Yoga under the Microscope

July/August 2003 Yoga Journal  By Kathryn Black

Can claims of yoga's health benefits stand up to scientific scrutiny? These three researchers think so. Most of us who love our yogic practices and enjoy their physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits don't worry about why or how they work; we just do them. Some folks, however, can't rest without hard evidence. They're part of the push toward finding out whether alternative therapies, including yoga and meditation, have health benefits that can be measured.

The impulse to legitimize alternative medicine comes not only from some yogis, but from the U.S. government. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), under the National Institutes of Health umbrella, wields a $78 million budget to promote rigorous scientific research that will bridge the gap between the broad use of complementary and alternative practices and the paucity of data demonstrating their safety and efficacy. NCCAM, which considers 350 different therapeutic methods as "alternative," currently funds 104 projects, such as those studying the effect of acupuncture on back pain and the use of shark cartilage in the treatment of breast cancer. (Most NCCAM money goes to research centers, such as Maharishi University, Columbia University, and the Universities of Arizona, Michigan, and Maryland.) Having in the past funded studies on yoga for obsessive-compulsive disorder and as an enhancement for methadone maintenance treatment, NCCAM is currently funding a five-year, half-million-dollar study being conducted by the Oregon Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Neurological Disorders (ORCCAMIND), in Portland. The ORCCAMIND study is investigating the effects of yoga on people with multiple sclerosis as well as the healthy elderly, specifically assessing such factors as alertness, ability to focus and shift attention, flexibility, balance, mood, quality of life, and (in the MS patients) fatigue.

Researchers pursuing the health benefits of yogic practices must compete not only for funding, but also to get their work published in reputable journals. You can be sure that the words "yoga" and "meditation" don't appear often in the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Allergy and Asthma Proceedings, or Stroke (a journal of the American Heart Association)óbut it does happen. .....