New yoga devotees often talk in mystical terms about discovering a remarkable sense of well-being and health. “Yoga is opening my energy channels,” they’ll say, or they’ll describe a sense of “being in the body.” Practitioners also credit yoga for alleviating back problems, menstrual difficulties, arthritis, or chronic pain 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 diseases or conditions or has researched and quantified yoga’s benefits. But there are practical reasons for encouraging scientific research into yoga’s benefits. Insurance companies, just beginning to honor yoga and other alternative therapies as legitimate healing practices, are more likely to embrace yoga and reimburse ailing students for its costs if research documents its effectiveness.
With the establishment of the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) in 1992, and the subsequent establishment of the OAM’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in 1998, government-funded research about yoga and other mind-body practices is gaining momentum in the United States. As part of the National Institutes of Health, which calls itself one of the world’s foremost biomedical research institutions, the NCCAM mandates at least some funding for research in alternative healing therapies. Though these funds don’t compare to public and private funding for conventional medicine, the existence of the OAM acknowledges the growing importance of natural and traditional methods of healing, and the roles they may play in today’s changing medical climate.
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, and its benefits as a technique for relieving stress and coping with chronic conditions or disabilities. In fact, the NCCAM itself, identifying yoga as a therapy worth pursuing in the research arena, says that, “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.” Though it’s difficult to find most of these studies, some current, accessible research reports significant results for challenging medical conditions.