The Sciences

The Good, Bad and the Ugly of Trapping 'Pranayama' Within Scientific Speak

Scientific American's article and the reaction it has prompted offer more than an opportunity to outrage.

A recent article in Scientific American on the benefits of “proper breathing” for overall health has ignited anger across social media, with many in India accusing the magazine of rebranding or even appropriating the ancient Indian breathing technique of ‘pranayama’.

The outrage on display seems prompted by Scientific American‘s tweet, rather than the article itself, which makes multiple flattering references to pranayama, yoga and the knowledge of the East.

Of course, given the track record of the West, the outrage is perfectly understandable. Western scientists have frequently been guilty of (re)discovering something that’s been around for many centuries, attempting to package it as something new, and in the process depriving it of its cultural heritage in the name of sanitising it for scientific examination. There was a similar incident with banana leaves last year and with turmeric latte before that.

Also read: Why You Shouldn’t Measure Scientific Progress With Award-Winning Discoveries

However, Scientific American‘s article and the reaction it has prompted offer more than an opportunity to just outrage; they offer a chance to reflect on and unpack a lot of things going on here. One example that comes immediately to mind is the role of science in society, as opposed to science’s relation to society, as if it were a separate entity somehow.

‘Cardiac coherence breathing’, as the article characterises pranayama, is the language of a specialist within science. That doesn’t make it wrong, even though claiming it is something novel would be misguided, but that does remove the technique from the commons and away from the people, using language that isn’t very accessible, and making it sound more alien than it actually is. On the other hand, calling it ‘pranayama’ – by way of its storied relationship with yoga – keeps it within the commons.

This is simply a reflection of the scientist’s isolation from society’s broader goals, in the West as much as in the modern East. It’s also a reflection of the kind of language scientists have been trained to, and are encouraged to, use. For example, you no longer read scientific papers today that are easy to understand. The writing is predominantly in the passive voice, very dense and is typified by the overuse of ‘science-ese’ like “‘moreover,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘distinct’ and ‘underlying’”. The following is what some scientists have said about the scientific literature:

Typically, it is bloated, dense and so dry that no amount of chewing can make it tasty. (source)

That science has become more difficult for nonspecialists to understand is a truth universally acknowledged. (source)

Modern scientific texts are more impenetrable than they were over a century ago, suggests a team of researchers in Sweden. It’s easy to believe that. (source)

Fans of the TV sitcom Big Bang Theory will have seen this tendency mocked in the title of each episode: ‘The Allowance Evaporation’, ‘The Romance Recalibration’, ‘The Collaboration Contamination’, etc. So ‘cardiac coherence breathing’ sounds about right for pranayama.

Another issue at play here is the seeming incompatibility of knowledge and the tests used to verify knowledge. India has had the former for a very, very long time, as have numerous other non-modern civilisations around the world.

On the other hand, the tests used to verify knowledge have evolved continuously, and the set of tests used today are of Western origin. Further, because of the West’s colonial mindset, knowledge that isn’t verifiable by their methods is treated as non-knowledge or pseudoscience.

Where we have come up short is in breaching this past/present divide – as Youyou Tu did – instead of dismissing one in favour of the other. But even here, it’s still only the regrettable global struggle for primacy at play, motivated by the incentives capitalism offers for it. As the philosopher Samir Chopra wrote:

Legal protections appropriate for tangible objects … are a disaster in the realm of culture, which relies on a richly populated, open-for-borrowing-and-reuse public domain. It is here, where our culture is born and grows and is reproduced, that the term ‘intellectual property’ holds sway and does considerable mischief.

Then again, one can’t just wish this complication away, and the (re)discovery of ‘cardiac coherence breathing’ might just be a good thing. It’s useful that scientists – anywhere, not just in India – are examining pranayama through the scientific method, with the potential to unlock some detail that an Indian, by virtue of her traditional knowledge alone, doesn’t already have.

As the Scientific American article goes on to note:

The method was developed based on the understanding that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of parasympathetic nervous system; the vagus nerve controls and also measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.

This is certainly good to know. Where the ‘discovery’ errs is in passing it off as something new, where it runs the risk of being translocated from the commons to the specialists. Terms like ‘vagus nerve’, ‘parasympathetic’ and ‘neurobiological mechanisms’ aren’t exactly part of casual conversation.

Also read: The Conversation on Eastern Traditions of Science That Needs to Happen But Won’t

An attendant issue is that of cultural misappropriation. Many readers will remember the hoopla over Coldplay’s music video for ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ in 2016. In 2018, we discovered how the British author J.K. Rowling had shoehorned an Indonesian character, played by a Korean actress, into the script for the second Fantastic Beasts film in a bid to have diversity where none existed in her books. The only problem: the mythology she chose to draw from was of Indian origin.

The result, in the writer Achala Upendran’s words:

[Rowling] refuses to accept that her position as creator does not entitle her to rewrite cultural histories and rebrand different mythologies according to her own convenience, especially when this rebranding is so fraught with political implications.

In much the same way, many Western commentators and thinkers – if not scientists and policymakers – refuse to acknowledge that their cultural hegemony doesn’t give them the license to recast existing knowledge according to their convenience. Instead of slicing off one portion for scientific study and another to promote pseudoscience, we need scientists to work together with pranayama and yoga practitioners to marry technical inputs with cultural and spiritual rituals, and enhance their benefits for everyone’s sake.

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