is yoga a science

Most of us have heard the phrase "the science of yoga." But what does it mean?

Is yoga a science? You'll get several responses to this oft-debated question, depending on whom you ask. Most mainstream scientists, whether they have spiritual inclinations or not, will answer "No," that science is, well, scientific, and yoga is...not. But not everybody agrees with this assessment. Middle-of-the-roaders propose that there's really no contradiction between science and yoga, because each functions in a different world, science the material, yoga the spiritual. Together they provide us with complementary perspectives of the same landscape. Then there are the optimists who affirm, in numerous popular magazines and books, that the more modern science advances, the more it aligns itself with the ancient teachings of yoga. So who's right? Is yoga a science? Or maybe, is science a yoga?

Before we can make up our minds on this question, we have to ask: what is science? The root of our word "science" is the Latin scire, which means both "to know" and "to cut or split" (and which also gives us the word "conscious"). This tells us two things about science. First, and most obviously, scientists are concerned primarily with acquiring knowledge, particularly about a world they see as wholly material. In such a world, human consciousness is relegated to a peripheral role, dismissed as merely a byproduct or appurtenance of matter.

Second, scientists customarily acquire this knowledge by cutting or splitting. This they do figuratively by cutting themselves and their world in two, by stepping back and studying things objectively, minimizing any subjective involvement. The classical scientific assumption is that it's possible to separate the universe "out there" entirely from the one that's "in here."

So how does yoga stack up as a science? Let's start with another etymological inquiry, this time into the Sanskrit word yoga. It's well known that the word is rendered into English variously as "yoking, joining, attaching," and most famously as "union" (although Patanjali defines yoga not as union, but instead as the "harnessing" or restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness). Yogis certainly value knowledge as much as the scientists, although the knowledge they value most points to the immaterial self, not the material world. For them, knowledge is never an end in itself, but always a means to an end, which is union, the realization of the self-identity of the embodied self and the supreme Self.

At the same time, despite their reputation as ascetic world-renouncers, the yogis have accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge about the material world. In fact, they've developed a sophisticated evolutionary model of nature, although scientists would doubtless either be amused or shocked by their results. Anyway, and this may come as a surprise, in their quest for the transcendent haven of being, the yogis traveled through all the embodied realms of becoming.

What's often overlooked is that yoga is also translated as "employment, use, application, performance...expedient, device, way, manner, method." Accordingly, the word signifies both a goal – union – and a method used to attain that goal, just as science suggests both a certain kind of activity and the outcome of that activity. In the fragmented and incomplete way yoga is ordinarily taught in the West, students tend to miss or misunderstand the method behind the seeming yoga madness. But every school of yoga, whether Classical, Hatha, Bhakti or Karma, has its own unique "yoga-tific method," which in its formal structure and approach to practice is every bit as systematic and rational as its scientific counterpart's approach to the world.


So one more time: is yoga a science? We've seen obvious points of contact between the scientists' and the yogis' methods, and both, in their own way, are searching for the truth at the heart of the world. But science truth is not the same as yoga truth. The scientists want knowledge that reveals and transforms the world, though it's conceivable that they too will be profoundly affected by their work. The yogis, on the other hand, while not indifferent to the world, only want knowledge that reveals and transforms the self.

The answer to our question then is, "It all depends." If you interpret scire, "to know," in a strictly Western sense, then no, yoga isn't a science. But if we allow ourselves to expand the territorial limits of this "knowing" to include the subtle and spiritual provinces – as the yogis do – then in this sense, yoga is the supreme science, the science of all sciences.

Richard Rosen is the deputy director of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Santa Rosa (, headed by Georg Feuerstein. He is also a contributing editor at Yoga Journal magazine. His book, The Yoga of Breath, will be published by Shambhala in summer 2002.

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