MUSC researcher explores health benefits of yoga

Center for Global Health
November 20, 2014

The start of the New Year is always rife with changes and challenges—most of which languish by St. Valentine’s Day. Many of them involve diet and exercise. A Journal of Clinical Psychology study shows that the “Top 10 New Year’s resolutions for 2014” were related to weight loss and increased health through dieting and fitness routines.

While it is important to focus on physical health, Sundar Balasubramanian, Ph.D. believes that a holistic approach can be taken to enhance one’s mind, body, and spirit year-round using the power of yoga. Balasubramanian, research assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and an experienced yogi, had an epiphany while meditating: there is an increased salivary response just from yoga breathing techniques or pranayama that could have immediate and long–term health benefits. As a perennial student of science, he chose to explore this response further. “Normally, people think that saliva is just a digestive fluid, but there are more neurohormones and neuromodulators—including small proteins, peptides, and lipid molecules—in your saliva that can affect your whole physiology, your mood, your ability to defend diseases and pathogens,” explained Balasubramanian.

Balasubramanian grew up practicing yoga in Tamil Nadu, India as a child. He credits his career as a research scientist and comity among his peers to yogic meditation. Balasubramanian now encourages children through classes in the U.S. and India to take full advantage of the practice early on to develop discipline and focus. All the students from a middle school in Nambanpatti Village (or "The Village of Hope"), Pudukkottai District, Tamil Nadu eagerly took to the idea of practicing yoga and actively learned several Yoga techniques during a workshop conducted by Balasubramanian. Children who participated in the courses in Tamil Nadu showed apparently increased discipline in school and at home although scientifically rigorous measurements are yet to be done. The mental focus gleaned from Balasubramanian’s yoga class was the greatest benefit with the children, although he is sure the health benefits were many, too.

The difference in yoga’s application in India versus the U.S. mostly has to do with spirituality, culture, and fitness. For instance, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to increase awareness of yoga as a component of Hindu tradition. Modi has gone as far as creating a position, “Minister for Yoga”—a position within the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy (AYUSH)—to further his effort of rebranding yoga practice. In the U.S., the practice is seen more as a form of fitness, mind-body practice, and therapy. From professional football players to celebrities, yoga has been receiving an increasing amount of attention in the U.S.

More than 20 million Americans practice yoga in the United States, contributing over $10 billion a year to a microcosmic economy dominated by women (82 percent). Although yoga is less popular among men, it has increasingly been used by athletes to promote agility and as a pre-workout stretch. However, misconceptions about who practices yoga and why create a sociological barrier to spreading awareness about its physical and mental benefits. Balasubramanian explained that the misconnection between yoga and women has caused many men in the West to miss out on its benefits. “Men and women receive equal health benefits from yoga,” said Balasubramanian. “There are some forms and variations that men or women are better at, but ultimately, yoga is for everyone.”

Balasubramanian recently returned from a research trip to Tamil Nadu, India to study the physical and mental impact of yoga through use of pranayama and asana—yoga posture. To further his research on yoga’s effect on nerve growth factor—for a key molecule in Alzheimer’s disease—he finds collaboration between not only academe and industry essential to his work, but also between cultures. This, Balasubramanian, explains will help dispel the current thinking: yoga is a religious practice; yoga is only for women; yoga is a fitness exercise.

Patients with chronic disease are best served by adding some form of yoga to their daily routines, according to Balasubramanian. Alzheimer’s, hypertension, and cancer patients, he feels, can benefit most from breathing practices. But it is not just ailing patients that can improve quality of life through practicing yoga—healthy people have title to the multilayered benefits, too.

“Demystification is needed mostly in areas where yoga is less popular,” said Balasubramanian. “Underrepresented slices of the U.S., including veterans, chronic patients, and patients living in rural areas all could benefit from yoga. There is still a large swath of at-need groups who could benefit tremendously.”

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