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Yoga is an ancient system of practices originating in India, aimed at integrating mind, body, and spirit to enhance health and well being. Yoga, which involves mental and physical practices, literally means "union," from the Sanskrit word yukti. Its principles were first set down systematically by Patanjali in the second century BC in the Yoga Sutras. According to a recent Roper Poll, more than 6 million Americans practice yoga, with 1.69 million practicing it regularly.

There are many different forms of yoga. In its original form, it was part of a larger philosophical and spiritual system, but yoga has proven beneficial to millions of practitioners who have not been grounded in the original traditions and meanings of yoga.

Hatha yoga is the most widely known form of yoga in the West, and the most closely allied with Ayurvedic medicine. It includes three practices that have been found highly beneficial for health. They are:

Asanas. Yoga asanas are a variety of physical postures and exercises. They help to align the spine and head, improve blood flow, induce a state of relaxation, energize glands and organs, and enhance well being. There are more than eighty-five postures.

Some asanas have been applied in the treatment of specific medical conditions. In Ayurvedic practice, specific asanas have traditionally been prescribed to rebalance the doshas by stimulating the organs associated with the prevailing dosha. For example, as Dr. Vasant Lad explains, vata is seated in the pelvic cavity, and so asanas that help stretch the pelvic muscles are good for vata individuals. These include the forward and backward bends, spinal twist, and shoulder stand.

Pranayama. Pranayama is the control of breath, from the Sanskrit prana, or life energy, and ayam, or control. Prana is the life force, and is roughly equivalent to such concepts as qi or chi in traditional Chinese medicine, or "vital force" in homeopathy. Yoga teaches that interruption of the flow of prana by such factors as stress, toxins, or improper diet can have a harmful effect on physical, mental, and spiritual health. Pranayama breathing exercises are intended to remove such blockages. Pranayama exercises often emphasize slow, deep abdominal breathing.

Meditation. Dhyana, or meditation, is a third aspect of classical yoga. Meditative practices have been demonstrated to induce a relaxed state in the autonomic nervous system, which has a beneficial effect on other systems, including the immune system. For more information, see Chapter Two on Mind Body medicine.

Yoga has proven beneficial in treating a variety of medical conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, breathing problems, asthma, musculoskeletal problems, stress-related illnesses, and mood disorders. Yoga is also helpful in the management of pain, for improving respiratory endurance and efficiency of breathing, for muscle strength, and for motor control. It helps prevent musculoskeletal problems and is beneficial for people with arthritis and those recovering from bone fractures.

Thousands of studies on yoga have been done in India, and more recently in the United States. Unfortunately, much of the research done outside America was poorly designed. Yoga first came to the widespread attention of researchers in the United States when the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, conducted biofeedback studies on Indian yogis who were found capable of controlling supposedly automatic physiological functions, such as heart rate or thyroid function. Although medical researchers in the West have been looking into yoga for only a few decades, the work that has been completed is certainly very promising. Yoga programs have shown the potential for helping to reduce heart disease by influencing such risk factors as blood pressure, anxiety, and unhealthy reaction to stress.

Yoga is an essential component of the cardiovascular program developed by Ornish and colleagues to manage and reverse heart disease. This program includes at least one hour of yoga a day. Researchers found that those who benefited most from the program were those who did yoga at least two hours a day.

Following are some selected studies conducted on yoga.

  • From a classic study by London cardiologist Dr. Chandra Patel in 1973 of yoga and biofeedback as a combined relaxation therapy, five of twenty patients with high blood pressure were able to stop using their antihypertensive drugs, while seven others were able to reduce their dosage by 33 to 60 percent.


  • According to an Indian study by Telles and associates in 1993, forty male physical education teachers who were already very fit practiced yoga daily for three months, and showed a significant reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and body weight, with decreased autonomic or involuntary arousal.


  • A 1994 RCT of osteoarthritis patients, by Dr. Garfinkel and associates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, found that after eight weeks of yoga training, pain, tenderness, and range of motion were improved.


  • In a 1994 controlled study of healthy female volunteers by Dr. F. J. Schell at the University of Wčrzburg in Germany, one group of women practiced yoga, and a control group sat and read. There was significant improvement among the yoga group in psychological parameters, such as a higher score in life satisfaction, with a decline in excitability, aggressiveness, and psychosomatic complaints. Heart rate fell during the reading activity in the control group, but rose at follow-up. Among the yoga practitioners, heart rate remained low.


  • At the Harvard Medical School, an NCCAM-funded study was carried out by Dr. Howard Shaffer in 1997 focused on sixty-one drug-addicted methadone clinic patients engaged in either group psychotherapy or yoga. Both programs resulted in significant reductions in drug use and criminal activities. This study indicated that yoga might provide a viable alternative for methadone patients who are resistant to group therapy, or who are unable to receive it.




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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.

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