Dear yoga fans, here is a reality check: Your hollowed asanas are no better than running around the track

With the UN-backed International Yoga Day on Sunday, which apparently has made into the Guinness Book of records for its sheer numbers, Indians who are proud of the country’s ancient past can be gratified that the world has seen it. The day was indeed unprecedented because such a public display of people stretching and bending in large numbers in world capitals was new.

That India, or rather the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was the force behind this global spectacle will certainly make a lot of Indians proud. It was him, who had urged the UN General Assembly in 2014 to set aside a day for yoga. Subsequently, India’s resolution on the proposal drew the largest ever number of cosponsors in the General Assembly. Leading the show in Dehli on Sunday, he said: “I believe that from the 21st of June, through the International Day of Yoga, it is not just the beginning of a day but the beginning of a new age through which we will achieve greater heights of peace, good will and train the human spirit.”

Most of the mainstream media went into an overdrive with anchors, experts, celebrities and politicians claiming how great Yoga is. Most of them said its practice kept them fit, while hardcore fans claimed that it was effective against a lot of illnesses from cancer to hypertension. What was however, unanswered in the excitement and hype, was how different it was from other forms of exercises in terms of results. Barring the personal testimonies of its diehard fans, many of whom also believed that ancient India was the repository of even modern scientific and technological knowledge, the mainstream media hardly presented any scientific evidence to demonstrate the superiority of Yoga. Neither were there any counter-views. It was a one-sided revelry that bolstered the Indian fantasy of a super power.

PTI image.

PTI image.

Not that Yoga is not beneficial. Nobody says that. People feel good and healthy doing it. But a lot of others, who do regular exercises also feel the same. Those who run, cycle and do weight training also vouch for the “high”, the rush of endorphins, they get. There may be several more millions engaged in exercises such as walking, running, cycling, stretching and weight training than those practising Yoga and reaping equal or better benefits - but they don’t make a single cohort because there is no brand that unifies them as Yoga does and there is no allure of spirituality and “5000 years” of heritage behind what they do.

Here’s where scientific enquiry must play an important part. Other than being a good exercise, does it really have the healing powers as many claim. The best way to answer these claims are Randomised Control Trials (RCT) than personal testimonies. RCTs, which are the gold standard for clinical trials, in simplest terms means a study (with random sampling) in which people receiving treatment (Yoga, in this case), called treatment group, are compared with those who don’t receive it, called control group. (To know if Yoga is better than other forms of exercises, the treatment group should be Yoga practitioners and the control group, people who are doing other exercises.)

Although a lot of RCTs have been done for Yoga, for the tall therapeutic claims its apostles make, the body of work is quite limited. And importantly, the results are far from impressive. At best, the trials show nothing more than some benign, positive signs. It’s impossible to do a meta-analysis in a media column, but let’s take a look at some of the RCTs published in reputed, peer-reviewed journals.

One of the common ailments that Yoga seems to help is lower back pain. A lot of people vouch for it, but what has scientific studies say? According to this RCT in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), it’s not more effective than stretching exercises. In fact, the study says:”Yoga classes were more effective than a self-care book, but not more effective than stretching classes, in improving function and reducing symptoms due to chronic low back pain, with benefits lasting at least several months.”

Asthma is another common illness that Yoga apparently alleviates. Does it really help? Take a look at this 2014 study in the journal “Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology”, which took into account the results of 14 RCTs. And the result? “Yoga cannot be considered a routine intervention for asthmatic patients at this point. It can be considered an ancillary intervention or an alternative to breathing exercises for asthma patients interested in complementary interventions.”

What it practically says is that Yoga doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t help either. A Cochrane (a global medical research network that academics and medical practitioners rely on) review in 2013 was even more direct, when it said that “no conclusive evidence in this review supports or refutes the efficacy of such intervention in the treatment of adult patients with asthma.”

It doesn’t help in arthritis, another great reason to practice Yoga for many, either. This German study, which analysed eight RCTs, in Oxford Rheumatology journal finds no reason to suggest even ancillary use of Yoga for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, the common arthritic diseases.

Now, the bigger claim - cancer. This study  published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2007 did find that Yoga improved emotional well-being and mood among breast cancer survivors, not their survival rate or treatment effectiveness. However, the huge limitation of the study is that it compared people doing yoga with people not doing it, not with people doing some other form of exercise.

So, the summary of the story is that there is no conclusive evidence that demonstrates Yoga’s health benefits or its superiority over other forms of structured exercises. As this Scientific American article notes, any form of regular exercise gives one a high, makes one feel physically and mentally good, and less stressful.

There’s no denying the fact that Yoga is popular all over the world, but what drives it is its commercialisation and the sex-appeal as a spiritual-lifestyle fad. In the US alone, it’s a 27 billion dollar industry and its popular image is that of a slender and taut female, as this Huffington Post article notes”. The yoga body is Gwyneth Paltrow's body -- the elongated feminine form.” How true!

Therefore, the numbers of people and countries that made some Indians proud on Sunday doesn’t mean much because, it’s a free brand of pop-spirituality and exercise that thousands of entrepreneurs cash in on. India’s call for a UN day for the brand is great news for them, because it means free publicity and more money. Mobilising people to the streets to do those fancy stretches (unlike in India where people with ungainly paunches were struggling) is in their interest.

If it’s about real numbers and relevance to contemporary India, what the country should celebrate is the UN’s World Toilet Day, because we have nearly two-third of the world’s open defecators and half of our fellow citizens do it openly, often shamelessly in groups. By revelling in reflected glory of the global popularity of Yoga, we are not only escaping to an imaginary past to cover up our failures, but are also indulging in yet another round of delusional cultural revivalism for political reasons.

Updated Date: Jun 23, 2015 07:30 AM

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