Yoga & Science: Offering a Decolonized Lens

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A photo of Anjali Rao outside, wearing a light blue sari.

 by Anjali Rao

Is yoga science? Or are they two separate entities that we have to integrate intentionally? These are good questions to look into, especially during a global pandemic where there are growing chasms and inequities within communities, families and organizations in terms of experience, outcome and access to resources. As the intersection of yoga and science is very vast, the scope of this article is to explore three main topics:

  1. Is Yoga a Science?
  2. A call for an intersectional lens for wellness.
  3. Recommendations for decolonization.

Is Yoga a science?

Let’s first look at why yoga is considered a science. In order to do that we need to define what we mean by “science”. This is more than belaboring the obvious or pontificating on the minutiae of the posed question, and it is integral in parsing through the nuances. Science is “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation”. Yoga is/are Indigenous wisdom traditions which understand that there are multiple ways of something being known and verified, and experienced through repetition, inference, and recognition of patterns. Yoga is also art, as innovation and creativity has always been very much a part of diverse yogic lineages, and has shaped modern yoga. Yoga offers us great insight into the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual realms . A lot of what modern Western science knows now about psychology, human anatomy, and physiology, such as the neuroplasticity of the brain, for example, has been informed by ancient yogic practices and concepts, and has later been verified by modern Western science.

Yoga is like many Indigenous wisdom traditions--experiential, contextual, and, in contrast to Western knowledge systems, non-reductionist. There is often an imposition of a Western paradigm of linear and quantitative measurement when researching the impact of yoga practices, rather than a focus on the qualitative experiences. When it comes to the physical body, Western medicine tends to treat the symptoms of dis-ease rather than eliminate or investigate how we invite and cultivate more ease. Yogic science teaches that we need to look at the whole, the microcosm and the macrocosm, not only in our psychosomatic bodies, but also how we live in relationship to the elements of nature and each other, and how all this relates to our overall well-being. Yogic texts also offer us theories in cosmology (nature and the origin of the Universe), epistemology (investigation into how we know what we know) and soteriology (inquiries regarding salvation). Thus when we talk of integrating “science” with yoga, we are combining these two distinct and often overlapping streams of knowledge.

A Call for an Intersectional Lens for Wellness

While many of us are pro-vaccine, pro-mask, and pro-Western medicine, as yoga practitioners it's important for us to ensure that we are not bypassing the colonial and racist history of modern Western science. Glossing over these issues kindles intergenerational trauma for those of us who have been harmed, marginalized, under-resourced, or de-centered for a thousand years. In these conversations we need to define what science is, who has historically wielded power in its definition and dispensation, and who profits most greatly from the capitalistic stronghold of the medical-industrial complex. In other words, we have to discern the fallibility of Western medical systems and the inequities in institutions that provide solutions for modern maladies, such as vaccinations and antivirals/antibiotics for contagious infections.

Colonizers stole land, erased and destroyed entire systems of Indigenous living, introduced diseases and malnutrition, disrupted natural and viable economies, shifted agriculture, and seized raw materials solely for their own benefit. Many traditional medicines and herbs such as turmeric have been appropriated and re-branded in the Western capitalistic framework without any benefit to the source culture.

It has been less than a hundred years since heinous and inhumane experiments were conducted on black bodies in the Tuskegee Study. There is great inequity in access to medicine and healthcare, and research shows that people of color, transgender people, and those bearing other marginalized identities get less empathy and attention when they do go to a doctor. A lack of diversity in the medical field is another problem. When people with oppressed identities go to the doctor's office or hospital, they frequently don't see anyone who looks like them. In fact, less than 6% of doctors in America are Hispanic/Latinx, and only 5% are Black.

Recently we've also seen inequity in allocation of vaccines, both globally and within the United States. For instance, 56 countries were effectively excluded from the global marketplace and were not able to reach the target of vaccinating 10 percent of the population, most of them in Africa. There are therefore many reasons for BIPOC and the global majority to deeply mistrust modern Western science. If we are to shift the legacy of racial discrimination, there needs to be an acknowledgement and accountability of past and present harm, and a sincere effort to communicate and build trust with folks who hold marginalized identities.

The “yoga world” especially is greatly divided on responses to the pandemic crisis we are all experiencing today. While many yoga organizations, studios, and practitioners are centering the needs of the community, especially the more vulnerable members, by getting vaccinated and following mask mandates, etc., much harm has also been caused by wellness “influencers” with large followings who have propagated pseudoscientific falsehoods disseminated by the Disinformation Dozen. There are many fraudulent racketeers within the yoga and wellness realms who market “miracle cures” and purportedly quick, easy fixes, which they falsely claim will cure everything from cancer to COVID. There is also a trend of dangerous co-optation of yogic concepts and lifestyles by white supremacists and religious fundamentalists all over the world. As discerning yoga practitioners, we need to call out these elements when we encounter them in our communities of influence.

Recommendations for the Decolonization of Science

While I realize that this is a huge topic in itself, here are a few ways we can begin to decolonize science:

  1. We can be sensitive in how we frame these conversations, and in how we are determining what is and is not valid “science”. There's often only a condescending nod to what yoga means and offers ("Oh, it's useful stress reduction techniques and breath work or stretching, but its not science!"). For folks who come from colonized lands, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc., and whose history holds the banning and ridicule of these practices, this brings up colonial trauma.
  2. We can hold modern Western science accountable for past harm by studying the history of science, by voting for universal healthcare, by speaking out, by amplifying Indigenous wisdom holders, by uplifting activists and advocates, and, particularly if one is white, by also acknowledging our own discomfort.
  3. We can center, acknowledge, and integrate hypotheses, lived experiences, connections to the Earth, and ancestral wisdom lineages of Indigenous populations.
  4. We can cultivate a deep knowing that this is ongoing, non-linear, and much-needed work right now.

When we have conversations, it is imperative that we seek clarity about how we define science and who gets to decide what science is. Yoga is many threads of Indigenous sciences, which have been appropriated by colonization and white supremacy. Our practice has the potential to bring us into the expansiveness of our consciousness--this can help us discern, unlearn, and disrupt our psycho-socio-political and cultural samskaras. We are conditioned into either/or thinking, but we don't have to misguidedly cling to that way of thinking. By getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and social distancing, we can be allies to the frontline health care workers and other medical professionals who are doing much of the heavy lifting around this global crisis. And we can, and must, call upon one another for a compassionate and decolonized future--and present--for science and medicine.

May all beings in all the worlds be free and peaceful. Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu!


Anjali Rao (she/her) is a yoga educator, activist, multi-cultural training specialist, and a cancer survivor. Her work explores yoga philosophy and history, integrating marginalized voices using story-telling and poetry. She centers intersectionality, connection, and diversity of perspectives in her approach. As a multi-cultural trainer, she has worked with large tech corporations on power, communication, and culture, and has collaborated with several non-profits for domestic violence and cancer survivors in the Bay Area. Her passion is to share this alchemical practice and philosophy with people across ages, genders, and abilities. Growing up in India, Karma and Bhakti Yoga was a way of life; thus, community service, or Seva, and chanting is a part of her yoga practice and teaching philosophy. She facilitates programs that integrate social justice and yoga, is a part of teacher training faculties, and is a speaker at wellness conferences. She serves on the Board of the HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors and those going through treatment regardless of financial status, as well as the Accessible Yoga Association.


Want more from Anjali Rao?

Check out Anjali's interview with Jivana Heyman on the connection between yoga and social justice, featured on the Accessible Yoga Podcast.

Anjali was also featured in conversation with Jivana for his Yoga Revolution podcast. In the episode, Jivana and Anjali discuss the intersection of yoga and social justice in the context of the modern world, capitalism, and the yogic texts, including the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). Anjali also offers her wisdom about how to use our yoga practice to "bridge divides" within our many communities.

Looking for an even deeper dive?

Join Anjali for Yoga & Activism, a 4-part, online training through the Accessible Yoga SchoolThis program integrates tenets of yoga philosophy and concepts from sociology, guiding participants to take an action-oriented approach towards co-creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities. A new cohort is forming soon for the upcoming course, running April 8-29, 2022!

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