Scientific Evidence of the Therapeutic Efficacy of Iyengar Yoga

Lisa Walford

Last October in Mumbai, India, The Light on Yoga Research Trust, in collaboration with the Bombay Hospital Trust, the Indian Medical Association, the General Practitioner's Association, and the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorder Society, sponsored a conference entitled "Scientific Evidence of the Therapeutic Efficacy of Iyengar Yoga." Rajvi Metha, senior Iyengar Yoga teacher and the driving force behind the Light on Yoga Research Trust, which publishes Yoga Rahasya, organized the conference to introduce Iyengar Yoga to medical professionals. More than 300 participants joined the presenters at the Bombay Hospital to attend the full-day conference.

Researchers from Germany, the United States, and India reviewed studies in cardiovascular disease, pediatric pain management, depression, low back care, Parkinson's disease, and stress management.

Guruji presided over the event and stated, "Our life force is like a river which moves from the mountain to the sea, never going backwards. We have to make sure it does not stagnate." Most importantly, he noted that we are all psychosomatic animals, and that the psyche and the soma always move together: "We must work with the nature and adjust to what we see, find out how to give the exact amount of support to the individual." Addressing the doctors, Guruji noted, "You operate from the inside; I operate from the outside to reach the inside." Dr. Naik, a regular assistant to Guruji, contributed to the discussion. He is currently collaborating with Guruji to decipher the operative biological mechanisms in the therapeutic process that make Iyengar Yoga so effective.

In her introductory remarks, Metha said, "Beyond the armament of drugs, we have nothing. Yoga can help." She stressed that evidence-based research is needed to corroborate the therapeutic benefits that Guruji has demonstrated so consistently in his medical classes at the Institute in Pune. Through research, the mechanisms at work in the therapeutic applications of yoga and the most advantageous applications for particular conditions can be recorded and reviewed.

Statistics worldwide indicate that people with many health conditions–diabetes, depression, low back care, and headaches, to name but a few–benefit with complimentary medical therapies. In 1998, the National Institutes of Health established the Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine to apply the rigor of science to assess the efficacy of more than 23 healing practices, including yoga. We expect to see more statistical evidence of yoga's benefits as these studies progress.

The following are synopses of the studies presented in Mumbai.

GERMANY: The University Hospital of Duisberg-Essen in Germany champions a department of integrative and internal medicine with 60 beds, an outpatient clinic,
and a fully equipped Iyengar Yoga studio with three on-site certified Iyengar Yoga instructors. The department chair, Dr. Andreas Michalsen, supervised several studies on patients with stress-related disorders who also were at risk for cardiovascular disease. After the remarkable results of a pilot study assessing quality-of-life improvements to stress-related disorders, Dr. Michalsen designed two randomized trials. The first corroborated the beneficial results of the pilot study and compared the efficacy between biweekly yoga sessions, one session weekly, and a waiting list control. The later study assessed the benefit to patients at risk for cardiovascular disease.

Within a short period, these studies all recorded significant improvements in stress-related outcomes for the participants. Depression, anxiety, anger, and insomnia decreased, and participants' overall health improved. Cortisol (a stress hormone) levels decreased significantly after the 90-minute classes. There was no marked difference between those practicing twice weekly versus once weekly, except that those partaking in the once-weekly program began practicing at home. Blood pressure and heart rate decreased significantly for the at-risk cardiovascular participants, whereas blood lipid levels remained unchanged.

Dr. Michalsen noted that the patients continue to practice after they are discharged. He is currently opening a second such clinic in Berlin.

UNITED STATES: An exemplary randomized control study on the use of Iyengar Yoga for chronic low back pain was funded by the National Institutes of Health and was published in the peer-reviewed journal Pain (Vol. 115, 2005). Kimberly Williams, key researcher and certified Iyengar Yoga instructor, reviewed her protocol and proposed that addressing imbalances in the musculoskeletal body that affect spinal alignment and posture would affect functional disability and would decrease clinical pain in the subjects. She reminded us that chronic low back pain is the most expensive musculoskeletal disorder to treat and accounts for the greatest percentage of absenteeism and disability in the workforce. For more information on Kimberly's study, go to the Research link on the IYNAUS website.

The University of California, Los Angles, sponsors a pediatric pain clinic where a multidisciplinary team meets weekly to address their patients' problems. Children with chronic pain become marginalized as they slip academically, have problems socially, and experience depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The clinic treats children reporting abdominal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, and rheumatoid arthritis, among other symptoms. Current research will pursue irritable bowel syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis.

Serious depression affects more than 10% of the American population older than 18 years, and it is estimated that by 2020, it will be the second leading cause of death worldwide. Dr. David Shapiro has conducted several studies on anxiety and mood disorders and on subjects with major clinical depression who have limited relief from antidepressant medication. He examined individual psychological and physiological characteristics related to the effects of yoga to see what practice would work best for particular personality types and conditions.

Participants took three weekly classes for two months. In a therapeutics session, the condition dictated the sequence, as well as what was emphasized in the asana and which parts of the body were targeted. Because this was a double-blind study, instructors did not know their students' histories. Those completing the study had fewer symptoms, a healthier outlook on life, and beneficial physiological changes.

Statistically, the remission rate for those with depression who are participating in yoga is 65% higher than for any other complimentary or alternative medical therapy, 45% higher than for those using other forms of exercise, and 31% higher than the effect of using a placebo. The attrition rate is also lower than in other forms of exercise. Yoga promises to be a cost-effective complementary treatment to manage psychological disorders.

INDIA: Parkinson's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system. The Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorder Society, along with Rajvi Mehta and the Bombay Hospital, conducted a study that greatly benefited participants.

Patients were instructed daily for ten days, with a weekly follow-up class over two months. All patients practiced regularly and kept a journal of their progress. Their mental state and social and motor skills improved significantly when compared with those of the control group, and the nature of the study encouraged patients to integrate yoga into their daily lives.

Each of the studies noted above incorporated basic asanas familiar to every yoga student. Whether the ailment is physical, emotional, or physiological, the basic tenets to generate life energy, to placate a restless mind, and to cultivate a calm, sober, and generous attitude in life apply. Rajvi noted, "When the structural body loses its alignment, the organic body loses its vitality, and even the cellular body is impacted." Through the judicious and practical application of the yoga asanas, one's breath and life energy is encouraged to flow freely, promoting an internal stability that leads to dynamic health and a rich, fulfilling life.

Lisa Walford has been teaching in the Los Angeles area for more than 25 years and holds a Senior Intermediate I certificate. She is on the advisory council for the International Association of Yoga Therapists.