Not long ago I was talking with a man who for years had been a minister in a nationwide Protestant church. I asked him how his church was doing, and very quietly he said, “I don’t understand it, but we’ve been steadily losing members. In fact, we have fewer members now than we did ten years ago.”
I was sympathetic because I knew he believed deeply in the teachings of his church, but I realized that people are no longer content to hear, “Heaven will come after you die.” People want to do something right now that will make them better people.
And science is confirming that you can do things that will make you a better human being. In the process, science is also corroborating some of the most fundamental teachings of yoga.
Meditation: Are they just sleeping?
It was my good fortune to participate in one of the very first scientific studies on meditation in the late 1970s at University of California at Irvine. I participated as both a researcher and guinea pig—that’s where I first learned to meditate.
The controversy in science at the time was whether people were doing something unique when they meditated or just sleeping. Well-known physiologists were saying, “When people meditate, they’re just napping and, of course, anyone would feel better with a little extra sleep.”
But the studies showed that meditation is a unique state, distinct from both normal waking consciousness and sleep, and that it has profound effects on a person’s body, brain, and nervous system. Since then, other studies have shown that meditation promotes calmness, uplifted feelings, will power, and a sense of humor, and is especially helpful in overcoming anxiety, depression, and addiction.
A tool for self-change
Paramhansa Yogananda, citing the ancient yoga teachings, was saying these very same things in the 1920s when he first came to the United States. He said, “I bet I can take a group of boys with the worst character and the most restless temperament. I’ll teach them to meditate two hours a day for four years in the way I tell them—and I’ll make saints of them.”
Yogananda was far ahead of science in understanding that these and other benefits of meditation reflect actual changes in the brain. He explained that during meditation, a person’s life force accumulates in the brain and permeates the brain cells, changing their composition. This process replaces harmful negative tendencies with positive, constructive tendencies.
At that time, most neuroscientists would have said, “Impossible. By the time you’re 25, your brain has finished changing.”
However, in the last twenty years, science has discovered that the brain is not only the most changeable part of our body, but that it is extremely fluid in how it responds to our behavior—any new activity, not just meditation, results in changes. When we learn a new language, ride a bicycle, or start a new job, we begin growing new brain cells. Within two weeks, there are significant brain changes.
Similarly, if a person gets into the habit of being very angry, the brain starts laying down new nerve pathways to allow that person to express anger more fully. As that happens, the nerve pathways that allow him to feel peaceful and happy start to wither and become less effective.
A new approach to psychotherapy
These new findings are being applied in very positive ways. Already there are changes in the practice of psychotherapy. In the behavioral health program at the clinic where I work, we use “cognitive behavioral therapy,” which builds on what science has shown about meditation and the changeability of the brain.
We teach everyone in the program to meditate, although we may call it by a different name, such as “relaxation technique.” We also give them behavioral assignments — new behaviors to learn, including affirmations. Our behavioral therapist might say to someone, “Okay, you’re mad at your mother. What positive steps are you going to take in the next week so that you will feel differently a week from now?”
For the vast majority of people, the cognitive behavioral model works far better than traditional psychotherapy’s practice of focusing on old issues and patterns. We’ve seen that people with habits of anxiety, panic, fear, or anger can learn new ways of responding to life. People with a long-standing history of depression can eventually go off medication. Those addicted to alcohol or drugs can overcome their addiction.
Increasingly, there are medical insurance plans that are only approving this type of therapy because studies have shown that it works.
Why is the brain so changeable?
Why is the brain so changeable? Because, as Sri Yukteswar said 120 years ago in The Holy Science, “Matter is only a vibration of energy.” Our bodies, including the brain, are not really solid. They are only holding patterns of energy—an inherently changeable medium. As Yogananda explained in his early lessons:
All so-called solids that we see are not solid. They are nothing but flying atoms held together by a magnetic force. Even the atoms are an illusion, for behind them lies an ocean of energy manifesting itself through the atoms as rocks, trees, water, and human and animal bodies.
In 1905 Albert Einstein scientifically confirmed this fundamental teaching of yoga—that matter in its essence is energy. However, only in the last 30 years has there been overall agreement in the scientific community. The breakthrough came with the findings of “quantum physics,” which studies the atomic and subatomic world.
“Vibrating strings of energy”
Quantum physics has shown that at the subatomic level, the universe no longer seems solid, and that we’re dealing with units best described as “smears of energy.”
Subsequent investigation suggests that these “smears of energy” are really tiny “strings” that vibrate like the strings on a cello. “String theory,” as it’s called, sounds very much like what Sri Yukteswar said over 100 years ago: to think of matter not as something solid but as vibrating energy.
More recently, the physicists who work in string theory have been saying, “As we look more closely as these vibrating strings of energy, they don’t even seem like energy; they’re more like thoughts.”
String theory is exactly how yogis from ancient times have described the nature of the universe. God, in creating the universe, first vibrated his consciousness into thoughts. He then vibrated those thoughts more grossly into energy, and finally, He vibrated that energy more grossly into physical forms.
Our environment can change us
If we want to become better people, we need to pay attention not only to our own thoughts and actions but also to our environment. When we move through the world, we’re constantly interacting with it on very subtle levels of energy. To think that we can be in a bar, a crowd, or an airplane and not be affected is a bit like being in a restaurant with a smoking and a non-smoking section, and thinking that all the smoke will stay in the smoking section.
The teachings of yoga have long discussed this influence of environment in terms of energy and magnetism. Yogananda himself often cautioned students to avoid negative, unwholesome environments. In his early writings, he made this sobering pronouncement:
The thoughts we think, the feelings and desires we harbor, are vibrations that affect, and are affected by, those of countless other people. Vibrations of thought are so powerful that if you live in the same building with persons who have wrong thoughts, they will affect you if you are not powerful enough to protect yourself.
The thoughts and the behavior of the scientist
Subatomic researchers are still in the early stages of understanding the exact mechanism by which environmental vibrations affect us, but what we already know is startling—that even minimal interactions between the observer and a subatomic process can change the subatomic energy patterns.
For example, a subatomic process will behave one way while being observed and a different way when being ignored. If the scientist observing a process leaves the room and returns, the process will have changed, suggesting that the process reacted to the researcher’s departure. We also know that the researcher’s expectations about a subatomic experiment can affect the outcome of the experiment.
These early findings suggest that science is well on its way to confirming Yogananda’s cautionary statement. At a minimum, they suggest that night clubs, bars, and loud rap music should be avoided.
A revolution in the spiritual sciences
The last five years have seen the development of a new field in science—neurotheology, scientific research into how spiritual practices affect the brain and nervous system.
Using new medical technology, including brain scans and other imaging techniques, scientists in the field of neurotheology can observe changes in the brain directly. Already they’ve compared what occurs in the brain of a Catholic nun when she does her rosary with what a Tibetan monk’s brain looks like when he’s doing his prayers.
We don’t yet have scientific studies on Kriya Yoga, which works directly on the brain and central nervous system, but I don’t think we’re far from the time when we’ll begin to see such studies. We’ll be able to look at a brain scan and understand why Yogananda described Kriya Yoga as “the airplane route to God”—a means of greatly accelerating spiritual progress.
As that happens, the number of people practicing of Kriya Yoga throughout the world is likely to increase significantly. People in this new age of energy are not only eager to become better people, they are looking for the fastest, most effective means to that end.
This article first appeared in print in Winter 2009: “Science Catches Up with Ancient Yoga,” Clarity Magazine
Excerpted from talks and interviews.
Peter Van Houten, a resident of Ananda Village and a Lightbearer, is the founder and CEO of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village.