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Healing Power of Yoga

Seeking a cure for what ails America, Harvard University neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa isn't studying pills or surgery, but the healing power of yoga

By Jennifer Barrett

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By most measures, Sat Bir Khalsa's life resembles that of many a scientist with a PhD in neurophysiology. The 58-year-old spends his days interpreting data and writing grant proposals, teaching a weekly seminar, contacting study volunteers, and traveling the globe on speaking engagements. It's the usual stuff you'd expect from someone who is assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

But what drives Khalsa is anything but typical for a man in his position: The centerpiece of his life and work is yoga. Each morning, he practices two-and-a-half hours of Kundalini Yoga, mantra meditation, and chanting, all in the tradition of Yogi Bhajan. In fact, his decision to take the position at Harvard was not the result of a burning drive to join the Ivy League; rather, it came from his desire to be near New England's largest Kundalini Yoga center, the Guru Ram Das Ashram in Millis, Massachusetts. Almost everything in his personal and professional lives revolves around yoga and his quest to document the modern therapeutic potential of this ancient practice.

Ask Khalsa why he devotes so much energy to proving the benefits he's already convinced of (he's practiced Kundalini Yoga for more than 35 years, after all), and he will tell you that he can't afford not to. "This is not a job; it's my life's mission," he explains.

"People want a cure for the health care system, and yoga is an important possible cure. The American lifestyle generates an enormous number of sick people, and there's a huge cost to repair them. We're constantly looking for high-tech solutions—a new magic pill, a new surgical procedure. But what if we went low tech instead, giving people yoga strategies? It would be the biggest bang for the buck in terms of making an impact on the world."

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Reader Comments

Nathalie Hickson

Hi Leslie, I agree that yoga studies will hopefully be more widely recognised. Sat Bir talked on my yoga course and gave a lesson..I would love to research yoga. What studies have you done before to qualify for NIH funded research? Thanks would appreciate feedback & Good luck with it! I am in the UK so perhaps would need to be in the States.

Leslie Kazadi

I am currently involved in my second NIH-funded research study teaching yoga for seniors. As a yoga therapist, the constraints of a standardized practice are definitely a compromise, but it is possible to modify carefully selected poses so that it both honors the model of medical research and the safety and growth of each individual participant in the study. And although right now, yoga studies are limited in their length of time and depth of study, I imagine the day when yoga studies are years long and consider its effects on all the koshas. The progress in research is the same as the progress in yoga or anything with depth. As stated in Yoga Sutra 1.14, practice becomes firmly established when pursued with eagerness, sincerity and continuity for a long time.

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