STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Many Americans manage their medical problems using yoga. Sixteen million people in this country now attend yoga class, and some claim it helps with fatigue, depression and even more. Now researchers have begun to study the mental and physical effects. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY reporting:
Yoga students convinced that the practice can bring them long life or help solve health problems are drawn to one man: 87-year-old B.K.S. Iyengar. His recent US tour drew thousands to a series of sold-out tribute events. In Washington, DC, the crowd gathered at Lisner Auditorium jumped to its feet at the mention of his name.
Mr. JOHN SCHUMACHER (Yoga Instructor, Unity Woods Yoga): B.K.S. Iyengar.
(Soundbite of applause)
AUBREY: Iyengar's fame in yoga circles stems largely from the method he's devised. Using his own body as a laboratory, he says he's combined precise sequences of poses to help treat or minimize particular ailments. Take, for instance, migraines. During his trip to Washington, student Rita Lewis Manos came to him for help.
Mr. B.K.S. IYENGAR: No, come here, come here. Let's do that.
AUBREY: Iyengar has guided Rita into an upside-down inverted pose, and he's kneeling at her head.
Mr. IYENGAR: Move the jaw towards me this way.
AUBREY: Using both hands, he makes a slight adjustment, moving Rita's skull to make her more stable.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. RITA LEWIS MANOS (Student): It all feels better and...
Mr. IYENGAR: Within two days, I lessened the migraine.
AUBREY: Watching and taking notes is Manouso Manos, an instructor that Iyengar has trained.
Mr. MANOUSO MANOS (Yoga Instructor): Very specific application. A different way of doing that he would take for somebody who had kidney problems as opposed to a different way of doing this same pose for someone who has an ear problem.
AUBREY: Iyengar has never proven that his poses or adjustments work as some sort of cure, but what he's learned is that yoga can help minimize pain. He says through the movement of the body, it's the mind that students learn to control. This idea that pain can be controlled without drugs has been validated in multiple studies. Teacher John Schumacher says the whole practice of yoga focuses people inward.
Mr. SCHUMACHER: It makes you introverted in the sense of taking your awareness and energy within yourself and not projecting it outward. Everything about our culture draws us outside. It sort of sucks our attention away. And if you're all the time out there competing, struggling, then you don't ever have time to look inside yourself.
AUBREY: Yoga is an ancient art, and Iyengar is by no means its only guru, but he's gained influence by teaching yoga as a practical tool for managing health, a sort of treatment for the mind and body. His book, "Light on Yoga," is considered by many as a sort of bible. It's enormously precise and detailed; it contains hundreds of close-up photographs of himself demonstrating poses designed to help different parts of the body. With about 1,500 Iyengar centers around the world, he's inspired a generation of students to teach his method. Manouso Manos' studio is in San Francisco.
Mr. MANOS: The thing that's attractive about this kind of yoga is that you find yourself being so present. Once that's touched you, you know that you want to keep coming back for it.
AUBREY: It's a sea change from Iyengar's first US visit in 1956. On that trip, he writes in his autobiography, people labeled him a contortionist, and he remembers lots of skeptical stares from a society that viewed his art as an oddity. The turning point for him came when a famous violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, asked Iyengar to be his teacher. Menuhin had given hundreds of concerts a year but was suffering a breakdown. Iyengar worked with him to develop a daily yoga practice, and Menuhin is now remembered for the evening he conducted a symphony while standing on his head using his feet to conduct the musicians.
Today Iyengar has thousands of students who consider him a sort of prophet. The adulation leaves outsiders wanting to know if there's anything fundamental to yoga that really does improve health, and it turns out that scientists have begun trying to sort this out.
Ms. SARA LAZAR (Massachusetts General Hospital): It is so popular, and then the claims are so pervasive, and so researchers want to put it to the test.
AUBREY: Sara Lazar is a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her experiments using brain imaging scans have shown some physical changes in the brain induced by the meditative state brought on by yoga. And at Oregon Health and Sciences University, scientists are trying to measure yoga's effect on alertness and quality of life. To do this, researcher Barry Oken recruited two groups of healthy seniors. One group agreed to take yoga classes for six months and the other group was assigned to do more standard kinds of exercise.
Mr. BARRY OKEN (Oregon Health and Sciences University): The idea was to come up with some chunk of time to have people engaged in a yoga intervention class and then figure out what the comparison groups would be.
AUBREY: It turns out at the end of the study, the yoga group did seem to have an advantage over the other exercisers.
Mr. OKEN: One of the things that was easiest for us to observe were the benefits and sort of the sense of well-being, what we call health-related quality of life.
AUBREY: These are subjective measures that reveal only how people perceive what they're feeling. Whether this reflects any physiological change is unclear, and unraveling this may be impossible, but researchers are trying lots of methods. For instance, at UCLA scientists are measuring cortisol levels. That's a chemical in the body that's released when people are under stress. One study involving college-age students found that the practice of yoga led to lower cortisol loads. This is now an active area of scientific research, but Sara Lazar says the field is in its infancy.
Ms. LAZAR: We're still very much in the first steps.
AUBREY: As for B.K.S. Iyengar, he says this will be his last visit to the United States. As he finishes his morning headstand, he says he's done his life's work.
Mr. IYENGAR: You know, I'm 87. I have no ambition, so let me die peacefully.
AUBREY: Iyengar says his institute and teaching center in India will carry on under the direction of his children. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: For study results on yoga and a picture of B.K.S. Iyengar, go to npr.org.
This is NPR News.