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The Science of Yoga

An excerpt from The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards by William J. Broad

Drawing from both scientific research and esoteric wisdom, William J. Broad’s The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards explores yoga’s capacity to lift moods, inspire creativity, and otherwise induce “uncommon states.” An excerpt published in the New York Times Magazine in January examining yoga’s potential for catalyzing injury ignited lively discussions online and in yoga studios around the country. For Kripalu Compass, we chose an excerpt from the book that focuses on Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, a Harvard scientist who works with the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living on research projects tracking the effects of yoga on performers, high school students, and war veterans.

Sat Bir Khalsa chatted amiably as we walked down the street. His beard was long and gray, his turban white, and his bracelet made of steel—all signs of his Sikh religion. He was not, however, Indian. Born in Toronto of European stock, he had converted to Sikhism decades ago upon taking up Kundalini Yoga, an energetic form that emphasizes rapid breathing and deep meditation.

No one on Longwood Avenue seemed to give the turbaned Sikh a second look. Boston that spring day was gorgeous. An early shower had scrubbed the air, leaving it awash in sunlight. Flowers and trees were blooming. Men and women were shedding their coats. People fairly hummed along the sidewalks.

We had just eaten lunch at Bertucci’s, a bustling restaurant where Khalsa had finished his meal with Bomba—“the bomb” in Italian. The dessert consisted of balls of vanilla and chocolate gelato dipped in chocolate and covered with almonds, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce. I could see why his kids loved the place.

Maybe it was the sugar high, or the beautiful day, or the yoga. Whatever it was, the air fairly pulsed as Khalsa—a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and one of the world’s leading authorities on the science of yoga—laid out his findings and his ambitions. The friendly man of 56 turned out to have a lot.

At Harvard, Khalsa pursued a bold program of research that explored how yoga can soothe physically and emotionally. His focus was practical and structured that way deliberately to demonstrate yoga’s social value. He had examined how its powers of unwinding can promote sleep and ease performance anxiety among musicians, and was now organizing a study to see if its calming influence could help high school students better fight the blues and everyday stress. Khalsa had 10 yoga investigations in various stages of development.

With energy and articulate zeal, he billed his research as a way to help yoga break from its fringy past and go mainstream.

“Whatever happened to mental hygiene?” he asked rhetorically. “It doesn’t exist—and never did. When you went through high school, you were never taught how to deal with stress, how to deal with trauma, how to deal with tension and anxiety—with the whole list of mood impairments. There’s no preventive maintenance. We know how to prevent cavities. But we don’t teach children how to be resilient, how to cope with stress on a daily basis.”

“There’s a disconnect,” he continued. “We’ve done dental hygiene but not mental hygiene. So the question is, ‘How do we go from where we are now to where we need to be?’”

Khalsa argued that the only way to convince most people about the value of yoga and establish a social consensus that encourages its wide practice is to conduct scientific research that is solid and extensive. He added that recommendations for regular toothbrushing had started that way and illustrated the potential value of good yoga investigations.

“That’s my mission in life,” Khalsa told me.

In 2005, Khalsa and Stephen Cope from Kripalu recruited 10 volunteers from Tanglewood’s prestigious Fellows program. The five men and five women were aged 21 to 30, the average just over 25. They included singers, as well as those who played the violin and viola, horn and cello. For two months, the 10 volunteers underwent Kripalu training. The options included morning and afternoon sessions seven days a week, a weekly evening session and early-morning meditation session, and vegetarian meals at Kripalu. The investigation also included 10 fellows recruited as controls who had no yoga training.

The results, though not earthshaking, were encouraging, as Khalsa and Cope reported in their 2006 paper.

The study had assessed performance anxiety that the musicians felt in practice sessions, group settings, and solos. The yogis showed no difference from the control group in practice and group settings but did demonstrate a striking drop in performance anxiety during solos. That made sense, Khalsa and Cope noted. Research showed that such nervousness was low during practice, moderate in group settings, and high in solo performances. So the mood effects, they reasoned, would show up more during solos.

During my visit with Khalsa, we sat in his Harvard office and poured over the Tanglewood results on his computer. A yoga mat was rolled up under his desk. “There’s no question the kids loved it,” he said. “The control group had hardly any change. But look at the yoga groups. Yoga brings you into the moment. It brings a feeling of joy or energy with activity, a kind of mindfulness.”

The results were so positive, Khalsa added, that Tanglewood asked for more. He and Kripalu responded with an expanded study. The young musicians who immersed themselves in yoga, meditation, and Kripalu numbered 30. And it turned out that their two months of summer practice lifted moods even higher.

In 2009, Khalsa and colleagues reported that the yogi musicians, compared to a control group, showed strong evidence of not only less performance anxiety but significantly less anger, depression, and general anxiety and tension. They loved it, like their predecessors.

Moreover, the scientists tracked down the students a year after the summer program and asked if their lives had changed. Most reported that they had continued doing yoga and meditation, and all said the experience had improved their performance skills.

From The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad. Copyright © 2012 by Bill Broad. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

What is Kripalu Yoga? Read a description, and check out an overview of different yoga styles.