Yoga Therapy – Fitness in a Healing Context

The Proof of Yoga's Benefits
by Dr. Joan Vernikos

In 2012 most all of us have heard of yoga and some of us know, or are ourselves, regular practitioners and familiar with the well-being it seems to encourage.

In the West, people practice yoga for a myriad of reasons. Personally, I began a relationship with yoga almost 10 years ago, and though I greatly enjoy my twice weekly yoga class and love the way I feel afterwards, my understanding of how it works has been minimal. I felt like most in the medical community, that the claims of yoga’s health benefits were overrated, and lacking the scientific research to provide the evidence and credibility.

So I organized a workshop in  Palo Alto, California on “Space Health, Aging and Yoga Therapy” in order to hear what the experts had to say and become better educated. This workshop was scheduled to precede a large international gathering of Yoga Bharati followers, some 400 yoga practitioners, teachers and members of the local community.  Tracks included Philosophy, Health, and Research, where perhaps predictably I spent most of my time. It did not take long until my skepticism was addressed.

Research evidence of Yoga Therapy
All medical research begins with observation and case studies, before progressing to controlled evidence-based research. Today, such research from top US and global research institutions is providing much needed evidence about the significant benefits of yoga practice that is understandable to mainstream medicine. For example:
•    Dr. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa , Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School focused on the growing body of clinical research showing its efficacy in a wide variety of mental health conditions, particularly in chronic stress, anxiety, insomnia and depression.
•    Dr. Shirley Telles reported on a study in Bangalore, India that after two weeks of daily yoga children were calmer, improved cognitive skills, better focused and memorized verbal and spatial information.
•    Dr. Helen Lavretsky, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA used PET imaging and changes in cell gene expression to compare listening to music for relaxation to the daily practice of yogic Kirtan Kriya meditation  in stressed family dementia patient caregivers. The daily yogic practice led to reduced stress, better coping and cognitive function as well as a 43% increased telomerase actvivity indicating improvement in the stress-induced biological changes of aging.
•    Several studies reported reduced blood sugar levels in diabetics and improvement in irritable bowel syndrome and multiple sclerosis in other examples of the healing benefits of yoga interventions.

In the West we have come to rely on the wonders of modern medicine to replace our broken parts, taking a pill to cure a discomfort or an illness, relying on expert advice of medical doctors to guide us. Alternately, we sometimes adapt a technique that is popular in the East to a western method intended for a similar purpose. Power Yoga is one such example. We “modify” yoga believing that making a movement faster, stronger, more contorted than the person next to us, will make it more effective on that muscle, bone, balance, circulation or controlling function. Essentially we bolster the egoic when the benefits of a physical yogic activity are rooted in our doing the opposite. The results, in hindsight, are perhaps to be expected.

In essence we have effectively segregated mind and body in the west. We do not fully appreciate it although intellectually we might recognize that separating mind and body will not lead to total healing. I hear stories repeatedly of healing, of the importance of mind, attitude, and faith to healing even in a physically weak body. How else can we explain countless examples of miraculous recoveries in cancer patients, stroke victims and others with incapacitating conditions?

While we are now beginning to successfully demonstrate through evidence-based research how each yogic practice works physically and physiologically, we frequently ignore the context in which it was practiced in the East, the spiritual component of healing and wellness, thus undermining its full benefits.

In the quest for fitness I have learned that Yoga is much more than exercise. This ancient behavioral practice allows for the development of skills of self-regulation of internal physiological states. For this reason its use and promotion for treatment of a range of conditions has increased, including as an adjunct therapy for psychological wellness and psychiatry.

The Search for Healing
A question we must ask ourselves is “What is the healing we are searching for?” And then, “How can we best find it?” In order to answer these two questions we can begin by observing the practices of other cultures, look back into our own, and learn from centuries of observation and successes. Evidence-based research is now clearly showing that greater health and vitality does not come when we separate the body’s needs from those of the mind.

What is highly attractive about yoga is that it works best when it is practiced in this way –  meditative concentration and self-awareness is blended within a comprehensive physical approach. Research is now supporting these long-held beliefs. Yoga stands to be of great benefit to improve health in the west.