Yoga: ancient art to modern science

Come June 21, International Yoga Day will be celebrated with thousands participating in mass sessions of Yogic Asanas. This is a great moment for the Indian ancient art and practice to be recognised world over for its value.

Beginning yoga practice can be daunting. It is an uphill task for someone to start learning in a group or a class where young people are able to do the asanas with ease. Therefore, it is advisable to look for a class where the instructor takes you through the poses, breathing and meditation keeping in mind every individual’s comfort and safety. Because yoga is not just about the mat but what happens once you start practising on it.

India has taken up an ambitious programme to convert all its 1,30,000 sub-health centres into “health and wellness” centres. Yoga practice can be a very important component of health and wellness promotion. But it cannot be based on traditional and archaic practices without any modern scientific evidence.

Our Constitution emphasises developing a “scientific temper” in the society. Hence, the government cannot promote unproven practices whatever its origin or claimed benefits may be. Commercial private companies may exploit people’s newborn love for “natural,” “ayurvedic” or “Yogic” products and practices, but the state has to follow scientific, evidence-based public policies.

Proving the preventive or therapeutic benefits of a product or practice is not rocket science. James Lind, a ship doctor tried and proved conclusively the impact of consuming lime and oranges on the killer disease called “scurvy” in 1772.

This trial of citrus fruits was done aboard a ship on 12 sailors with scurvy divided into groups of two and given various therapies prevalent then over 12 days. By the time the ship reached the port, the two sailors being given lime and oranges were cured of scurvy while the sailors on other therapies showed no improvement. This was the first simple “clinical trial” in the world.

To do such trials we need to strengthen our research capacities in medical colleges, universities, institutes of public health and traditional medicine institutions.

India has a golden opportunity to turn yoga into a modern science. The country can start funding yoga research on a reasonable scale with proper scientific rigour. Methodologically robust clinical trials need to
be rolled out to test each practice of yoga for its health effects on certain diseases for which traditional knowledge exists.

For this, the Ministry of Ayush along with the Indian Council of Medical Research and Department of Science and Technology should fund large multi-centric studies and trials under the supervision and guidance of well-recognised yoga gurus in the country as well as top scientific institutions and clinical experts.

India has about 500 medical colleges, many more Ayurvedic colleges and many yoga centres. All of these can be involved in scientifically measuring and proving physiological effects and therapeutic or preventive benefits of yoga for various conditions.

Several studies show that yoga may lead to better cardiovascular health but the trials are small and do not show a clear co-relation between cause and effect for us to conclude that.

A review of yoga and cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking. However, bigger studies covering a larger group are required to study and document the overall benefits of yoga practice by patients of CVDs. 

Harvard Medical School experts have created ‘An Introduction to Yoga’ which explains the various benefits of the regular practice of yoga. The gentle stretches, deep breathing and meditation can help lower stress levels, regulate sleep and also help people with symptoms of depression to feel better.

The scientific study of yoga’s benefits is the need of the hour in modern India.

If yoga really proves to be effective in cutting down the risk of ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and neurological conditions or arthritis, it will be a big boon to the Indian society, which is in the grip of a major epidemic of these chronic diseases. It will also cut down the need for expensive medicines and thus save national resources. 

(Dileep is Director, Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar and Sujata is IAS, currently Takemi Fellow at T H Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University)

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Yoga: ancient art to modern science

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