The Learn’d Astronomer

by Christina on March 1, 2012

There’s been quite a bit of buzz on yoga blogs about the recent book The Science of Yoga by William Broad that recently came out:

One of my new blog friends (a co-resident as well as yogi!), Steve Kraunz, has been thinking about designing a research study on yoga in the medical setting. He saw the book and sent me the following in an email with his thoughts — it deserves sharing:

I was thinking about this study and getting excited about and was in the book store and saw this book, The Science of Yoga. I picked it up and went to coffee shop and started reading.  I got through the first chapter and felt sick.  This dude, although much more of a seasoned yoga practitioner than me, wanted to pick  yoga apart, dissect it and do an alien autopsy on it all in white coat and spectacles.

I closed the book and promptly returned it and was lucky to get my money back.  It turns out I just don’t want to know what science thinks of yoga. If science found in a randomized controlled study that there was no such thing as love, would you still not seek it?  If science found that prayer was useless, would you criticize your patients for holding vigils?

There are some things in this world that are etheral and mysterious and beautiful just because they are and we don’t always need to quantify and count–perhaps this is against our natures as doctors and scientists — but perhaps there is some healing that is just art. Anyway, I think I’ll put the study on hold but keep breathing with my patients!

All this reminded me of a Walt Whitman poem and that’s why I started think of it in this light:

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much
applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Wow I love that poem. Thanks, Steve!

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Leslie March 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm

I get this and like the Whitman poem too. But I really like Richard Feynman’s opposing view:


Christina March 2, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Leslie! SO great to hear from you on here and I am thrilled you put up that Richard Feynman video!!! I read some of his work many years ago and I remember that passage about science making the flower MORE beautiful really resonating with me. Watching that video was a beautiful reminder… thank you.


Chris Palmer March 2, 2012 at 1:27 am

Steve, beautifully expressed. Thank you.


Anar Mikailov March 2, 2012 at 4:13 am

What a great post of Richard Feynman’s video Leslie!

Also, I think this book pointed out that two specific poses in Yoga, which place the neck at a 90 degree angle to the spinal column, increase the risk of vertebral artery dissection! A good statistic to know before doing certain moves! Otherwise, Yoga is one of the best healing tools we have.

-great blog


Christina March 2, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Anar, great to hear from you!

Yes, it’s good for people to be aware of the risks associated with bending the neck to extreme angles — a vertebral artery dissection would be a tragic complication (and luckily very rare)!


Susan March 2, 2012 at 8:46 pm

I totally agree with Steve. Since it came out, I have felt compelled to read that book and also very loathe to do so. And I hated the press it has generated, especially the recent NY Times piece that was full of anecdotes of injury blamed on “yoga” that were really more accurately attributed to “not listening to one’s body” and “listening to an undertrained kook of a yoga instructor”.

These days, 20-30 minutes of ashtanga gets me into a state of calm that in the past took days of silent meditation retreat (and my more superficial, grasping self is pretty darn pleased with the way my arms look.) I’ve decided not to look the gift horse in the mouth. 🙂


Chris Palmer March 3, 2012 at 3:51 am

Susan, I totally agree with you.


steve March 3, 2012 at 4:52 pm

I’ve been thinking that there is probably a more measured view than my, initial polarized one! I appreciate all the counterpoints but for me, Yoga is just one of those things I can let be. I have a firm belief that it wont give me a stroke, and maybe thats enough!


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