Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

yoga and epigenetics: muting the buzz

To celebrate Earth Day today, forward-thinking folks around the world have organised demonstrations with a view to create a more conscious public dialogue about of the importance of science. Within my profession, great number of yoga teachers and practitioners opportunistically embrace new scientific discoveries and weave them into the teachings they have been advocating for their entire careers. But quite often we have as a profession been less than honest with ourselves about what the evidence can genuinely tell us. And it’s getting out of hand.

In the spirit of full disclosure, in the past I have myself been an offender in the realm of yoga-pseudoscience-babble. My reasons for wanting to lift the veil, so to speak, are as much to do with personal atonement as they are to do with a desire to make the yoga profession into one that can claim a more honest, fact-based foundation. In the last several years of deepening my own relationship with science and philosophy, it has become clear to me that many in the yoga and meditation community have been unnecessarily eager to contort scientific ideas and data in order to reify their own beliefs. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we have overstepped our boundaries in looking to science to help us better our yogic knowledge; on the contrary, I believe that the scientists who do this hard work have every desire to make their knowledge relevant in as many ways as possible in order to improve the lives of everyone on the planet. The problem is that we are not being discerning about what the evidence is actually telling us.

Let’s take the yoga community’s relationship with the field of epigenetics as today’s example. 

The term “epigenetics” usually refers to a mechanism by which certain chemical alterations occur within the DNA of a cell, which then allow the DNA to maintain these modifications as the cell multiplies. Sometimes (but not always) these changes occur due to environmental factors. Sometimes (but again, not always) these epigenetic variances have an effect on how the genes are ultimately expressed. You may find this analogy helpful:

If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone's taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren't as important.

The thing that makes epigenetics such a nifty buzzword lately is that studies of rodents (which you can read about here, and here, for example) suggest that some environmentally-induced epigenetic changes can carry on for the remainder of the organism’s life. For example, laboratory rats whose mothers did not express physical affection to them as pups grew up to be adult rats whose genes had been tagged to cause the animal to exhibit more stress-related biochemistry and behaviour when compared to their cousins who were cuddled. There have been several similar rodent studies demonstrating similar results: environmental factors can indeed affect the protein structures of the DNA in an epigenetic fashion, without causing a change in the DNA’s sequencing. And these slight structural changes can sometimes lead to differences in how the gene is expressed. Kevin Mitchell provides an excellent introduction to the meaning(s) and implications of epigenetics in a series of blog posts where he approaches the matter with far more technical precision than I am able.

As knowledge about epigenetic research has seeped into the public mainstream, people are beginning to see it as evidence that the sequencing of their DNA does not wholly determine their genetic fate. This seems to me a reasonable conclusion: if environmental factors can change how genes are expressed, then our genetic predispositions to certain characteristics or illnesses may have a greater degree of flexibility than we used to imagine. Yet it becomes problematic when people who are under-familiar with the research begin to stretch these sensible claims into alarmingly unfounded conclusions. 

In the course of my research for this post, I did a web search for “yoga and epigenetics.” Two of the initial results left me with my jaw on the floor. One is a Time Out Miami listing for an “Epigenetics Yoga” workshop in which the first sentence claims that “Epigenetics is the new frontier of cellular biology that says the inner and outer environment affects our gene expression more than what is encoded in our DNA.” Nothing in the scientific literature has indicated to any degree that environment affects our gene expression more than how the DNA is encoded. The workshop description goes on to insinuate that the special yoga lesson the teacher offers will be somehow more “epigenetic” than regular yoga. Whatever that might mean.

The second item I found shocked me even more. In the introduction to a website for a system called Epigenetic Yoga Therapy, the practitioner’s opening statement asserts that “The term Epigenetic is the latest ‘discovery’ in the science of DNA suggesting that the body/mind can be reprogrammed through the belief system.”  While there does not appear to be any scientific evidence at all that the “belief system” can “reprogram” DNA, there are certainly a fair number of high-profile New Age business people who attempt to pretzel the scientific evidence in order to make money off such claims. One such website insists, for example, that epigenetic research is “evidence” that “[r]egardless of the nature of the genes we inherit from our parents, dynamic change at this level allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate” via methods such as positive thinking, yoga, and meditation. 

These kinds of pie-in-the-sky claims can prove not only potentially dangerous (more on that later); they are also unfortunate because a lot of the advice that such authors and teachers provide boils down to simple common-sense. There is genuinely no need to cite “epigenetics” as the reason that getting better sleep, eating healthier, or finding more balance in your relationships will improve your life. In attaching such wobbly and unverified scientific claims to perfectly logical recommendations, the purveyors of this advice are actually diminishing the power of their own message instead of corroborating it.

As Mitchell says, many people seem to use the word “epigenetic” when they simply mean “non-genetic.” Epigenetics is merely one of many mechanisms via which an organism can experience changes that are not based on DNA sequencing, and we mustn’t assume that epigenetics specifically is “involved in mediating the effects of non-genetic sources of variance more generally.”

It is also important to keep in mind that there is not a clear amount of agreement on the significance of the results amongst the scientists themselves! We have relatively reliable evidence that certain epigenetic changes can be passed on to offspring in a number of plants and animals, for example (though the changes do not seem to last for more than a couple of generations). Yet the evidence that the same mechanism works in humans is merely circumstantial. One study has shown that the grandsons of men who had lived through a famine had a longer life expectancy when compared to the population's average, possibly due to an epigenetic function. However, another study shows that the granddaughters of women who had survived a famine had, in fact, a shorter life expectancy than the average. So even if it could be proven that epigenetics is the active mechanism here, we have no reliable way of predicting the outcome of any given environmental factor on genetic expression. 

Considering this harsh reality, it seems rather audacious of yoga teachers and self-help gurus to take these inconclusive results and maintain that they provide proof that their sometimes sensible but sometimes mystical methods work so well due entirely to their epigenetic effects. As Adam Rutherford says in this article, there is nothing scientific or sensible about explaining one thing we don’t understand with something else that we don’t understand. Even while hardcore sceptics like Jeffery Coyne concede that some degree of what Deepak Chopra and others state about the impact of epigenetics may be true, there is just no evidence to back up the boldness and certainty of their claims. The studies measuring the effects of yoga on DNA are rare, the sample sizes are relatively small, and the results so far are not overwhelming. Furthermore, insinuating that we have any conscious control over how our genetic information is expressed seems, at best, like a bridge too far.

So what danger does such sloppy logic actually pose? 

In the example of epigenetics, overemphasising the individual’s conscious role in genetic expression can very easily lead to an unnecessarily judgemental mindset. Misinformed segments of the population might be tempted to blame an individual (or themselves) for failing to take responsibility for genetic eventualities over which we actually have no control. A similar mindset has already established itself as relatively common in certain spiritual circles which declare that the negative realities of one’s life are due exclusively to negative thinking, for example. These notions may start out as attempts to empower the individual by declaring that fate lies completely within her own hands, but the resulting feelings are often ones of disempowerment, shame, and embarrassment in the midst of what are already unfortunate occurrences. Citing “scientific evidence” about epigenetics to legitimise this type of New Age thinking compounds the danger already inherent in that type of mentality. Not only do cancer patients, the clinically depressed, or the parents of children with autism feel personally responsible for eventualities over which they actually have no control; they also have to confront the notion that science has now “proven” them guilty. This position is untenable, and one that I personally refuse to align myself with. 

More broadly speaking, playing fast and loose with the scientific facts is irresponsible and disrespectful to the the future of science and its role in our lives. Stories often cite the fact that 97% of climate scientists agree that human beings are behind the meteorological changes that have been occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere with such rapidity in recent decades. It is probably safe to say that a fair number of the minority of scientists who do not agree with this assessment are employed in industries in which the more obvious conclusion is an inconvenient one. This is nothing new. In the 1950s, a scientist named Robert Kehoe testified before the United States Congress that the levels of atmospheric lead at the time were perfectly natural and were certainly not caused by emissions from the lead-laced fuel that automobiles where producing. Problematically, however, the lead industry was funding his research. Luckily, real science, independent of any desire to increase profits, won the day—but only in the face of remarkable obstacles.

Climate scientists face the same obstacles in the present day, if not more intense ones. Most of us are very much aware of the reality of the situation, but feel largely powerless about it. I propose that one very important way to start empowering ourselves is to ensure that we are doing our best to give science and scientists the respect that they deserve. We have a moral duty to avoid contorting the facts about epigenetics, or quantum physics, or any number of areas of scientific research only in order to lend an air of credibility to our own beliefs. Whether we choose to do this intentionally or it happens through the mere laziness of not looking properly at the research from all sides, we are essentially putting ourselves on par with those climate-change deniers who manipulate or ignore the data in order to protect their own agenda. Perhaps the immediate consequences are not as dire when the layman does these things, but sacrificing our integrity in such a way does nothing to fortify the bulwark we need to have in place so that facts remain significant. 

Each of us has a part to play in upholding the truth. Will it take a bit of extra work? If you want to talk about scientific ideas in your yoga classes, then yes, it absolutely will. Otherwise it’s also perfectly fair to leave scientific ideas that you don’t  know much about outside of your curriculum. Do we really need to use the word “epigenetics” to encourage our students that they’ll feel better if they make healthier choices in their lives? I highly doubt it. 

But if you want the knowledge, it is there. And more is on the way. People have worked hard to obtain it, and are continuing to work hard to clarify it. The more we really know, the more empowered we can actually become.

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