar, Britta Holzel and Philippe Goldin
  • Building a Contemplative Studies Community: Bridging the Sciences and Humanities
    Wendy Hasenkamp, John Dunne, Susan Bauer-Wu, Lawrence Barsalou and Bobbi Patterson
  • Bringing Mindfulness to Difficult Populations: Considering Clinical and Research Challenges, Sharing Solutions
    Zev Schuman-Olivier, Judson Brewer, Sarah Bowen, Eric Garland and Zayda Vallejo
  • A paradigm for contemplative practice for end-of-life clinicians: Being With DyingAnthony Back, Cynda Rushton, Roshi Joan Halifax and Susan Bauer-Wudean
  • Impact of mindfulness on brain resting state connectivity
    Sara Lazar, Amishi Jha, Véronique Taylor and Judson Brewer
  • Mindfulness Measurement and Research
    Daniel Levenson, Eric Garland, Fadel Zeidan, Anthony King and Lawrence Barsalou
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Treatment-Resistant Depression
    Stuart Eisendrath and Maura McLane

Sounds pretty similar to what the Tudor Jones are planning with their center at UVa.

I recognize that not everyone shares the same opinion on the yoga-science marriage. And that’s why I’m pleased to report that Eddie put me in touch with the lead of the study with which he’s involved. I’ve formulated a few questions from comments and emails we’ve received, but if you have any questions you’d want to pose, feel free to share them in the comment section below or shoot us an email. (Email is in the About section.)

In general, I’m expecting to ask about the difficulty of measuring yoga’s effects; why it is important to provide scientific validation to yoga, meditation and mindfulness; specifics about the study; and about where this frame of research is headed (and maybe where it has been).

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

3 thoughts on “Contemplation, Ashtanga, science and evolution”

  1. Im a little confused by the excitement. Applying scientific method to various aspects of meditation and yoga is not new. Nor does it validate them one way or the other. All science does is look at various markers, then try to draw some conclusions / theories about the data. First step is to state a premise that is being tested.

    So what is it that you think is being validated? What do you want “validated.” Physical effects? Mental effects?

    The existence of a Hindu God? Proving that a Hindu God exists while a Muslim or Christian God dies nit?

    What happens if the data does not support your desired conclusion? What happens if data is priduced that shows that yoga actually neurological effects similar to addiction, and the conclusion is that it is mentally / physically addictive, that its claimed access to god is delusional as a result? What does having a yoga class at a conference mean, other than there is a yoga class at a conference?

    1. I’ll let the researchers answer all the question. I’m interested because in this study, it is explicitly Ashtanga that is being applied. I’m curious how that might differ from the effects seen by other yoga-based studies.

      One point, though, I’ll just briefly note that we’ve talked here about the import of validation — and that it in many ways does come down to our living in a (Western) world where that validation is the order of the day. If that is what it takes to bring yoga (maybe Ashtanga in particular) to more people, then where’s the harm?


  2. Walking has been validated by science, for physical and mental benefits. So it’s not hard to do. I argue that any physical activity has physical and mental benefits. Any physical activity likewise has pitfalls as well.

    The challenge of studies like the one is that it relies mostly on self reporting. Not concrete science by sciences own standards.

    Plus, ashtanga here is, half primary? Arguably this is not ashtanga, which incorporates much more that those few postures, but also includes pranayama and meditation, and has its own 8 commandments (what happened to the other two, lol)

    I do not blindly defer to gurus, science, or politicians. Its important to look at these people and their claims with a critical mind.

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