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The Science of Yoga

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Scientific evidence proves the benefits of yogic postures, especially surya namaskar.
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The “S.N.” in his name does not stand for “surya namaskar”. But it may not be inappropriate for S.N. Omkar, an aerospace researcher at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc), to have the term as his second name, considering his contribution to the art of yoga, particularly surya namaskar or sun salutation.

Omkar — who is also the yoga coach of the Indian cricket team — recently demonstrated why surya namaskar is one of the best forms of exercise for the human body. And that’s a claim he supports with his own scientific studies.

According to a study by him that appeared last week in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, regularly practising surya namaskar aids in bone formation (osteogenesis) and bone remodelling. The paper is co-authored by Meenakshi Mour and Debarun Das, research students at the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur.

Independent experts agree that performing surya namasakar every day greatly benefits mental and physical well being. But to say that it helps in osteogenesis is slightly far-fetched, they argue.

To prove his point, Omkar developed a mathematical model to tabulate the forces acting on the various joints in the body — such as the wrists, elbows, shoulders, hip, knees and ankles — during the 10 different postures the exercise involves. According to him, no major joint is overstressed during any of the sequences. At the same time, the activity burns calories at rates comparable to those of many rigorous aerobic exercises. For instance, quoting his own earlier work, the IISc scientist says that if a person weighing 70kg does the exercise 120 times at a stretch — and this can be done in around 55 minutes — he or she could burn up to 380 kilo calories, which is almost equal to the energy expenditure in one hour of brisk walking.

A product of the B.K.S. Iyengar School of Yoga in Pune, Omkar was always interested in unravelling the science behind different yoga postures. An opportunity beckoned to him when recently the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) approached him for a project. The space agency — which is contemplating an indigenous man mission to space in the near future — wanted Omkar, an aerospace expert, to probe aspects of the balance and stability required by an astronaut to combat space motion sickness, a condition produced by the absence of a gravitational field and subsequent confusion of the human vestibular (balance) system. “The project is in its nascent stage,” says Omkar, refusing to elaborate further.

As a first step, the IISc researcher wanted to derive a mathematical model of the forces and moments acting on the various joints in the body. “The model is based on simple mechanics. It will help detect the forces and moments experienced by major joints during the practice of surya namaskar. Through this one can compare the joint forces and moments during various yoga activities,” Omkar told KnowHow.

The joints are subjected to dynamic strains and moments as the body executes the various postures, explains Omkar. Earlier studies by bone specialists have shown that persistent low-amplitude but high-frequency mechanical strain on the bones can hasten the rate of bone formation, he adds.

Experts such as Venkatesh Balasubramanian — an associate professor of biomechanics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras — have lauded the effort to scientifically validate the ancient practice of yoga. “But the calculations are too simplistic to be accurate,” Balasubramanian told KnowHow from Melbourne in Australia, where he is on a sabbatical.

According to Balasubramanian, Omkar’s study largely ignores the forces exerted by most of the muscles and ligaments involved in the exercise. “Overall, it is a good attempt to scientifically explain surya namaskar. A more rigorous study would be a step forward in this direction,” he says. Balasubramanian is also not very sure of the calorie-burning rate the IISc researchers have cited.

Melany Westwell of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in the US, who has studied yoga postures, too thinks there is a flaw in the biomechanical model used in the study. But she agrees that since the postures require the use of large muscle groups — which are core muscles — and a large range of motion, a lot of calories are burnt. “As long as you have muscle contraction, you have to be burning calories,” she says.

Omkar, however, argues that the calorie counting was done using a Polar watch, which is commonly used by sportspersons all over the world. “They are quite dependable,” he asserts.

Whatever be the research methodology, one thing seems clear: understanding the scientific basis of yoga asanas and pranayamas will enable their use in therapy in a more effective manner.

List of asanas

Source: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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