YogaTherapyToday | Spring 2013
Your Brain on Yoga
A Harvard Medical School Guide
By Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, with Jodie Gould
Rosetta Books (2012)
Review by Stephanie M. Shorter, PhD
Harvard-based yoga researcher and neuroscientist Dr. Sat Bir Khalsahas teamed up with award-winning journalist Jodie Gould to produce an overview of the research on the benefits of a
regular yoga practice. Your Brain on Yoga is a concise e-book (about 50 pages) that makes for a fast and rewarding read on how practicing yoga can change our mental, emotional, and physical fitness. The authors set out to “explain how yoga and meditationcan change your brain and, thereby, your life.” Indeed!
Your Brain on Yoga is organized into five chapters: Your Brain on Stress; Your Body on Yoga; Your Smarter Brain on Yoga; Your Mood on Yoga; Finding the Right Style of Yoga for
You. The Introduction starts with the question of whether yoga can effectively reduce the stress that makes us look and feel beyond our years—a timely question as multiple studies have
shown that stress reduction is the top reason why many new practitioners first step onto their mats. Your Brain on Yoga returns again and again to the idea of physiologically bolstering
against the allostatic load of stress while also changing the perception of what is a stressor and the psychological weight with which that stressor comes at you in the moment. It is elegant
phrasing to talk about being in relationship to our stressors.
The book covers how yoga helps manage mood and stress, improves cognitive performance, and alleviates many medical conditions. Most chapters kick off with an anecdotal story, then
several research studies are presented in each chapter. The final chapter contains cursory but appreciated coverage of several different styles of yoga, and puts an exclamation point
behind the notion built up in earlier pages that yoga is not one size fits all. Armed with this guiding chapter, the reader can start finding his or her perfect practice, with permission and encouragement to be discerning of internal sensations in the body, thinking of them as clues for finding that nourishing practice, and knowing that the first yoga class he or she walks into is not representative of all the available styles of yoga classes out there.
Interestingly, there are short practice techniques peppered throughout the book, but just be aware that they draw exclusively from the author’s Kundalini Yoga tradition, so they do not provide a sampler of these different styles for the newbie practitioner. I would have liked to see more information on the doseresponse
curve or, in other words, how much yoga practice is typically needed in order to achieve a therapeutic result. The issue is only raised very briefly in a quote by a young vinyasa
practitioner when she astutely says, “… now I realize it isn’t the amount of time, it’s the frequency.” Determining the effective “dose” is becoming a topic of increasing importance in yoga research. It is pragmatic knowledge that yoga-referring medical professionals will want to relay to patients, that beginning practitioners will want to track, and it makes sense in the ever-competitive world of obtaining grant funding for research, especially for CAM topics like yoga therapy.
Longer research protocols translate into bigger funding requests. In summary, Your Brain on Yoga is a fine step in the direction of making yoga research results more accessible to the general
public. The book seems less geared for deepening one’s understanding of therapeutic yoga if you are already working in the field, but rather an introductory primer or a summarizing
review for new yoga practitioners, or perhaps yoga practitioners beginning to get interested in research, and would-be referring physicians who could use a go-to source for all the highpoints of the therapeutic yoga research literature. In summarizing the evidence base for the healing benefits of yoga, the authors have made it easier for medical professionals to refer their patients to the practice—and this is exactly the crossover we need between the research and clinical worlds.
Stephanie M. Shorter, PhD, is the Program Director for the YogaFit Therapy Program. A former neuroscience researcher and professor, she is the creator of the popular Yoga for the
Brain 20-hour training.