How Yoga Comes to the Rescue

Yoga devotees, new to their practice, often talk about it in mystical terms saying they’ve discovered a remarkable feeling of well-being and health or describe a renewed sense of “being in the body” and credit yoga for “opening their energy channels.”

Yoga practitioners are not surprised by these benefits. They have seen first hand their students’ practice alleviate back problems, menstrual difficulties, arthritis, or chronic pain and have heard them express deep gratitude for the remission of ailments they once thought would limit their lives forever. These anecdotes are real and meaningful — but do they translate into quantifiable health improvements or the kind of credible scientific research that members of the medical community accept?

Many yoga students, trusting their own experiences, may not know or even care if the medical establishment believes in yoga as a valid therapy for specific ailments but there are practical reasons for encouraging its scientific research. For example, classes at one Los Angeles yoga center are now being covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Why? Because as Dr. Emmanuel Brandeis says, “Insurance companies are recognizing the fact that yoga is a less expensive and more efficient method of rehabilitation.”

Dr. Brandeis is the founder of Yoga Nemo in West Hollywood, California, and a board-certified gynecologist. He acknowledges that insurance companies are just beginning to honor yoga and other alternative therapies as legitimate healing practices and therefore more likely to embrace it by reimbursing ailing students for its costs. However, there still needs to be research to document yoga’s effectiveness. This may take some time to develop in this country for the only significant body of research now taking place is mostly being done in India where, Dr. Brandeis says, “. . . studies are being published in noted journals with a lot of credibility.” He believes that it comes down to money in the United States; funding for research tends to go into ventures more likely to result in big profits. “Compared to a drug which can be prescribed and sold worldwide, yoga just doesn’t make money,” says Dr. Brandeis.

Scientists and medical doctors pursuing yoga-related research are focusing on its ability to help prevent, heal, or alleviate specific conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, diabetes, and symptoms of menopause.

The regular practice of yoga has been found to relieve the stress of coping with chronic conditions and disabilities. In fact, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), identified yoga as a therapy worthy of research and says, “During the past 80 years, health professionals in India and the West have begun to investigate the therapeutic potential of yoga. To date, thousands of research studies have been undertaken and have shown that with the practice of yoga a person can, indeed, learn to control such physiologic parameters as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory function, metabolic rate, skin resistance, brain waves, body temperature, and many other bodily functions.”

If you are a yoga devotee challenged by certain ailments, here is an overview of a number of clinical studies which attest to yoga’s healing and rejuvenating benefits.

– Asthma

In 1998, the Northern Colorado Allergy Asthma Clinic in Fort Collins performed a controlled clinical study of university students ages 19 to 52 years old. It concluded that yoga techniques are a beneficial adjunct to the medical management of asthma. Using a set of asanas, pranayama, and meditation, the yoga group practiced three times a week for 16 weeks. Though pulmonary functions did not show a significant variance between yoga and control groups, “analysis of the data showed that the subjects in the yoga group reported a significant degree of relaxation, positive attitude, and better yoga exercise tolerance. There was also a tendency toward less usage of beta-adrenergic inhalers.”

– Cardiovascular Risk Factors

A three-month residential study treated patients with yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet at Hanover Medical University in Germany. They found a substantial reduction in risk factors for heart disease including blood pressure and cholesterol in participants. These findings published in 1997 in the abstract, Acta physiologica Scandinavica Supplementum.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

A randomized, single-blind, controlled clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia concluded, “In this preliminary study, a yoga-based regimen was more effective than wrist splinting or no treatment in relieving some symptoms and signs of carpal tunnel syndrome.” The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1998, also noted that “Subjects in the yoga groups had significant improvement in grip strength and pain reduction, but changes in grip strength and pain were not significant for control subjects.”

– Arthritis

Also at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, in studies conducted in 1994, a yoga-treated group with osteoarthritis of the hands took part in a randomized, control, clinical trial which was published in the Journal of Rheumatology. It concluded, there was significant improvement over the control group in “pain during activity, tenderness, and finger range of motion. The yoga program was effective in providing relief in hand osteoarthritis. Further studies are warranted to compare this with other treatments and to examine long-term effects.”

– Fibromyalgia

The mind-body frontier also responds well to yoga. This is especially true for patients with chronic disease that elude strict physiological diagnosis. Patrick Randolph, Ph.D., director of psychological services at the Pain Center of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, has studied the effects of yoga on fibromyalgia syndrome (FS), an often debilitating chronic pain condition affecting up to 6 million Americans with a wide spectrum of symptoms. According to Randolph, yoga offers FS patients a twofold benefit: First, the asanas help increase circulation to the limbs while the resultant relaxation addresses anxiety. Randolph notes that “many people reported that rather than yoga being an exercise that takes energy away, it actually energized them.”

Randolph went on to say, “Yoga also alleviates the extraneous mind chatter that can turn chronic pain into misery through the relentless anxiety about the condition. Even though patients were left with the physical sensation of pain they were relieved of the added unnecessary emotional worries that tended to get wrapped around it. And that’s the real gift yoga offers FS patients. encourages living within the limits imposed by the body. When we yoke the body and the mind together, we train ourselves to find where we truly are and to stay within that boundary.”

Dr. Brandeis of Yoga Nemo echoes this prescription of yoga as an aid for patients coping with the anxiety of illness. While Dr. Brandeis cites yoga’s ability to have an impact in concrete ways, by lowering blood pressure, improving circulation, lessening the need for insulin in diabetics, and improving pulmonary function in children with asthma, he also considers yoga an invaluable restorative and anxiety-reducing practice for some of the special groups he treats: menopausal women, patients with HIV/AIDS, cancer survivors, deaf children, and at-risk teenagers. “If we can take the anxiety ingredient out,” Dr. Brandeis says, “we can help the patients cope with illness and also get better physically.”

And, Dr. James S. Gordon, Director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. notes he has also seen energetic changes in yoga practitioners, saying that he suspects yoga asanas activate different parts of the body in ways similar to the stimulation of the body’s meridians in Chinese acupuncture.

Whether yoga is studied as a method for preventing or treating disease, as a way of coping with difficult-to-treat or chronic illnesses, or as a way of altering the energy state of the body, it’s important to remember that yoga is a way of living and not an isolated technique. “While many doctors and patients demand proof that yoga really can help certain medical conditions, they risk overlooking yoga’s far-reaching benefits,” says Dr. Elliott S. Dacher, author of Whole Healing: A Step-by-Step Program to Reclaim Your Power to Heal (Plume, 1997). “Yoga is a way to get to the source of ourselves. The challenge is not to see yoga as a treatment for disease, but as an opportunity to see something deeper in the self. To reconnect with the body is one way of artfully facing the reality of pain in our life and a means for accepting and being with our lives more deeply.”

And even though as Dr. Brandeis says, “Yoga’s most ephemeral benefits, such as the opening of energy channels, may prove to be too difficult to define and evaluate in a research setting”, researchers will continue to build a body of studies and trials confirming what yoga practitioners know so well.

Ultimately, it may come down to one’s own personal experience of being in and with the body temple in ways too profound to measure. Such is the way of the yoga devotee.

On the flip side of yoga being beneficial to bodily ailments, it also has shown effective in enhancing athletic abilities.

– Enhanced Athletic Abilities

Researchers have also evaluated the effects of yoga on healthy adults and athletes. They compared the effects of yoga to the effects of other forms of physical exercise. One study conducted at the Government Vemana Yoga Research Institute in Secunderabad, India, focused specifically on athletes practicing pranayama (breath work) techniques. After two years of observation and testing, according to the report published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 1994, “the results…showed that the subjects who practiced pranayama (breath work) could achieve higher work out rates with reduced oxygen consumption because the body used oxygen “more efficiently (aerobically) rather than shifting to the less-efficient lactate-producing rate (anaerobic). Plus it was found that test subjects could exercise more comfortably with a significantly lower heart rate.



Elaine Lipson writes about yoga, organic foods, natural health, and textiles.

Alison Ashton, a writer based in San Diego, California, contributed to this article.