When yoga was developed as a spiritual discipline in ancient India, it’s unlikely that its originators ever imagined how their practice would look thousands of years into the future. Intensely spiritual in its inception and throughout much of its history, yoga has evolved into something with a global scope and endless iterations – from the strictly traditional to modern inventions like beer and goat yoga.
But it’s perhaps yoga’s latest significant development–from a spiritually-centered pursuit to an increasingly regular feature of the scrupulously evidence-based, secular and scientific world of modern medicine–that is most striking. Evidence is growing to suggest that yoga has real value in a formal healthcare setting, and that this complementary therapy could become a part of both prevention and treatment of a variety of illnesses.
A (Very) Short History of Yoga
Historians theorize that yoga could be between 5,000 and 10,000 years old, but the first written mentions of the word “yoga” appeared in sacred texts known as the Vedas during India’s Vedic period, which began in 1500 BCE. Perhaps the most famous of the yoga scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, thought to date back to 500 BCE. In the 2nd century, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra collated various past scripts to create an 8-limb path to enlightenment, beginning the “classical” era where the roots of yoga became structured, and easier to teach and practice.
After this came the development of Tantra and Hatha yoga (which are recognisable to us today), and until the early 1900s yoga was practiced nearly exclusively in the East. The worldwide growth of yoga began with Swami Vivekananda delivering a presentation about yoga in Chicago in 1893, with the first yoga centre opening in Hollywood around 50 years later.
From this point yoga has become fully integrated into the Western world, and the idea that yoga therapy can have a positive effect on the outcomes of a variety of health problems has been growing for decades. In the 1920s, Swami Kuvalayananda first introduced the idea that it would be possible to measure the physical and physiological changes that occurred through yoga practice, and since then a wealth of scientific research has been conducted on yoga’s impact on everything from heart disease to psychosis.
Yoga in Healthcare
The long fight against illness has bought us to a point that’s completely unique in human history. With the odd exception, we no longer need to worry about the ravages of infectious disease; knowing that widespread inoculation programs, good public hygiene and treatment options including antibiotics and antivirals tend to keep a lid on anything really nasty getting out of hand.
This is an extraordinary phenomenon, and one that has been hundreds of years in the making, formed from the hard work of many generations of scientists and doctors making slow steps forward to a better future. But despite the fact we can celebrate that we are no longer dogged by plague, cholera, smallpox or any number of life-threatening illnesses, a new health crisis has arisen. A result both of our longer lifespans and widespread lifestyle change, chronic and non-communicable disease is set to be the biggest health challenge of the coming century.
A diet of processed, sugar-laden food, a working environment that allows little time for relaxation or creative expression, lack of exercise, loneliness, intense financial pressure – these are all features of many people’s lives in the modern world, and they are having a profound impact on their health. Whether it’s the rise in depression and anxiety, or the fact that in 2015 84.1 million Americans aged 18 and older had prediabetes, it’s becoming clear that traditional medicine is struggling to tackle this modern health crisis.
This is where yoga can (and does) have a positive impact. Looking after people’s health is a very expensive endeavour, with significant amounts of a country’s GDP often dedicated to this one goal. Yoga is an inexpensive way to help people both manage symptoms of illness and to also stop illness from developing in the first place, and it can be practiced at any age, and at all stages of health.
Yoga is accessible, improves wellbeing, and those who practice yoga regularly are less likely to exhibit chronic mental and physical health problems. It is also associated with other positive lifestyle habits, suggesting that when people are encouraged to look after their health using yoga, they start to make healthier choices in other areas of life. Stubborn issues such as low back pain and insomnia can be alleviated with the implementation of a yoga therapy regime, and as general wellbeing improves, so does people’s experience of life.
Health is often determined by a complex range of social, economic and environmental factors, and the grinding nature of long-term illness, as well the relentlessness of modern pressures, can make people feel utterly overwhelmed. Yoga can empower the individual and help them make the best choices for themselves, as well as being something that can be practiced in a supportive community setting.
We are living longer lives than ever before, but this progress is threatened by preventable (if complex) issues such as obesity, and the quality of our lives is being undermined by poor mental health and unhappiness. The ongoing integration of yoga into traditional healthcare ultimately represents a shift in thinking. Instead of facing a disease by treating symptoms when they arise, healthcare is increasingly embracing the idea of considering the root cause of illness, and working to prevent it from appearing in the first place.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Mason, a yoga teacher and founder of The Minded Institute, a center of yoga therapy in London exploring the intersection between yoga and healthcare around the world. Heather became interested in the use of mind-body therapies after her own experience of depression and anxiety, training over many years and across the globe in yoga and yoga therapy. Follow Heather on Twitter and Facebook.