Late afternoon, Russell Square underground station in London. The plataform is mostly empty as I wait to take the next train and my eyes wander up to a large poster offering:

Inner engineering: The science and technology of inner wellbeing

Well, that certainly caught me by surprise. This was an advert by the non-profit organisation Isha Yoga, which was attracting Londoners to take part in a day long seminar about the ‘inner science’ of yogic mysticism.

What struct me as interesting was the careful use of technical language to lend credibility to the overall message. For example, ‘inner engineering’ and ‘yogic science’ are both phrases used in the organisation’s website to describe their particular practises. Both of these contain a dualism between a technical term and something in the realm of spirituality. Similarly, the comparison between an ‘external science of wellbeing’ (read: medicine) and an ‘internal science’ is drawn up multiple times; the message seems to be that while you have satisfied your physical health, you are missing the mystical or spiritual aspect.

Which led me to ask the question, why use words like science, technology and engineering? In short, I see two main reason; 1) to distinguish themselves from the many other spiritual groups and 2) to grant legitimacy to their claims.

The first one is straightforward; they have an edge, something that sets them apart. Perhaps interesting from a marketing perspective, but that needs not concern us here. What I would like to address is the second point: legitimacy. This refers to the idea that we accept something as it is. Obtaining tacit acceptance, or at least not attracting criticism is something that advertisement strives for and can be achieved in a variety of ways.

In this particular case, legitimacy is strived for in three ways; first, by associating the message with words like science and technology; there is a certain gravitas that goes with these concepts that is bound to stick. Second, while never stated explicitly, there is an assumption that whatever practises are followed by this group are somehow based on facts, on some solid foundation that is implied by the use such language. Third, is the interesting dualism I alluded to regarding external and internal ‘science’. Since the external sciences of medicine and technology have legitimacy, by placing their ‘inner science’ next to it, it is legitimised by proxy.

Which leads us to the final point: is it wrong? Not necessarily, but I would argue that it is misleading. At no point in my perusing of the multiple websites mantained by followers of Isha Yoga it seemed their practises were based on any kind of solid scientic work. Instead, there is a lot of technical waffling and mysticism that falls squarely outside the province of modern science.

Spirituality is a large aspect of human culture and there is no reason to deny its rightful place; but when it is merged with technical vocabulary to lend credibility, it comes across as a deliberate attempt to misinform. If we are going to talk about science, let’s talk about science – but let’s not mistake spirituality and religiosity for scientific endeavours.

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I was unable to find a digital version of the original advert that caught my attention, but there is plenty of information at the Wikipedia article, as well as the official foundation websites here, and here.

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