The science of yoga
Exploring the foundations behind the science of yoga. By Fenella Lindsell
Yoga is not a science, nor should it be seen in the same rationalistic and reasonable sense as we see traditional science in the West. Yoga is a practice that should be done for no other reason than to be present and communicate silently with your mind, body and breath. Nonetheless, the developing science around yoga can help us apply the practice in broader medicinal and educational ways based on truths we can reveal about this ancient tradition. We’re here to take a look at the science of yoga, and what this means for practitioners, educators and physicians.
Where did it all begin?
The ayurvedic tradition emanates from the Indian sub-continent and has been practiced for over two thousand years. It involves alternative approaches to medicine based on a mixture of herbal, meditative, dietary and yogic practices. This may be seen as the first science of yoga.
The modern ayurvedic tradition was largely influenced by N.C. Paul, a Bengali physician who began some of the first medically studied effects of yoga and was responsible for spreading them to a wider western audience.
Founders of the science of yoga:
Figures like Shri Yogendra helped begin what is now known as the modern yoga renaissance. He was a yoga guru, researcher, author and poet who established The Yoga Institute in 1918, which is now the oldest yoga institution in the world.
Another noteworthy figure in developing the science of yoga, linking yoga to the West and developing the contemporary understanding of yoga we have today was Kuvalayananda. Also a guru, researcher and educator, he founded the first journal dedicated solely to yoga, titled ‘Yoga Mimasa’. The Sanskrit for Mimasa means reflection, investigation, profound thought, or examination. He saw it as his duty to educate on the importance of physical health through yoga practice.
It is largely thanks to these founding enthusiasts that the revival of yoga has found sturdy legs in the United States and Europe, culminating over the last hundred years to its peak of practice today in the West. With these figures to thank as catalysts for yoga research, it is interesting to see what contemporary science has discovered to be true of this ancient practice.
The science today
Sometimes frowned upon for its tranquillity as a mode of exercise, yoga might take some adjustment for your average High-Intensity Interval Trainer used to fast-paced and exhilarating pressures on the body.
Despite the unusually slow pace of practice compared to some exercises, many top athletes from all ranges of activities from skateboarding to archery are utilising yoga for more than just its physical benefits.
Contemporary science has proven that yoga is associated with lower stress levels and other positive changes to the body and mind.
A study of the existing literature by Pascoe et al, 2015 found that the large majority of the studies provide evidence that yoga is associated with positive biological changes in blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol or cytokine levels. (Cytokines are substances that assist in the functioning of immune response cells.)
The nature of yoga practice is deeply centred around breathing to:
Elongate stretches as we exhale
Demarcate the start and end of a pose (i.e. hold for five breaths)
Bring practitioners into a state of presence through sustained awareness of the breath
Yoga often relies on diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, which involves contracting the diaphragm and breathing deep into the belly. As yoga research has evolved, the evidence for the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing has shown: “it may also help in reducing stress; treating eating disorders, chronic functional constipation, hypertension, migraine, and anxiety and diaphragmatic breathing appears to be effective for improving the exercise capacity and respiratory function in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” (Hamasaki et al, 2020).
A final and more frequently mentioned finding in the science of yoga is that the practice is associated with:
Improved joint strength through endurance practice
Improved joint mobility through active (rather than passive) stretching
Improved muscle strength and muscle mobility
Injury rehabilitation (particularly for lower backs)
These physical benefits have been claimed for decades but research now shows that they are true. Work from the likes of Cramer et al 2013 and Gustav et al 2013 and 2015 have helped solidify this truth through scientific methods.
Thanks to the dedication of yoga gurus who saw the universal potential of yoga science some centuries ago, the culture has spread throughout the world and now rests, respected by groups of all kinds. As the science of yoga evolves, so may our understanding of its benefits. In a time where science is becoming the grounding truth of contemporary belief, the scientific foundations of yoga have ever-increasing importance in our lives.