Can Yoga Help Make the World a Better Place?
After what feels like a century of taking courses, writing papers, and fulfilling other academic requirements, I’ve finally completed my PhD in “individually designed educational studies” at Lesley University. I began the program the year I turned 50 and was thus drawn to Lesley’s commitment to support “lifelong learning.” At the time I also served as Lesley’s full-time study abroad director and intended to complete the doctoral program around my day job as well as my ongoing yoga teaching and studying responsibilities. I knew Lesley’s program was a good fit because it allowed me to pursue scholarly interests that do not fit neatly into a particular academic discipline but rather consider the multifaceted subject of yoga from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Yoga Studies is emerging as a new(ish) academic field. Scholars of South Asian religions and languages contribute to contemporary English and European language literature on yoga’s ancient, medieval, and modern histories. Visit the Hatha Yoga Project, The Luminescent, Modern Yoga Research, and Yogic Studies for a few examples of prolific scholarly research. Countless journal articles document the efficacy of various postural regimens to address conditions ranging from depression to arthritis and others feature humanitarian efforts to introduce postural yoga to vulnerable populations in venues including refugee camps and prisons. Other projects look into yoga and spirituality. I was unable to identify any research that addresses if and how practitioners reflect on the effects their practice might have on the world, beyond their own individual experiences experience, a question that interests me greatly and formed the basis for my doctoral research.
For my dissertation, I collected data from 107 survey respondents and 15 interviewees.
Study participants shared their experiences generously in the effort to provide me with useful data, often revealing deeply personal information about traumatic events in their lives. They were curious about and supportive of the research. One participant commented, “life goes so fast and you're so much running up and down, you don't have time to stop and think about these questions unless somebody asks you.”
I used an interpretive theoretical framework to conclude from the data that yoga represents a lived philosophy. Practitioners use yoga for self-development, to support ever-broadening conceptions of family, to engage in multiple communities, and to realize universal truths. Practitioners’ reflections revealed that their daily actions demonstrate concern for the world, whether they are meditating or doing yoga postures, caring for family members, contributing to their local community, or thinking about global peace and harmony. They may not consciously describe their actions as “making the world a better place,” but they are living their lives in a way that connects individual action to something universal. For example, one interviewee stated that sustained yoga practice helps:
…look at the bigger societal issues and questions. As a yoga studio owner, I might be able to support social justice in a way that I couldn’t in my early twenties when I simply went along with whatever fell in front of me. When I was first introduced to yoga philosophy, I felt it wasn’t for me. But as I got more into it, I began to reflect on it in the context of my own life and how it informs how I go about making decisions or interacting with people in my life. Questioning and exploration have allowed me to dig deeper into my own worldviews and how I want to be, how I want to interact with others.
Interested in learning more? I have hundreds of pages of data and analysis to share!