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The science behind yoga

Researchers have begun to gather objective scientific evidence on the effects of yoga

By Dr Ramajayam G

Yoga has been in existence in the form of art and also as an experiential science for thousands of years. However, serious objective scientific exploration started only in the last few years. To tap all the potential benefits of yoga and make it appealing to humanity, studying it thoroughly like any other science is as essential as portraying it in its most artistic form.

Patanjali’s systematic approach

The eight limbs of yoga, as framed by Patanjali, are evidence of the systematic approach yoga follows, at par with other mainstream sciences. Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, prathyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the eight limbs of yoga. Yama and niyama are for behavioral modification, asana and pranayama for physical conditioning, prathyaharaand dharana for mental focus and dhyana and samadhi for self-realization.

We can see that Patanjali has given interventions in multiple ways, covering different levels of human existence with the common goal of mind control. Though the systematic way of approaching a subject, which forms the core of any science, is evident in the eight limbs itself, exploring exactly how yoga works has been elusive for the scientific community for many practical reasons. Despite the challenges, researchers have now begun to gather objective scientific evidence that will give yoga a concrete scientific backing.

Researchers have found that yoga can:

Reset the homeostatic set point

The human body functions in a highly coordinated manner. Every cell functions within a range of normality, allowing for some adjustments when there is a change in its surroundings. Some tissues have a lower level of controlling capacity and some have a high level. When certain functions such as hormonal secretion take place, there is feedback generated between these two levels of tissues. This feedback is used to maintain the range of normality and stability of cell functioning. This process that maintains the stability of the human body's internal environment in response to surrounding changes is known as homeostasis. Erratic lifestyles can cause instability in this process and it can be fixed with regular practice of yoga.

Modulate stress

People are becoming increasingly stressed nowadays and yoga can be a good antidote. The neuro-endocrine system has inbuilt mechanisms to fight stress. However, when used for a long term without setting a strategy to manage stress, it gets exhausted. This leads to negative consequences such as increased stress hormones that have adverse effects on the entire human system. Yoga primarily works at this core level of eradicating stress and hence relaxes the whole body and mind. This systematic way of giving rest to the cells has a profound effect on our perception of stress and hence its management.

Fine-tune the autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system is responsible for the 'fight-or-flight' response of the body, while the parasympathetic system is responsible for activities when the body is at rest such as digestion and sexual arousal. They are complementary systems which work in harmony to maintain a healthy state. However, when the sympathetic system is overused, this balance is upset, resulting in illness. Yoga helps in restoring the balance between the two types of the autonomic nervous system thereby boosting overall health.

Enhance the quality of life

Yoga has subtle positive effects on several aspects of our life. These benefits can be experienced by a person practicing yoga but may not be measured by scientific tools. Inner peace, contentment, happiness and self awareness are some of the aspects on which yoga has a positive effect. These positive experiences are not only a foundation for healthy living but also beneficial for people approaching the end of their life (cancer, chronically ill, bed-ridden patients), as it provides an anchor for them to hold on to something positive. As a result of these effects on the various body mechanisms, here are some of the direct benefits that yoga provides:

  • decreased blood pressure
  • decreased heart rate
  • better oxygen utilization
  • improved digestion
  • reduced toxic substance formation
  • better immune system
  • better neuro-muscular coordination
  • better hormonal balance

It is evident that the core principles of yoga - relaxed body, slow and steady breath, and calm mind - help us experience all the above mentioned benefits.

Dr Ramajayam G is a PhD Scholar of yoga at NIMHANS, Bangalore