The understanding of yoga as "union" is now extending to encompass a bridging of Eastern holism with Western mechanism, suggests Chandrika Gibson.
It's commonly understood that yoga means union. There are many interpretations of the idea of union in yoga including that the practices of yoga unite body, mind and soul; that asana and pranayama unite the hemispheres of the brain; or that ultimately the purpose of yoga is to unite the individual being with all that is. Along the way, the experience of yoga may also lead to deeper connection with other people, with nature and a sense of unity that is all pervasive.
The many dimensions and complexities of yoga are a large part of its appeal. People practise all kinds of yoga for all kinds of reasons. For some people, it is a very spiritual discipline, their personal sadhana. For others, it is a complete system of fitness that tones, strengthens and shapes their body. The many health benefits of yoga have been claimed for thousands of years and have come to the attention of Western science in the last 50 years. The latest movement in yoga is towards yoga therapy. However, there is a distinct disunity present in attempting to prove the benefits of yoga with the current scientific model; the two paradigms clash. There's a renewed need for unifying Eastern and Western philosophies in order for yoga to become a recognised healing modality worldwide.
Not surprisingly, much of the research into yoga therapy has been done in India. The bridging of science and spirituality has not fazed the academics and practitioners in yoga therapy who are producing increasingly high quality studies. Here in the West though, there is resistance to anything that can't be proven with the gold standard in science, the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT).
The scientific model controls for as many variables as possible. Yoga, though, has much that is intangible and seemingly unquantifiable within it. If you attend a class in almost any town or city around the world it will be unique. With the notable exception of Bikram yoga's trademarked 26 posture sequence and scripted instructions, most systems of yoga allow for a subtle exchange between teacher and students. Even the structured Ashtanga vinyasa series of Pattabhi Jois evolved through his lifetime and is adapted by teachers to suit individual students. In fact, the most common way to learn yoga in India used to be one to one instruction.
The yoga master TKV Desikachar is said to regret having put asanas in his seminal text The Heart Of Yoga because it may encourage people to think there is a single "right" way to practise. The relationship between teacher and student is also a form of union that occurs in yoga and is a highly beneficial symbiotic interchange.
So how can the ancient, subtle and spiritual system of yoga be tested and verified by the mechanistic science of the modern era? Dr Shirley Telles is the leading yoga researcher in the world today and continues to prolifically publish evidence of yoga's effects in different health conditions. She holds a PhD in neurophysiology, is a qualified physician, and a Fulbright scholar. Her education in India and the UK has allowed her to successfully unite the two ways of thinking and bring yoga increasingly into the mainstream. Renowned integrative medicine authority, Dr Timothy McCall, has been influenced by Dr Telles' work. He has also found in his own life that it is possible, though challenging, to reconcile his US physician training with the largely anecdotal evidence of Indian yoga therapy.
Advancing medical technology is able to detect increasingly subtle variations in the body. Australian yoga adept Simon Borg-Olivier has been studied using infrared scans to observe temperature changes in different parts of his body as he practises yoga asanas. The changes in temperature prove that the yogic understanding of increasing blood flow to specific areas is remarkably accurate.
At Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (SVYASA) in Kolkata, India, where Dr Telles is a director, they seek to correlate the ancient texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads and the work of sages such as Patanjali with modern anatomy and physiology. According to Swami Vivekananda's instructions to blend the best of the East with the best of the West, modern technology and medical knowledge has been embraced as a tool to assess the validity of the ancient practices of yoga. Using a complete integrated approach to yoga including asanas and pranayama, as well as mantra chanting, kriya (yogic cleansing techniques), meditation, yogic philosophy and more, SVYASA is successfully proving yoga in the scientific model. Research on the effects of yoga therapy on conditions such as asthma, mental retardation, rheumatoid arthritis, type II diabetes, HIV, cancer, drug abuse, atherosclerosis and pain have all shown significant benefits compared with control groups who did not have the yoga based interventions.
It's a relatively new field that holds great promise yet is still suffering from lack of unity. Here in Australia there is a movement afoot to set standards for recognition of yoga therapists. The Australian Association of Yoga Therapists currently recognises only a handful of courses and a small number of practitioners.
It is challenging to assess who is qualified to deliver yoga therapy. Many yoga teachers would say that all yoga is therapeutic, yet there is a marked difference between those who can teach a general class and those who can adapt yoga for individual needs. Particularly if yoga therapy is to be applied, as it is in India, to serious health conditions, yoga therapists need to have a working knowledge of pathology, anatomy and physiology and yogic physiology. The effect of postures, sequencing and yogic lifestyle interventions is gradually being proven through scientific rigour, but in practice, it has been used by practitioners who possess both intellectual and intuitive knowledge. Even the Indian masters of this art have used trial and error. BKS Iyengar, a student of Desikachar, is well known for being very particular in the way he supports students and clients with yoga props such as bolsters, belts and blankets. Some things will translate to a general population, but much of his work is individually prescribed. Therein lies the dilemma.
Even if the leaders in this field create treatment protocols, they are created for individuals, not for conditions. Not everyone with a diagnosed condition expresses it in the same way or has the same flow of prana (subtle lifeforce or energy). So a treatment protocol for one person will not suit the next person and will require an experienced and insightful practitioner to adapt and adjust the prescription.
Yet despite the difficulties, yoga therapy is increasingly seen as a legitimate adjunct to orthodox treatment and a complementary medicine modality in its own right. Stephen Penman's comprehensive 2008 yoga survey found that many CAM practitioners such as chiropractors, acupuncturists and naturopaths would refer to yoga therapists, but most felt that the benefits were in asanas and pranayama rather than counselling, kriyas or yogic diet. This indicates that while many people understand the benefits of both general yoga classes and one to one yoga therapy, there is an ongoing perception that postures and breath techniques are the essence of yoga. As the profile of yoga therapy rises, it will perhaps come to be seen as a complete mind body practice that retains the ancient original goal of union.
The subtle body described by yoga includes the nadis, chakras, vayus and koshas. It takes disciplined practice to directly perceive these non physical dimensions and so many yoga practitioners and teachers prefer to leave them as theoretical notions rather than utilise them in practice or teaching. Yet holistic yoga therapy works with the flow of prana and cannot ignore these aspects even though they are harder to prove. Again modern science is becoming increasingly closely aligned with what the yogis of old have described. PNI (psycho neuro immunology) and sensitive scanning technology, biofeedback and quantum physics are combining to support rather than deny the existence of the subtle body.
So for yoga students there are numerous opportunities to unite. They can connect through mindful movement and breathing with their own present moment awareness. Any dissonance between body and mind can be easily remedied with most styles of yoga, reconnecting people who live in their heads with heart, body and soul. In a class, people make verbal and non verbal connections with their fellow students and their teacher. In the therapeutic domain, deeply healing connections are possible. The field of yoga is rapidly becoming an area of interest for academia and, in the process, uniting the holistic and mechanistic paradigms of the East and the West.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath.