Once upon a time in a land far, far away (India) there was a wealthy maharaja named Ranjit Singh.
In 1837 Singh heard that there was a yogi, Sadhu Haridas, who had approached his court proposing a live burial demonstrating his super-spiritual yogi powers. The king agreed and Sadhu was literally buried alive in a padlocked box, without food or water, for 40 days under the watchful eye of the maharaja’s guards.
Sadhu’s “powers” in controlling his body via his mind involved employing the energies of kundalini.
When the period of internment was up, the king arrived riding an elephant, dismounted and surveyed the results.
Sadhu’s legs and arms were stiff and cold, his body shriveled and his temperature cold. There was no pulse.
He was bathed in warm water, massaged, and ghee was placed on his eyelids and tongue. Within 30 minutes he came to life and seeing the king nearby said in a low and faint voice “Do you believe me now?”
The Truth About Yoga’s Claims
Yoga’s history is shrouded in miraculous claims. The sacred literature of India portrayed yogis as being able to fly, levitate, stop their hearts, touch the moon, survive live burial, stop their breathing, become invisible, walk on water, and bring the dead back to life. They were apparently the real miracle workers!
Crazy claims like this grace the pages of the first known yoga text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It claimed practitioners could neutralize poisons, destroy all diseases, reverse old age, eliminate evil, and achieve immortality. Oh – and cure constipation, gray hairs, and wrinkles (this last part is actually kind of true as we’ll see in just a sec).
Of course, we know today that none of this is true. Most yogis lived a nomadic life and performed “magic yogi tricks” for hefty compensation. Yoga as we know it today did not exist. Women didn’t practice yoga at all and there was no such thing as a yoga class—yoga was done and taught in complete privacy.
About the time of Sadhu’s burial, a young man named N. C. Paul was entering medical school in Calcutta and was paying close attention to the big splash the burial had made. This spectacle appeared to defy the laws of nature and he was determined to understand how.
Paul graduated in 1841 and by 1851 had written A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy. In it, his main case study was the 40-day burial. The basic explanation of how this might have been possible was akin to how bears hibernate. It has everything to do with carbon dioxide and the re-breathing of stale air. Not some miraculous ability to die and come back to life
The reputation of yoga as a whole was undesirable pre-1930’s. It was known to be full of tricksters, mostly about sex, and considered by most Indians “an embarrassing heritage.”
Yoga’s extreme makeover began with a man named Jagannath G. Gune (pronounced GU-nay). In 1924 he built an ashram south of Bombay entirely dedicated to the scientific study of yoga. He constructed a laboratory, hired research assistants and wore a white coat.
For the next 10 years, Gune’s published studies and tidy ashram reshaped the reputation of yoga and laid the foundation for Krishnamacharya (widely considered the father of modern yoga), B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devie and more to bring yoga to the western masses in all its forms.
Since B.K.S. Iyengar’s groundbreaking book “Light On Yoga” was published in 1965 (regarded as the how-to encyclopedia of Hatha yoga), many scientists have begun to study yoga and its health benefits.
We know, of course, that yoga cannot make you invisible, neutralize poison, or levitate but we do know of the many benefits we reap from a regular yoga practice thanks to the open minds of a few western scientists and doctors.
PubMed releases, on average, over one hundred reports a year on scientific research backing the benefits of yoga in all areas of life from heart to mind.
The Scientific Evidence.
Let’s look at just a few examples.
In 2009 researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported on a study following 26 people regularly practicing Iyengar yoga for a 3-month time period. The report stated that participants had reduced hypertension and its precursors. This is important because hypertension aka high blood pressure, is associated with an increased risk of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.
We also know from decades of studies that the cardiovascular benefits of yoga are enormous and potentially society-changing considering heart disease is the leading cause of death in the industrialized world.
Almost more importantly than the health benefits we receive individually are the health benefits society receives as a whole. Clinical studies have shown that with a regular yoga practice patients have fewer hospital visits, less need for pharmaceuticals and a smaller number of serious coronary events. Analysts at the University of Virginia analyzed 70 of the published studies and in 2005 concluded that yoga is a safe and cost-effective intervention for improving cardiovascular health.
There is also plenty of research around yoga and its effects on aging. A 2011 study stated that older women who took up yoga greatly improved their balance. A significant benefit considering that for seniors, falls are the leading cause of death by injury.
A 2011 study done in Taiwan has also proven that yoga can counteract the deterioration of the disks that lie between the vertebrae. The study included 36 participants, half of them Hatha yoga teachers, the other half simply deemed to be in good health upon evaluation. There was no major difference in age or gender.
Each participant’s spine was scanned and analyzed for signs of damage. The study team reported that the yoga teachers had “significantly less” degenerative disease than the control group.
A research scientist at the North Shore University on Long Island, NY discovered that the vagus nerve was actually hugely responsible for the success of the body’s immune system, specifically fighting inflammation. A 2011 study by Indian researchers confirmed that doing an intensive yoga practice for a week can ease the trauma experienced from rheumatoid arthritis. The study involved 64 patients ages 20-70. Their practice focused on flexing poses and slow breathing, both stimulating the vagus nerve. By the end of the week, the patients’ rheumatoid indicators in blood testing had dropped and they reported ease of movement—getting out of bed, dressing, walking and eating etc.
And it has been discovered that yes, yoga can slow and even reverse the biological clock. These studies center around why our cells age and die. Our DNA tips, called telomeres, get shorter each time a cell divides which, in turn, acts as the biological clock that determines the cell’s life span. These studies also led to the discovery of how to grow telomeres and maintain youthfulness (a 2009 Nobel Prize winning discovery, btw).
Why might an eighty-year-old have the long, healthy telomeres of a twenty-year-old but others much younger have shorter telomeres? The biggest answer: chronic psychological stress (other factors include diet and infections). The scientists discovered that reducing stress slows the biological clock—even in subjects in their middle ages or beyond. Some studies suggest that telomeres can even be grown longer again. Yoga and its stress-reducing powers, therefor, appears to be custom made for slowing the biological clock.
It’s not voodoo magic, it’s science-backed.
The studies around yoga are wide-ranging and detailed. Conducted everywhere from Japan and India to Europe and the United States.
As a whole, they make a powerful case for the myriad health benefits yoga provides for the mind and body. They may seem magical but they have hardcore scientific proof to back them up. No levitation needed to reap all the rewards!