The mat goes mainstream

June 22, 2016 12:00 am | Updated June 10, 2017 06:25 am IST

Modern medicine might only be reluctantly opening up to yoga’s role in health care. But as a therapeutic device, Mr. Modi has already taken the ancient Indian practice to the global stage

If India were to look for a new symbol that would be a representative of what the country stands for today, after Tuesday’s great show, it is highly likely that the many-splendoured thing, furled and unfurled with much flourish across the world — the yoga mat — would be a serious contender.

On the second International Yoga Day, the skid-free fluorescent mat became a motif of sorts, heralding a new world order of people willing to go out on to the streets, twist themselves into incredible poses, while holding their noses to regulate breath. A world that is willing to celebrate yoga, or the many versions of it anyhow. Suddenly, it is the in-thing to do; the Jane Fonda aerobics video of today, it’s callisthenics with lurid leotards done in physical training period in school. And with a day’s careful orchestration, it tends to seem exaggerated, a little fantastic, maybe like a performance, but that is not to take away from the actual benefits of doing yoga, consistently and systematically.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his pitch to the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the day of summer solstice as International Yoga Day, he said: “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.” He went on to emphasise that the core of the philosophy behind yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yogasutra , was not just about exercise, but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature. “By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he added.

Wellness and therapy

Yoga does mean many things for many people: for some it is exercise, it’s a tool for wellness, it’s a routine; for others it is a spiritual calling, a way of life, and for very few, it actually is therapy. While modern medicine seems to have reconciled its once stiff-backed opposition to yoga’s role in health care, there remains the reluctance to harness it as therapeutic intervention, even as a supplement. By and large, in its acceptance yoga remains on the side of ‘wellness’, seldom crossing the Rubicon on to the far lands of ‘treatment’. The messiahs of modern medicine, with their demanding touchstone of scientific validation for ancient systems of medicine, say there still is insufficient conclusive empirical evidence to show the beneficial effects of using yoga as therapy.

E.S. Krishnamoorthy, Chennai-based senior neuropsychiatrist, says there is some research of the benefits of practising yoga in certain categories of patients with certain specific ailments. He has set up “integrative therapy clinics” (Trimed) across the city that claim to combine modern medicine with ancient wisdom, ensuring that the latter is scientifically validated for use.

“The autonomic nervous system, which controls key bodily functions, seems most amenable to yoga-based intervention,” he explains. Yoga helps with restoring posture and balance, having a soothing effect on anxiety and mood. “There is also empirical research that it helps control symptoms of asthma and epilepsy,” he says.

“It has been proved that yoga has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system and regulating blood pressure,” says V. Mohan, founder, Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre. “From a metabolism point of view, yoga is different from other kinds of exercise. When you do cardio, for instance, your heart rate increases, hormone secretion increases, the adrenalin gets going — leaving you in a hyper state. On the other hand, when someone does yoga, we notice what we call cellular silence. It puts the system in a rhythm and all vital parameters, including blood pressure, heart rate, pulse rate, and blood sugar are stabilised. However, even here, empirical proof of yoga’s impact on lowering blood sugar in a diabetic is only just emerging.”

The problem of validation

But the problem, Dr. Krishnamoorthy adds, is also with methodology: when you subject these traditional systems to modern research methods, they end up not holding up. “We use methods that are usually employed to validate pharmacological interventions [which forms the bulk of modern medicine] to evaluate non-pharmacological techniques.”

“Now, there are a few people trying to do things differently. For instance, at the Mayo Clinic [in the U.S.], yoga was used as one of a bunch of interventions including tai chi and dance therapy in a programme for patients with dementia,” he says. Published research on a pilot study conducted at the clinic indicates that such therapy could improve quality of life, cognitive and physical functions, better than ‘usual care’.

Another key hurdle might lie, ironically, in what is perceived as a strong point, traditionally — the many styles, variations and practitioners of yoga. Dr. Krishnamoorthy points out that there is no protocol for yoga postures or techniques, and this lacuna renders scientific validation difficult, if not impossible.

Meanwhile, yoga has a poster boy in the Indian Prime Minister, who, in televised relays, seems to be capable of great litheness in executing asanas . On Tuesday, he urged all practitioners of yoga to focus on diabetes prevention, again, pushing the agenda into the realm of ‘wellness’. It remains to be seen if the Indian government, with the faith it has in the ability of yoga to achieve unity of mind, body, thought and action, will ramp up its promotion of yoga, with adequate scientific proof, to a viable form of supportive therapy.

Until then, draw comfort from watching a sea of vividly colourful yoga mats take over the world.

There scarcely is one protocol for yoga postures or techniques, and this lacuna renders scientific validation difficult, if not impossible

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