Our community spotlight this month – Sat Bir Singh Khalsa
SPOTLIGHT Interview with Prof. Sat Bir Khalsa, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School; Director of Yoga Research, Yoga Alliance
IAGB: Prof Khalsa, thank you for being SPOTLIGHT person for our IAGB Newsletter issue. Could you briefly describe your personal journey as to how you got interested in Yoga?
Prof. Khalsa: I was part of the counterculture in late 60s and early 70s and developed interest in the altered states consciousness. My readings further informed me about the strategies about achieving these deeper unitive states of consciousness. Yoga was one such strategy that I learned about. It had inherent advantage because it was not only using the cognitive practice of meditation but also the physical postures, the breathing, the whole lifestyle – a complete approach to making a spiritual journey. Around the same time while working on my undergrad studies at University of Toronto, I heard about and enrolled in a Yoga class for credit and never looked back. My Yoga practice began with my class and later I started going to the Ashram close to the campus for Yoga practice and workshops and engaged in the Yoga practice on a regular basis, and in 1973 I moved into the Ashram.
IAGB: How did Yoga become your academic career and when did it merge with your profession?
Prof. Khalsa: I was always interested in research and wanted to pursue my research interest into Yoga. I started my Ph.D. program in department of Physiology back at University of Toronto with a goal of studying Neuroscience and Neurophysiology to understand the neurophysiology behind these practices. Later I pursued Post-Doctoral work in Sleep and Biological Rhythms at University of Virginia. Some years later the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health awarded me a five-year research career award to study Yoga for Insomnia. So, at last my lifelong goal for doing research on Yoga began in year 2000 and is continuing ever since.
IAGB: Is Yoga an ancient relic or a shiny new thing that is being brought to a wide consumer base?
Prof. Khalsa: Yes, Yoga has been in the history and fabric of India that may be traced back to the Harappan and Indus Valley civilization, but it was never prevalent in the general population throughout India’s history and had remained in the shadows. I would argue that the biggest transition in Yoga practice happened when several Yoga Masters such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Swami Satchidanada Saraswati, including my teacher Yogi Bhajan (Harbhajan Singh Khalsa) came to US from India in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s when the movement really started. By year 2000 Yoga was more popular in US than in India but that has changed since then and Yoga in India is now greater than anywhere else thanks mainly to the new age Yoga Masters such as Baba Ramdev (Ramakrishna Yadav), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru (Jagadish Vasudev) and a big help from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their fame and the growth of Yoga Institutes across the country has pretty much revolutionized the popularity of Yoga in India. The genesis of research on Yoga can be traced to Kaivalyadhama starting in 1920s but then the momentum was picked up with the body of research work done by Shirley Telles out of NIMHANS and since then Yoga research has been growing both in the west and in India. Additionally, Yoga is growing exponentially in the west with 14% of US population actively practicing Yoga.
IAGB: Is there a distinction in Yoga practices here in the West as compared to in India?
Prof. Khalsa: Yoga has grown in two separate veins. One is the physical vein (fitness and health) and the other is the traditional Yoga (as a contemplative practice). A lot of the Yoga in the west is practiced as ‘Asanas’ which serves as a gateway to practice the traditional yoga (that incorporates pranayama and meditation). In India meditation and Yoga are synonymous and they go together. In the west there are many practices that are just meditation with no postures and no breathing exercises (such a transcendental meditation, Zen practice, Buddhist Vipassana practice). The research in Meditation and Yoga is growing too and it is part of the branch of Integrated Medicine.
IAGB: What have been the main challenges that Yoga has faced in its expansion? How would you motivate the wider population and specifically the youth to take up Yoga at a young age?
Prof. Khalsa: One of the obstacles faced in the growth of Yoga has to do with media marketing. Yoga has been promoted in the west by an image of rich, white, woman, flexible doing acrobatic stuff which is at odds with the traditional yoga practice which can be practiced by anyone – the elderly, men, children, people with disorders, obese people, even a quadriplegic can practice by deep breathing. That said, like any other product or service, people who intend to start Yoga practice have to ‘shop’ for the right style for their individual fit. While 14% of US population that is practicing Yoga is significant, it is still a narrow segment as 80% of this population is rich, white, educated, and woman. But more recently Yoga is progressing from the confines of Studios and Ashrams into mainstream society. Yoga is being introduced into institutions such as workplace, health care systems and schools. I believe that the social injustice (because presently it is being made avail by only the rich and educated) can be rectified by introducing Yoga into the schools and into the curriculum, that way you are giving it to everyone. Data reveals that, people with lower income, of minority background are people with greater stress in society and are more in need of Yoga. Workplace is good alternative, but it must be extremely prevalent to be significant and will still miss the elderly and the children populations. Yoga via Health care system is promising especially for treating behavioral related risk factors for disease. But when introduced in schools, Yoga can become a life skill set for millions and they can carry it forward as their life progresses. Furthermore, our children have a huge mental health burden which often goes unrecognized by the society. The cumulative risk factor for a child to develop a clinically significant psychiatric condition between ages 9 and 19 is 80%. Yoga helps with self-regulation and stress in a powerful way.
IAGB: In the day and age of instant gratification – is there one form of Yoga better than other for ‘quick’ results?
Prof. Khalsa: With the rise in popularity of Yoga the diversity in style and options of practices has also grown including some unique ones such as Beer Yoga and Goat Yoga which probably adds to the confusion for beginners seeking Yoga. There are many websites that guide you in your ‘shopping’ experience. Additionally, a book from Harvard Health Publication: Harvard Medical School’s Special Report: Introduction to Yoga is a great resource. This book is a good resource for help in identifying the right style of Yoga for everyone based on their individual needs. People interested mainly in fitness but not in meditation aspect can get drawn towards Hath Yoga or Power Yoga, but my personal recommendation is for people to try the traditional Yoga in order to achieve all the benefits of yoga. Traditional Yoga incorporates not just the asanas, but also the pranayama, the deep relaxation practices and very importantly the meditation component. The ‘shopping’ experience includes three main elements – you, the style, and the teacher. Ideally, I would also recommend trying multiple classes with different teachers. A good fit is critical because without a good fit you won’t practice.
IAGB: Are there any specific commercial/noncommercial Yoga schools/studios that one should choose over the others?
Prof. Khalsa: All Yoga schools/studios are commercial. Yoga teachers earn a living teaching Yoga. All the Yoga styles have their own reputation and branding. The only credentialing of Note is from Yoga Alliance. Yoga Alliance is a nonprofit certification body. Schools of Yoga have registered with this organization and have established guidelines for teacher training. So, if your instructor is certified by the Yoga Alliance, you have a certain degree of confidence that that teacher has gone through a Yoga teacher training program. That said, there is no licensing or government regulation over this, so that doesn’t mean someone who is been teaching Yoga for a long period of time but is not certified by Yoga Alliance is not a good teacher.
IAGB: Outside of Yoga what are your other interests?
Prof. Khalsa: Yoga has been a large part of my life – my professional as well as my personal life. I live in a Yoga Ashram community – The Baba Siri Chand Yoga and Retreat Center (Yoga at the Ashram). The style of Yoga taught at the center is Kundalini Yoga style by our teacher Yogi Bhajan. Kundalini Yoga has a strong popularity in Europe, South America and of course in US and Canada. This style is not taught much in India. The center also has a Gurdwara and many of Yogi Bhajan’s students also became Sikh. Outside of Yoga – I enjoy sports, I play racket ball and street hockey routinely. I enjoy and watch ice hockey. I have an interest in Naval History. I have carried this interest since my adolescent years.
IAGB: What is your connection to India? Have you traveled to India?
Prof. Khalsa: Though I have no ancestry in India, I have traveled to India probably 25 times over the past 20 years. Most of my visits to India have been for conferences, for interaction with other Yoga Researchers, to give lectures and to visit Yoga research institutes. The three most notable ones in India are – Kaivalyadhama Yoga institute and research center in Lonavala, SVYASA (Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana) Yoga Institute in Bengaluru and more recently the Patanjali research foundation in Haridwar.