Another clinical trial by the Yoga Research Institute in Hyderabad, India, followed the effects of intensive yoga training on physiological changes in six healthy adult females. Though the study group was small, the intensive yoga training resulted in participants' ability to exercise more comfortably, with a significantly lower heart rate, and with increased breathing efficiency, according to an abstract published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 1997.
Many patients with chronic diseases that seem to elude a strict physiological diagnosis and tread the mind-body frontier also respond well to yoga. Patrick Randolph, Ph.D., director of psychological services at the Pain Center of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, has studied the effects of yoga on fibromyalgia syndrome (FS), an often debilitating chronic pain condition affecting up to 6 million Americans with a wide spectrum of symptoms. According to Randolph, yoga offers FS patients a twofold benefit: The asanas help increase circulation to the limbs while the resultant relaxation addresses anxiety. "What many people report from doing yoga is that rather than being an exercise that takes energy away, it actually energizes," Randolph says.
Yoga also alleviates the extraneous mind chatter that can turn chronic pain into misery through relentless anxiety about the condition. "Patients are left with the physical sensation of pain rather than the unnecessary emotional worries that tend to get wrapped around it," Randolph adds. "And that's the real gift yoga offers FS patients. It encourages living within the limits imposed by the body. When we yoke the body and the mind together, we train ourselves to find where we truly are and to stay within that boundary."
Dr. Brandeis of Yoga Nemo echoes this prescription of yoga as an aid for patients coping with the anxiety of illness. While Brandeis cites yoga's ability to have an impact in concrete ways, by lowering blood pressure, improving circulation, lessening the need for insulin in diabetics, and improving pulmonary function in children with asthma, he also considers yoga an invaluable restorative and anxiety-reducing practice for some of the special groups he treats: menopausal women, patients with HIV/AIDS, cancer survivors, deaf children, and at-risk teenagers. He hopes in particular to see research about yoga for the ongoing treatment of those living with HIV. "If we can take the anxiety ingredient out," Brandeis says, "we can help the patients cope with illness and also get better physically."
Relieving stress and anxiety is, of course, hard to quantify except by noting physiological changes, which presents a challenge to researchers. And yoga's most ephemeral benefits, such as the opening of energy channels, are even more difficult to define and evaluate in a research setting. Dr. Brandeis believes it will take more scientists with a much greater experiential knowledge of yoga to begin measuring what might be classified as energetic changes. "Probably in the future [research will] try to translate energetic effects into concrete medicine, but right now there aren't enough practitioners with enough knowledge to generate that kind of interest," he says. James S. Gordon, M.D., director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., also sees energetic changes in yoga practitioners. "Stress relief is certainly part of it, but there's much more to it than that," Gordon says. "I don't think that's the whole story." Gordon suspects that yoga asanas activate different parts of the body in ways similar to the stimulation of the body's meridians in Chinese acupuncture.