Rethinking Yoga and the Application of Yoga in Modern Medicine

By Chaoul, Alejandro M.; Cohen, Lorenzo | Cross Currents, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Yoga and the Application of Yoga in Modern Medicine


Chaoul, Alejandro M., Cohen, Lorenzo, Cross Currents


Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means union, to yoke, or to join; the merging of the microcosm of our existence in our body with the macrocosm. In the West, yoga is often referred to as a mind-body technique from Asia, usually categorized as meditation (for those seated practices) and yoga (practices that include movement and the active participation of the body). Therefore, "yoga" can be said to be an overarching category that includes all Asian mind-body practices, whether from India (Hatha yoga, etc.), Tibet (Tsa lung Trul khor [rTsa rlung 'Phrul 'khor]), China (T'ai chi, qi gong) or other Asian origin. In the field of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), yogic practices can be categorized as both "energy medicine" and "mind-body medicine." (1) They can be considered "energy medicine" as they purportedly work with the subtle energies of the body. In the Tibetan tradition, for example, the category of energy (tsel [rtsal]) helps understand the link of mind-body, as mind-energy-body. Energy is usually manifested as breath and/or sound. The aspect of subtle breath or energy-breath is a crucial aspect of all these Asian practices. In China this energy is called qi, in India prana, in Tibet lung (rlung), and although each of these traditions have their own distinct mind-energy-body practices (T'ai chi or qi gong in China, Hatha Yoga in India, and Tsa lung Trul khor in Tibet) they all do emphasize that aspect of energy-breath or breath-energy. Scientific research has also shown that these practices modulate brain activity and diminish the psychological and biological effects of stress. As such, they are also considered in the category of "mind-body medicine." In the West, the scientific community is more comfortable considering these practices within the area of mind-body medicine, as there is still insufficient evidence to support the realm of "energy medicine."

In this article we will discuss the use of the term yoga to describe these pan-Asian mind-body practices, provide an overview of the medical research being conducted with these practices, describe our research studies, and highlight challenges and future ideas on how this interesting field can further develop within the scientific community and be better integrated with conventional medical care.

Yoga: a pan-Asian mind-body practice

There are pros and cons to using the term "yoga" to describe these Asian practices. As any individual label, the term yoga can be an overgeneralization as well as an oversimplification for categorizing different practices and traditions and may dismiss some of the uniqueness of each. However, as we add a qualifier that represents origin or style (e.g., Tibetan yoga, Hatha yoga, Kundalini yoga, etc.), by utlizing the unifying term "yoga," we can use the same category and still acknowledge the similarities and differences. It is not dissimilar from the overarching category of meditation. Most seem to agree on the use of the term "meditation," yet it comes from different traditions with some differences in the practices. The qualifiers added along with the term meditation bring forth the uniqueness of each practice but under the broad category of "meditation" (e.g., Transcendental meditation [TM], mindfulness or vipassana meditation, Zen meditation, etc.).

Although the term "yoga" is of Indian origin from Sanskrit, its use has been incorporated into the English language and adopted to encompass a large range of practices from various other traditions, including mind-body practices of Tibet and China (see, for example, the description of "Taoist yoga" by Paper and Thompson 1998). (2) As the famous religious historian and author of Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Mircea Eliade, states:

  side by side with this 'classic' Yoga, there are countless forms of
  'popular,' non-systematic yoga; there are also non-Brahmanic yogas
  (Buddhist, Jainist); above all, there are yogas whose structures
  are 'magical,' 'mystical,' and so on. … 

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