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!
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