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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

All the patients then filled out weekly symptom questionnaires, and were tested for pulmonary function and examined regularly by investigating physicians, who didn't know which patients were doing yoga (thus, the "single-blind"-ness of the study).

At the end of four months, the yoga group reported significantly more relaxation and a more positive attitude—and tended to use their inhalers less—than the control group.

This is just one of eight studies Vedanthan has done on yoga's health benefits, bringing Western medical skepticism to the table. He'd heard claims, for instance, that yoga improves oxygenation—the amount of oxygen carried in the blood.

So he tested 11 patients, average age 72, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), who were on supplemental oxygen. For the test, they were taken off oxygen, which made their oxygen saturation immediately drop, and then given instruction for the practice of yoga breathing techniques and meditation, which made their oxygen levels rise. And all the patients reported an increased sense of well-being after the yoga.

Vedanthan thinks this indicates that yoga breathing techniques could be used as part of the pulmonary rehabilitation for patients with COPD.

Combining yoga with Western medicine might seem a natural for Vedanthan, who has yoga woven tightly into the fabric of his life, but it took time for him to reach that point.

As a boy growing up in India, he followed his father, grandfather, and entire family in making yoga a daily routine. But when he moved to the United States in 1970, after college, his focus was on studying medicine, not yoga.

He attended medical school in Mysore, India, with further training in pediatrics and internal medicine in Rhode Island, and later did a fellowship in allergy and immunology in Denver at what is now the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine. Then slowly, through years in private practice, specializing in asthma, his Eastern roots and Western medical training came together.

He'd been intrigued by the "hearsay" evidence of yoga's medical benefits, and then in the mid-'80s he was approached by N. V. Raghuram, a senior yoga instructor, and his wife, S. Nagarathna, M.D., a researching physician at the Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, India.

The foundation had studied the use of yoga to treat such medical problems as high blood pressure, psychiatric ailments, eating disorders, and asthma, and the couple had traveled from India looking for a doctor who could do similar research here.

The proposal suited Vedanthan, and he's been charging ahead ever since. Raghuram visits Vedanthan yearly; together they develop new studies, with Raghuram designing the therapeutic yoga to be used.

Vedanthan sees both benefits and drawbacks to doing research on yoga in Western culture. One problem, he says, is that some people here think that when you bring up yoga you're trying to inculcate Hinduism.

"That is mostly ignorance," he says. "The other side is that we prefer to do research in this culture, because patients and others here aren't biased, as they are in India. There people assume yoga will help most anything."

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