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science and yoga philosophy – does yoga lead to four-foot long fingernails?

science and yoga philosophy – does yoga lead to four-foot long fingernails?

In a previous yogastory blog post I wrote about my first encounters with meditation – surprising and potent experiences – and speculated that hatha yoga might indeed be simply preparation for meditation. I mentioned that focused meditation after hatha yoga seemed to magnify the benefits I get from just doing the postures. Is it just about the “benefits”, like a health insurance plan, or is there something more to meditation? In yoga philosophy there is a “something more” which I’ll crudely summarize as knowing the “divine”. I hasten to say that in this blog I am merely sharing my experiences as a student in yoga teacher training, so while my ignorance of yoga philosophy is vast, my ignorance, tentative steps and my missteps are exactly what I am sharing with you.

Ah, so we are heading toward the divine … this is when I typically get off the train before going any further. I am a “man of science”, there is more than enough that we can formulate provable hypotheses about and test but haven’t done so yet so why should we waste time speculating about things we cannot prove? I look at my scientist-spiritualist scorecard, and, at least as I see it, scientists have unravelled many things from planetary orbits to the genetic code of life; religionists and spiritualists of every stripe have asserted countless humbugs through the ages and not proven a single thing. yoga-philosophy-with-mark-drost

I have the scientists at several million points to zero, at best, for the spiritualists. At best, because I think we should be deducting points each time a religionist has been caught in an out-and-out lie and a mind-boggling variety of frauds and shams seems to go hand-in-hand with declarations of truth about things which are unprovable.

Not this time. I’ve come to yoga teacher training recognizing that I am not happy where I’ve ended up and have made a commitment to be open to everything that comes my way.

Mark Drost, in his first lecture on yoga philosophy, discussed the idea of self, with a little ‘s’ and Self, with a big ‘S’. In a nutshell, everything that scientists can formulate provable hypotheses about, the measurable universe, is little self and everything else is big Self. Contrary to what many people think scientists think, the scientist recognizes that the big Self is enormous. In fact, the little self is truly tiny, the relative proportions between little self and big Self might be, say, a trillion trillion to one. Now, the scientist feels that a lot of what your non-scientist considers big Self is just little self stuff that we just don’t understand yet.

Figuring out the yet unknown little self stuff is what we can do and should do because it makes the world a better place and it creates a foundation that we can bequeath to those that follow us. Every scientist I know feels this is their “mission” and perhaps the mission of all humanity. Mission being a big Self concept which is nonetheless operative in human beings who pursue scientific knowledge. So “mission” is one big Self item that scientists encounter and experience every day. There are countless others. Those who are struggling to enlarge the space of little self are actually spending their entire lives at the boundaries of big Self, wrestling with what we cannot measure and yet is operative in our universe every day. hot-yoga-teacher-training-250-300

I am a computer scientist. Computer scientists also work constantly at the boundary of the big Self. One of the foundational problems of computer science is the topic of decidability, whether it is possible for a computer program to produce a yes or no answer to a given problem. While computer scientists spend all of their time working on decidable problems, problems in little self, they know that the number of decidable problems is minuscule.

The universe is mostly made up of undecidable problems, problems in big Self, with the proportion being our standard ratio, for mental convenience stated as a trillion trillion to one. Very simple things like how we represent a number in a computer immediately send the computer scientist crashing into the border of the big Self. The mathematics of infinity, pioneered by Georg Cantor, is at the root of computer science. One may say that computer scientists reach toward the big Self every day, grappling with knots of infinities of infinities to shake off a few flakes of repeatable little self processes that enable us to compute more of our little self part of the universe.

“This special truth is totally different from knowledge gained by hearing, study of scripture or inference.” I would paraphrase this Patanjali sutra, in modern terms, as “knowledge of the unmeasurable part of the universe is different from knowledge obtained by the scientific method”. May I now say that the scientist, in exploring the boundaries of the big Self and using insight obtained from, with, or in the big Self to delineate and uncover more of the little Self portion of the universe is using yoga?mark-philosophy

I stated that I attributed two important inventions I made in the field of computer science to enhance creative powers that came directly from my yoga practice. I think I now have a framework to describe what happened differently, that as a computer scientist I did yoga particularly well, using the system of training in hatha yoga to effectively calm my body so that I could meditate deeply, experiencing the big Self and bringing the experience back into the little Self world where I could build useful little self stuff with it.

From the point of view of yoga philosophy, my foraging expeditions into the big Self might seem to be motivated by the desire to bring treasure from the big Self into the little self, as though they were two separate worlds. If the big Self is a trillion trillion times more than the little self, or if the big Self already completely encompasses the little self, I’m like a man in a giant hall filled to the ceiling with inconceivable riches that expends all his energies to pry off the least of the objects before me so I can huddle with it a corner of the hall, pleased that I carried my object off to “my” little corner. I have forgotten that I am in still in the hall and that all the objects already “belong” to me.

does this way lie madness?

The yogi wants to dwell beyond time in the big Self, in the big hall with its infinity of infinite riches. The yogi knows that the ultimate attachment is the attachment to the little self world and lets it go. This is the point where the yogi with a body still in the little self world grows four-foot long fingernails. Georg Cantor went mad, a poetic and probably inaccurate version says he was driven mad by gazing too long into infinity. A yogic version might say that he decided to let go of his attachment to the little self and to dwell forever in the big Self.

I think I will stay mercenary, for a time. I recognize yoga as a path toward knowing something about the imperceptible universe, the greatest part of the universe we participate in, and as tool for exploring the boundaries between the perceptible and imperceptible parts of the universe. My sense of “mission” tells me my job is still to make our little self part of the universe better and that yoga may serve that end. I am committed for this month to be open to everything so I am open to the idea that the endgame in the yogic path is complete unattachment to the little self. Using my criteria for rating scientists over spiritualists, I have to give yoga credit for being right so far and it seems it would be foolish to discount the source from which yoga practice springs. Someday you may observe that my fingernails have grown four-feet long.

Michael Leventhal

Michael has been practicing hot yoga for over ten years, coming to it initially to heal a body broken from endurance and extreme sports. While yoga continues to do that he has perhaps benefitted even more from its power to enhance focus, concentration, creativity, and calm, attributing two of his major inventions in the field of computing science to yoga energy. After 30 years of chasing fame and fortune in tech, Michael has recently reshaped his life goals toward expressing his gratitude for his spectacular life through Service, expanding his practice from hatha yoga to yoga in all its expressions.