Yoga & health

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

Shirshasana, B.K.S. Iyengar, at age 95, Iyengar Yoga Institute, Pune, Maharashtra.

Shirshasana, B.K.S. Iyengar, at age 95, Iyengar Yoga Institute, Pune, Maharashtra.

Leading doctors and scientists around the world have found yoga to be extremely beneficial to all people. Yoga is a profound and deep study of the human mind.

The following are excerpts from the commentary in the documentary Yoga: An Ancient Vision of Life , scripted, directed and photographed by Benoy K. Behl and produced by Rahul Bansal .

Alex Hankey, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (S-VYASA) Yoga University, Bangalore:

What is widely appreciated is that creativity develops (with doing yoga), calmness comes in. There is a deep ability to control the emotions, emotional intelligence increases, stress is relieved. In fact, the second sutra of the Yoga Sutras says that this is the system to relieve stress. It’s extremely profound. Modern science doesn’t accept things easily. It doesn’t take things for granted, particularly ancient traditions.

We know from the West that what Aristotle wrote has largely turned out to be waffle and rubbish. He was very intelligent. But Aristotle’s physics and his metaphysics are now totally questioned and shown to be wrong. There is a tendency in the West to assume that any piece of ancient knowledge is going to turn out to be wrong. But in the case of yoga, 30-40 years of research has shown that it’s actually turned out to be right.

Herbert Benson, ex-head of the Benson-Henry Institute and [Mind Body Medicine Professor at] Harvard University Medical School and one of the most important people in modern medicine, is one of the co-founders of Mind Body Medicine. But his work on Mind Body Medicine came out of classical work on yoga meditation. That research was inspirational all over the world.

Dr B.N. Gangadhar, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore:

We standardised some yoga modules for some common conditions that we have been seeing in this hospital: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and memory complaints in the elderly. So in addition to their clinical outcome, we also wanted to measure if yoga would produce any other measurable biological effects. The brain repairs itself and it needs a chemical for that called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Yoga did increase the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Interestingly, the degree to which the depression got better was directly related to the degree to which the brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels increased.

So, patients with depression can be effectively treated with yoga. And in those people who are receiving anti-depression drugs, if they choose to take yoga as an addition, it could be added.

We are investigating why yoga produces benefits in schizophrenia. At this point of time, we have some leads. There is a hormone called oxytocin, also called a “cuddling hormone”. It is known to make people more sensitive about emotions, emotion perception and regularisation, regulation of the emotion. Yoga practice after one month substantially increased the oxytocin levels in the blood of patients with schizophrenia.

Dr Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States:

I am a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. My PhD is in the field of neuroscience, and since the year 2001, I have been conducting research on yoga full time.

Most people are pretty much disassociated from their bodies and their minds. As a consequence of this increased mind-body awareness (by doing yoga), they start to gravitate towards positive health behaviours, towards things that make them feel better. They stop smoking because smoking no longer feels good to them. They stop drinking alcohol because alcohol doesn’t feel good, it’s numbing or it’s a stimulant.

Prof. Dr Gustav J. Dobos, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany:

I am a professor of internal medicine at the University of Duisburg-Essen and I hold the Chair for Complementary and Integrative Medicine. As we are part of an academic teaching hospital of the university, we are practising evidence-based medicine.

So we are integrating, for example, yoga on the basis of evidence. The patients we are treating are suffering from chronic diseases, for example, from chronic pain, also from chronic internal diseases. Evidence for yoga is relatively good in comparison to other complementary methods. Yoga practice and meditation can obviously improve the fluid intelligence in elderly people and that’s something very exciting to know. Fluid intelligence is the ability to find solutions for very acute problems, to find creative solutions for acute problems.

Our hospital is a mainstream hospital in Germany. We do have approximately 900 beds and 14 different departments. For breast cancer and for ovarian cancer, we are one of the top three hospitals in Germany. Not even 50 years ago also, probably five years or 10 years ago, it would not be imaginable that yoga would be integrated in a mainstream hospital. It is the same case with the Charite in Berlin, that is one of the top hospitals in Germany and they have also integrated yoga into their mainstream treatment.

Prof. Dr Andreas Michalsen, Charite Medical University, Berlin, Germany:

I am heading a department for internal medicine here in Berlin at the Charite University Centre.

The astonishing thing about yoga is that regardless which indication we tested, yoga results are positive. I am also doing a lot of other research trials, evaluating other treatment methods, and in comparison to those, I never have seen such consistent positive treatment effects as with yoga. So I think we will see in the next 10 years an enormous further development, and I am quite sure that we will see yoga entering conventional medicine in the Western world. In Germany and in Europe, 70 per cent of all costs in the health system are caused by chronic diseases, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis.

And, in fact, there are mostly no solutions from pharmaceutical (medicinal) therapy or surgery. From the results we see, yoga really has a very good answer for these problems.

Gary Kraftsow, founder American Viniyoga Institute, Oakland, California, U.S.:

So, initially, I was very excited to receive interest from the National Institutes of Health in looking closely at yoga therapy. I thought that was very important for yoga therapy. But when Eden Insurance company got behind these research projects and offered to fund the study on stress management, I was really excited, because that’s where the rubber hits the road. The insurance companies are where the big dollars are, and if they are looking seriously at yoga therapy and wiling to fund research, it really means that yoga therapy is entering the mainstream.

When you are talking about an insurance company that insures 17 million people throughout the country [U.S.], I think that’s their number. Eden is the third biggest insurance company in the world. For them to put dollars behind research in yoga therapy is an extraordinary opportunity for us in yoga therapy.

Narrator Benoy Behl:

Today, a considerable number of diseases and psychological disorders are created by the pressures of the commercialised world. In the face of the collapsing state of physical and mental health, many are finding yoga to be the best answer to the present problems.

H.R. Nagendra, S-VYASA:

When I went to NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration], I had many choices, but I chose Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, where rockets were developed, from small ones to the gigantic space shuttle rocket. My main work at that time was to do the research in space shuttle. The space shuttle uses cryogenic material, and a very, very low temperature technology has to be used. From there when I came to Harvard, I was on the other side and working on high-temperature technology.

I moved, as I always say, from mechanical to human engineering.

When you come to the life situation, things are quite different. There is intelligence, how to track the intelligence has been the challenge.

That’s why science is slowly moving from the physical to the things which are beyond the physical: to understand that there is something like prana , mind, emotions, intellect and the base of the being, the consciousness. It’s into this region that science is progressing. But science always moves at a very, very small speed. It took 400 years to understand the gross physical world; how long will it take to understand all this varied, complex creation, maybe thousands of years.

Dr Sat Bir S. Khalsa:

What is unique about these [yoga] practices is that they are capable of inducing what has been physiologically termed as a relaxation response. This is actually a neurophysiological response; it causes changes in the nervous system, in the brain.

When one controls one’s attention in a focussed manner, there is change that takes place in brain activity. As these practices are continued, there are actually changes in brain structure that accompany this control of attention. From a neurophysiological standpoint, when you engage attention, you are engaging frontal lobe activity in the brain, which inhibits the stress response which inhibits the emotional brain, exerts control of the emotional brain. This explains why people practise yoga. They experience this sense of calmness, the sense of peace, the sense of harmony. When we look at these facts scientifically, they basically validate what people have experienced in these practices for thousands of years.

Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley), American Institute of Vedic Studies, Santa Fe, California:

Some people say yoga is a religion and some people say that yoga is not a religion. Yoga does not have the boundaries, the limitations, the dogma of religion.

So what I would say is that yoga is cultivating spiritual experience at an individual level. Religion tends to tell you what God is or what truth is. Yoga has a philosophy that’s very important but more than the philosophy is the direct experience of truth for yourself.

Dr Sat Bir S. Khalsa:

I believe that yoga does not meet the criteria of a religion because yoga is not based upon belief.

T.M. Krishna, classical vocalist, Chennai :

Well, let me say that those musicians with whom, while listening to whom, I experience a kind of an aesthetic abstraction that is beyond the technicality of the music, or the technicality of the experience, I think they would definitely have been great meditators, whether they knew they were meditators or not. I really feel that the real musicians and the real artists, real painters were completely in surrender.

You know what bhakti actually is, it is about an immersion, it’s about a surrender, it’s about giving up oneself to something. And what that something is, to me, is not the point. Can we create that attitude of surrender and in that attitude of surrender you don’t exist in a way. See at the base of art, at the real core of art, lies the fact that the artist does not exist. So what exists is the other question, the immediate question. What exists is existence.

R.K. Shriramkumar, classical violinist, Chennai:

So when you sing, when you perform, even though you perform for an audience in the concerts, the music must transport you to such a level where everything else is forgotten, only bliss remains. So that is the kind of yoga that nada can bring about. This kind of experience comes very easily through music. That is yoga. Yoga is a path that leads you to eternal bliss.

Akhila Ramnarayan, theatre actor and scholar, Chennai:

Kalari is a martial art from Kerala, and to me it provides what I imagine to be the same kind of connection between mind and body that daily practice of yoga would permit. When we speak of martial arts and why we need them, an answer most people will give is that they are for self-defence. The question is what exactly are you defending yourself against? We live in an age of unquiet, some people call it Kaliyuga . We daily wake up and read the newspaper and see the terrible things that human beings are doing to each other. Helping you to heal from all the daily attacks on your mind and your body and your soul that every individual in the world faces today. This is where I see the need for yoga: that kind of discipline, focus, balance and precision of thought, precision of movement, precision of deed, which is yoga. We need to be able to counteract these forces, which actually stem from within us. We need to be able to transcend those impulses within us.

Benoy Behl:

Today, this ancient science has been accepted and verified by modern medical and scientific research. More studies on the wide-ranging benefits of yoga are going on.

Dr B.N. Gangadhar:

It is something similar to reducing environmental pollution for our physical health or getting vaccinated against polio. So a health prevention strategy against stress, for the mind, could well be yoga.

Dr Sat Bir S. Khalsa:

When you look at the survey of the popularity of yoga, it is actually restricted to a very narrow demographic of the population. It is largely people who are well educated, who have high incomes and who are from certain regions of the country and certain demographics.

So a very privileged element of society is practising yoga and that leaves out the people who perhaps need yoga the most, the lower classes, the people in poverty, these people have no access or ability to engage in these practices. The way we can solve that is to bring yoga into societal systems that penetrate all levels of the population.

There are two systems, one of which is the education system. It’s mandated that everyone get an education. So if we bring yoga into the schools, we can then penetrate this demographic to reach the entire population. The other place that we can bring yoga into is the medical system because it has medical value and because everyone ultimately has interaction with the medical health care provider.

Dr Alex Hankey:

The President of Brazil recently said that he would like the system of meditation introduced into all the schools in Brazil. We can only hope that more countries will follow suit.

Dr Sat Bir S. Khalsa:

What’s remarkable is that in the most recent survey, in 2012, 8.9 per cent of the [U.S.] population was recorded as having practised yoga within the past year. In answer to a question of how many of the respondents had ever practised yoga, it was over 13 per cent of the population. So this is a substantial fraction of the U.S. population, which suggests that 30 million Americans, or perhaps more, are actively practising yoga.

We have no indigenous techniques of coping with stress. As a society, in USA, we do not teach our children any practices to allow them to cope with the stress of life or emotional regulation. These practices which are basic fundamental needs of human beings are not being taught in our schools. Our schools are basically factories to produce worker bees.

If you have an entire population in the world, three generations, say, of people who have practised yoga in schools, you have an entire population with these practices. That means, on the entire planet and nation to nation, you would have less aggression, less greed, that turns into less war, less unfairness in terms of poverty and wealth.

You are talking about a better society, a better world.

Swami Chidananda, Self-Realisation Fellowship, Los Angeles, California:

The more people meditate, the more people experience that inner peace and that connectedness to the divine fulfilment and joy in their own lives, the more they become loving, service-full, harmonious, understanding individuals. On that can be built a completely new world.

Benoy Behl:

Yoga may be the answer to the problems of the degeneration of physical and mental health which the world is facing today. An answer which leads to warmth, love and morality in all our lives. It also holds the promise of self-knowledge and emancipation.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art historian and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 35 years. He has taken over 44,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made 131 documentaries on art and cultural history, his exhibitions have been warmly received in 34 countries around the world and he holds the Limca Book Record for being the most travelled photographer. The vastness of Behl’s documentation presents a wide and new perspective in understanding the art and culture of India and of Asia. He has been invited to lecture by most of the important universities and museums around the world that have departments of Asian art. His landmark book The Ajanta Caves is published by Thames & Hudson, London, and Harry N. Abrams, New York. It is in its fifth print run.

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