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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

In a clear demonstration of the maxim "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," Castillo-Richmond is not a small-town doctor in Colombia setting up family life with a fellow countryman as she once imagined; she lives in Iowa and is dedicating her career to studying the medical effects of TM. She's the lead researcher on a widely reported study, done in conjunction with the University of California at Los Angeles, which reveals that TM can reduce the fatty buildup in artery walls—and can do it as effectively as drugs can. That TM reduces stress had already been well established; that TM can lower blood pressure in people with hypertension had also been documented. But Castillo-Richmond's data, published in the March 2000 issue of Stroke, took TM research a leap forward.

Her randomized, controlled clinical trial on a group of African Americans with hypertension shows that 20 minutes of TM twice a day for just over five months actually reduced the thickness of the artery walls by nearly 1 millimeter—which translates to a reduced risk for heart attack of 11 percent. (The control group, which was merely educated about prevention of heart disease, increased the fatty buildup in their artery walls—and their chance of having a stroke or heart attack—in the same time period.) It's a finding, she says, "better than I ever dreamed of."

But back in 1982, when she graduated from medical school and began working as a clinician, all she knew about TM she had read in a newspaper ad featuring a photo of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced the world to TM in the '60s. Then, one night at a friend's home, someone told her about the many positive changes that had come to his life since he began practicing TM. It was as if a light had been switched on. Immediately she thought, "This is what I need."

As she began to integrate TM into her own life in Colombia, she also became increasingly frustrated in her medical practice. "I became disappointed," she says, "with the lack of answers that modern medicine had to offer for even such simple ailments as gastritis. We were giving patients an antacid—nothing else worked. Always the question in my mind was, 'Are we dealing with the problem from the source?'"

Soon, she began looking to alternative medical therapies as a way to reach that source. She explored homeopathy, color therapy, pulse diagnosis, and a practice that uses the ear as a map for stress responses in the body. But these approaches also failed to satisfy her, because they lacked the scientific rigor she demanded. Discovering her deep interest in alternative therapies now makes her laugh. "After a while," she says, "you don't mind being out of the mainstream."

Meanwhile, seeing the changes TM was bringing to her life—the reduction of stress and anxiety, the clarity of mind and peacefulnesss—he decided to leave Colombia in 1990 to study at the Center for Natural Medicine and Prevention at Maharishi University of Management's College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa. There, she figured, she could do serious research. And she was right. In 1995 she was offered a post-doctoral fellowship and given a piece of a large study, funded by National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute grants, involving a battery of tests done on African Americans, who suffer disproportionately more than whites do from cardiovascular diseases. The study aimed to determine whether a stress-reduction intervention (specifically TM) or a heart disease education program is more effective in treating hypertension. Castillo-Richmond looked at one piece of the data: What changes could be seen in the thickness of the artery walls in subjects who practiced TM compared to those who received information about the prevention of heart disease and were told to spend 20 minutes daily in a leisure activity such as reading or exercising?

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