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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

The Waiting Game

If there's a theme to Khalsa's life, it's being ahead of his time. He decided to apply his interest in science to yoga in 1976. But he couldn't find an academic venue in which to pursue it. He went back to school for an advanced degree in neuroscience, with the hope of using it to study yoga. In 1985, with PhD in hand, he looked for a postdoc or fellowship position, but could find nothing related to yoga. Biding his time, he trained his focus on biological rhythms such as the circadian and ultradian cycles.

By 2001 he still wasn't researching yoga. But now, external events worked in his favor: The newly formed National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine was offering grants for researchers to train in new areas. "I put together a protocol that matched my skills&mash;yoga for insomnia—and amazingly, it was accepted." Twenty-five years after recognizing an inner pull to study yoga's benefits, his work could finally begin.

Today, the fruits of Khalsa's efforts are increasingly apparent. He has published a half-dozen studies on the effects of yoga for conditions ranging from depression and insomnia to addiction. He has also shown that yoga and meditation techniques can ease performance anxiety in musicians. He brings his expertise to a host of organizations that share a similar mission, serving as the director of research for the Kundalini Research Institute as well as the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and as a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. He has organized symposiums on yoga research and serves as a mentor for many who would follow in his footsteps—meticulously maintaining extensive files on yoga research, categorized by topics such as diabetes, sleep, anxiety, HIV, children, cancer, and so on. "Sat Bir helps so many around the U.S. and around the world—both established researchers and those just starting out," says John Kepner, executive director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. "He's just a wonderfully generous man with his time and expertise."

He's also eminently patient waiting for his yoga-is-the-new-toothbrush metaphor to catch on. Certainly, yoga has come a long way in mainstream acceptance. But it still has hurdles to clear before landing where he thinks it can have the most impact: on doctor's prescription pads.

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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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