Yoga – an ancient and modern practice – July 2016
Everyone’s favourite subject—Yoga!—was the subject of Harvard professor Bir Singh Khalsa’s address to a packed conference at Global Co-operation House in London.
Professor Khalsa, a research scientist at Harvard and also in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Departments of Medicine and Neurology, at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has been researching Yoga since 2001. But his interest in yoga as lifestyle and personal development practice, and as therapy, with its roots in Indian esoteric and spiritual traditions, began thirty years earlier.
As well as explaining the essentials of Yoga, Prof Khalsa described the modern application of Yoga as both a lifestyle activity and a therapy, quoting the mounting research evidence available on its efficacy. He discussed its popularity in the USA and worldwide, and the increasingly prominent role it plays in modern culture. Nine airport lounges in the USA, for example, have Yoga Rooms, and ‘yoga’ has made its way into advertising everything from soap to soup. Worldwide acceptance of this ancient Indian practice was evident in the powerpoints he showed of the launch of International Yoga Day on 21 June 2015, in New York, China, France, London and Japan, as well as India.
Prof Khalsa’s research has focused on the psychophysiology of meditation and behavioural techniques of yoga, including investigation into the efficacy of yoga for insomnia, chronic stress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorders. He explained that yoga consists of four components: physical postures (its best-known form), breathing exercises, deep relaxation, and meditation. He and his colleagues believe that the meditation component has the most compelling evidence supporting advances in self-regulation, specifically in improving immune function and decreasing inflammation, as well as changes to the nervous system. These changes include improved sleep, resilience, and changes in how people might think of themselves in terms of their goals, values and perception of life.
Recent neuro-imaging studies have been able to corroborate that brain activity in meditators and in people who do not practise meditation is different. Meditators, on the whole, show higher pain tolerance, less reactivity, sustained intelligence with age and positive effects on mood and cognition – findings reported in an increasing number of published randomised controlled trials.
Sister Maureen, Programme Director for Brahma Kumaris UK, thanked Prof Khalsa for presenting the scientific background that so many people look for to support their practice. She spoke about the components of yoga from a spiritual perspective, particularly in terms of knowing ourselves, and as a practice that enables us to experience our inner strength and resources.
Responding to questions from the audience, Prof Khalsa touched on the history of yoga from the Indus Valley civilisation and how it came to be seen as an esoteric practice – mostly taking place in ashrams. India’s political history and its increasing importance in the world has played a role in the resurgence of interest in the practice. He also commented on the relevance of yoga at a time when the world is experiencing an epidemic in so-called lifestyle illnesses, such as diabetes, depression, obesity and hypertension.
This highly informative talk is available on YouTube – click here