What Should We Research in Yoga – Matter or Spirit: Exploration with Dr Mayur V Kaku

Dr Mayur V Kaku is a renowned Neurosurgeon trained from the most premiere Neurosciences Institute NIMHANS in Bangalore. He has been honoured with Silver Jubilee Award for Best Outgoing Neurosurgeon by the Health Minister of Government of India. In his approach to medicine, he has used minimally invasive brain and spine surgery and Cyberknife surgery, Neuronavigation and Awake craniotomy. A certified yoga therapist from SVYASA, he believes in a holistic approach to treating various diseases.

As Indica Yoga gears up to launch the Suryathon App on May 29th, it spoke to Dr Kaku on his impressions on status of Yoga research in the last few decades.

Since the declaration of the international day of Yoga in United Nations Assembly in 2014, do you see an increase in interest in research into Yoga in the Neuroscience field?

There has been an increase for sure. However if you see grossly, the graph depicting the research is gaining upward momentum from 2004 onwards. The growth of Yoga research had gained healthy momentum already in the 2000-2009 period. Definitely the number of publications has gone up, but the 60% increase after the 5 years of International Day of Yoga says that there is difference between public awareness and research in Yoga. You can see a slow upward plateau and around 2014 we don’t see a spike. I wish to see continuous upward momentum which suggests a sustained interest in the research community in Yoga related research.

I am sure that International Day of Yoga celebrations will draw more attention all across the globe, but we have to understand the efforts taken by many yogis over a period of time. Few notable ones are Gautama Buddha, Adi Guru Shankaracharya, Nath Yogis, Sant Jnaneshwar, AllamaPrabhu, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Paramhamsa Yogananda, Sri Ram Sharma Acharya, Sivanand Saraswati, Ramana Maharshi, Tirumalai Krishnmachar, B K S Iyengar and many unknown enlightened ones who inspired many to develop a scientific approach to health without seeking personal fame.

Is there a difference between research done in the West and in India?

In terms of research carried out in modern times, developed countries do have the required infrastructure and do a lot of research. Developing countries are overcrowded and are busy in taking care of basic needs of healthcare. Still, they do research and publish research with good statistical strength in terms of numbers, however many a times quality of documentations and analysis is lacking in the works done.

In research done by developed countries, practical application to diverse demographic populations is the question, because for obvious reasons the problems of the developing and developed nations are different and the solutions can’t be generalised.

The utility of the research we do is important. Even within India, we can see multiple demographic subgroups and their response to many medicines and interventions is different, not to mention generalising global research and its global utility to specific groups. Even the ongoing Corona Pandemic is teaching us a lot about variation in response of populations across the planet.

One research paper, I read, said Dhanurasana can be harmful for diabetes patients. However, we routinely study that in our traditions that Dhanurasana is useful to prevent Diabetes and maintains blood sugar levels. Mind you, we are discussing only one disease out of the many diseases this beautiful asana can prevent. Similar ‘debatable’ aspects are there about Sirsasana. Research is all about Aims/ Objectives / Interventions/ Observations / Statistical analysis (as unbiased as possible) and Results.

The reason why a person/country seeks to take up yoga is important, whether it  is just a trend you want to ride on or it is something which you find appealing in a strategy geared towards a zero-budget health promotion in society. One might laugh and point to the nearly $ 12 billion USA Yoga market in 2020.

My question is whether we are are we using Yoga for Material gains or Spiritual progress? Is it for physical comfort or is it for questioning and identifying our true selves?

Most Indian health systems are extremely personalised. However, the West looks to standardise application of research to make it easy for administrative purposes and for mass application. How do we reconcile the two in Yoga?

The crux of the matter is, everything is not for everybody. Even if a person is healthy, it is not necessary that he can perform a particular asana on the very first day. There is subjective difference in the methods of teaching and in the speed and attitude of learning in yoga. Merely performing a pose is not sufficient to expect results in Yoga. Even if one creates and follows a protocol in Yoga, many a times the same person cannot perform the protocol which one has been following for months. It is highly subjective. Even in modern medicine also we have guidelines and protocols, however they are only as a guide. Almost every patient’s treatment takes a turn according to the requirements posed by the body and its response to disease and medicine.

For example, let us consider two patients with similar intensity of back pain and similar diagnosis to start with. One may improve with medical management and other may land up on the operating table due to worsening of pain and compression on nerves.

The presence of internet has made the spread of word easy. Through research we learn a lot about the effect of practices realised thousands of years ago. Despite the lack of modern technology available to our ancestors, they were able to such precise universal knowledge out of subjective experience. Particularly in Yoga, seeing the results of various researches, we are mesmerised by the maturity of our ancestors and this is proof of their pure intelligence. One has to question if today we are out of tune with nature and more distracted and so unable to perform Yoga correctly in sync with mother nature.

What is the benefit and insights of modern research into Yoga?

The current era is dominated by numbers and objective proofs. The physiological changes which can be documented through our gadgets are just the tip of iceberg when it comes down to learning and experiencing the benefits of yoga.

Modern ways of research give us fascinating genetic level information. However, the natural ways of living and research are equally fascinating with the depth of the understandings we can derive from the same. We may have to come out of laboratories and work with nature to understand what happens with the human body, mind and intellect when it is in its natural environment. Yoga is not just posture, breathing, neurotransmitters, feel good hormones and heartbeat variability! Yoga is a state of individual consciousness which is merged with the supreme consciousness and it has effects beyond we can measure.

In view of the enthusiasm posed by the marking of International Day of Yoga since year 2014, I wish to see scientists becoming more spiritual and selfless, rather than having zoomed in view of a small aspect of science. Let them look at the bigger picture and gain understanding of things beyond our control. As modern medicine practitioner, I have observed many of us trying take control of situations. If we attach our egos to our modern scientific knowledge (which many of us do!), we become miserable and slaves of the system. To summarize the fate of modern research, I would quote the microbiology paper published in October 2007, by Kwok Yung Yuen et.al (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2176051/).

This paper openly speaks about the eating habits of the people of South China (Horse shoe Bat) and a potential laboratory leak because of the need to study coronaviruses. After 13 years, we are all suffering.

Where is the gap and how can we fix it?

Research and researchers should be respected and implemented. Unfortunately, there is gap between researchers and policy makers. A great research not implemented correctly can cost millions of lives. We should keep our eye on implementation of results rather than results of the study. We should be oriented towards public health rather than only our specialisation.

My request is to broaden the horizon of yoga research from finding out benefits for diabetes, hypertension, spondylosis, libido, etc to community level synchrony. I have taken a sankalpa to bring at least 10 million people together to wake up in Brahma Muhurtam (96 minutes before sunrise) and practice yoga – meditation for a spiritually inclined, empathetic society. For this, I facilitate the process by coming live on YouTube at 4: 30 AM IST.

The end research of Yoga research should be a healthy, happy, self-realized and prosperous society in great sync with mother nature.