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Yoga and Science by Paul Dallaghan.

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This is an excerpt from a large paper by the same author. At regular intervals a number of excerpts from that paper will be posted so you can follow the thought and connect the dots.
Enjoy reading.

By Paul Dallaghan
December 2012


The relatively new field of contemplative science is moving into a new phase of growth. Its subject matter, ironically, is the ancient practice of inner development, the subtle psychological and physiological forces at work for each individual that affect behavior, human relations, thought processes, and creativity. This field has received much attention in terms of intensive study and direct practice by adepts while it has passed through many representations, forms and practices over the millennia. Such a history not only lends it a great tradition and wealth of direct experience but has also opened it up to dilution, delusion and superstition. In 1924 an initial study was published on one of the yogic practices under strict scientific measures. This began an era of examining the esoteric or contemplative arts using modern rigorous scientific methods. The scientific pioneer in this field, and author of the first study, Swami Kuvalayananda, said “I stand convinced that yogic physical culture is a science and that it is worth the best of our attention.” Limitation was already implied in aiming to explore the phenomenal in such an objective way. However, since then, and especially in the last 10-20 years, a plethora of research has been conducted in the field, especially on Buddhist meditative techniques and Transcendental Meditation. Though yoga has surged in popularity, it has received less attention from the modern scientific community. Although some work has been done, it is less than has been done with the popular “mindfulness” and cognitive approaches primarily associated with Tibetan Buddhism. The challenge with many of the yoga studies is a lack of a clear definition of what constitutes yoga, particularly for that study, and also of what constitutes expert knowledge of the system or practice. Though the scientific approach may be of a high caliber, the technical skill of the subject may not be strong or fully understood. This review explores the published literature on yoga, from studies over the past decades to the present day, extracts the themes and conclusions, and offers insights for future research in the field.

Yoga and Science

One of the challenges with science and measuring the esoteric and phenomenal is can we measure it and how? According to some we don’t have the equipment, techniques, or expertise to study yoga practices beyond the mere physical manifestation of their effect (Bhavanani 2011). Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the scientific study of yoga is that the many excellent scientists who take on these studies are novices to the practices and therefore do not fully understand the nature of the practice and what to look for or what it may mean. This is not to say it is without value but it is a very unique situation to have become highly accomplished in both the field of yoga and their scientific chosen area. However, it is not impossible, and just as academics and scientists collaborate on research studies and learn each other’s language the same can occur in this field of contemplative study, where practitioners become scientists and the scientists deepen in their knowledge of what is being studied through practice.  There has also existed though a reluctance by leaders and devotees of these traditions to allow treasured traditions to be taught piecemeal without their spiritual and philosophical underpinnings practiced and understood (Brown and Gerbarg 2009).

To highlight the challenge of the studies to date or rather the paucity of scientific rigor in terms of selecting the practices and study sizes and thereby raising their acceptance and value, Bussing, in a review on the effects of yoga on mental and physical health noted: “Despite a growing body of clinical research studies and some systematic reviews on the therapeutic effects of yoga, there is still a lack of solid evidence regarding its clinical relevance for many symptoms and medical conditions.  The respective reviews and an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Report (AHRQ) evidence report on “Meditation Practices for Health,” which cites also studies on yoga, include a heterogeneous set of studies with varying effect sizes, heterogeneous diagnoses and outcome variables, often limited methodological quality, small sample sizes, varying control interventions, different yoga styles, and strongly divergent duration of interventions” (Bussing et al. 2012). Brown and Gerbag do paint a more optimistic picture going forward that as many hidden techniques become accessible, they provide new areas of research that will enrich Western medicine and science. However, greater detail in terms of study size, longitudinal approaches, cross-cultural data collection, precision in terms of method are still needed to add to the future quality of research in the contemplative field.

Morris writing on yogic science in the Lancet in 1998 quoted that “the US National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine noted that “thousands of research studies” have shown that people can learn to control “physiologic parameters” with yoga. Yet despite increasing interest from patients and academia, few efficacy studies of yoga are underway. Trials may not be easy, because a substantial commitment is needed from participants. Yoga is not a quick fix for health, but it may hold surprises for those who are willing to make the effort” (Morris 1998). The picture has improved today (2012) though it still requires a commitment no matter where or when.

Kitko points out that 42%of all Americans use some form of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) and a further 54.9% use these forms in conjunction with conventional medicine. The Holistic nursing discipline focuses on therapies that understand and use the connection between the body, mind, and spirit (Kitko 2007). Ross and Thomas point out that the diversity of the ‘limbs of yoga’ covering the body, breath and mental faculties, means it is not surprising that researchers have found positive results regarding yoga in so many diverse areas. In three studies comparing yoga with meditation techniques such as progressive relaxation, yoga was found to be equal or superior to progressive relaxation in lowering blood pressure and in improving perceptions of mood and anxiety. Yoga, when compared with supportive psychotherapy in randomized trials involving patients with cancer undergoing chemotherapy, has been shown to be significantly better at decreasing levels of nausea and vomiting and strengthening the immune system (Ross and Thomas 2010). Even as far back as 1972 Udupa writes in the Journal of American Medical Association that the practice of yoga has a scientific basis with the yogic postures devised specifically to influence and rehabilitate the vital organs without affecting the muscular functions. Udupa and his medical team conclude that yoga asanas “consume little energy and produce maximal physiological efficiency” (Udupa and Singh 1972).

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