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Harvard Researcher Sat Bir Khalsa on Hygiene for the Body-Mind and Yoga's Emergence PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Weeks   

Harvard Researcher Sat Bir Khalsa on "Hygiene for the Body-Mind" and Yoga's Emergence

Summary: Harvard neuroscience, sleep and Yoga researcher Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, chaired a panel on Yoga research at the May 2006 North American Research Conference on Complementary and Integrative Medicine. He offers here, as part of an Integrator series on the Future of Yoga Therapy, sponsored by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, his wide-ranging views on the status and importance of Yoga and Yoga research.

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Yoga researcher Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD
I met Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, at a May 2006 research conference in Edmonton. A Harvard researcher with a resume that has focused on neuroscience, sleep, sleep-disorders and biological rhythms, Khalsa was very pleased, a few years back, to see his passions and profession have the chance to converge. Yoga, central to his life since the mid-1970s, was beginning to be an area of fundable research. And here he was, moderating a panel of esteemed Yoga researchers from diverse institutions in a packed room of 100 souls at a conference of over 600 CAM-IM researchers.

I spoke with Khalsa about the evolution of Yoga therapy, and research's role in that process. I found this instructor in Kundalini Yoga to be an enjoyable and surprising mix of vision and street-smarts as he talked about his field.
While the focus is on Yoga, the story will have resonance with other disciplines.

Research Which Changes the Practice of ... the Media


Khalsa left no doubt of his belief in the importance of research in his own future: "This is the core of my mission in life, to pursue this area," he stated.

But really, how important is more Yoga research to Yoga's future? The field seems to be taking off on a tremendous growing wave of popular use and interest.

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IAYT is the Sponsor of an Integrator Series on the Future of Yoga Therapy
Khalsa quickly asserted that research "has, and has had a big role to play." What then? He notes, first, that he thinks research will help better the practice of Yoga therapy. But establishing Yoga's value is clearly not the issue for Khalsa. Instead of leading our dialogue into a dry, inner sanctum of research thinking on mechanisms, and evidence which can shift practice, he took the conversation straight to the streets: 
"Given the wide popularity of Yoga, published research that provides objective validation of its effectiveness is newsworthy. Journalists are constantly on the watch for such publications and the result is articles in the mass media. This serves to bring more attention to Yoga and its potential benefits to the general public.

"People used to think that Yoga had religious cache. Now with scientific support we see the potential for Yoga's place in health care and education systems. This is by far the greatest potential value of Yoga research, since in order to be incorporated into these systems, the effectiveness of Yoga will have to be documented through quality research."

The Future of Yoga as an Accepted Practice of Hygiene for the Body-Mind

Khalsa then took our exchange from the use of the media to a zone somewhere between a dental office and a lecturing parent. He describes the position of dental hygiene in the culture: "It's accepted. It's part of the scenery, part of the health care system, inculcated and acculturated into all of us as children, the importance of hygiene for our teeth."

He pauses: "We value this hygiene for our teeth but we don't have anything we value like that for the behavior of our minds - mental hygiene if you will." He explains that we may know what to do for plaque build-up but "what practices do we accept for coping with what the stresses of life do to us?" Khalsa notes that there is little if anything typically taught in schools for this kind of coping: "There is little we are given of strategies and techniques to deal with life, with stress, with how to relax. So we relax in all the unhealthy ways we do. The healthcare system is not as well-equipped as it could be with effective mind-body techniques that are not only therapeutic for stress-induced problems but also preventive in that they increase our capacity to tolerate stress. The doctor has valium, but nothing else really."

Khalsa sees Yoga one day having such an accepted place in the culture. But to arrive, "careful, well done, objective" research, and gaining more general cultural authority, are key. So what is the current status of research supporting the currently rapid uptake of Yoga into the US culture?

Status of Yoga Research


Khalsa quickly describes the landscape.
He has a "guesstimate" of about 50 current major studies worldwide. He adds; "The NIH currently has up to a dozen independent Yoga or Yoga-related grants, and there are perhaps a few dozen on meditation." Not many. He is unclear about future funding. Khalsa notes that the draining of US resources into war-related purposes probably is negatively impacting prospects for research funding.

He presents a series of obstacles ahead:

  • Type and amount of research   Most of what is funded he considers "low level, in terms of quantity, nothing that will shift paradigms." He underscores that one needs a lot of research to make a difference: "The concept is critical mass. We need replication - many well-done studies by different investigators done on different populations. This provides more confidence in the results. More review articles and meta-analyses are also useful."  Khalsa has completed one which is available as a free download.
  • Reviewer Bias  He notes that NIH's RO1 grants for CAM, the "bread and butter grants for many researchers," are reviewed by the same reviewer groups that review all conventional grants. Given reviewer bias, "this can potentially be problematic for having such grants compete successfully for funding."
  • Dedicated Journals  He also notes that, while the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, the journal of the International Association of Yoga Therapists is maturing, it still is only published annually. The journal has just recently instituted peer-review and is not yet indexed. Thus far, the fields of Yoga research "and even mind-body medicine" have developed without the benefits of a high-quality, peer-reviewed research journal.
  • Peer Scientific Meetings  The mind-body field does not, to his experience, yet have a dedicated organization, or regular meeting. Some of the societies with relevance to mind-body medicine that hold annual research meetings include the Association for  Applied Psychology and Biofeedback and the Society of Behavioral Medicine. He also notes research meetings held annually in India which are devoted to Yoga therapy. In addition, there is a yearly research meeting on mindfulness meditation that meets near the University of Massachusetts where Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD first developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The research content in IAYT's upcoming conference is viewed as a step toward meeting the need.

But Can Research be Expected to Make That Much of a Difference?


Given these obstacles, how can he really expect research to be a major leverage point for moving Yoga into more prominence?

"Much of the work may not be NIH funded," he says. He believes that many studies will come from "graduate students and post-docs who are taking it on." He adds: "We'll see a lot of smaller projects. These can be done and published without a major grant."

Khalsa, neuroscientist, Yoga practitioner and Kundalini Yoga instructor reflected: "In 1976, I set Yoga research as a goal for myself. I wasn't able to acquire funding and begin this research on Yoga until 2000 when the (NIH NCCAM) began funding substantial grants." Khalsa, the researcher, adds: "We are moving forward faster than we ever have. But if you step back and compare it to the volume of research in conventional allopathic medicine dedicated to pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures, it's just a drop in the bucket."

Comment: Hygiene for the spirit plaque deposited by life's stresses. Won't it be something when teachers and parents are routinely counseling their children to remember their Yoga floss on their body-mind.

Reviewing Khalsa's comments  I began to think that the CAM research community needs a version of the medical group, Doctors without Borders, which sends physicians to needy zones outside the US. Only the CAM researchers group would be called Researchers Without Mortgages (or children). The members would be able and willing to stay here and do lifegiving research for nothing or next to nothing while their grant money, without borders, is being spent to fuel a $500-billion war machine.

Note:  To read the other articles in the IAYT series on the Future of Yoga Therapy go to:
- IAYT Sponsors Series on the Future of Yoga Therapy: Context and Current Initiatives
- Insurance Coverage and Development of the CAM Professions: Perspective of Agostino Villani, DC, Triad CEO

Or, to visit series sponsor IAYT, click here.




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