HEALTH: IS YOGA ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE?

Published June 23, 2024
Residents of Islamabad take part in a free yoga class at the F-9 park in the federal capital | CDA Islamabad
Residents of Islamabad take part in a free yoga class at the F-9 park in the federal capital | CDA Islamabad

International Day of Yoga is celebrated worldwide on June 21. In 2015, when this was first commemorated, some 36,000 enthusiasts — including the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and dignitaries from 84 countries — lined up in New Delhi, for the world’s largest yoga session.

Sessions were also held on the bank of the River Thames in London and under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Last year, Modi led a yoga session at the UN headquarters in New York. Also last year, the Indian city of Surat hosted the world’s largest yoga session, with over 150,000 participants.

Yoga has thoroughly permeated global consumer culture and everyday news ranges from the glamorous to the absurd. The Louvre has announced yoga classes for visitors to coincide with the Olympics in Paris in June. Italy recently banned “puppy yoga”, saying only adult dogs could participate, for reasons of animal welfare.

UNIVERSAL APPEAL

According to one estimate, some 300 million people practise yoga worldwide. Yoga has also made significant inroads in Pakistan over the last decade. A quick search in major cities reveals an abundance of programmes and studios.

The ancient practice of yoga is a worldwide phenomenon due to its many touted mental and physical health benefits. But do these claims stand up to scientific scrutiny?

Many of these options are backed up with glossy Instagram feeds of models, twisting their bodies into the trademark poses, once so fantastical but now entirely familiar. In May, Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority launched complimentary classes for residents in the F-9 Park.

But beyond the glamour and buzz, the average person has questions: what is all this hype about? How is yoga different

from other fitness routines? Is it actually something special?

FROM THE SCIENTIFIC LENS

Some of yoga’s scientifically documented benefits are only to be expected: studies show that yoga significantly improves flexibility; it helps combat arthritis; yoga is effective against carpal tunnel syndrome; it alleviates chronic lower back pain; and it seems to be a promising aid in weight loss.

Yoga has a pronounced meditation component, and studies show significant stress reduction, which can have cascading effects on reducing risk of heart attacks, strokes, chronic disease, etc.

But when one starts to delve deeper, things get interesting fast.

Consider an early and intriguing study from Duke University, which compared health benefits of yoga with aerobics for almost a hundred adults.

At the time of the study, in 1989, the magical secret to fitness was to increase one’s maximal oxygen uptake, the VO2 max, ie the maximum volume of oxygen consumed during rigorous exercise. Decades of science and research demonstrated that aerobic exercise did precisely that, making it the dominant fitness paradigm of the era. The study results were also very clear: over the four-month study period, subjects participating in aerobics raised their VO2 max significantly. There was no increase for the yogis at all.

However, when researchers surveyed participants’ quality of life, the response was overwhelmingly positive for both groups. At the end of the study, yogis also felt healthier, they reported higher energy levels, endurance, flexibility and better sleep. Their social lives improved markedly. Memory and concentration were enhanced. They had less loneliness, improved self-confidence and life satisfaction. They even felt that they looked better.

THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?

The literature on yoga abounds with counterintuitive findings like these. Another fascinating study from 2008 confronts the popular claim that yoga is restorative and anti-ageing. Could yoga really play a role in human longevity?

Biological ageing is linked to telomeres, which are DNA strands at the very tips of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, these tips get shorter, making them a kind of clock, indicating the cell’s lifespan. This discovery — an alternative way of counting biological age — was significant enough to secure the Nobel Prize.

In their study, researchers investigated a group of 30 men with low-risk cancer and introduced “comprehensive” lifestyle changes for them, including a low-fat diet, a walking routine, and “yoga-based stretching, breathing and meditation.”

After three months, they reported substantial health improvements, including decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, etc. The researchers also discovered that telomerase activity — the enzyme that counteracts the shortening of telomeres — increased by 30 percent.

A follow-up study five years later, featuring 10 of the same subjects, confirmed significant increases in telomere length.

The authors noted the potential of these findings for cellular longevity, tissue renewal, disease prevention, and “increases in life span.” Even in the understated language of science, this is bold new fountain-of-youth territory.

AN AURA OF SPIRITUALITY

Yoga has always had this mystique, a touch of the exotic and the supernatural.

In 1965, B.K.S. Iyengar — the man who did more than any other to popularise yoga in the West — wrote in his seminal book, Light on Yoga, how this practice can bring one “to the crossroads of his destiny.”

I remember coming across an old book, in a library overseas, with the intriguing title Christian Yoga. Written in the sixties by a French priest, J.M. Dechanet, the book was an intimate and inspiring memoir of his experiment to reconcile yoga with the Christian tradition.

Early in the book, he notes that reading the Bible made the contemplative lives of prophets seem distant from our noisy modern existence. Later, he realises that practising yoga, surprisingly, allowed him to experience, to an extent, the serene calm he’d read about.

These are very interesting claims. We see a faint reflection of these in the science. For instance, a review paper surveying some 30 studies finds that “[yoga] may be positively associated with several aspects of spirituality.”

In his book, A Life Worth Breathing, author Max Strom describes a complaint that many of us will find familiar: “In the morning I can’t wake up, in the day I am bored, in the evening I am tired, and at night I can’t sleep.”

Yoga can be a wonderful antidote. Even a few weeks of practice are enough to realise that yoga facilitates a contemplative state.

Multiple surveys from different countries find that, whereas most people start yoga for its physical benefits, a large number end up maintaining the practice, primarily for its spiritual side-effects.

‘MORE STRENOUS THAN SPORTS’

However, for those who may be motivated to jump on to a mat right away, it is important to sound a note of caution. The good news is that statistics on yoga injuries are largely reassuring: the rate is low.

A Danish study of almost 3,500 participants reported an injury prevalence of one percent for yoga. To get a sense of comparison, this figure was 38 percent for soccer players, 19 percent for runners and nine percent for those undertaking strength training. However, the bad news is that there are abundant accounts of injuries and harms.

Journalist William Broad, author of the highly recommended book The Science of Yoga, comments that “[yoga] makes most other sports and exercises seem like child’s play.”

There are reports of students pushing their bodies beyond their limits to achieve challenging poses, resulting in torn tendons, popped ribs and blood clots. When one digs into these incidents, two main reasons pop out.

One is basic common sense: a wide-ranging survey of yoga teachers, therapists and clinicians finds that the most commonly cited culprits were “[p]oor technique or alignment, previous injury, excess effort, and improper or inadequate instruction.”

The second reason behind injuries is more serious and more subtle: ego. Some people tend to bring a materialist and competitive drive to yoga and rush themselves into advanced poses, out of a sense of achievement. But the pose should always be part of the journey and not the goal. It is vital to listen to the body attentively.

To quote author Max Strom again regarding yoga’s transformative magic: “Remember, it doesn’t matter how deep into a posture you go — what does matter is who you are when you get there.”

Like most quotes on yoga, this, too, can be maddeningly cryptic for an outsider. At the end of the day, the secret of yoga cannot really be explained. Like many of the truly good things in life, it can only be experienced.

The writer teaches at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Islamabad. He can be reached at taha.ali@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 23rd, 2024

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