Yoga and Research

The 2017-2018 Yoga and Meditation Fellows at the Divine Life Society Ashram, Rishikesh, India.

Greetings from Maharashtra, India! It’s just a few hours into 2018 here, and I’m on a bus bound for Mumbai with 15 other Princetonians as part of the 2017-18 Princeton University Yoga and Meditation Fellowship. As our time in the country comes to a close, I’d like to share some of my reflections from this immersive experience.

At first glance, it might not seem like there could be any possible overlap between yoga and research, or even academics. After all, yoga is just a bunch of exercise postures for hippies or suburban moms, right?

Not quite. If coming to India to study Yoga has taught me anything, it’s that the content of one’s mind and heart is far more important to yogic progress than one’s ability to twist into a pretzel. Yoga is an ancient, holistic philosophy and code of conduct for life, and postures (or asanas) are only a small part of it.

Yoga emphasizes purity of mind and clarity of thought. Yogis are serious about what they eat, drink, listen to, watch, and generally expose themselves to. The aim of this sattvic lifestyle is to heighten one’s ability to understand, and ultimately transcend, illusory thoughts and actions. According to yoga philosophy, such thoughts and actions (egocentrism, acting out of anger instead of love, etc.) are the root of all suffering. So, yogis say, when one disciplines the mind to overcome such thoughts, one mitigates their suffering. The yogi’s ultimate goal is to achieve samadhi, a state of pure consciousness and love unaffected by one’s ego or worldly desires.

In a broad sense, then, the aims of yoga and academic research are the same: to arrive at a state of truth. While the pursuit of truth in academic research is less inherently metaphysical or religious, researchers can still draw inspiration from yoga practices. Just as yogis know the intentions behind their asana and meditation practices, researchers ought to ask why they’re interested in their research and what they hope to learn from it.

But researchers may also benefit from practicing intentionality in their personal lives. We know that diet, sleep, and exercise are tremendously important to cognitive function, so as researchers, we should consciously reflect on balancing those inputs. Set aside time daily to think about what you’re doing, and why. This simple exercise can help you infuse purpose and meaning into your daily activities. And, especially during busy times, set aside time not to think about anything at all; this is analogous to the yogic practice of meditation. Stilling the mind for a few minutes can do wonders for keeping stressful situations in perspective and increasing focus.

The yogis and monks that I’ve met in the past two weeks are incredibly dedicated to their pursuit of truth. Yoga asanas and meditation practices help them focus on this ultimate priority, and guard against counterproductive temptations. I hope to follow their examples. In my personal time, I might take a walk or have a chat with a friend to keep myself grounded. And as a student, I’ll try to set aside time to think about why I’m doing my work or research. In both realms, however, the basic principle is the same: to try to engage in all activities as intentionally as possible.

— Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent