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The NIH and The Woo-Woo Thing

Any yoga enthusiast (including me) will tell you that the ancient practice of yoking breath to bodily motion is good for your body, mind, and soul. But it's taken the mainstream medical community some time to view yoga as a demonstrably effective treatment for illness or tool for preventing disease.

So it's a really big deal that three of the Institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have teamed up with other organizations and agencies to sponsor the first-ever NIH Yoga Week, happening right now, right here in Washington.

Yoga Week is chock full of lectures about yoga's role in medicine and hands-on-the-mat opportunities to practice asana (the Sanskrit term for yoga poses). Organizer Rachel Permuth-Levine, who has one of the most intriguing job titles I've heard in a while -- acting director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Office of Strategic and Innovative Programming -- planned the week as a way to introduce NIH employees and the general public to the joys of yoga and to give scientists a chance to learn about advances in the kind of evidence-based science that might help convince them of yoga's medical benefits.

The National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine have for years awarded grants to researchers working to establish scientific evidence of yoga's utility in the medical realm. That's important work, because although people around the world have been investigating yoga as medicine for a long time, they haven't always followed research protocols that make their work convincing to Western minds. On top of that, their studies rarely have been published in reputable Western medical journals.

One of the Yoga Week speakers is Timothy McCall, an M.D. and yogi whose book Yoga as Medicine came out last year. I chatted with him just after he arrived in D.C. Wednesday morning. He said he thinks that as yoga's become more mainstream, with so many people practicing, the medical community has started to take notice when folks talk about yoga's health benefits. "I think it's the patients who have led and the physicians who have followed," he told me. "And maybe a younger generation of physicians may have done yoga, or their spouses have. So it's gone from this Eastern woo-woo thing to some much more accepted."

McCall thinks Yoga Week's a good thing. But, Yoga Week or no Yoga Week, he says, "Yoga practitioners aren't waiting for the medical community to tell them what they already know."

After all, McCall says, "Yoga teaches us that the most reliable source of information is your direct experience."

Has yoga helped your health? Or do you think it's too granola for mainstream medicine to take seriously? Share your stories!


By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 21, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Alternative and Complementary Medicine  
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Comments

Yoga week at NIH is a government endorsement of a Hindu religious practice. Dr. McCall is a faculty member of the Kripalu center, which is a non-profit organization for promotion of Hinduism, and he knows that yoga is a Hindu religious practice. Calling it "science" does not change this fact. As a physician, Dr. McCall should also be aware that personal experience is not the most reliable source of information in deciding clinical issues. He was taught in medical school that subject and experimenter bias -- the equivalent of "personal experience" -- often invalidate clinical trials if they are not scrupulously eliminated, using techniques such a blinding.

Posted by: Donn Stewart | May 21, 2008 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Just as we've thoroughly studied the effects of exercise and rest on our health and well being, we should be looking at the practice of yoga. I applaud NIH. Moving the body and clearing the mind should not be feared in our society just because it didn't originate in the United States first. I imagine an American didn't invent walking, either. Perhaps that's reason to not do it?

Posted by: anon | May 21, 2008 1:52 PM | Report abuse

This is hardly an endorsement of a religious practice. Yoga as it is practiced in the US is no more a Hindu religious practice than being vegetarian. I would wager that most practitioners take classes once a week at a gym or community center, rarely meditate or chant, and think of the poses by their anglicized names (down dog, cobra, etc.).

Posted by: Capitol Hill Yogi | May 21, 2008 4:53 PM | Report abuse

Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi and other Asian exercise practices have long been realized as methods to improve health and well being. I applaud the NIH staff for taking a step towards expanding the communities' cultural competence in the area of wellness through exercise. Any process that helps an individual improve flexibility and core strength and circulate oxygen through the body is to be encouraged.

There is nothing 'woo woo' about yoga or alternative systems of healing. Respecting the practices of other cultures including their healing practices is an obligation of every American including those of the medical and research professions. Afterall, we are a nation whose formation was based on the premise that we are all created equal. We enjoy the liberty to explore different perspective of thought. The NIH staff responsible for this project have provided an important public service. Kudos to the Post for reporting on the project as well.

Posted by: Elizabeth | May 22, 2008 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Donn Stewart is grossly incorrect and sadly mistaken in stating yoga is a Hindu religious practice. If one takes the time to find out about this amazing practice, you will find out it is indeed a science; a holistic approach to health and well being. I am a former educator and counselor. I now teach yoga full time and have for several years. I received 200+ hours of training to teach yoga, registered with Yoga Alliance, and though my training has been quite thorough I can say I know nothing about the practice of Hinduism. Yes, some of India's culture is woven into the language of yoga and thus we get some of the names of the poses, but yoga is clearly not a religious practice of any kind. It is a secular practice. Yoga accepts anyone of any faith and even no faith at all. As a holistic approach to health, spirituality is often addressed. Modern medical science agrees, the body, mind, and spirit should all be addressed in oder to bring us to a healthy state. Mr. Stewart and many other mistaken people need to gain a better grasp of the difference in spirituality and religion. I would also suggest they learn to be more open to cultural differences as well as their similarities.

Posted by: Vicki | May 22, 2008 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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