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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

Early Adopters

All this doesn't shake Khalsa's resolve, however. Right now, he's in the midst of conducting a study about teens. He believes that if 40- and 50-year-olds who grapple with insomnia had started practicing yoga and meditation as adolescents, they wouldn't now be facing sleepless nights. Likewise, he says, if adults with type 2 diabetes and obesity had learned yoga in high school, their health outcomes might have been different. A recent study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that people who practiced yoga were more likely to eat mindfully—that is, to be aware of why they ate and to stop eating when full. In fact, the increased body awareness learned through yoga had a greater effect on participants' weight than did the exercise aspect of the practice.

So, Khalsa is hard at work trying to prove that teaching yoga to young people could have a beneficial ripple effect for our entire society. His most recent study involved high school students in rural Massachusetts. His team compared the experience of students who did 12 weeks of yoga with that of another group assigned to a regular PE class. The yoga group had up to three 30- and 40-minute sessions a week, using a modified version of Yoga Ed, a curriculum for school-age students. (They've since switched to a Kripalu Yoga-based curriculum.)

The instruction mirrored adult Kripalu classes, with students learning a full range of breathing exercises (three-part breath, Ujjayi, alternate-nostril, and so on), a gamut of poses (forward bends, backbends, twists, vinyasa sequences), and meditation. "In the long holds of postures, we incorporated the Kripalu emphasis on witness consciousness, or nonjudgmental awareness," explains Iona Brigham, one of the yoga educators in the study. "We also pointed out the connection between breath and movement and encouraged the students to constantly bring the mind back to the present."

At the end of the 12-week program, students filled out questionnaires. Those who had done yoga reported less anger and fatigue and more resilience than the control group. Brigham says, "The kids were so thankful for the strategies they could use to combat stress. They told us where and how they used breathing patterns: to go to sleep, on the athletic field, before a test. Above all, they were thankful to have gained those tools."

By all measures, yoga clearly beat gym class when it came to staying fit and beating stress, Khalsa notes. "As yoga focuses on the integration of breathing, the development of mindfulness, and concentration, it far exceeds regular exercise as a full experience and a way to reduce the stress response," he says. The effect is immediate, he notes, and the capacity to generate the feeling of relaxation on a regular basis increases after weeks and months of practice. "That can't help but benefit us as we face the challenges and health conditions that crop up in later years."

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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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