What yoga as a cognitive science can teach us
Its experiments in higher cognition are first of all experiments in meditation.
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The NDA government, through the department of science and technology (DST) is developing a project to fund research on the impact of yoga and meditation on human health. This is an important and potentially transformative venture that marks a major change in government policy and highlights the growing relevance of yoga.
Yet the project also reflects a different understanding of yoga and its potentials. It should cause us to take a new look at yoga's teaching, background and implications.
Yoga is inherently a cognitive science, potentially the most important of these. Such a view naturally results from a study of the deeper teachings of yoga.
To appreciate this perhaps bold statement, we must first be clear about what we mean by yoga. We are obviously not speaking of yoga postures here. We are looking at yoga as a way of meditation. Classical yoga is defined as meditation and the exploration of higher states of consciousness that meditation leads to (called samadhi). Yoga postures are used in a preliminary manner, calming the body in order to aid in calming the mind.
This yoga of meditation is detailed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the key text of classical yoga. It is often called Raja Yoga, the higher royal path of yoga that works primarily with the mind. Meditation and the study of consciousness is also central to Jnana Yoga or the yoga of knowledge, represented by Advaita or non-dualistic Vedanta of such great teachers as Shankara, whose philosophy Swami Vivekananda followed when he first brought yoga to the West.
Yoga and the state of seeing
If we look at the Yoga Sutras, the connection of yoga with cognitive science is quite clear. Yoga Sutras defines yoga as the concentrating, calming and silencing of the mind (YS I2 citta vritti nirodhah) - making the mind still like a mirror so it only reflects reality and does not distort our perception with its conditioned patterns.
This calming of the mind allows us to "abide in the self-nature of the seer" (YS I3, tada drastuh svarupe avastanam), which is the ultimate goal of yoga practice.
The purpose of classical yoga is to take us to a state of pure cognition beyond the biases and opinions of the mind. This state of pure seeing or the seer is called the purusha (cosmic person) or atman (higher self). It is the consciousness principle that underlies the universe, which itself is described as a manifestation of consciousness.
To make a further link with modern science, modern physics proposes a possible unitary field of consciousness behind the universe to explain the coherence of the laws of physics. Yoga as a cognitive science claims to teach us how to directly know that universal consciousness within ourselves - a claim that if discovered to be true would constitute a major revolution in science!
Yoga is a science of inner cognition, not merely outer perception. It helps us to see and understand ourselves, up to our true nature of pure consciousness - which is a non-local awareness beyond the limitations of time and space, such as we see described in quantum physics.
New experiments in yoga and meditation
This yogic state of seeing helps us bring a greater harmony into the body and mind, improving physical and psychological health and well-being, which is an important and accessible area for science to research and explore.
The question is whether science can accept another form of cognition or higher perception such as yoga proposes. Here yoga provides many practical teachings, techniques and ways of inquiry.
Yoga's experiments in higher cognition are first of all experiments in meditation. No doubt science can perform brain mapping of meditation practitioners and learn much more about the yogic state of seeing, such as is already occurring in laboratories throughout the world. This research should certainly be expanded.
But we should also take up the practice of meditation and experience its beneficial results for ourselves. We can all become part of this important new study of yoga and meditation!