Yoga empowers human excellence: Dr. Manjunath N K, S-VYASA University

S-Vyasa is also one of the pioneers of Yoga research and has contributed immensely to the understanding and unraveling of the multiple health benefits of this subtle science.

yoga pic
Yoga, when it is done properly, has lots of good benefits.

S-VYASA, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, is a Yoga University translating the vision and teachings of Swami Vivekananda to action through academic higher education programs. S-Vyasa is also one of the pioneers of Yoga research and has contributed immensely to the understanding and unraveling of the multiple health benefits of this subtle science. Tarun Bhardwaj, Senior Assistant Editor, caught up with Dr. Manjunath N K, Pro-Vice-Chancellor & the Director of Research at S-VYASA University to understand the research work they are conducting. Excerpts: 

I have seen S-VYASA and the first thing that striked me is how it combines the best of east with the best of west — that is yoga and spirituality with research and science. How do you see yourself and your research department contributing to this?

Research plays a very important role whenever we want to really validate whatever has been told thousands of years back. We ask this basic question: do we need to validate first of all because we believe that it’s such a great science, everything has been validated and we just need to explore and understand. But to make it understandable today, we need research. And this department aims at validating our ancient claims on one side and the second thing, looking at its applications. Like so many practices are there in yoga — how do you use them in combination in health and disease? And we do research looking at the basic physiological changes following different yoga practices. Let us say when you do an asana, when you do a pranayama, meditation, what exactly happens to your body’s physiological functions? What happens to your brain and the high brain functions? So, a range of things we can understand when you actually study them using the present-day modern tools.

That’s where, as you said, bring the best of the east with the best of the west. Best of the west is this modern scientific research and we have such wonderful tools. There can be some limitations in picking these equipment to understand yoga-based effects. We always say that subtle effects cannot be studied using modern-day gadgets. But nevertheless, it’s important to understand with the existing instrumentation what best we can understand following different yoga practices.

Though this lab has these five major objectives. Number one is looking at what exactly happens when you do yoga; number two how do I apply it in various conditions including disease conditions, either to prevent multiple today’s so-called non-communicable diseases or any other lifestyle-related disorder and even if somebody’s suffering from them how do we manage them. So, otherwise you are dependent on something and there are lots of complications you face after a period of time; and third thing is rehabilitation — many chronic conditions there is no other option,you have to be with a condition, how do we actually make your quality of life better? This is the second way we look at this laboratory.

And third thing is many healthy people want to do yoga — be it software engineers or students or anyone else. Why should they do yoga? I am very fit, I am energetic, I have everything. Do I need to do yoga? So, we say that yoga empowers your human excellence. So that’s where we bring in lots of studies looking at how it can empower you, make your perception better, make your performance better, all of these things. And the other very important area that is most concerned with the present day is the aging and old-age related issues. So we have a separate lab for aging studies. Everyone wants to age successfully, nobody wants to have any problems to do with aging, so we are trying to understand in this lab how we can make this aging process successful and healthy. And the last one is going a little deeper into yoga where we call it as states of consciousness. So, there is a normal way of transaction, which each one of us does. But when you go to a state of meditation, when you go to deeper states of meditation so there are higher states of consciousness which you reach. So can we understand that using present day neuroscience are some of the questions we ask and we answer in these laboratories.

Dr. Manjunath N K, S-VYASA University

One very interesting thing you said is that you check the scientific validity of some ancient claims. Have you found in your research any ancient claims that can be proven by your research?

There are lots of simple statements made in some of the ancient scriptures which you can actually relate to and study them using modern tools. One of them is something like, everybody in yoga, if you start doing yoga, everyone wants to stand on their heads at some point of time. Headstand is one of the fascinating practices. So, then we looked at the scriptures when we wanted to do a study on headstands. So, it says that a headstand is a practice which actually increases your digestive fire. So, if you really want to practise headstand and stay there for longer periods, you need to consume more food, etc. So, this is one sort of an indication given in one of the scriptures. Then we studied it in the laboratory. What we understand is when you do headstand, it is a highly sympathetic nervous system stimulant practice. So, what happens when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, it increases your metabolic activity. So, there is increased metabolic activity, increased oxygen consumption, all that happens in your body. So, if you relate ancient claims to present-day understanding, it’s so easy to make sense of what they have said.

It’s not just to eat more but also to ensure that this practice is something which demands more of your bodily responses and it is a stimulating practice. So, one such clue gives us lots of such information.

You have the most number of research papers on yoga that are published worldwide. Most are from S-Vyasa, like 15-20% of them are from S-Vyasa. What are your focus areas of research, apart from all these things? Something that you have done, some interesting research that you want to share with us.

We hold close to around 12-14% of world literature on yoga. There are around 7,500-8,000 publications in the world, out of which 850 publications come from this one laboratory. Out of which, the focus areas can be divided into two major areas. One is basic research, as I said, understanding what exactly happens when you do yoga. Second one is clinical application. So, we have a very strong hold on certain conditions where yoga has shown to be very beneficial. One such condition in the 1980s, which we have studied and published is bronchial asthma. So, in Bangalore, due to pollen, the bronchial asthma incidence and prevalence was very high. And even now it is quite reasonably high. So, when yoga was given to individuals who had bronchial asthma, it actually reduced all those all indices of asthma which was contributing to their breathing difficulties. And it improved their lung functions, etc.

And at the same time, we designed a very special practice called yoga chair breathing. So, people believe that yoga is given only in between, when you don’t have a problem in between, you give and then you can prevent it. But chair breathing is given to actual panic attacks and it helps people to get out of these panic attacks. So therapeutic applications started with bronchial asthma but we have contributed a lot to diabetes now. We had a nationwide study; we had done some international studies on diabetes and how can actually prevent somebody healthy becoming re-diabetic and how can you prevent a pre-diabetic becoming a diabetic. So, this is one major study that we had done with respect to diabetes.

And also related to cancer. So, this is another chronic condition where we have collaboration with the Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston where the publications on breast cancer patients were very promising in saying that it can actually reduce inflammation. It can help individuals improve their quality of life etc. So, there are multiple other areas but these are some of the important ones I would like to mention.

Most of the research that you do is mind based, because yoga is all about the mind and then research is the more physical aspect of it. How do you crack it? How do you plan to crack it, that is the secret code of cracking the mysteries of mind and understanding the whole being of a person with modern science and yoga since even modern science has not been able to fully understand the functionality of the brain as of now, what the conscious being is?

So, the beauty is once again we have to get back to our ancient scriptures, which talk about multiple layers of existence. So, we have something called pancha kosha (five-layered existence) and the mind occupies the third layer. So, what we have is the physical layer, then the energy layer, then the mental layer. So, yoga also defines the disease process in a way that everything, most of the problem starts at the mental level. And whenever there is a mental agitation and problem, it percolates to your physical body through disturbed flow of prana or disturbed flow of energy. So, this is the basic hypothesis. Whenever you have stress, physically we can understand it. For example, the easiest way to define stress is speeded up flow of thoughts. Flow of thoughts is so fast. And the second way to understand stress is whether it is positive or negative, it is needed for us to prepare you. But what happens is I go much beyond that, not allowing our body to come back to normalcy. Stress is not bad, stress is always a protective mechanism, but we constantly staying in a stressful condition, becoming chronic stress resulting in series of changes — starting from a simple thought process, now it affects your multiple areas in the brain, percolates down to your endocrine organs, glands and that releases certain stress hormones, those hormones influence your physiological functions. Imagine, by evening, I withdraw all this, your body is normal, no problem. But the problem is I continue this. And again, next day, next I keep on adding these, and these become heightened. Like blood sugar level goes up to help you to fight. So, stress is always called a fight or flight response. To fight with something, you need your proper vision, muscles to be strong, then blood sugar to give energy. But what we do with stress, I constantly increase my blood sugar level. Over a period of time, it takes me from this to a pre-diabetic stage. There is no connection but I am allowing my body to reach there.

So, the role of mind influencing the body is not just well known in yogic scriptures but also decently understood today in medical knowledge. And we always connect with psychology on one side, we connect it with a range of processes happening in the brain, on the other side. And also, it’s not just a top down approach, it can also be a bottom up approach. So, whenever there is more demand in the lower part of the body, like my blood vessels are constricted, so then a reverse message goes to my brain and it says that there is something happening in the body, you probably cut down certain things or you provide some forces to help. So that’s the way the body works and it is very well understood today. So, mind-body connections are scientifically established and many interventions or treatments are very clearly based on this concept now.

In the recent past, there has been a lot of focus on yoga, which is good, but also there has been commercialisation of yoga. People are doing yoga watching YouTube videos, which may not be research based, which may be done without expert guidance. How do you plan to educate people on properly doing Yoga?

Yoga, when it is done properly, has lots of good benefits. It is also said that when it is not done properly, it can have some other ill effects.

Because many people, in a way, tell others, when they are teaching yoga or online or whatever you are talking about, that yoga has no side effects. But if it is done properly, there are absolutely no side effects. Positively looking, what are the side effects? You do yoga for your back pain; your stress goes away. There are lots of side effects. But the other side effect, if you are doing it incorrectly, your back pain can become severe. Today, people watch YouTube, people watch lots of online stuff, they think that okay, there are five practices given and I can practise and I can get rid of my health problem. So, somebody has to evaluate. So, it is a medical science. You need to evaluate, number one, an individual, what are your problems, what is the diagnosis, why you have such an issue and then design a yoga protocol, what is needed for you. Somebody might have said that these five practices are very good for back pain, but not necessarily for you. In that, one or two may be common practices. But for your requirement, I need to design specially the yoga practices needed for you. Then third thing is, imagine I have designed a protocol, I have evaluated you, most important is monitoring. Who is checking you on a day-to-day basis, who is monitoring you? When doing these online, I mean looking at videos, etc., most of the time you end up with problems. So, what is needed is a regulated, monitored, proper way of disseminating yoga therapy. That’s what is needed — be it in digital form or personal or individual form, anything is possible as long as you understand the problem, you diagnose the problem well, design a protocol and monitor its delivery. Then the success will certainly be there and yoga can never do wrong.

You talked about digital. Till 2020, we were all living in a good, fine world till the pandemic hit and then everything was shut and then the focus shifted on the digital. Also in the health care sector, telemedicine came. What is your opinion on telemedicine for yoga? How will it be useful in future? How will telemedicine and yoga combine or digital health and yoga combine? I am asking you because I heard that you are launching Aayu app. So you can also talk about that.

What happens is when we give yoga one on one, somebody comes to me, I teach him. My reach is limited. One big advantage of technology today is scaling up. I can reach, sitting here, whatever my expertise is in yoga, yoga therapy techniques I know, I can reach it to the world. That’s the major advantage of using technology. Using digital platforms and digital means for reaching people. There are lots of positives, there are also some concerns.

On the positive side, as I said, scaling up is very easy. And imagine not everybody has to come to my centre in Bengaluru, I can reach everyone’s doorstep through this digital platform. There’s a big advantage to it. And number two, you don’t get experts everywhere. Somebody might be there in your locality, a trained yoga person, yoga therapy. But somebody sitting with 30-40 years of experience, how do you get that expertise available to people? So then, once again, you need that digital platform to reach. And third thing, you want to really check what you are doing is correct or wrong. So once again there is an opportunity for you to approach an expert and check what exactly is happening with you.

Like in medicine today, differential diagnosis has become very strong with this digital support that is available. What does that mean? Somebody gives me a diagnosis and later I want to really check whether that diagnosis is right or wrong. I have access to Harvard Medical School, I have access to General Hospital etc on one side and maybe Australia, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on the other side.

Similarly for yoga, we will be in a position to connect, network biggest institutions, biggest experts and at the same time provide the best knowledge base for people who are needy. So I look at it as the best advantage of going digital. If you ask me, are there any concerns? Certainly few concerns because you need very good regulation. Because during Covid, as you have seen, everybody went digital, including yoga professionals. There was a serious concern raised subsequently that people are actually not following the basic guidelines that anyone has to follow with respect to telemedicine.

Number one is privacy. Like you have a direct access to somebody’s house, you have an access to somebody’s bedroom where they are doing yoga, you are teaching, they feel very confident that you are my yoga guru, there is no issue I can get connected with you. And what will happen to all these videos, whether somebody can record them or can they use it for some other purpose, lots of safety related issues and when I am giving yoga digitally, I don’t know even if somebody has some health issue, is trying to put up and do it I will not understand because somebody maybe using a mobile phone and I don’t have a clear visual of it. So, these kinds of monitoring and safety and privacy related issues have to be taken care of when we go digital. So, with the Ministry of Ayush, government of India, and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), S-Vyasa has actually developed an advisory for telemedicine in yoga. Today it is available and we are doing some pilot work with that and subsequently it has to become a national guideline. So, once we have a guideline like that then whoever wants to use a digital platform for teaching yoga, they all need to follow the basic norms of telemedicine. And I think it’s a great idea moving forward. Keeping this in mind, an app has been designed called Aayu. Aayu aims at reaching everyone’s doorstep, Aayu aims at taking the expertise as I was mentioning in the beginning to everyone’s availability. Aayu actually targets all those health conditions, be it most chronic or non-communicable diseases. So, you have direct access. Through this, people can track, people can learn, they can practise and they are monitored continuously and they are given frequent advice if there are any changes needed.

And we also have a research component attached with this app, so everybody gets a report of how far they are faring. Once they do 15 days of yoga therapy with Aayu, or one month, three months, six months or one year, let say. So, yoga has to become a lifestyle, that’s the main aim of Aayu and Aayu should make everyone get into the groove of yoga. It should help somebody not well becoming healthy, somebody healthy preventing and maintaining their health for longer duration. So, I think this will answer many of those questions which are unanswered so far. It will be a wonderful tool for people to use.

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