SCIENCE & YOGA. HOW I STAYED SANE DURING MY PHD

robk9@me.com
robk9@me.com

by Tanya Bradford

There is no way I could have survived my PhD without yoga. This seems like a grandiose statement but it is not something I say lightly. Signing up to do a PhD is a long-term commitment and ultimately a serious lifestyle decision. All PhDs are unique, disciplines vary and personal experiences differ. I can only speak of my own experience and the observations I made during my time and how yoga helped me survive the daily grind of doing my PhD in organic chemistry.

The lifecycle of a PhD is not that dissimilar to embarking on a yoga practice. You sign up, you probably have some pre-conceived ideas on how things are going to go, but since you have plenty of time to get things “right” you figure you are willing to just give it a go. After some time has passed you get settled, you start set-ting some goals because you need to get some-where, and the time it takes to get there is most likely your measure of success. But of course what happens then is that these targets may not be achieved as quickly as you like. You may struggle, look outwards, make up excuses and become desperate. When things are going well there is no need to question your methods and motivations.

But what happens when things do not go according to plan and how do you maintain equilibrium and focus?

My PhD primarily involved laboratory-based experimental work. This is careful, calculated, highly considered but somewhat solitary work. Conducting a scientific experiment parallels with practising asana — the round-bottom flask is substituted with your body and the chemicals are equivalent to the muscle fibres and cells within your body. After setting up the laboratory experiment or performing the asana, you make observations as objectively as possible. You then review these observations and compare them with your expectations. If the outcome of the reaction/asana is not what you expect, you then change your theories and views to align them with what has been observed. And by repeating this process over and over, we move closer to reality.

One of the most important things you learn is that there are no failures.

Each time you do a laboratory experiment, or per-form an asana, the out-come is not necessarily something that needs to be measured or judged. The outcome simply provides you with information. Attachment to an outcome and feeling that it somehow reflects on you is counterproductive both in science and asana.

If the outcome were known it would not be called research. Some-times the simplest of chemical transformations become problematic and it may be difficult to pinpoint the reason why. The ability to stay present, be-come an observer, moderate your responses, and remain true to a long-term vision and not focus too heavily on daily disappointments is the key to surviving what each day brings. If you constantly struggle you burn out. It is impossible to maintain this heightened state of awareness for the duration of a PhD. Similar to approaching a difficult asana, for example Urdhva Dhanurasana, it is impossible to stay if you are listening to a deafening sea of negativity emanating from your mind about wanting to be anywhere else but in the present.

The art in science is having confidence in your own ideas and putting faith in your own ability even when there are no guarantees. Dropping back in the middle of the room to Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasanafrom Salamba Sirsasana requires being present and confident in your own ability. The out-come, however, ultimately remains unknown until experienced.

I certainly had my fair share of disappointments and tough times during my PhD and I now know, with the benefit of hindsight, I could have handled certain situations more appropriately. This was often reflected in my yoga practice. I lost my ability to balance many times because my head was too full either replaying the drama that unfolded during the day or developing new strategies to deal with some future issue. Being mindful of these tendencies is half the battle.

In my yoga practice I was disciplined and treated my time on the mat as an opportunity to unravel. There were times when I relied heavily on my teacher as I simply did not have the energy to take charge. My own practice was restrained as I felt I could not handle anything new or challenging. Other times I strenuously directed my own practice and found it inconvenient to include restoratives and pranayama. These approaches to practice, on reflection, simply mirrored my research highs and lows.

Acknowledging that you are not able to do some-thing that others can do well, or that you are not there yet, or that things are not going as well as you like is normal and natural. But focusing heavily on what other people are doing and making comparisons wastes time and energy and only leads to disappointment. Everyone has their own race to run, both in asana and research, and if you are honest with yourself you know the barriers to your own breakthroughs.

I could not have survived my PhD without yoga. Even today, as a professional researcher and mentor to research students, I try each day to bring compassion and honesty to my research and yoga practice. Being clear about your intentions, motivations and commitment level will ultimately be the least stressful pathway to sur-vive daily challenges and maintain equilibrium.

The author holds a PhD in organic chemistry, is a freelance writer and Iyengar yoga practitioner.

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