alan little’s weblog

yoga therapy

22nd July 2004 permanent link

Michael Smith emails me, in response to my response to his pointer to bindu magazine, with links to some more interesting yoga science articles. Thanks very much Michael.

The articles are by Dr. Timothy McCall, who apparently is medical editor of Yoga Journal, but nobody’s perfect. He also wrote the foreword to David Coulter’s marvellous book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, which inclines me more in his favour.

And one of the articles is excellent. In Western Science vs. Eastern Wisdom he describes his visits to yoga therapy researchers in India, talks about the research they are doing and raises a number of serious issues. Probably the most serious of these is that medical science relies on repeatable studies of standardised treatment practices, whereas all good yoga therapists insist that treatments must be customised for the individual patient. Some yoga institutes are conducting standardised trials in the interests of gaining recognition from medical researchers - but is what they are doing then proper yoga therapy?

The irony is that if standardization does lower the quality of therapeutics, we might end up amassing the most scientific support for methods that are not the best yoga has to offer. This is no trivial matter, since the results of studies can influence which institutions get funding and, someday perhaps, which teachers get licensed or reimbursed by insurance companies.

I would call this more than an “irony”. It raises the same question I’m addressing in my sporadically-ongoing series of essays on yoga teacher qualifications: who is actually qualified to train and certify yoga teachers (or therapists) anyway? Answer: not governments or insurance companies, and especially not if it means some kind of bastardised, watered-down subset of practices ends up getting quasi-officially sanctioned as “yoga”.

Another concern that McCall raises:

Some view this “medicalization” of yoga as a problem; they worry that doing yoga for a bodily affliction trivializes this great spiritual tradition. But this didn’t concern the masters that I had met on my journey. “Everyone comes to yoga because of some kind of suffering,” says N.V. Raghuram, a senior teacher at Prashanti. In other words, it doesn’t matter what brings a person to yoga, a bum hip or a desire to find God: Duhkha is duhkha.

I am probably one of the people who view “medicalization” of yoga as a problem. I have absolutely nothing against borrowing yoga techniques as a form of physical therapy. I’m sure it can be very effective. I would question whether it is yoga. Certainly people whose physical suffering is relieved by "yoga therapy" might find that their spiritual well being is enhanced as a result. I can well imagine that if I had suffered from chronic backache and yoga therapy relieved it, it would reduce the fluctuations of my mind. It’s also definitely true that some percentage of people who start practicing yoga for any reason - backache, getting fit, meeting babes - will realise that there is more to it than that and become serious about their practice. For me it was reasons (2) and (3). So I think McCall’s point here is ok to a degree: yoga therapy is a good thing in itself and possibly also a way in to serious yoga practice for some people; but there is a danger of people confusing physical benefits with the real aims of yoga.

Another problem of current scientific yoga research: looking under the lamppost syndrome. It’s easier to measure maximum oxygen uptake or the straightness of somebody’s spine than their level of enlightenment. “Unfortunately, there’s no ‘spirituogram’ that can quantify this aspect of yoga, so science does not look there much”, says McCall. I think there is, actually, or could be. It’s just harder and more expensive than measuring VO2 Max. I personally believe that mystical states of enlightenment must correspond to [may be no more than] measurable, detectable states of brain activity that some very dedicated practitioners of things like yoga or buddhist meditation can learn to induce. The brain scans of yoga practitioners that bindu magazine wrote about, or of Tibetan buddhist monks that I read about elsewhere, would be one (early, crude, prototype) form of the “spirituogram”. There must also be tests/measures of general psychological wellbeing that I think would correlate with any reasonable definition of "enlightenment". Whether you could get randomised volunteers for a study would be a big question, though. Getting twenty randomly-selected soldiers to do hatha yoga instead of their normal PT for an hour a day for a few months is feasible. Getting twenty randomly-selected civilians to go into a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and meditate for several years isn’t. But there’s a difference between "not easy to measure" and "not measurable".

This all reminds me of a fascinating interview I once read in Yoga International magazine with a guy called Robin Monro. Monro was a high-flying research biologist in the 1960s - worked with Francis Crick of Crick & Watson fame. He also studied yoga with BKS Iyengar. “In 1969 he left research in molecular biology in order to dedicate the second half of his career to philosophical and ethical problems associated with science … In 1980 he decided to go in for research into forms of medicine which were largely unrecognised by modern medicine but which were in his own experience effective ... and founded the Yoga Biomedical Trust”. Sounds like an interesting character – unfortunately Yoga International magazine’s website (doesn’t work properly in Mozilla and ...) apparently either doesn’t have online archives, or only has them for subscribers.

Bonus link: this apposite quote from John Perry Barlow:

I’m realizing that one of the obstacles to an integrated model for Western Medicine, such as they are using me to develop, is that the better reductionism gets at yielding extremely granular insight into the parts, the harder it becomes to assemble them into a whole.

related entries: Yoga

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