When Science and Spirituality Intersect

I am someone who considers themselves a logical, rational person. I’m educated, I have liberal political leanings, and I like to be as equanimous as possible.

I have become more cognizant of the schism between science and spirituality. Here, I’m defining science as the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural, physical and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence, testing hypotheses via experimentation. Spirituality I’ll define as a non-religion; the believe that the human soul/spirit is something of consequence, acknowledging its coexistence alongside the physical body.

I took a serious leap into the realm of yoga over two years ago, and that put me front and center of different deities, philosophical concepts, and a community that believed in something(s) beyond this world. A lot of this has been an educational journey, with lots of inquiry and trying things on, and ditching what doesn’t mesh.

Juxtapose this with a research background, writing papers, fact checking, and peer reviews of journal articles. All things which are tangible, can be evidenced and supported out in the wild, have been tested to be true, to exist, and to be real. I studied language acquisition and bilingualism — this required lots or reading, corroborating evidence, and walking into the realm of neurology.

Imagine what it was like to walk into a place of devotion — to be asked to offer up all of your good (or bad) intentions in hopes of walking out a better, more grounded person — how much that is to ask of someone who is completely not used to it. What is being asked is for someone to acknowledge the very core of their existence, and to evaluate all of the physical, emotional, spiritual baggage they are carrying with them onto the mat; to me, that is some heavy, and deep shit. 

I think it’s possible to support and believe in things that are unsubstantiated by science. 

Not everything needs to be. 

Photo by  Alex Kacha

Photo by Alex Kacha

A sense of community can’t be explained, but the factors to creating one can. Understanding a sense of duty, or discovering one’s purpose in life cannot be evidenced by science, but societal and environmental factors can help explain. For me, all of these things have helped me to better define my identity, get a better grasp of who I am as a human being, and what I am doing here on this planet. I can’t tell you what a special feeling it is to feel like you belong. 

Stripped of all its spirituality, religion, and culture, the science of asana yoga says that interroception and consistent environmental feedback stimulates the brain’s vagus nerve which is the commander of a lot of motor and autonomic functions. When you are manipulating the breath and forced to be in a static posture, you feel and notice things. Your parasympathetic system isn’t on overdrive, and you feel a sense of calm after a practice. The philosophy of yoga presents centuries of wisdom that can challenge your views of life and make you examine your attitudes towards daily occurrences with both yourself and other people around you. 

Of course the physical asana does have its benefits, and there are plenty of them. You gain physical strength, your mental stamina is tested, you learn how to manipulate the breath in times of pressure (that you can then take off your mat), and your body becomes more pliable and resilient with consistent practice. It’s also a great compliment to any other cardio- or strength-intensive exercise regimen to maintain joint health.

What took me by surprise was the openness that occurred over time — the willingness to chant (after understanding the Sanskrit), the willingness to understand the embodiments of deities like Shiva, Ganesh, Durga, Lakshmi, and standing behind the idea that offering up good intentions will help to elevate humankind.

If you are a person who doesn’t buy into the woo-woo, new age-y shit of the whole body, holistic experience that encompasses the mind, the physical body, and the soul/spirit, that’s okay. No one is saying that you need to. In fact, I preferred to keep things pretty secular until I took yoga more seriously. If, and when you are hit with an experience that asks you to be vulnerable, and to look towards something omniscient, maybe you’ll feel something that touches the inner depths of your being, maybe not. When it does, I guarantee that something within you will soften. Something will shift. And maybe us as humans — we’ve created spirituality to fulfill a purpose that cannot be explained, quantified, qualified, studied. 

Yoga never asked me to buy into any of it. And I don’t feel as if I’ve been sipping on any kind of Kool-Aid that makes me feel as if I’ve bought into something ridiculous. This is a lot like love — you can’t explain it, you can’t predict when it “hits” you, but you feel it.

The way things are now is that I am more open to the possibility of allowing spirituality take up more space in my life. This doesn’t mean I will be off chanting at 6am or morph into a bhakti devotee, but I am less inclined to write off something that I can’t see or touch.

I do now believe that there is some greater, higher power out there, whether that be some kind of spirit, energy, or entity. I feel that what we do on a daily basis helps to contribute to the betterment of our entire humanity as a whole. All the atrocities we see and encounter only cause us to want to be ethical, live a peaceful, gracious, and moral life — not only for ourselves, but for others.

And who knows — this might mean it’s an opportunity for us to explore, research, question and more importantly, to learn something new. 

Photo by  Alex Kacha

Photo by Alex Kacha