Yoga and Science
The yoga we practice today has it's roots in the Vedic spiritual tradition of India's ancient past. So it's easy for traditionalists to get caught up in making mystical, fantastical and supernatural claims about the benefits of yoga. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, a must read for anyone serious about yoga philosophy, is a scholarly work and very sensible and credible but appears to ascribe possible super powers (called vibutis) to the yoga disciple. These include: invisibility, levitation, telepathy and eventually omnipotence. Personally, I think this is a misunderstood/translated metaphor for the way that yoga proficiency feeds the ego and becomes a barrier to enlightenment. In any case, this was written over 2000 years ago and can be forgiven the occasional lapse into superstition. Even wilder in it's claims is Autobiography of a Yogi, by Parahamsa Yogananda published in 1946. This is a first hand account of Yogananda witnessing literally hundreds of miracles performed by Yogi's across India. Because this history of anecdotal and unsubstantiated claims lies so deeply in yoga's traditions, and because yoga is totally unregulated, it is easy for yoga teachers to make wild claims about the health benefits of yoga...
Dynamics of Yoga, 1966, (reprinted 2009) by the highly respected Yoga Publications Trust, lists the benefits of the headstand, “...Colic, deafness, gonorrhoea, diabetes, piles, asthma, consumption, syphilis etc., are eliminated.” Wow. Eliminated.
As a yoga teacher I'm keen to stress the health benefits, but I'm also keen to make sure that I'm drawing from a solid and accountable evidence base. W e need large studies, with radomised samples, appropriate control groups (who might be doing, say, conventional excersize), peer reviewed etc.
Ten things research tells us about yoga
Lower back pain. A difficult one for doctors, x-rays don't seem to reveal anything and neither drugs nor physio seem to help much. Large trials of a tailored yoga sequence shows immense improvement.
Anxiety and depression. Big studies in several countries. Significant improvement. Asana postures alone about half as effective as asana plus meditation. Other studies show a rise in the production of a neurotransmitter that acts as an anti depressant. A review of 80 studies showed that yoga was more effective than other types of exercise in reducing stress.
Asthma. Not eliminated. In fact no positive results.
Arthritis. Some studies positive some not – overall, no statistically significant positive results.
Hypertension reduced and improvements in cardio-vascular health.
Improvement in balancing especially in the elderly.
Improvement in sleep
Longevity. Yoga increases the production of telomerase which is linked to cell longevity.
Testosterone. Increases with postures such as the Cobra. Testosterone is linked to aggression, sexual libido and male baldness.
Spinal deterioration. Fewer incidents
There is so much more research that needs to be done. And of course some that doesn't, after all there is no research that tells us that yoga can make us more flexible, but what do you think? And syphilis? Get down from that headstand and go to the doctor – quickly!