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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

Overcoming Obstacles

With several published studies under his belt and more in the works, Khalsa is well known in the yoga world as a champion of yoga research. But that doesn't necessarily make him a hero. Some yogis view the scientific scrutiny as blasphemous, a trampling on the sacredness of the practice. Others question whether the way yoga is taught for research purposes properly reflects the practice, because researchers use a standardized, one-size-fits-all protocol in their studies, rather than the traditional methods of yoga therapists, who tailor their approach to each individual patient. "The group-teaching approach with a standardized set of tools is not consistent with yoga's fundamental approach," notes Kausthub Desikachar, executive trustee of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India.

In addition, a lot of yoga research, as it's currently constructed, focuses on the short term, with trials often lasting only 8 to 12 weeks. "Yoga is a powerful intervention, but a gradual one," explains Dr. Timothy McCall, a board-certified specialist in internal medicine, a longtime yogi, and the medical editor of Yoga Journal. "So examining it for that amount of time won't capture more than a fraction of what it can do." Still, McCall would rather see yoga studied than not. "Will studying yoga show the scope of what it's capable of? Not at all," he says. "But is it helpful? Absolutely. It allows us to make the case to skeptical physicians, policymakers, and others that yoga can be a promising treatment modality for people with specific health conditions."

Studies of yoga's benefits have been taking place for decades, with visionaries such as Herbert Benson, founder of the renowned Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation, attempting to document its therapeutic effects in the 1960s and '70s. The chronicling of yoga's benefits continued throughout the '80s. When Larry Payne and Richard Miller founded the International Association of Yoga Therapists in 1989, the discipline finally had a home. In recent years, the National Institutes of Health have funded studies of Integral Yoga for managing hot flashes, Iyengar Yoga for easing recovery from breast cancer, and Tibetan Yoga for helping to overcome sleep problems and fatigue.

But among scientists, bias against yoga persists. "There's a common perception in the minds of conventional scientists: Yoga is either trivialized as something for cosmetic purposes to slim your butt, or it's perceived as a goofy, New Agey, 'out there' kind of practice," Khalsa says. In his experience, it is more difficult to get research funding for, say, an insomnia study when the protocol is yoga than when it's some other form of treatment.

"If you can find a pill that fixes something, that's golden. Everybody wants that," he says. "What's not sexy is the stuff that makes the most sense—lifestyle research. And yoga is really all about changing your lifestyle." Although progress is being made, he says, it is slow. Of the 46,000 large projects currently funded by the National Institutes of Health, fewer than 10 involve yoga.

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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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