LA Yoga Magazine – May/June 2003
On the surface yoga and science appear as polar opposites. Yoga is progressive and professes general physical, emotional and spiritual benefits exuberantly. Science is conservative, skeptical and specific. The debate over adherence to either spirit or science has been the subject of countless books and historic court cases. The rift opened almost as soon as Darwin winked at that duck-billed platypus on a bright Galapagos morning.
Yoga does possess scientific elements, however. Age old asana,pranayama, mantra, mudra and meditation practices elicit specific physiological responses. Claims that yoga inspires wellness are believable because it is experiential. Practitioners have felt these benefits first hand, and for decades scientists have yearned to discover the biochemical underpinnings of yoga and meditation.
More than 600 published studies have been conducted in the yoga and meditation field since 1930, and the early years of yoga research was dominated by the incredible. Several Himalayan yogis agreed to be buried alive in what was perhaps the most outlandish experiment, entitled, “The Burial Pit Studies.” The subjects not only survived, but showed no ill effects. This case implied the potential for yogis to control the autonomic nervous system, a complex network responsible for our most base and natural impulses, i.e. breathing, pulse, and glandular function.
Emphasis in studying physical conquests shifted to meditative states of mind during the fifties and sixties. Yogis were visiting the US in large numbers during this period. In 1968 Swami Rama, one such master who later founded the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, PA, arrived in Topeka, Kansas to participate in a series of experiments at the Menninger Foundation. His experience spanned over two summers and is included in the biography The Eleventh Hour, by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. Tigunait writes, “[Rama] had come to the West to create a bridge between science and spirituality, and….to broaden the understanding of scientists.” He first seized the scientists’ attention by stopping his heart in the lab. While he sat calmly, his heart raced to 350 beats per minute, fluttering violently as if it was about to give out. It never stopped completely, but it was documented that no blood pumped from the organ. Similar to the Burial Pit yogis, this appeared to be a miraculous physical feat. To Swami Rama it simply demonstrated what he wanted the scientists to grasp: “that all of the body is in the mind.”
While at the Menninger Foundation, Rama made it evident that meditation focused his mind and enabled him to manipulate organ function and brain activity. He was even successful at moving sewing needles, placed fifty feet away, by mental projection. Due to his efforts, and an unrelated series of experiments conducted by Harvard trained physicians, the distinctly Western scientific notion that the mind and body were unrelated entities began coming apart at the seams.
In 1968 Boston cardiologists Robert Keith Wallace and Herbert Benson became the first to report a major breakthrough in the mind-body field. What they found was this: their subjects, while practicing mantrameditation, showed decreased metabolism, heart and respiratory rate. In regards to cellular function, the molecule NO (nitric oxide) was determined to change peripheral circulation and intercept stress hormones. All of this emanated from the their ability to focus the mind on a single mantra and let go of extraneous thoughts. These Harvard sponsored studies were conducted on students of TM (Transcendental Meditation). It was an opposite reaction to the so-called “Flight or Fight Response,” a highly stressful state of being. Not surprisingly, they coined their discovery the “Relaxation Response.”
Gurucharan Singh, another Boston based researcher who taught yoga at MIT for two decades, credits Benson as a pioneer. “If stress levels are high, metabolic changes can occur over time that impact the immune system,” he says. “Benson determined that a meditation discipline gives us the capacity to put [stress] back in the box.” By linking the metaphysical and physical Benson and Wallace charted a new course in yoga and meditation research.
Beginning in the seventies and continuing today, scientific inquiry began probing the efficacy of yoga and meditation as medical interventions in various diseases. Recent trials have studied the effect of yoga on patients suffering from diabetes, carpal-tunnel syndrome, multiple sclerosis and depression. These studies offer a glimmer of hope that low cost, self-care techniques may soon provide substantiated solutions to medical riddles that costly, invasive surgery and pharmaceuticals have not been able to solve. This is a major step, considering skyrocketing medical costs coupled with the fact that increasing numbers of Americans lack health insurance. In Southern California, leading hospitals and medical schools are involved in such studies and while the results have not been revolutionary, they do corroborate the theory that the key to healing the body is imbedded in the mind.
Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, the medical director of the Comprehensive Preventative Cardiac Center at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, is investigating the viability of TM as a medical application in a randomized control trial of heart patients. This intriguing study involved middle-aged participants with no meditation experience. The results have been positive. “When people learn how to meditate, and are able to do it [daily], it is an effective stress management technique,” says Merz. Handling stress is an important hurdle for patients who suffer from heart related disorders. Without significant lifestyle adjustment (i.e. better nutrition, exercise, and the adoption of a mind-body practice) it is difficult to completely recover because standard procedures such as open heart surgery, angioplasty and medication respond to symptoms, and do not shift the patient’s ability to manage tension and develop a sense of wellness.
Inflammatory Bowel Disorder (IBD) is another malady that traditional Western medical procedures have failed to cure. The Pediatric Pain Center at UCLA recently completed an investigation examining the application of Tibetan meditation to control chronic pain and symptoms, such as diarrhea, stomach pain, and colitis, related to IBD. “Meditation is the best tool we have to sharpen our sensitivity without being overburdened by it,” says Dr. Lobsang Rapgay, a psychologist and Tibetan yogi. IBD sufferers stagnate in a state of directionless sensitivity. When they notice a slight discomfort, their mind reacts to it amplifying pain signals in the brain. Meditation trains them to let go of discomfort. Upon completion of the tests, subjects’ disease activity was less severe. Symptoms were reduced, inflammation relieved and several patients showed dramatic reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, confirming once again that when the mind is harnessed, the body is apt to come into balance.
David Shannahoff-Khalsa of the Research Group for Mind-Body Dynamics at UC San Diego, has spent two decades affirming that “forced nostril breathing”, a simple pranayama technique in which one nostril is pinched closed with the thumb to force the air up the other, can shift the cerebral rhythm and cure OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ). OCD has been sited as the fourth most common psychiatric disorder, and one of the least controlled by conventional treatment. Drug therapy fails to help over 40% of the afflicted, it is expensive, and has harmful side effects. “The two hemispheres [of the brain] alternate in dominance naturally. That’s why our moods and sleep patterns change,” says Shannahoff-Khalsa. He believes that those who suffer from OCD are burdened with a right hemispheric abnormality. Left nostril breathing stimulates the right brain, and can help correct the deficit, at least temporarily. The ability to alter brain function with age old breathing practices makes sense to seasoned yogis, as numerous texts, both ancient and modern, already support a pranayama practice. Khalsa has proven through years of clinical research that when this specific pranayama technique is practiced for 90 days at 1 breath per minute for 31 minutes, the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are alleviated and the disorder corrected.
Although enthusiasm abounds, limitations exist. Aside from Benson, who continues to study the Relaxation Response, and Khalsa most research into yoga and meditation, including those at UCLA and Cedars, has been limited to individual clinical trials with little or no follow up. The phrases, “may be beneficial,” and “further studies are necessary” plague mind-body literature. It requires the considerable dedication of time and resources to one path over a period of several years before a finding can be considered legitimate science and made public. And the competition for resources is fierce. Although alternative and complementary medicine is enjoying increased popularity, research grants into these fields remain just 1.1% of the NIH (National Institute of Health) budget.
Still, the investigations persist, and they may soon set the stage for a historic integration between the intuitive discipline of yoga and the pragmatic field of western science. The benefits of such a partnership are many. “Over sixty percent of visits to health care professionals are stress related, and drugs and surgery can’t help them,” says Dr. Benson. “We’ve put scientific numbers on millennia old practices, which has allowed doctors to consider them [as viable treatment options].”
Does this mean that yoga classes will be covered by HMOs? At Cedars Sinai dozens of cardiology patients are already participating in yoga and meditation programs, “Once you provide scientific evidence, [insurance companies] will be more apt to pay for it,” says Cedars’ on-staff yoga teacher, Nirmala Heriza.
Scientific affirmation of yoga’s advantages does not just benefit those with ailments. Los Angeles yoga teachers, Max Strom and Bryan Kest are optimistic that science will eventually lead skeptics into the studio. “I think [research] is very positive because a lot of people won’t try yoga until an authority they rely on says it works,” says Strom. “America is such an analytical, cognitive society,” says Kest. “We need to see proof before we do something.”
As science and technology advance furiously, this merger may provide an essential grounding influence on humanity. During his stay at the Menninger Foundation, Swami Rama said prophetically, “Scientific discoveries are contributing to the production of endless worldly objects. If the spiritual understanding of life and the world in which we live doesn’t grow at the same speed, then human civilization will become so lopsided it will collapse.” If I interpret Rama correctly, then what we ultimately confront when considering yoga research, is the concept of evolution. It is not unfathomable that the natural, even primordial drive for life to improve upon itself is what propels scientists to immerse themselves in data and inspires yogis to salute the sun.