alan little’s weblog

yoga sceptic

7th October 2005 permanent link

One of the things in my perpetually unfinished drafts folder is an essay on “materialist yoga”, in which I talk about my belief that many of the effects and benefits traditionally claimed for yoga are real observations of real phenomena, which should in principle be explainable without resorting to some supernatural concept of “god”.

So I’m interested when I see studies that seem to be going in that direction, or entire vast bibliographies of such studies; and I’m frustrated when I see such things being done with what look to me like absolutely basic mistakes.

One thing I immediately and automatically assume is bullshit is people claiming that their religion’s sacred texts, including the particular archaic language in which they were originally composed, are the direct literal word of God. (I once saw a website whose author believed the King James Bible was what God had in mind all along. Why then did it take Him sixteen hundred years’ worth of drafts in other languages to get it right? He must manage His to-do list about as effectively as I do mine) One variant of that claim, distressingly common in yogic circles, is that the sound of the Sanskrit language in Hindu sacred texts has some kind of special effect on consciousness, irrespective of whether or not one actually understands the texts. Hmm.

So this abstract in the bibliography I just mentioned rather jumped out at me:

This study tested the prediction that reading Vedic Sanskrit texts, without knowledge of their meaning, produces a distinct physiological state. We measured EEG, breath rate, heart rate, and skin conductance during: (1) 15-min Transcendental Meditation (TM) practice; (2) 15-min reading verses of the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit; and (3) 15-min reading the same verses translated in German, Spanish, or French. The two reading conditions were randomly counterbalanced, and subjects filled out experience forms between each block to reduce carryover effects. Skin conductance levels significantly decreased during both reading Sanskrit and TM practice, and increased slightly during reading a modern language. Alpha power and coherence were significantly higher when reading Sanskrit and during TM practice, compared to reading modern languages. Similar physiological patterns when reading Sanskrit and during practice of the TM technique suggests that the state gained during TM practice may be integrated with active mental processes by reading Sanskrit.

Travis, Frederick, T. Olson, T. Egenes, and H. K. Gupta. Physiological patterns during practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique compared with patterns while reading Sanskrit and a modern language. International Journal of Neuroscience, Jul. 2001, 109(1-2):71-80

It’s unfair to comment on a paper based on the abstract. I would read the whole thing if I could, but the International Journal of Neuroscience doesn’t have online archives. So, thoughts based on what I can glean from the abstract:

A basic factual error in the first sentence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence: the Bhagavad Gita isn’t Vedic. It was composed hundreds of years later than the Vedas, in a language that had changed significantly from Vedic Sanskrit. (wikipedia:Sanskrit) I wouldn’t expect peer reviewers for a neuroscience journal to know this, but somebody who is sufficiently interested to want to do a study like this should.

I’ll give the authors the benefit of the doubt by assuming they know more about EEG readings and measures of statistical significance than they do about the history of Sanskrit. So assuming the effect they say they found is real – what could be causing it?

The claim that merely reading Sanskrit texts without understanding them has special effects is a very strong one. It’s more commonly said that reciting Sanskrit texts has a special meditative effect. It’s obvious how that could be:

I remain sceptical about the alleged specialness of the Sanskrit language. If the language itself, irrespective of the setting and of what the text actually says, really does have the kind of special effect that some people – apparently including the authors of this study – believe, then my hypothesis would be that the effect comes from one or more of the following, in decreasing order of probability/importance:

  1. people associate it with particular activities & states of mind and react to it accordingly
  2. verse from oral cultures has been very highly refined and evolved over many generations to fit comfortably into the human mind
  3. classical Sanskrit is an artificial language, produced by many generations of clever people taking an existing natural language and deliberately refining it in the direction of order and aesthetic pleasingness.

No divine intervention required.

related entries: Yoga

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