Culture, Spirituality and Science in Yoga: The Case for Common Ground

4 April, 2023
The fictional supercomputer in deep thought in Douglas Adam’s seminal classic Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy tells us that the meaning to 'life, the universe and everything' is 42!

Does the supercomputer know something the world’s greatest minds have been trying to figure out for millennia?

How can we begin to understand the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Do we seek direct perception by way of cultivating our intuition through meditation? Or do we evaluate it using the scientific method?

Perhaps the clue is right in front of us – the super-computer could do both.

Scientific materialism asserts that all phenomena can be explained in relation to matter, its movements, and modifications. What is evident is that the answers, unceasingly continue to change. Just when we think something is fact, someone cleverer comes along with a new explanation and science takes another step forward.

Joseph Selbie and David Steinmetz splendidly explain humankind’s progress over the last two centuries.

“While the number of new discoveries and the amount of new knowledge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is impressive, the new discoveries, new knowledge, and especially the applications they led to in the twentieth century are truly staggering: nuclear physics (photons, quants, nuclear energy, quantum physics, quarks), biology (DNA, microbiology, genetics, pharmacology), astrophysics (relativity, galaxy clusters, dark matter, dark energy), materials science (plastic, synthetic fibres, metal alloys, silicon, nanotechnology, carbon fibre materials), medicine (x-rays, electroencephalograms, CAT, PET, MRI scans, laser surgery), communication (radio, telephone, broadcast television, computers, digital transmission through the internet, fibre optics), and transportation (automobiles and trucks, both electric and internal combustion, high speed trains, magnetic levitation trains, submarines, airplanes, helicopters, and even rocket and space craft).

And that is just the short list of discoveries and developments made in the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty first! The list doesn’t include the similarly rapid expansion of knowledge in geology, archaeology, psychology, jurisprudence, education, agriculture, engineering, political science, history, philosophy, and religion(...)

The amount of information available to us today has been expanding at a rapidly accelerating rate. Estimates have been made that from 1900 to 1950 the sum of mankind’s knowledge doubled, and then doubled again by 1970, and again by 1980, and again by 1985 and so on. Even if these estimates overestimate the pace.”

Despite the exponential acceleration of knowledge in the last 200 years, when might we arrive at a final conclusive answer and have a definitive all-encompassing, end point, explanation of ‘how things are’ in scientific terms, remains unpredictable. The requirement of exacting proof at every single step dictate science is still a long distance from having all the answers!

Philosopher Michael Philips explains quite neatly that materialism, more specifically, scientific materialism can best be defined as the epistemological view that the method of physics can eventually provide us with a complete picture of how things are, even though currently it doesn’t!

On the other hand, Samkhya philosophy, which reflects the key knowledge and cosmology of both Vedic and Upanishadic thought, accepts both material knowledge (aparavidya) and transcendental knowledge (paravidya) as sources of knowledge. Samkhya, which is the origin of classical Ashtanga yoga, expounds twenty-four cosmic principles to explain all universal processes. The twenty fifth principle refers to pure consciousness which is beyond manifestation. These principles with perfect simplicity, explain the nature of existence and humankind’s place within it.

Yoga was designed as a direct technology to reveal the knowledge of Samkhya, the Vedas and the Upanishads. To explain the relationships of the systems, consider Samkhya the ‘what’, Vedanta the ‘why’ and yoga the ‘how’ in providing answers to the meaning of life, the universe and yes, everything!

The true practice of yoga is about going from our outer nature as a physical being to our inner nature as pure conscious awareness. It is not about the denial of our natural tendencies, rather the map by which we can rise step by step towards the goal of Self-realisation.

The practice of meditation is the key to direct perception through the mystical state. Successful practice offers knowledge of the true nature of the self, outside the realms of time, space, death, and suffering. It takes the aspirant beyond the sense fuelled ego identity, inwards to their immortal self which resides in the spiritual heart (hirdaya).

Indeed, the highest purpose of the spiritual sciences is to attain the state of self-realisation. Enroute to that destination exists a rich philosophy that elucidates the purpose of life, how to live it, the nature of the universe and the cosmos, the ‘reality’ underlying all matter, God, and the laws of cause and effect. As previously declared, everything!

However, it is important to acknowledge that while the ancient teachings provide many examples of this attainment, most people who practice yoga today will not have attained this level of attainment nor encountered a person who has.

When viewed from this perspective, while opposed in orientation, scientific materialism, and spiritual science both rely on a leap of faith.

Materialists seek validation of the truth from the ‘outside’, with a focus on sensory perception, and sophisticated instruments that can measure matter, light and energy.

But Yoga seeks knowledge from the ‘inside’ - either through the direct experience of the practitioner’s effort using yoga technology, and until then, the testimony of the ancient seers who achieved direct perception through the mystical state.

The world has become more complex through scientific advancements. Simultaneously, there’s been a spiritual devolution where the majority lack the spiritual power of direct intuitive perception expounded by the ancient teachers.

The testimonies of ancient seers in the spiritual texts reveal consistent results. Despite the spiritual poverty of the current day Gregor Maehle believes there is hope. He says, “Confirmed by the liberated masters and ancient rishis. It can be tried and tested by any meditator”. To put it another way, direct experience attained through successful practice overcomes the conviction of materiality.

Differences aside, the materialist and the yogi can agree on many levels of existence. We can agree the human being is a physical being, a social being and a psychological being. The only place of contention is that yoga asserts that a human being is also a cosmic or spiritual being. 

So can a materialist practice yoga, or teach yoga? Yes, they certainly can, but only up to a certain point, or in yogic language, only up to a certain limb.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras maps out the eight-fold path of Ashtanga yoga:
  • Yamas – Ethics that allow one to live in harmony with their community.
  • Niyamas – Observances that provide the foundation for spiritual growth.
  • Asana – Physical postures to harmonise the body.
  • Pranayama – Breathing practices to harmonise the physical and subtle body.
  • Pratyahara – Arresting of the sense organs from involvement in the phenomenal world.
  • Dharana – Single pointed concentration.
  • Dhyana – Yoga meditation proper.
  • Samadhi – Absorption in the mystical state.
The materialist can make wonderful use of yoga up to the 6th limb - Dharana, or concentration. Dharana is the practice of generating momentum to override the dissipated energies of the mind and convert them into a stream of highly focused awareness. Dharana is vital for all spheres of life and a valuable attainment for all practitioners. From the materialist’s perspective there is no progress to be made beyond the 6th limb because of the belief that nothing exists beyond the physical mind.

As we move beyond the sixth limb into the terrain of dhyana and samadhi, sensory input recedes, and transcendental input becomes the principal direct source of knowing. This opens the door to transcendent realities that are always present but inaccessible to us simply through sensory awareness of the physical mind.

Any modern discipline can coexist, enrich, and add clarity to traditional yogic sciences, up to the point they share the same reference points. That is across the physical, social, psychological and the metaphysical spectrum.

For example, we can view yoga through a socio-cultural lens. The growing awareness of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation has encouraged practitioners to engage in yoga with a deeper reverence and respect for its original source and custodians, the great nation of India and its people.

This is the practice of ethics (yamas) and observances (niyamas) in Patanjali’s eight limbed system. When adopted, they encourage harmony within community and humility within the heart. This leads to spiritual growth. But there is no guarantee everyone will take up these ethical principles with purity and these principles can be weaponised to exclude or prove superiority.

When we pursue the deepest purpose of yoga, Self-Realisation, reducing yoga to purely a socio - cultural activity prevents progress. Yoga places itself in a universal approach to spiritual knowledge called sanatana dharma or the eternal tradition.

David Frawley beautifully explains that these teachings are eternal, perpetual, and universal and are beyond any local limitations. He teaches that only a truth that is enduring and eternal is real, and that “true spirituality works with the entire conscious universe and seeks grace and guidance everywhere”. He believes eternal truths are always impersonal, transcending all personal and cultural biases, and are available to all who are receptive.

Reducing yoga to simply a cultural activity might start us along the self-improvement path, but it will not take us all the way. Gregor Maehle says that when one studies and understands the yogic sciences then ethics arise of their own accord and do not need to be imposed from the outside.

“The way out is, rather than creating with yet another set of rules, turning around and becoming aware of that which needs no regulation, that which breathes life into everything and therefore cannot be opposed to life. When that is seen, great compassion for all living beings arises spontaneously from the heart and does not have to be imposed by the mind”.

The charismatic super-guru Sadhguru states “This is not about my belief versus your belief. This is about paying attention to everything with great reverence and perceiving what best we can. This is the nature of the sanatana dharma. That is why it is eternal. If you impose your belief on me, how long is it going to work? The sanatana dharma can be eternal only because what is offered is compatible with one's intelligence. That is the only reason it can live forever.

If we really want the sanatana dharma to become a universal practice in the world, which ultimately is the only wellbeing the world can look for, it is very important that it does not get identified with anything. It is the nature of human intelligence to inquire. This inquiry has been curbed because belief systems have been imposed upon people. “‘This is it,’ and if you don’t believe this, you cannot exist.” Using fear and guilt and the like, the natural inquiry of human intelligence has been hugely curbed. It is in the interest of the ultimate wellbeing of humanity that a profound sense of inquiry is brought into everyone’s life. This is the fundamental purpose of the sanatana dharma”

The ancient rishi Kapila, who contributed the Samkhya philosophy taught that pure consciousness was the absolute source of the subjective, and the sense of self.

Pure consciousness is immutable and unchangeable, this source can only witness and cannot act. The subjective self: that is, your ethnicity, your skin colour, your nationality, your identity, are products of the creative force of prakriti (the world ground of manifestation) which are enlivened by the pure light of consciousness.

Put plainly, the spiritual sciences are, ultimately, concerned with the parts of us that are the same, our true source and nature, not our differences - our subjective selves.

Sometimes such limitations are appropriate. A physiotherapist should follow a strictly evidence-based approach when dealing with a patient and prescribing yoga asana as a treatment.

Psychology can contribute so much to yoga via research up to their fundamental disagreement about the nature of consciousness. The former asserts that consciousness is the result of biochemical processes of the brain and the latter that consciousness is not contained in the brain, rather that it exists beyond matter.

Clarifying your own reference point, as a teacher, trainer, practitioner, researcher, or academic should also involve being honest about the limitations of that disciplines ability to intersect with yoga sciences to foster civil and honest discussion.

If you teach yoga and you’re also a scientific materialist, it is better you reconcile that within yourself rather than reducing yoga down to your worldview and then berating others for disagreeing with you.

When we dig a little deeper, we may find even more common ground.  Even the materialist can pay homage to energy because they realise this whole world is, by nature, a play of energy.

To quote Australian physicist Paul Davies, Ph .D. “ To the naive realist the universe it’s a collection of objects. To the quantum physicist it is the inseparable web of vibrating energy patterns in which no one component has reality independent of the entirety; and included in that entirety is the observer”.

Maybe we are simply using different language to explain the same things?

Quantum physicist David Bohm (University of London) was a protégé of Einstein’s and one of the worlds most respected minds.  He proposes that the tangible reality of our everyday existence is a kind of illusion, like a holographic image. Underlying it is a deeper order of existence, a vast and more primary level that gives birth to all the objects and appearances of our physical world, in much the same way a holographic film gives birth to a hologram. This theory would be very compatible with the explanations from the yogic sciences. 

Bohm calls this deeper level of reality the implicate (enfolded order), and he refers to our level of existence as explicate, or unfolded order.

David Bohm was life-long friends with spiritual philosopher Krishnamutri. Their informal conversations are captured in the book, The End of Time where two magnificent minds, from seemingly incompatible disciplines, found a great deal of common ground.

Director of the David Bohm Society, David Capowski says, “The dialogues these two men had were of great importance and may be the best guidance that humanity has for addressing the incoherence and destructive activities of thought that threaten the future of humanity. Their dialogues went on for almost a quarter of a century and Bohm even credited some of his major ideas to being rooted in these dialogues. For example, with regards to Bohm's conception of the implicate order” (Capowski quotes Bohm)

"Now, we had many discussions, you see. I think partly through these discussions, although not entirely, I came to this idea of the Implicate Order. He used to greatly encourage me in that direction. I may have had the idea before in a very germ form" – David Bohm.

Theoretical Physicist Professor Brian D Johnson of Cambridge university, and 1973 Nobel Prize recipient;  “Vedanta and Samkhya hold the key to the laws of the mind and thought processes, which are correlated to the quantum field, i.e., the operation and distribution of a particles at atomic and molecular levels.”

It has taken 5000 years for scientific materialism and the yogic sciences to coalesce to a point where they can find common ground. I anticipate one day we will arrive, through the new language of science, right where the ancient Rishis have been pointing us for millennia.

Joseph Selbie explains in his book The Physics of God,

“Material science is methodical and precise but can only confirm the truth of one detail at a time: it is unable to see the whole. The science of religion is methodical but less precise and yet able to see the whole. Together – the science of religion guiding the way, material science painstakingly confirming – science and religion give us the fullest picture of reality.”

I hope these ponderings have made you, at least, open to the possibilities beyond scientific materialism. As Natural History Museum of London Senior Curator of Molluscs, John Ablett says, “Awe and wonder doesn’t cover kind of keeps you in your place, in a nice way”.

In service and love, Sarcha

Remember wonder makes you humble. Consider (re) reading Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

(Thank you for your integrity. Copyright. All rights reserved, Sarcha Thurston 2023)


About Me

I am an advanced practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga yoga. I have practiced various forms of yoga since 1990 and has practiced Ashtanga yoga daily in the Mysore tradition since 1997. I have sustained a lifelong commitment to yoga which has included maintaining a steady daily practice through injury, life’s ups and downs, raising children and adapting to ageing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *