Sridhar Deshmukh

Sridhar Deshmukh is an educationist and consultant in therapeutic yoga and preventive healthcare. He is a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, in addition to being a health consultant at Synergy Specialty Clinic & Diagnostic Centre, Bangalore.

Yoga and Science: A Quest for Wellbeing

Sridhar Deshmukh

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Yoga is about coming to a proper appreciation of our place in the universe.
Yoga is not about levitating in the air, walking on water or cultivating occult powers. It is to establish a consonance with, and to ground yourself more firmly in reality, reality that is wellbeing in every sense.
The question arises, ‘what is reality?’
Attempts to figure out the nature of reality, through varied approaches, has been a part of human endeavour since forever.
In the west, speculation in metaphysics led by Aristotle influenced medieval European thought. Aristotle’s idea of science was an attempt to explain ‘why’ things happen. He postulated, for instance, that solid objects fall to the earth because that is where ‘they’ belong; fire rises up into the air because that is where it belongs.
Classical physics was born when Newton, Galileo et al., addressed the question of ‘how’ events occur, rather than ‘why’. This shift in the mode of inquiry led to the development of paradigms for explaining observed phenomena, which could be represented through mathematical formalisms. Formalists also looked for a one-to-one correspondence between elements in the theory to elements in what was observed.
The method led to a progressively evolving fund of knowledge (pure science) about observed phenomena, which found practical applications (technology).
The principal axiom  of this paradigm was: There is a reality ‘out there’ that can be observed and monitored; depending upon how well we know it, we might also – in principle – predict its future behaviour (Determinism). The emerging physics was thought to be a study of ‘reality’. It was hoped that, one day, the new science would ‘explain all of reality’.
The progress of classical science and technology, inter alia, led to the development of measuring devices of such sophistication and sensitivity, which led to the revelation of certain lacunae between what the (classical) theory predicted, and what was actually observed. This was particularly exasperating because the lacunae could not be accounted for in terms of the prevailing and, otherwise hugely successful, paradigm.
No single model could be evolved that could account for all these lacunae at once.
Two new models were developed. One is Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which is a theory of gravitation. It deals with phenomena of ultra large scales, comparable to the dimensions of the observable universe. The other, quantum mechanics, is a model that deals with ultra small scales, dimensions of the order of an atomic nucleus. It is the latter, even more than the former, that has had a virtually devastating impact on the order of classical logic and even the way we perceive the world.
Einstein’s theories unify matter and energy, space and time into unified, inter-dependent matrices. It postulates that space and time are forms of intuition, at least partially, and hence there is no absolute objectivity about them.
Quantum mechanics goes on further to demolish the principle of determinism. Determinism, in quantum mechanics, is made out to be only an incidental concomitant of events at a certain order of scale.
The world appears to us as it does because we are roughly as many times larger than an atom as we are smaller than the solar system! The ‘reality’ that we see is only incidental to our context and mode of perception!
One of the pillars of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that when one observes ‘reality’, the process of observation itself alters the ‘reality’ that is being observed! And the more you know about one aspect of a system, the fuzzier its other aspects become!
This inadequacy of ours in dealing with ‘reality’ is not a limitation of technology; it is the very nature of ‘reality’ as it appears to us.
The question now is, whether modern science is looking at reality at all, and if so, what the nature of this reality is. So, from the ‘why’ of Aristotle, to the ‘how’ of classical physics and from thence to the ‘what’ is reality of modern physics, we have come a long way indeed.
The Copenhagen interpretation (of the implications of quantum mechanics) holds that there is no ‘reality out there’, which is dependent of us. So, physics cannot be something as grandiose as ‘study of reality’. Modern physics is only the study of correlations between observables.
These developments were set in train by scientists who set out by asking questions about the nature of observed phenomena. The scientists took an experimental approach to examining the nature of observed phenomena by asking questions like: What is the nature of light? What is the nature of heat? What is the nature of matter? This venture has culminated in the question of: What is reality?
The seers of India, however, took a radically different approach.
Instead of asking questions about the nature of phenomena, they set about asking questions like:
What is the nature of the mind that is observing and formulating questions?
kshetra kshetrajnayor jnanam
ye taj jnanam matam mama
“There is the field and there is the observer; knowledge of the field alone is insufficient. One must know the nature of the observer.”
The Mandukya Upanishad takes an approach to the understanding of reality that is anchored in common experience.
We all experience various states of consciousness. We are awake (jagratha), we dream (swapna), and sometimes we are in deep slumber (sushupti) when we do not even realise that we exist. The three states are represented by the beta, theta and delta phases of the EEG.
There is also a fourth, waking state (alpha), in which thoughts have no goal-orientation. It is by a transition through, and by an extension of this state, that one comes into an insight into the nature of reality (turiya). Unlike the other three states, however, this state of consciousness cannot be brought on volitionally.
human brain
The philosophy of yoga can be seen as a technology that is based on this understanding (pure science) of the Upanishads.
Yoga is ending of mind play (chitta vrutti nirodah)
Then, you are actually yourself (tadha drasthuhu swaroope awasthanam)
Otherwise, you are whatever is happening (vrutti saaroopyam itaratra)
The mind is envisaged as the play of mentations (thoughts and feelings) against the backdrop of consciousness. While we seek pleasure by willfully arousing certain mentations, our sufferings arise from mentations over which we have no control.
Pleasure (eustress) is the kind of stress that we happen to like, whereas pain (distress) is the kind of stress that we do not like. The flow of thoughts is sedate when one is relaxed, but acquires momentum or speed when under stress.
So yoga can provide a direct, effective answer to stress. The techniques of yoga, which were devised for larger objectives, can, indeed, answer mundane calls such as improving well-being and managing certain diseases. But, what is being passed as ‘yoga’ these days does not deserve even any comment!
Metaphysically, processing interferes with perception: thinking prevents seeing. Yoga sees that insight can come about when mentations are restrained.
In the protocol of nature, thought is only a tool to facilitate living. Though cannot be used to figure out an answer to the riddle of existence, nor can though comprehend ‘reality’. This fact has been borne out by our experience with science, where attempts to ‘understand reality’ has led to even bigger questions.
In contrast, for instance, with the ’certainty of ambiguity’ in Nasadiya Sukta of Rig Veda,
‘When, from whence did this great universe come?
Whether its will was created,
Or whether it was born mute?
The gods themselves came later into being.
Who knows from where the mighty universe sprang?
The one who sees from the highest heaven
Only He knows, or perchance
Even He knows it not!’
And, the legend in the Mundaka Upanishad,
Brahma imparted knowledge of the great brahman to his son Atharvan, who passed it on to Angira, who instructed Satyavaha of Bharadwaja gotra (dynasty). Satyavaha imparted the vidya to Angiras.
Saunaka, a householder (grihasta), asked Angiras about brahma vidya , “O sage, please tell me: is there such a  thing, when it is known, everything becomes known?”
Angiras answered, “There are two kinds of vidya:  higher (para vidya) and lower (apara vidya). The lower pursuit includes the study of Rig & Sama, Yajur & Atharva Vedas, Vedangas — Siksha, Kalpa, Vyakarna, Nirukta, Chandas and Jyothisha. The higher pursuit, which is of an entirely different order, leads to a direct insight into reality.”
As a synthesis, various stages can be delineated in the evolution of individuals.
First is the mundane phase, when a person thinks that all questions have answers. One may not know it, but your teacher knows it, or some book has the answers.
The second is the phase of scientific enquiry, in which one sees that there are more questions than there are answers.
The third is the phase of philosophical enquiry, in which the questions coalesce together to form bigger and larger questions, until one reaches a point where there is only the question and there is no answer.
One may evolve through these stages volitionally, given time and application.
Beyond this, if it dawns through a flash of insight that our questions are all born out of our inability to accept answers that we already have, the question disappears.
Then there is only the natural rhythm of life expressing itself.

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