The debate in the yoga world about yoga as a spiritual practice vs. yoga as a physical practice is ongoing. In Missouri last year, yogis argued that as a spiritual practice yoga should be tax exempt. Others, uncomfortable with yogic spirituality, argue that people can achieve the full benefits of yoga without the spiritual elements, like chanting or meditation. Of course asana as exercise can bring physical benefits, but recent research suggests that a more comprehensive yoga practice may help yoga practitioners achieve the best results for dealing with some health issues.
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has practiced yoga for over 35 years. He has merged his yogic lifestyle with his professional career, publishing numerous studies on the effects of yoga. He says, “The best evidence really shows that yoga is good at reducing stress and helping people cope with the stress they have. It improves management of stress both psychologically and physiologically.”
Sat Bir Singh Khalsa has studied the effects of yoga on cancer patients, insomniacs, and professional musicians. Through his research he has shown that yoga can measurably reduce stress, which allows people to deal more effectively with their life situations. When stress is reduced, the body’s immune system operates more effectively, thus allowing the body to deal with present illnesses more efficiently.
The US National Institutes of Health say that people will benefit most from a practice that includes asana, pranayama and meditation. Asana practice was traditionally used to prepare the body for meditation. Holding poses trains the body to be calm in stressful situations. Different breathing practices have different effects on people’s hormones and mental states. And in meditation, yoga practitioners can work deeply with their mental states. As Swami Satchidananda said, “The purpose of Yoga is not to create any waves in the mind. Keep the mind still. Then, you will see your True Self in the still water of the peaceful mind.”
While Sat Bir Singh Khalsa has shown just how useful yoga can be for some health issues, he admits that more research needs to be done. For example, so far studies have not been able to prove claims that yoga can improve organ function. But as yoga’s popularity continues to grow, more studies are being done to measure the effects yoga has on a host of health issues. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa will be participating in Yoga For Health, an international conference about yoga therapy taking place in March. The conference will bring together many yogis and researchers to discuss the link between yoga and health, and to examine the latest research about cancer, diabetes, and other ailments.
Yoga isn’t a magic bullet, curing every health problem under the sun. But what it can do is change the way people relate to their health issues. Practicing asana can certainly boost health as a form of physical exercise. But the addition of pranayama and meditation creates a more complete system for reducing stress and boosting overall health.