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Yoga Under the Microscope

Can claims of yoga's health benefits stand up to scientific scrutiny? These three researchers think so.

By Kathryn Black

Nonetheless, in 1974 she began her annual treks to India to study, and with each visit her commitment to Iyengar Yoga has deepened. She's had two different Iyengar Yoga studios, including her current one in downtown Philadelphia, where she teaches eight classes a week. And she's now a trainer and assessor for Iyengar Yoga teacher certification.

In the early '90s, while getting her doctorate, she began realizing her dream to use yoga to "make a contribution." For her doctoral dissertation she conducted a field study looking at the effects of yoga on osteoarthritis of the hands and finger joints, which was published in the Journal of Rheumatology.

In post-graduate research, Garfinkel affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania under rheumatologist H. Ralph Schumacher, Jr., M.D., who mentored her study on carpal tunnel syndrome. "To help someone have less pain," she says, "is a real act of grace."

Her long-term hope is that Iyengar Yoga will become an accepted complementary medicine, and she's doing her part to move it along. She's now designing a study for osteoarthritis of the knee (again as a researcher under Schumacher at the University of Pennsylvania), and hopes to continue doing research and teaching yoga classes for patients with repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). That's a show she'd like to take on the road, traveling to patients and health practitioners around the world, spreading the "very powerful art" of yoga.

Meantime, her life stays in high gear: She's writing a book with another research physician from the University of Pennsylvania on RSIs, which will include yoga as a treatment. She's continuing to lecture, teach, and present workshops on occupation-related health problems, to run her own studio and, most important, to practice. "From one's own practice," she says, "comes the greatest knowledge."

P. K. Vedanthan, M.D.
Integrating East and West

The double-blind study is highly revered in mainstream medical research. In these classic studies, scientists divide subjects into two groups: One gets the treatment being tested (say, a new drug), the other gets a placebo (a little sugar pill that looks just like the real one), and neither the patients nor the testers know who got what until the results are in. Under this model, studies testing yoga's effectiveness would have one group practicing yoga and the other...fake yoga?

"I don't know how to do sham yoga," says P. K. Vedanthan, M.D., of the Northern Colorado Allergy and Asthma Clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado. Nor does anyone else, which presents a problem for serious yoga researchers. Still, Vedanthan has been able to conduct and publish a single-blind study with some encouraging results for asthma sufferers.

His project divided adult asthmatics into two groups. Both kept daily diaries of their symptoms, medications, and peak flow readings. In addition, one group was given three 45-minute yoga classes a week, involving asanas, pPranayama, and meditation.

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