My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This Harvard Medical School Guide presents the findings of many scientific studies on the benefits of yoga, and it does so in a manner suitable for the layman. The book is written by Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa, a long time practitioner of Kundalini Yoga and a neuroscience researcher at Harvard, and is co-authored by a science writer trained in journalism.
I became aware of Khalsa’s work when reading William Broad’s The Science of Yoga, a book that is complimentary of Dr. Khalsa and his studies—a favor which Khalsa doesn’t return as he rejects Broad’s work as being overly sensationalist. The book does talk about Khalsa’s research, such as a study with young musicians at Tanglewood that examined how the practice of yoga increased their equanimity. That said, this isn’t merely a summation of Dr. Khalsa’s work. It’s what in academia would be called a literature review, but “literature review” implies a far more dismal reading experience than one gets from this book. It does present anecdotes in a way that is useful for a layman’s book, but would not be well-respected in an academic setting. This work isn’t designed for medical colleagues but rather to be of benefit to run-of-the-mill yoga students and teachers.
This is a very short book at only about 50 pages. The book consists of five chapters after an introduction which sets the stage and gives some relevant background on Dr. Khalsa. Chapter one delves into the effect of stress on the body and mind, and how yoga (and meditation more generally) has been shown to help counter the effects of bad stress (not all stress is inherently bad, as is addressed in the chapter.) Chapter two examines the effect of yoga on the body and in countering a number of common ailments. The third chapter considers how yoga might actually help one to be smarter and more creative. Chapter four presents the results of studies of how yoga can counter depression and improve one’s mood. Chapter five is in a different vein, and might well have been included as an appendix. The last chapter gives an overview of the various types of yoga to assist readers new to yoga on what style might best meet their needs and disposition. This is a nice feature for those new to yoga, but also for veteran practitioners who’ve practiced one style and might not be aware of the wide range of styles out there. (A few of the styles mentioned are popular in India, but I don’t think are as well-known in the West.)
For such a thin book, this work covers a wide range of topics including–but not limited to–the effects of yoga on sleep, the immune system, neural plasticity, memory, math skills, and mood. A nice feature of the book is a series of brief exercises that one can practice to help reduce stress or achieve a desired goal. These practices are generally located at the end of chapters. Finally, while this book isn’t written primarily for doctors and other scientists, it’s endnoted so those interested in tracking down the studies the book references can readily do so.
I’m a big fan of applying a scientific approach to the study of ancient methods such as yoga. I would, therefore, recommend this book for yoga teachers and students who are interested how precisely these practices can assist them. It’s extremely short and easily digested. It’s in no way overbearing with medical jargon and is readily understood by anyone with a basic education in biological science.