Unscientific Soccer? Health Psychology and Social Justice

By Dr. William Clancy

In my March Health Psychology and Social Justice post, I made mention of a research project I am launching. This study will seek to investigate the biopsychosocial benefits of an existing Iyengar Yoga class as a palliative intervention for cancer patients. Although I do not have cancer (that I know of), I attend this class regularly and have been trying to learn these ancient healing practices experientially. This is because I believe that it is vitally important that, as a Western-trained psychologist, I am careful when I utilize culturally different healing practices so as not to pull them too far from their roots.

What happens when we are disrespectful to the cultural roots of a healing practice? First, we deny the experience of people who believe healing to emanate from a culturally learned perspective. We also create risk that, from our own cultural perspective, we might downplay or misunderstand a potentially beneficial intervention for ourselves when we become ill.

As a thought exercise, I would ask that readers entertain the possibility that one of your “doctors” is a yoga instructor–someone who believes from their own rigorous training that the path to health is primarily through practices called Ayurveda and yoga, among others. You have seen this path work well for friends, family, or even yourself.

Then imagine your yoga instructor seeks to inject into your yoga practice a healing method called psychology, which comes from a completely different culture–one that applies a belief system known as the scientific method to the treatment of health. You have no personal experience with psychology, the scientific method, or their benefits. Furthermore, when explained, the scientific method does not seem to fit with your understanding of Ayurveda and yoga and the benefits they provide.

If you find yourself resisting the injection of psychology into your yoga practice, the thought experiment may just have worked in the way I imagine. This is because psychology (and likely yoga for that matter) are cultural perspectives that rest on assumptions of normality. In psychology, there is an example in the empirical validation of statements as such:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy + Pharmacotherapy = the gold standard intervention for depression.

This assumption comes out of the sometimes curious, always statistically manipulated Western system of disconfirming a hypothesis: that the above interventions do not have an effect significantly worse for a group of treated individuals than is the case for a group of untreated individuals. Here we call the results of these examinations scientific, and adherence to this doctrine leads us to believe that there is such a thing as a universal gold standard for treating problems like depression.

Traditionally, psychology adheres to a doctrine that closely resembles the scientific method in the way that it treats depression. Yoga, while it may also work to treat depression, does not.

So maybe you see the dilemma. I find that there is a sports metaphor available: Examining yoga as a biopsychosocial palliative intervention for cancer would be like seeing soccer for the first time and insisting that the players don helmets and shoulder pads, or else they are not playing football.

Or, in this metaphor, perhaps soccer is just plain unscientific.

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