There is an impressive and ever-growing body of evidence that regular yoga practice confers numerous health benefits. Particularly when it comes to the psychological benefits, I like many practitioners, find my direct experience provides all the ‘evidence’ I require. However, when it comes to some of the claims made about yoga with respect to specific medical illness and disease, I have often found myself concerned and confused by some of the declarations made.
We’ve all heard statements in class about yoga allegedly being used to help treat and heal various diseases. The healing claims I most commonly hear almost always relate to a specific asana. Ustrasana (Camel Pose) supposedly curing hypothyroidism for example, Setu bandhasana improving liver disease, apparently, those of us with polycystic ovaries should spend more time in Savasana. The list goes on. Often these are said as a throw-away comment or listed as a “benefit” whilst holding students in a pose; “this one’s great for…”. But actually, aside from a very limited number of specific examples, it is very difficult not only to establish the origin of such claims but also to provide any scientific rationale or basis.
Before we begin, I will say that holding the health claims made about yoga to Western ideals of ‘proof’ and expecting it to meet our scientific standards isn’t necessarily fair. Yoga is considered by many to be a science in its own right, its vast body of knowledge acquired over millennia of experiential and experimental study. I respect and honour this lineage and remain mindful that Western Medicine is certainly not the only healing art. Neither are randomised controlled trails and systematic reviews the only acceptable forms of proof. Western Medicine is however the discipline in which I am professionally trained, and it is from that perspective that this article is written. Here we discuss the ways in which these claims may or may not conform to Western ways of knowing without intention to discredit alternative medical systems.