The first scientific study on Yoga is considered to be in the book ‘A Treatis on the Yoga Philosophy’ in 1851. The book tries to explain how yogis maintain states of ‘human hibernation’ and explores how yogic breathing can give insights into metabolic slowdowns. Since then there have been nearly one thousand scientific papers on Yoga. The number of these studies have increased in correlation with the popularity of yoga from the second half of the 20th century.
Other early studies
Jagannatha Ganesa Gune (Swami Kuvalayananda) is known for his profound contributions to the scientific foundations of yoga from 1920. He started publishing a scientific journal dedicated to Yoga in 1924 which is still published quarterly. Most of his research took place at his ashram in Bombay called Kaivalyadhama.
In 1938 Carl Jung, a swiss psychiatrist, warned westerners of the effects of Kundalini yoga, saying that it could result in madness, calling it a ‘deliberately induced psychotic state’. This was later argued by Lee sannella in his book ‘Kundalini-Psychosis or Transcendence?‘. Other researchers, doctors and scientists have warned of the possible negative effects of yoga. W. Richie Russel was a British neurologist who said that extreme bending of the neck in Yoga can cause debilitating strokes in 1972.
In the late 1960’s Herbert Benson pioneered ‘Mind body medicine’ and in his lifetime has written 190 scientific papers and 12 books. The aim of his work has been to provide a bridge between religion and medicine. One of his most popular books, read by millions, was ‘The relaxation response’ which describes a scientifically supported technique for reducing stress and relieving symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, hypertension, irregular heartbeats, pain, PMS, infertility, hot flashes of menopause, insomnia, IBS and many other diseases. In 1998 Benson lead an investigation into the therapeutic effects of prayer for cardiac bypass (CABG) patients called "Great Prayer Experiment" which had the conclusion that ‘Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG’. However, Benson still believes that there is a connection. ‘We studied people who prayed repeatedly and were very focused during the prayer. The magnetic resonance imaging showed that there was a decrease in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and brain activity. Thus, we have scientific proof that prayer affects body functions and fights stress’
More recent science
Alongside yoga, interest in meditation and mindfulness has increased across the globe and recent studies have provided proof of the effectiveness. In 2013 John Denninger, who was drawn to Benson’s ‘Mind Body Medicine’ in his early career, completed a study showing that ‘mind-body techniques can switch on and off some genes linked to stress and immune function.’ (bloomberg.com) This government funded study measures physiological changes in greater detail than studies before it and has resulted in doctors taking alternative treatments more seriously.
More recently, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative health (NCCIH), a government organisation in the US, has supported a number of studies into yoga. George Salem, Ph.D. from the University of Southern California is examining how older people use their muscles and joints in certain yoga postures. He has been using biomechanics, force platforms and high speed cameras to collect information to help instructors design tailored yoga programs for people. He has had some interesting findings showing that postures are not always targeting the areas that we expect.
‘In the warrior poses, it’s often thought that these are very important poses for increasing balance in individuals. And in fact, intuitively that makes sense… we hypothesise that that pose would be targeting the outer muscles of the thighs, the gluteus medius muscle or the abductor muscles. We found that as opposed to targeting the abductors muscles, they were actually targeting the inner muscles of the thighs, the adductor muscles’ (Salem NCCIH 2015)
Karen Sherman, Ph.D., M.P.H. from the Group Health Research Institute is conducting a rigorous study into how yoga might benefit people with lower back pain. She focuses on postures and breathing and looks at how practicing Yoga compares to normal care and other types of conventional exercise. ‘Back pain researchers often find that nothing works so I was actually surprised when yoga did work’ (Sherman NCCIH 2015) Her research shows that yoga is clearly better than usual care and slightly better than other exercise. She is now working to confirm her findings but testing this in a larger group of people and further understanding on what is going on in the body. Is it simply stretching and strengthening that has an impact on back pain? or are there other things going on like relaxation and stress relief?
What has science proved?
William J Broad’s book ‘The science of yoga’ explores this subject deeply. Here are some examples he gives of the things that yoga science has proved:
Science supports the claim that yoga has links to sexual renewal. ‘Specific poses can act as aphrodisiacs that produce surges of sex hormones indistinguishable from those of lovers’ (Broad 2013, 9). Studies have also shown a connection between practicing yoga and enhanced feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as well as increased closeness with partners.
Recent studies provide evidence that yoga releases a natural substance in the brain that is a strong antidepressant.
Science has shown that yoga reduces the metabolic rate and that Yogi’s will actually burn fewer calories. He also notes that ‘the individuals most skilled at lowering their metabolisms are women’ (Broad 2013, 10) However there are some aspects of yoga which do help you lose weight, for example the practice encourages body awareness and has a calming influence which might reduce stress eating.
The newest research available gives evidence that yoga may actually keep you young by slowing down the body’s biological clock.
Broad also talks about the dangers of yoga and from his investigation into science and yoga he concludes that ‘Yoga can kill or maim you - or save your life and make you feel like a god’ (Broad 2013, 10) He says that for him the benefits far outweigh the risks. He also explains that his research has inspired him to change his practice and drop certain asanas.
Benson, Herbert, The relaxation response, (HarperCollins books: 1975)
Broad, William J, The Science of Yoga, (Simon & Schuster paperbacks: 2012)
Heart, J. Am,, Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer, (Web, National Center for Biotechnology Information: 2006)
Kitamura, Makiko, Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Meditation Benefit (Web, Bloomberg.com: 2013)
LeMind, Anna, Dr Herbert Benson: Prayer Has a Therapeutic Effect (Web, Visual mediation: 2014)
NCCIH, Scientific Results of Yoga for Health and Well-Being (Video, NCCIH:2015)
Salem, George J., Physical Demand Profiles of Hatha Yoga Postures Performed by Older Adults (Research Article, Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 2013)