Saturday, 18 June 2016


 Does yoga help you look younger? This is not a new question and as such not many ask this question any more as people notice that the regular practitioners of yoga look younger, healthier and happier (generalising of course). That is why there are so many scientific studies investigating the effect of yoga on aging. There are a large number of Yoga web-sites that provide you with a list of asanas to do to stay younger. I am more interested in what science says about this subject.

Indra Devi, who is the doyen of Women’s Yoga in the West. She lived a healthy and active life to the age of 102 and authored many books including “Forever young, Forever Healthy”.

A number of factors contribute to the person’s appearance, and hence the determination of the biological age compared to the chronological age.  The biological age measures (estimates) the age of cells, tissues and organs using measures such as near-point vision, acuity of hearing and systolic blood pressure (pressure in  blood vessels when the heart is pumping)[Ref.2]. The biological age is a measure of the health of the body.  Interestingly, in Ayurveda (the Ancient Indian Health Science, which is very much in practice in India and elsewhere) the aging is measured in terms of the loss of intelligence (in our cells).  As we lose the intelligence to self-repair the cells, tissues and organs we age and health deteriorates [Ref.2]. This concept of aging aligns well (but not the same of course) with the latest thinking on telomeres and their role in reproducing healthy cells and slowing aging.

Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak were awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres (DNA cap at the end of chromosomes) and how telomerase enzyme protects telomeres [Ref.3]. The ability to reproduce healthy cells depends on the length of telomeres, which gradually reduces with cell division. As the rate of healthy cell division decreases, the number of senescent cells or dead cells increases and the biological age increases. In other words, longer telomeres keeps us looking healthier and younger.

Various factors affect the rate at which the length of telomeres deteriorate and this is equivalent to a biological clock. It appears that simple things like poor food habits, infections and more importantly chronic stress contribute to the reduction of length of telomeres, causing rapid biological aging [Ref. 1]. This is where yoga contributes significantly by reducing chronic stress and hence reducing the rate of decline of the length of telomeres and providing a good supply of telomerase enzyme.  What is more interesting is that the slowing down of the shortening of telomeres can be achieved at any age and some limited studies have demonstrated that short telomeres can be made to grow. So, there is hope for looking younger at any stage of your life [Ref. 1]. Pessimism is another factor that contributes to the shortening of telomeres [3]. Yoga is well known for bringing balance in our lives and reducing pessimism or helplessness.

Yoga does much more than slowing down the biological aging as described above. A study conducted at Ohio State University found that regular practicing of Yoga reduces inflammation causing compound called IL-6 in the bloodstream. IL-6 normally rises with age and stress. IL-6 is implicated in heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and many other diseases. Reducing IL-6 and hence inflammation is possible with regular practice of Yoga [Ref.5]

Yoga helps with good posture, smooth and comfortable movements of joints leading to graceful body movement. More importantly, yoga makes you a more grounded, balanced and satisfied human being. Yoga philosophy develops a sense of service and gratitude within you. I am sure all these things make you a better person and a much younger looking one, both externally and internally. I don’t think biological aging is the only criterion for looking younger and more attractive. Science is slowly uncovering more secrets of Yoga but there is much more to uncover.

Further Reading:
 [1]  Broad, W., The science of Yoga – The risks and rewards
 [2]  Chopra, D., 2000, Perfect Health, Three Rivers Press, NY, 390p.
[3]  Elizabeth Blackburn -  On telomeres and telemerase.  DNA capping the chromosomes)  Telemerase protect telomeres from getting shorter as the cells divide.
[4]  Ornish, Dean, 1996, Program for reversing heart disease, Ballantine Books, NY, 638p.
[5]  (on IL-6, inflammation and Yoga)[6] - on metabolic factors affecting aging.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Yoga Meditation, Brain and the Whole of You

A tremendous amount of research is going on to understand the effect of Yoga and Meditation on brain. Interestingly more and more people are doing meditation because they already know that they can reduce stress, improve concentration and improve memory and so on.  Although the popularity of Yoga and Meditation is ever increasing the uptake is still slow. This is partly due to the attitude that Yoga is an Eastern discipline shrouded in mysticism and spiritualism.  Some even argue that it is Hinduism, even though I have never seen anyone teaching Hindusim in Yoga classes.  Science is helping to break this ‘self limiting’ attitude in the society.

On 7th June on ABC TV in Catalyst ( Dr Graham Phillips presented the results of eight weeks of meditation. Lo and behold he found that meditation increased grey matter in his brain (indicating increased density of nerve cells), improved his memory, improved his reaction time and even improved the energy efficiency of the brain.  A Harvard research had found that grey matter increased in critical areas, such as the hippocampus (important for memory and emotional balance), prefrontal cortex (important for decision making and social behaviour), and temporoparietal junction (important for attention and social interaction, language processing).

Science is very good in explaining what is happening in parts of our body but, at least at this stage, cannot explain the total transformative effect of Yoga. For example, in the Catalyst the story of a rich criminal Nick Brewer was presented. Yoga totally transformed him to a gentle compassionate human being.  Unfortunately people are afraid of Yoga transforming them and taking them to another world of kindness, compassion and oneness, when we are well accustomed to the self-obsessed societies. They are afraid that they might even become “weird vegetarians”!!

Yoga has much more to offer than what science is able to analyse at this stage. This is because Yoga brings mind-body-spirit-soul together and helps to discover ourselves. A quote from Plato, made over 2000 years ago, is quite telling: “No attempt should be made to cure the body without the soul. Let no one persuade you to cure the head until he has first given you his soul to be cured, for this is the great error of our day, that physicians first separate the soul from the body.” 

As Yoga becomes more popular the intensity of scientific inquiry will also increase, which is good for the society. One day we might be able to explain mind-body-spirit-soul as a whole, but meanwhile Yoga can help.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Is Yoga Exercise? Is this what we should be asking?

People often ask if Yoga is the same as exercise? I often wondered if this is the right question to ask. Is exercise an end in itself or is it a tool for some thing else. For example, what we are after is our wellbeing which includes physical and mental fitness,  and also harmony between mind-body-soul-spirit. Physical exercise works on the body and indirectly on the mind (only to some extent). Yoga by its very fundamental objective is designed to work on mind-body and in advanced practice of yoga on soul and spirit. By its very nature, Yoga is meant for working on our general well-being at a number of levels.

Maharishi Patanjali - Father of Yoga

Why this discussion is important? It is important because our questions determine  answers and answers determine our actions and actions determine who we are. If we ask if Yoga (particularly Hatha Yoga) is an exercise, depending on what you expect from an exercise, the answer may be yes or no.  Instead if the question is whether Yoga is better than exercise for our wellbeing the answer would be quite different. You might actually choose to do yoga with or without other exercises as the scientific  evidences are piling up on the benefits of yoga.

An article published in Calgary Herald by Dr Eddy Lang (Univ of Calgary, Dept of Family Medicine) on 25 May 2016 ( has done the exact thing discussed above. The article discusses the outcomes of 30  studies, involving more than 2000 yogis, conducted by researchers from Australia, Germany and Korea to answer the question if yoga can be counted as exercise. The study has used parameters such as weight loss and body mass index as measures of performance. They found that weight loss was not significant by doing yoga, unless one is obese. This is reported as not that impressive. I would have thought that this is a significant outcome, particularly for obese people.  In addition, the study also found that if you are after wellbeing yoga can provide significant benefits.

This brings me back to the original question. Are we asking the wrong question by comparing exercise with yoga, and that too one branch of yoga - Hatha Yoga? It is like asking if bananas are oranges?  We should be asking if bananas are more nutritious than the oranges. Even for this simple question there is no one answer, as it depends on one's need, but at least it is a useful question. Similarly, we should be asking if yoga is better than exercise for our wellbeing? The answer from the study discussed above appears to be in the affirmative,