Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.
The contrast between East and West provides a fascinating study in the difference in perception and understanding of the nature of the world. The origin and development of the contemplative practices of yoga and meditation date back to the most early of Eastern civilizations, and the East is deeply imbued with a reverence for the value of the most profound internal experiences. Western culture, on the other hand, has been more influenced by the development and influence of the scientific method in understanding the physical world, systematically and precisely uncovering the underlying physical laws of the Universe. The earliest research on yoga and meditation is one that is characterized by this East/West contrast, historically mirrored by the Western British rule of India for centuries, and by the marked difference between the technological, reductionistic nature of scientific research and the holistic, integrative and unitive nature of yoga.
The first biomedical scientific research on yoga was conducted by Indian investigators in Indian institutes. In the 1920’s, Swami Kuvalyananda founded the Kaivalydhama Yoga Institute in Mumbai and the yoga research journal Yoga Mimamsa (which are both still very active today) and began research on specific yoga practices. In the frontispiece of the first issue of Yoga Mimamsa dated October, 1924, he prophetically wrote:
The Yogins, right from Patanjali, the greatest exponent of Yogic science, knew how to induce the highest spiritual stages. As the objective sciences had not developed till late, it was not possible for these stages to be experimented upon; and though lately there has been a startling advance in modern sciences, their exclusive material tendency and the equally exclusive spiritual tendency of the Yogins have led to a complete but an unlucky divorce of the two schools of thought. The Kaivalyadhama is anxious to wed these together and produce results which will lead to the realization of the ideal indicated above.
THE Yoga-Mimansa Quarterly will publish researches of the Asrama Kaivalyadhama. The workers of this Asrama are tackling, according to the modern scientific methods, the great Yogic culture of India in its different aspects. Nothing that has not been tested either clinically or in the laboratory will appear in the pages of this periodical. What truths will be revealed by these researches nobody can predict. But it looks very probable that the research-work of the Asrama will enrich the field of physiology, psycho-physiology, therapeutics, spiritual and physical culture, etc. Years of labour in psycho-physiology may help the scholars to solve some of the toughest problems of philosophical thought.
Given what is only a very recent exponential growth in integrative medicine and yoga research over the past decade, it is clear that Kuvalyananda was a visionary far ahead of his time. His early research at Kaivalyadhama involved x-ray and pressure measurements of the yogic abdominal exercises nauli and uddiyana and the blood pressure effects of yogic postures. Later studies in the 1950’s examined at gas exchange and air pressure changes occurring during pranayama practices. One of Kuvalyananda’s students, K.T. Behanan, pursued studies on pranayama as a research fellow at Yale University in the 1930’s, which yielded publications in American biomedical journals and his book Yoga: It’s Scientific Basis in 1937.
Aside from research out of Kaivalyadhama, over the course of the 3 decades from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, there were only a handful of other yoga research initiatives that led to publications. In one of the earliest instances of research on yoga for therapeutic purposes was a brief German report published in 1933 evaluating yoga treatments on 42 subjects with constipation showing complete recovery or marked improvement in 28 of them. In the U.S., a Minneapolis physician stumbled across the benefits of long deep breathing for the treatment of angina pectoris in his patients, coming to the realization that this was a yoga-based practice after correspondence with yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, and called the practice “attentive breathing” in a case series report published in 1948.
Early reports over the past 3 centuries by Western travelers and writers described the feats of expert master yogis and “fakirs” to dramatically alter their bodily and psychological functioning. These yogis could purportedly survive prolonged underground burial, withstand pain, stop their heart activity and achieve profound altered states of consciousness. These reports suggested special skills or abilities unknown to medical science, which peaked the interest of a number of Western scientists. In 1851, a regimental surgeon in Benares named N.C. Paul who had studied and practiced yoga for 35 years, published the book Treatise on the Philosophy of Yoga in which he analyzed the biology of gas exchange and metabolism apparently involved in the yogic feat of surviving prolonged underground burial and he also tried to address the relationship between frequency of breathing and yogic states of consciousness. However, this work did not involve any real experimentation or measurements, and so was therefore more of a hypothesis paper than a research report.
It was almost a century later, that Western physiologists outside of India traveled to India with portable recording equipment to investigate these claims. Therese Brosse, a French cardiologist who was a fellow at Harvard Medical School came to India in 1935 to investigate the claim that accomplished yogis could stop their heart beats. Although her published study was not fully convincing with respect to the ability to completely stop the heart rhythm, it did show that these practitioners had the ability to slow their heart rates substantially, suggesting that they could control the autonomic innervation of the heart. A 1950 report in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet described a witnessed account of the survival of a yogi in a sealed underground chamber for over 3 days. Also in the 1950’s, French researchers Das and Gastaut reported results of electroencephalographic recordings that showed discrete and profound changes in brain waves during the deep meditative state of Samadhi, that were also associated with marked changes in heart rate. Perhaps the best study of this kind was the classic report “Electro-physiological correlates of some Yogi exercises” published in 1957 by Basu Kumar Bagchi, a University of Michigan professor and close boyhood friend of Paramahansa Yogananda, and Marion A. Wenger, a UCLA psychologist. They spent 5 months traveling across India seeking out yoga masters and holy men and described their challenges in that paper: “Dozens of informants and Yogic subjects were personally contacted in 17 places in different parts of India, in addition to carrying on a fairly large volume of correspondence from America and in India. A large number of leads on Yogis proved unproductive. Many Yogis were not interested, some would not cooperate. Many could not be reached. It would appear that more time, effort, travel, and expense were involved than would be considered warranted in an adventure like this.” Recordings with their portable electrophysiological recording equipment showed that these yogis had a marked slowing of breath rate, an ability to slow heart rate, and a deep relaxation of the autonomic nervous system.
The key value of the very early research in yoga was in first bringing to light the possibility for self-regulation of internal physiological functions through yogic practices, a construct that was novel to conventional modern psychophysiology and medicine. These early findings on self-regulatory abilities inspired accelerated research in the 1960’s and later, and have stood the test of time having been echoed and confirmed by the results of many subsequent modern research studies on yoga, meditation and other contemplative and mind-body practices. Physiological and psychological self-regulation, particularly stress coping and resilience (and control of the autonomic system and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) and emotion regulation, now represents one of the most important outcomes of yoga practice and has enormous implications for improving both human functioning and disease symptomatology.