Author’s note: All Carl Sagan quotes are from: Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. Random House, NY. 1995.
All Iyengar quotes are from the nearly ubiquitous version of Light on Yoga: Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga: The Bible of Modern Yoga, Schocken; Revised edition 1979. (Page numbers follow quotes.)
Yoga proponents throughout the ages have often characterized their discipline—which involves self-study and experimentation with tools such as asana, pranayama, and meditation—as a “science.” Indeed, if the recent surge in the publication of yoga studies the last few years is any indication, yoga does seem to be garnering more scientific interest. That notwithstanding, if the claims that yoga teachers make are unscientific, we diminish our own credibility and the credibility of yoga. We also risk creating distrust on the part of our students.
As Carl Sagan, astronomer and science popularizer, says in The Demon-Haunted World, science is more than a collection of information: “It is a way of thinking” (page 25). Thinking scientifically entails not only observation and experimentation, but the critical evaluation of all arguments. If you’ve ever taken a college class in rhetoric and logic, you probably already know that a credible argument requires not only a claim but reliable support for that claim.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Sagan famously said in his PBS series Cosmos. However, we yoga teachers at times espouse extraordinary claims without even ordinary evidence.
We may tell our students that a certain pranayama will vanquish their colds, a twist will detoxify or stimulate their internal organs, or that if they do a certain pose in a certain way, their kundalini will rise and they will experience heightened creative energy for hours or days. More forebodingly, we may warn that a certain “misalignment” (like hyperextension of the knees or a rounding of the shoulders) will necessarily lead to discomfort or injury, or that an inversion will interfere with menstrual cycles.
These unsupported claims continue yoga’s history of grand claims. For example, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (II, verse 16) says: “As lions, elephants, and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana [vital energy] be brought under control very slowly….Otherwise it will kill the practitioner.”
Iyengar quotes this grave (and unsubstantiated) warning in the pranayama section of his introduction to Light on Yoga (page 43), before detailing specific poses and their grandiose effects. Humble uttanasana (standing forward bend), according to Iyengar, “cures stomach pains and tones the liver, the spleen, and the kidneys. It also relieves stomach pain during menstrual periods. The heartbeats are slowed down and the spinal nerves rejuvenated. Any depression felt in the mind is removed if one holds the pose for two minutes or more” (page 93). Hmmm.
Perhaps unsupported claims continue today because, unlike more dialectical academic environments, yoga classes typically discourage student responsiveness. Sometimes, yogis may simply be too focused on keeping their balance—or too relaxed—to bother challenging their instructors. But also, there is often a social pressure in class to be silent and agreeable: Imagine how hard it would be to say to one’s teacher, in the middle of class, “How do you know?” or “Really?”
Additionally, yogis may embrace some claims simply because we want them to be true. It would be nice, after all, if uttanasana cured depression. But Sagan reminds us that “The more we want to believe, the more careful we have to be” (page 69), otherwise our longings may bias us toward belief. He writes, “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring” (page 12).
Grand claims may be deeply rooted in yoga, but so are the skills that could curtail them. It is satya, a practice of truthfulness, to ensure the accuracy of the information we share. Looking at our arguments carefully is a chance to practice discernment, viveka, our ability to separate true from false, real from unreal. And the same svadhyaya (self-study) we apply to our habits of movement could apply to our habits of thought. Do we assert a truth before we know it is, in fact, a truth? Furthermore, do we have the tools to distinguish what is true from what is not?
Grand claims may be deeply rooted in yoga, but so are the skills that could curtail them.
In The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan offers a lesson called “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” (page 210). It is intended to equip readers with “the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and—especially important—to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument.”
Here is a baloney detection kit specific to yoga: a few common pitfalls with our arguments, along with a few suggested remedies.
1. Not enough evidence…or problems with evidence
Is there any evidence that, as mentioned before, uttanasana rejuvenates spinal nerves, the spleen or kidneys, or cures gloom? Or that a pranayama will clear up a cold? Or that hyperextending the knees a small amount is harmful? That practicing inversions during menstruation will cause problems?
The evidence on which we base our assertions or recommendations is sometimes scant. We may advocate a certain alignment because it works for us, or suggest a pose to help with one student’s problem because it seemed to help another student. In such cases, however, we are relying on anecdotal evidence, and a few isolated experiences do not adequately support a claim that something will work for everyone.
Neither do a few isolated studies. We have to be careful about saying “a study proves” something, as very few of yoga’s benefits are incontrovertibly proven. While studies of yoga are multiplying, many are small or short, and the authors often conclude by saying that larger studies over longer periods of time are needed to confirm the conclusions.
For instance, a 2012 summary of the evidence of yoga’s effects on physical and mental health states: “Collectively, these reviews suggest a number of areas where yoga may well be beneficial, but more research is required for virtually all of them to firmly establish such benefits.”
Indeed, some yoga research has methodological problems. According to a comprehensive 2019 survey of studies exploring the effects of yoga on depression, anxiety, and stress, “Most studies were of poor quality and results should be interpreted with caution.” To be of more practical value, yoga research may need to be more rigorous.
Behind some of our claims, there may be no evidence at all; we may depend purely on faulty reasoning, or fallacies, such as those that follow. If the only support for a claim in yoga is one of the fallacies below, it’s probably not a claim we should be making.
2. Appeal to Tradition
Also known as appeal to antiquity, this is the fallacy of asserting that something needs to be done a certain way simply because it has historically been done that way. If we say that toes need to point back in upward facing dog because that’s how the pose has always been done, we are guilty of appealing to tradition; in fact, it would be perfectly fine for us to curl our toes under in this pose if we wanted to.
Tradition can have value, especially if we understand its origins and aims. But if we do not know the basis for a tradition in yoga, is it necessarily worth perpetuating? Could the injunction against full inversions during menstruation be based on a misunderstanding of the workings of the female body? Even if the initial reason for doing a certain pose in a certain way made sense, could things have changed for many of us since that tradition originated? Sitting in lotus to meditate may work for hips accustomed to floor-sitting, but may not work as well for chair-sitters. Sometimes updates to tradition may be needed as our understanding expands and our societies change.
3. Argument From Authority
This fallacy leads us to assert that something must be true because an authority figure said so. Can I believe that a meditative practice will eventually lead to levitation because a persuasive and charming teacher assured me as much? Of course not: Humans are fallible and charisma is not evidence. Even basic cues we’ve learned from our yoga teachers about how we should track our knees a certain way or bend our elbows to a certain degree may deserve a second look to see what, if anything, is behind the “should.”
Sometimes, our teachers are right, but we can’t assume so. And while it makes sense to defer to some authorities—to astronomers about astronomy, to surgeons about surgery—scientific thinking recognizes that the experts of today may be proven wrong tomorrow, and too great a reverence for authority can forestall progress.
4. Causal Fallacies
Causal fallacies confuse correlation with causation, assuming that because things happened around the same time, one caused the other. Causal fallacies underpin superstitions—the belief that it was the lucky pen that helped you ace a test, or the medal or crystal you had in your pocket that protected you from harm during the earthquake—and we yogis may rely on causal fallacies when making claims about both injuries and healing.
For example, when discussing the effects of headstand, Iyengar says: “I have taught this pose to a lady of 65 who was suffering from glaucoma. Now she finds the eyes are completely rested and the pain in them is much lessened. Medical examination revealed that the tension in the eyeballs had decreased” (page 188). In such a case, can we be sure that the relief the student felt was because of headstand, or could it have been because of one of numerous other factors at play in her life? Could the relief have come despite headstand?
Some claims are even grander, for instance, the assertion that meditating leads to quantifiable crime reduction. Even if we could cherry-pick the statistics that would lead us to believe there was a drop in some type of crime during a meditation period, we would still be left with a causal fallacy: In a world of fluctuations and variables, how can we point to one clear cause for that drop? Humans are complex creatures, and society is complex. This fallacy—like the next two—pretends to reduce that complexity.
5. Hasty Generalization
“We all need to relax more,” “We all need to be touched more,” or even “Everyone should do yoga” are examples of hasty generalizations. Hasty generalizations are also the basis for stereotypes; we make them when we characterize all people of a certain ethnic group as having longer legs or longer torsos, or when we say that all women are more flexible than all men or that all men have an easier time doing arm balances than all women.
We see what we expect. If we do not have the mental flexibility to allow that men can also be pretty darn flexible and women can also excel at arm balances, we may see only a view limited by our generalizations—rather than what’s in the room.
6. False Dichotomy
A false dichotomy, also known as the “either/or” fallacy, divides everything into two possibilities and overlooks the middle ground. For instance, “Either you like hatha yoga or vinyasa yoga,” when it is entirely possible that you like both (or that you like neither). It’s a fallacy akin to hasty generalization in the broad strokes of its categorizations. To say that the mind is either “pure or impure” or “under control or out of control” is a fallacy because it disallows gradations between those extremes—as in “There are two kinds of shoulders in this world” or “There are two kinds of hips.”
There are many kinds of hips and many kinds of shoulders, and making a false division could prevent us from apprehending the full spectrum of possibilities before us.
If we recognize ourselves as relying on insufficient evidence or fallacies to make our points in yoga class, there are a few things teachers can do to put ourselves on safer ground.
• Pay attention to doubt. As students, we may be startled, put off, or puzzled by an assertion our teacher makes; this could signal that the claim we’ve just heard needs closer evaluation. When we’re teaching, we may feel nervous or uncomfortable about sharing certain information; this could signal that we ourselves doubt its merit or truthfulness.
• Be irreverent: Ask for more information from your teachers. (And when teaching, allow your students the same latitude.) Our teachers, like all human beings, get things wrong sometimes, and sometimes the false things they say are shuffled among many true and wise things. So we need to be vigilant. If our teachers assert a claim we find hard to swallow, could we be brave enough to ask them for more information—after class, if not during class? If they cannot support a claim, we may not want to repeat it…at least not until we have done further research.
As teachers, we can clearly express our reasons for advocating certain poses or methods and welcome questions from students.
• Verify information before you share it. Not only can we research what we’ve heard from our teachers, but we would do well to make sure the research we find can in fact be relied upon. We should evaluate the credibility of the author and publication, as well as the recency and accuracy of the information—and can we verify it elsewhere?
If the author or the publication espouses a clear bias (perhaps urging a purchase…or a click or share), if the author is unnamed or seems poorly qualified to opine on a topic, if the material is not current, if the findings cannot be confirmed by anyone else, it may be wise to withhold our trust.
• Use qualifiers. Qualifiers are words that limit a claim, making it less universal, like some, sometimes, and for me. “Some students feel best when their knee is stacked over their ankle in warrior II” is harder to challenge than “All students need to stack their knees over their ankles.” After all, some students may not have the quadriceps strength to bend their knees that much—while others may actually feel better if their knee bends more. Qualifiers show that we have considered possible exceptions and differences between individuals.
• Consider counterarguments. Can we identify any weaknesses in our arguments? Can we see why some people may disagree with us? Could any other explanations or claims work?
Researching opposing viewpoints can be enlightening. If we only research “Thoughts affect water,” our results will be limited; spending as much time researching “Thoughts do not affect water” will give us very different results. (Keep in mind that, as Sagan writes, “Spurious accounts that snare the gullible are readily available. Skeptical treatments are much harder to find. Skepticism does not sell well” , so accounts of wondrous and unexplained phenomena may persist despite less clickbaity explanations or debunkings.) Of the competing sides, whose evidence is the best?
• Imagine a committed skeptic in class. I find that imagining someone in class whose expertise and skepticism is greater than my own helps to keep me honest. Would I make the same claim if a doctor were in the room? A physical therapist? A scientist? Carl Sagan?
Some yogis may feel that being more scientific in their claims would be tantamount to narrowing their minds and disavowing a host of awesome possibilities. However, it would be more accurate to say that a scientific thinker would frame an awesome possibility as a hypothesis, rather than as a fact, until the evidence is in.
Science progresses by speculation, intuition, and (to use a word Sagan favored) “wonder.” He asserts, “Both skepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice” (page 306). These “two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought…are central to the scientific method” (xiii), he writes, reminding me of the yogic concept of enlightenment as a unification of seemingly incompatible dualities.
In fact, Sagan argued that rather than being a bulwark against awe, scientific thinking can be a gateway to it. Science can lead us to contemplate the interrelationship of all life on earth, earth’s place among the stars, the overwhelming size of the cosmos, and the intricate worlds in our every cell. In short, “There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any” (page 59).