Under the pressure to reduce healthcare costs, complementary and alternative medicine is becoming a relevant alternative to traditional pharmacological therapies. As the burden of chronic diseases continues to increase, medical professionals are coming to realize the hidden value of complementary and Native American healing techniques. Yoga is one of the most popular alternative practices currently used in the western world. The growing body of evidence confirms the efficacy of yoga in preventing and treating various health complications.
According to Jayasinghe (2004), yoga is a combination of physical, mental, and emotional exercises aimed to create and help sustain physical and mental well-being. Yoga is a complex philosophy, a lifestyle, which incorporates the elements of physical training and spirituality (Jayasinghe, 2004). The history of yoga dates back some 5,000 years, although the Yoga Sutra, the fundamental text of classical yoga, appeared somewhere between 200 B.C. and 300 A.D. (Javasinghe, 2004). Today, the number of people practicing yoga in the U.S. continues to increase. For thousands of Americans, yoga is just an element of the popular culture. However, yoga is also an instrument of disease prevention and control.
Yoga: An Evidence-Based Practice?
Yoga is a popular CAM modality, and the growing body of empirical evidence confirms its therapeutic and preventive efficacy. Culos-Reed, Carlson, Daroux, and Hately-Aldous (2005) conducted a pilot study to evaluate the psychological and physical effects of yoga on breast cancer survivors. Culos-Reed et al. (2005) found that yoga enhanced cancer survivors' quality of life and wellbeing, reduced their physiological symptoms (e.g. diarrhea), and led to significant reductions in depression, mood disturbance, and confusion. Yoga was found to reduce the symptoms of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis: Kolasinski et al. (2005) confirmed that yoga could relieve the pain and sufferings of patients with osteoarthritis. Unlike conventional treatments, yoga does not lead to adverse health reactions (Kolasinski et al., 2005). It can be equally effective in treating physiological and emotional disturbances. For instance, Woolery, Myers, Sternlieb and Zeltzer (2004) discovered the positive effects of yoga on depression and mood states. Yoga as a system of nonconventional physical exercises was found to greatly benefit patients with cardiovascular diseases (Jayasinghe, 2004), reduce weight, glucose levels, and blood pressure (Yang, 2007), and improve the objective and subjective measures of asthma (Manocha, Marks, Kenchington, Peters, and Salome, 2002). Certainly, the quality of the existing empirical evidence raises many questions. Differences in methodology and design, as well as different yoga modalities used in therapeutic interventions, do not allow creating a single, uniform picture of yoga benefits in healthcare. Nevertheless, it is clear that yoga can have tangible positive impacts on individuals with various chronic diseases.
Description and Use in Mainstream Medicine
Despite the variety of yoga modalities and types, in most cases it combines nonconventional physical postures and breathing exercises (Jayasinghe, 2004). The ancient texts describe some 840,000 postures (asanas), but only 32 of them are recommended for regular use (Jayasinghe, 2004). From the evidence-based literature mentioned above, it is clear that mainstream medicine is becoming aware of the real and potential benefits of yoga. Yoga is widely used as a complementary approach and is often recommended as an alternative to pharmacological interventions. At present, it seems that the effectiveness of yoga has been tested for all possible chronic and acute conditions. Nevertheless, medical practitioners are still at the beginning of the road to understanding the health benefits of yoga.
I welcome the use of alternative approaches in medicine. I believe that ancient texts and practices contain sacred knowledge that could lead to substantial health improvements at the community level. At the same time, I realize that our knowledge of alternative healing practices is quite scarce. Yoga exemplifies a promising approach to treating and preventing numerous chronic health problems, but we need better knowledge of its potential benefits and possible adverse outcomes. For instance, Manocha et al. (2002) claim that yoga is of limited value for asthma, while its positive impacts on blood pressure, glucose levels, and weight are considerable and well-documented (Yang, 2007). Not everyone can practice yoga, and not everyone should. At present, we should decide how to apply yoga in ways that will benefit patients and the community.