The benefits of a yoga or meditation practice have been known for millennia in the East. In the West, the claims were not believed until very recently. Fortunately these benefits have become accepted in the West through the efforts of many broadminded scientists and medical researchers. Benefits can be found in virtually every aspect of human health: physically, emotionally, and mentally as well as, oftentimes under appreciated, spiritually.
To understand the benefits of yoga we need to first understand ourselves. Yinsights into the way the body works, how energy flows and even how our minds operate, provide a baseline upon which we can observe how a dedicated yoga practice influences us. This requires us to first investigate ourselves, before observing the changes yoga can have upon us.
The way we study reality is by creating a model to explain what we observe and to predict behavior. The way to study ourselves also requires us to create models. The problem is, most people forget that their knowledge is conceptual and the model is not the reality. We can never know reality; our perceptions are too limited, and our methods of describing reality are self-limiting. What we can do is create conceptual constructs that are useful for predicting and explaining behaviors. Whether we are creating scientific models using Western methodologies or creating models based on metaphors using Eastern experiences, these are all still models. Please do not confuse the model with reality.
Understanding the model nature of our knowledge is important. Too often people dismiss a perfectly valid model because they believe it is not “real.” A model is never meant to be real – it is meant to be useful. And there are many different ways to model the same thing. For example, a map is simply a model of a territory. A map of the city of Vancouver is never mistaken for Vancouver itself. One map (one model) may show all the roads and traffic lights, which is very useful for navigating around the city. Another map (a different model) may show all the parks and trees. This is also useful if you are trying to figure out where to buy a home or where to walk your cat. These are two very different models of the same underlying reality.
The same dichotomy occurs even in the scientific domains. Physicists use one model to describe the nature of light when they are observing light as a wave; they use a completely different model when they are observing light as a particle. Reality has not changed but we require more than one model to be able to explain reality’s behavior. We need more than one map to completely describe the city of Vancouver too. This does not mean the models are wrong; it is just an admission that models are not reality, and it is useful to have competing models or views of reality.
A scientific model is considered valid when it can predict all the observed behaviors and make forecasts of as yet unobserved behaviors that can be verified through well-designed experiments. To be considered well designed these experiments must be reproducible by anyone using the same techniques under the same circumstances, and the results must be consistent. If this is so, we consider the model to be valid. But scientists never believe the model to be reality. It is simply one possible description of how reality works.
Generally in the scientific world, we strive to unify competing or smaller models into one large, more comprehensive view. This is not always possible and the grand unified theory is still being sought by physicists as a way to combine the models for the forces of electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the force of gravity. In the research of yogis throughout the centuries, many different psycho-spiritual models have been developed. This leads to confusion because so many of these models sound similar on the surface. There is a danger for a student who is not being taught by a teacher intimately familiar with the chosen model. The student may attempt to combine (or her teacher may present) pieces of different models without understanding the risk in doing so. Cobbling together elements of different models does not lead to a new coherent model. Be cautious of teachers who blithely recite bits of teaching from different schools, implying that all these techniques will yield the desired results if practiced diligently. It is useful to understand many models, but the unification of different models requires a lot of testing to make sure the new model is valid.
In our school system we expect our post-secondary teachers to be very experienced. Professors should teach from their own base of knowledge. Also, when we are beginning to seriously study advanced yoga practice, we need to seek a teacher who has experience with a complete and coherent model, and teaches from what she knows through her experience. In the earlier school levels, we can gain value from teachers who haven’t had the direct experience of the highest teaching. The same benefits apply in our earlier yoga studies. We can learn the basics from many people. But once you start to study at a deeper level, you will need to find the teacher who really knows. Yoga, in the end, is experiential not theoretical; you will need an experienced teacher.
As we have just discussed, models are found in the psycho-spiritual investigations of yoga. As one example, we will look at a model called “the Chakra Theory.” This is not an attempt to state definitively that we all have chakras and they all operate exactly as the models describe. Rather, like all models, the chakra model is an attempt to explain observed behaviors and predict what would happen if certain conditions arise. The challenge in psycho-spiritual investigations is – not all participants are capable of reproducing the same results, because their skills vary considerably. Science attempts to minimize (but rarely eliminates) the skill of the observer. This is not possible in the subjective sciences that we will be dealing with.
Do not mistake the map for the territory. If you remember this, then your mind may stay open longer when it is faced with things outside your normal experience.