Expanding Science of Yoga: Seeing is Believing - European Medical Journal

Expanding Science of Yoga: Seeing is Believing

4 Mins
General Healthcare

Written by Muthuswamy Balasubramanyam  Dean of Research Studies and Senior Scientist, Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, Chennai, India


June 21st is the International Day of Yoga, and the whole world is now geared up for celebrating the 3rd International Day of Yoga. The day is very special for India, where yoga originated >6,000 years ago. Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice that aims to integrate the body and the mind. In contrast to the older view of yoga as a domain of spirituality or alternative health, we’re now beginning to see a deeper understanding on its health benefits with the expanding science of yoga. There has been a paradigm shift in our understanding of yoga from an ancient faith effect to a modern biological effect’.

Yoga Relieves Stress and Offers Mindfulness and Brain-Fitness

Extensive research that directed us to a better understanding of the pathogenesis of metabolic disorders, including diabetes, now indicates that chronic cellular stress signalling (oxidation, inflammation, glycation, endoplasmic reticulum stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, autophagy, proteosomal stress, accelerated senescence, and altered neurotrophic factors) could be the common denominators in both the disease’s genesis and progression. Apart from these endogenous stressors, psychosocial stress, depression, and cognitive impairment are closely associated with metabolic disorders like diabetes. It appears that yoga is a stress buster (for exogenous, as well as endogenous, stress) and a metabolic regulator!  It is in this context, that yoga for disease prevention and control assumes importance; the ‘mindfulness-based interventions’ targeting so-called ‘brain fitness’ are the need of the day for prevention as well as control of non-communicable diseases.

‘Yoganomics’: New Biological Endorsements of the Benefits of Yoga!

In the era of evidence-based medicine, lifestyle measures (including yoga) should be subjected to modern scientific evaluation and testing.  Because of the complex nature of yoga practices and its multi-component therapeutic routes, there is a dire need for the application of omic techniques to endorse its molecular and metabolic benefits. Remarkably, these so-called ‘Yoganomics’ endorsements are already on the research pipeline, paving the way for yoga to enter the medical mainstream. A transcriptome study1 on relaxation response practices (that includes meditation and yoga) revealed that these practices enhanced the expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance, and reduced the expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.

“Yoga can lead to improved mental and cognitive functioning and lower levels of depressive symptoms accompanied by an increase in telomerase activity (and maintenance of telomere length) suggesting improvement in stress-induced cellular aging,” suggested the Noble Laureate, Elizabeth Blackburn, in her study.2 This means yoga can work as an anti-ageing therapy and increase lifespan as well as healthspan. A separate study showed accelerated telomere shortening in patients with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, and the authors believe yoga could correct this defect.3 Since telomeres are epigenetically regulated and their damage leads to senescence via epigenetic mechanisms, it is plausible that the positive health effects and anti-aging benefits of yoga could occur through epigenetic regulation acting to maintain and/or extend telomere length. What about other omics endorsements of yoga? Very recent studies imply a biological effect of yoga on DNA methylation4 (epigenetics) and metabolomicsalterations and these observations warrant further in-depth studies.

Future studies that integrate metabolomics with genomic, proteomic, microbiome-related, epigenetic, and physiological parameters may facilitate a broader systems-level understanding and mechanistic insights of integrative yoga practices, which could be successfully employed to promote health, as well as to prevent and control non-communicable diseases.


  1. Bhasin MK et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PLoS One.2013;8(5):e62817.
  2. Lavretsky H et al.  A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry.2013;28(1):57-65
  3. Adaikalakoteswari A et al. Telomere shortening occurs in Asian Indian Type 2 diabetic patients. Diabet Med.2005;22(9):1151-6.
  4. Harkess KN et al. Preliminary indications of the effect of a briefyogaintervention on markers of inflammation and DNA methylation in chronically stressed women. Transl Psychiatry. 2016;6(11):e965.
  5. Peterson CT et al. Identification of Altered Metabolomic Profiles Following a Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic Intervention in Healthy Subjects: The Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI). Sci Rep.2016;6:32609.

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