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Yoga - The science of holistic living

June 21,2017
Read time: 8 mins

Illustration: Siddharth Kankaria / Research Matters

What comes to your mind when you think of Yoga -- our country’s oldest practice of exercising our body and mind? Some may think of a person standing upside down, twisting his legs and hands and standing in strange poses. Others might think of a meditating person feeling blissful trying to connect with his mind. But did you know there is more to the word and the meaning of Yoga than the mere picture of Baba Ramdev doing his Kapalabathi?

Originating from Sanskrit, the word ‘Yoga’ translates to ‘connection’, or ‘combined’. For some, it is a means to connect with one’s inner self. For others, the practice of Yoga means a combined effort to keep your body and mind in its best shape. Irrespective of these differences, Yoga is being practiced by millions, if not billions, of people around the world today. It is no wonder then that on 11 December 2014, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution establishing 21st of June every year as "International Day of Yoga".

But how old is the practice of Yoga? No one really knows! Dating the exact origin and hence, constructing a definite timeline of the evolution of the principles of Yoga remains debatable. Yoga finds mention in the Rig Veda and is thought to have been practiced, at least in its physical form, by the people of the Indus-Saraswathi valley civilisation, making it at least 2500 to 3000 years old. Recognizing this ancient origin, on December 1, 2016, Yoga was listed as one of UNESCO’s Intangible cultural heritage.

Yoga has also been mentioned in many major texts of Hinduism such as the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and the Mahabharata. Buddhism and Jainism have their own dedicated literature based on their own versions of Yoga predating the now popular ‘Yogasutras’ of Patanjali, dating back to 400 CE.

The reintroduction of Yoga in the modern world is mainly due to work of Dr. Nobin Chunder Paul, who in 1851, published his treatise on Yoga philosophy. Swami Vivekananda, during his tour of the US and Europe in 1890s garnered unprecedented response from the West. Later, stalwarts like Swami Kuvalayananda, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda Saraswati and BKS Iyengar have played key roles in popularising the philosophy of Yoga and its relevance in today’s world. A testimony to this acceptance is the rise of the number of people in the US who practiced some form of Yoga from 4 million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011!

The scientific basis for Yoga

Like most ancient practices, Yoga is often confronted with many questions of today’s ‘scientific’ world. Is there a scientific basis to this practice? Does it really work? Or is it just a myth or belief without much evidences to base the claims? What are some of the advantages of following this practice? Turns out, the same ‘scientific’ world is now finding answers to these questions.

Numerous studies have uncovered the benefits of practicing Yoga regularly, claiming that it improves flexibility, muscle strength and bone thickness. Another study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, USA, claims that people who practice Yoga have markedly larger brain volume in certain regions of the brain that are associated with attention, perception and cognition. In addition, they have a heightened awareness of their bodies and its inner workings, and, are better at dealing with stress, say further studies. Another study has shown that Yoga helps in reducing inflammation in the body and boost immunity, which ultimately keeps the body disease free.

A recent discovery has found that psychological and environmental aspects change the very expression of our genes - and guess what, Yoga has been shown to regulate gene expression as well! In a research paper published by Su Qu et. al in PLOS One, a reputed journal, the researchers conducted an experiment that showed that Yoga caused a 3 fold increase in gene expression in lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell that boosts immunity), within only 2 hours of practice, as compared to the participants that did not do Yoga. Yoga is now viewed to be superior to or as effective as other exercises in improving overall health of the population.

“The paper, Rapid Gene Expression Changes in Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes upon Practice of a Comprehensive Yoga Program, really surprised me, even though I had already been convinced about the health benefits of Yoga. It very highly reinforced my belief in Yogasanas, pranayama and meditation. It more than legitimised the claims made by anyone about Yoga”, remarks Prof. A G Ramakrishnan, Professor and Chairman, Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science. Prof. Ramakrishnan is teaming up with other like-minded researchers in the institute to study the effects of various facets of practicing Yoga like breathing rate, volume of air taken in, heart rate, heart rate variability, etc.

If Yoga is so effective, can it help in addressing some of the healthcare challenges we face in the country? Tuberculosis, a deadly bacterial infection is one of those that is growing strong with the rise of many drug resistant strains. Can Yoga help here? Yes, says a study by Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation which showed that within 2 months, the practice of Yoga showed improvement in symptoms and increase in weight in TB patients. Yoga also seems to have answers to the challenge of infant and maternal mortality too. A study conducted on 335 pregnant women in 2005 in Bangalore showed that a Yoga regimen greatly improved improves birth weight of the child, decreases preterm labor, and decreased other pregnancy related complications.

Now that scientists are increasingly looking at providing evidences on the benefits of Yoga, does that mean they are more open-minded and are accepting alternatives to allopathic views on health? “I don’t think that the scientific community has become more open minded. However, you cannot suppress truth indefinitely.  I think we are at a crucial point in history. Mounting, indisputable evidence has made it impossible for those scientists, who used to dismiss these things without adequate knowledge or experiments. It is also true that we have better technology and instruments to observe effects such as gene expression, release of neurotransmitters, autonomic balance and cellular level changes in the body”, reasons Prof. Ramakrishnan.

On the positive side, various organizations are involved in research activities to help public embrace Yoga for the good. Prof. Ramakrishnan cites the example of Prof. B N Gangadhar, Director of NIMHANS who has worked on the antidepressant effects of Yoga and the management of schizophrenia. However, these efforts need to scale up, he says. “This century will see many more breakthroughs and complete transformation in the way health and disease are looked at. Through Yoga and Ayurveda, a new index of positive health shall be defined”, he notes optimistically.

A Practitioner's view on Yoga

While scientists have their studies to say Yoga works, what about the stories of us commoners? We interviewed two practitioners of Yoga from two different generations about their views on how Yoga has helped them personally and what benefits others could get from regular  practice.

Meet Ms. Priya Panchwadkar, a 22 year old certified Yoga instructor who has been practising Yoga for 3 years now. “Yoga has helped me become calmer than my previous self. If there is a gap between my practice, I feel anxious and look forward to it. The practice keeps me calm and hence I like to keeping engaging with it”, she says. It did not take her long to realise the benefits. “I am an avid trekker and practising Yoga has made me stronger and increased my stamina. I think my capability of breathing at high altitudes has also improved with pranayama”, she adds.

Dr. Tara Deshpande is a 83 year old medical practitioner who has been practicing Yoga for around 30 years. Ask her how Yoga has benefitted her, she is quick to say -- “I used to have pain in my hips and waist, which stopped after I started Yoga. I used to be lethargic to do my day-to-day work. But after starting Yoga, I started to feel like I have energy to do all the things in life!” She credits Yoga to her healthy being at this age. “I have not put on weight for years. Problems like blood pressure have stayed in control. I am more active than most people my age”, she adds.

And what do these regular practitioners recommend others? “Yoga helps in maintaining one’s health and this is why people should do Yoga. People start the practice and stop it after few days, which isn’t good. People should continually practice Yoga for best results”, says Dr. Deshpande. “Yoga is an inward process, it’s not a superficial process. It doesn’t give you quick results, but when you do get the results, they are very effective. Your body feels more balanced. You understand your mind and body better, you observe yourself and the world around you more. It helps you gain focus. It helps you introspect. That’s why Yoga is for everyone”, says the instructor in Ms. Panchwadkar.

So what are you waiting for? Yoga needs no special equipment for practice, no specially prepared ground -- just your will. And here is the icing on the cake -- while activities such as jogging, aerobics or treadmill could hurt you or leave you feeling exhausted, Yoga is always refreshing and invigorating! Grab your mats and start with your favourite aasana on this International Day of Yoga!