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What science can teach yoga

May 8, 2012

Does science have anything it can teach yoga? Does yoga need to be “validated” by science in order to be embraced by more people in the West? Or is it somehow the opposite?

Those questions — among others — circled around a couple pieces of news in April: the big, $12-million donation from the Tudor Joneses (backers of Jois Yoga) to the University of Virginia for a contemplative studies program and the announcement of a study on yoga’s effectiveness in combating hypertension that would include an Ashtanga-based yoga designed by Eddie Stern.

The hypertension study piqued my interest because of its Ashtanga foundation; as I noted, I feel like all the research that went into the sequences, somehow, perhaps brought Ashtanga closer to “a traditional science” than some other forms of yoga. (That’s entirely my hair-brained thinking.) So I’m curious if this study will demonstrate more than others have.

Which I guess means I’m the type that does need my “inner yoga benefits” validated. Oh, well, perhaps in the next life I won’t succumb so easily to my rational mind.

Dr. Hagins

Eddie was kind enough to put me in touch with the the study’s lead, Dr. Marshall Hagins of Long Island University. (He provided one of the responses to the NY Times’ yoga can hurt you article at Eddie’s blog.) And Marshall was even kinder to take time answering my questions about the study they are working on, whether the benefits of yoga can be measured and where the West is at in trying to measure these “unmeasurables.”

Below is Part I. Part II is here. Thanks upfront to both Marshall and Eddie, and — not to bias their study — best of luck on finding meaningful, measurable results.

Q. First off, can you describe the study on hypertension in a bit more detail? Who do you anticipate will be taking part? What is the time frame and when might we expect to see results? What measurement controls will be in place — people have wondered, for instance, about whether there will be thought given to what participants are eating or whether they smoke?

This is a randomized controlled trial of 75 people, typically 50-70 years old, with either pre-hypertension or Stage 1 hypertension. Half of the participants will receive the yoga program designed by Eddie Stern based on principles of Ashtanga and the other half will receive a conventional exercise program composed of things like curl ups, and step-touch exercises, and stretching rubber bands with arms, etc. Both groups will meet two times a week for 55 minutes each session for 12 weeks. Both groups are given DVDs with a 20 minute practice based on what they do in class. They are asked to practice at least 3 times per week at home. Participants will hand in forms describing how much practice they did every day.   In terms of controls we are measuring diet, demographics like sex, age, smoking history, socio-economic status, number and kinds of medications used, and level of physical activity.  We hope and expect that the randomization will make the groups equal on all of these variables (control for those variables) but we will be able to measure if that is true or not. Additionally, we measure the variables that can change during the course of the study (e.g. level of activity) as well to make sure they have not changed.  We are also controlling for the intensity of the two interventions in terms of calories used. We have put a lot of effort into creating the conventional exercise class to “match” the yoga class in terms of energy burned. We actually will be measuring that with about 10 participants in each group (measuring oxygen usage during both the yoga and conventional exercise) to see if we succeeded.

Q. I’ll jump right to what seems like “the big question” when science and yoga (or meditation or any other similar pursuit) are mentioned together: Why is it important to provide scientific validation to yoga?

There is no reason, in the abstract sense, that yoga needs to be validated by science. People, however, differ in what they need.  If you are a practicing yogi who has received the benefits of yoga you have little reason to need science to validate your personal experience.  However, if you are not a yogi, and particularly if you live in the West, you are likely to not even see what yoga is unless it appears in your “scientific” viewfinder.  So, I would argue that the primary reason for scientific validation is to encourage participation in yoga so that the benefits of yoga are experienced by more people.

Q. I think that, for a lot of people who practice yoga, there is skepticism that the ineffable benefits they receive from their practice can be measured in any “scientific” way. Are there perhaps benefits that can be measured — physical ones, I guess — that hint at or point toward these “deeper” benefits. I suppose I’m thinking of the connection between the annamaya kosha and the pranamaya kosha — or even deeper.

Someone, somewhere, after reading this will get the great idea to create a 5 point scientific questionnaire asking “What is your degree of “ineffable happiness” after practicing yoga?”  Is it 1) Very ineffably happy”; 2) Moderately ineffably happy…et cetera. Science can be really silly. Science is unlikely to ever be able to genuinely and completely describe an individual’s personal experience with yoga. Despite our culture’s almost religious devotion to the pronouncements of science it is just one way of knowing about the world and it is extremely limited. However, science does some things that most “ways of knowing” (e.g. intuition, faith, authority) about reality do not.  It works by a set of explicit rules, it encourages everyone who is willing to play by the rules to participate, and perhaps most important, it is self-correcting. As you suggest, one of the rules is that science can only “prove” things it can measure. But it’s important to note that it wasn’t that long ago when radio waves and germs were un-measureable and thought to be non-existent like koshas are now. These are deep philosophical waters, and perhaps beyond my pay grade, but it really boils down to how each individual encounters reality and what they require for proof about reality.  Many scientists would be willing to say right now that a sufficiently reasonable case has been made that koshas don’t exist due to the absence of any existing measures. But no legitimate scientist can say that we have absolute proof that they don’t exist.

To directly answer your question, the closest thing I know of right now that is measurable that may reflect in some way on more subtle bodies are measures of electrical and hormonal flow within the body. The functioning of the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems can be studied to determine relative states of arousal and resilience of the body to psychosocial stress and attack by bacteria/viruses. Heart rate variability can measure an individual’s ability to rapidly modulate cardiac output on a second by second basis to “attune” with the currently perceived stressors in the environment. Heart rate variability is thought by some to be a physiological indicator of the communication in the brain between more primitive “fear” sensing areas and the frontal cortex which involves perception and control of behavior.

Stay tuned for part II on Wednesday.

Posted by Steve

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