Yoga in the Army

Dr W. Selvamurthy, Director, Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS), Delhi, October 1995

Yoga is for the spiritual development of everyone, irrespective of age, caste, creed or sex. It is universal. In his talk Swamiji has given us the scientific outlook on yoga, with particular reference to the armed forces. We are happy to announce that the armed forces have accepted the introduction of yoga, and National Defence directed training is already underway. A manual has been prepared by us for these training programs, which will complement the present physical training (PT) program which we have been giving our armed forces. It is a huge program, with a large number of people to be trained throughout the country. In this major activity of how and where to train people of various age groups, we have the blessings of Bihar School of Yoga and would like to also involve other institutions to assist in the process. In the future we hope that Bihar Yoga Bharati will conduct training programs of a high level to train our armed forces instructors, and that Swamiji will be the soul behind this program.

Swamiji has said that the one area where the thrust of research has been lacking is in the pranamaya kosha. A lot of research has been taking place here at DIPAS in the past few years but this is one area that has been neglected. I am sure that this Institute will also contribute to possible research in this direction, i.e. to look into the subtle energy, prana, the bioenergy.

I would like to speak about some of our research contributions. We have heard that stress can be physical, environmental, psychological or emotional, and how yoga can be used as an important method of coping with the mechanism of stress. Stress can originate in the physical environment. We talked of soldiers sitting on the snowclad mountains of the Siachen glacier where they are exposed to the physical extremes of high altitude and hypoxia. They are also exposed to the psychological stresses of isolation, monotony, separation from family, with shelling, at times, coming from across the border. In this way they are exposed to both physical and environmental extremes. If we go to the southern peninsula, we have the other extreme of a hot, humid environment.

Stress can also originate in the family environment when there is incompatibility amongst family members. The occupational environment can also be stressful when people working together in an institution do not get along with their seniors, colleagues or subordinates. The social environment can be another source of stress. If your norms and the norms of others in your society are not parallel there is a gap or conflict which can lead to distress.

Moderating stress reactions

The internal origins of stress are psychological and emotional in nature. Whatever the source of stress may be it still has two components: stress which has a positive value and distress which has a negative value. The positive element should lead to creativity. So how can stress be kept within optimum limits in an organization such as the armed forces? This is where the primary objective of stress management will focus, and with BYB we will be doing research in the area of yoga and stress management.

If we do not have stress management with an overall social dimension, it will merely lead to an exaggerated arousal of the body and mind which will ultimately lead to a deterioration of performance in life, as in the case of stress-induced disorders such as hypertension and diabetes. There is a whole spectrum of diseases related to stress-induced problems. So how can yoga help us to maintain the positive dimension of stress, to endure a level of stress without allowing it to manifest within negative dimensions?

Swamiji has already mentioned focused perception. Even though in yoga we have three levels of perception it is our attitude towards the perception of stress on those levels that is of primary importance. If we do not perceive a factor within a situation as stressful then it is not stressful. How can we moderate our attitudes, our values, our personality traits to react to stress constructively, to recognize the stress for what it is?

The first step towards stress management is to moderate the perception of the level of stress by the entire level of the brain, the cerebrum, the cortex, the association memory (which keeps all the learning experiences from childhood). Even though there is a genetic component which cannot be altered very much, a major component of the learning experience can be regulated to a large extent. So the first step towards the management of stress is to moderate the quality of perception.

Once we have rated a stress at a particular level, our reaction is then dependent on the quality of our perception. As these behavioural reactions are both physical and psychological they are amenable to moderation by yogic practices. Now, as Swamiji has pointed out, yoga does not mean just practising a few asanas and pranayamas, rather it has to become a discipline and a way of life.

On these two levels how do the yoga practices help to moderate our reactions to stress? By harmonizing the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity, regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, sugar levels etc. is enhanced, and the whole physical infrastructure becomes a more efficient and stronger medium for performance at level one and two. The third level of stress management in yoga is stress release. After a day in the office, when you go home you can practise shavasana and yoga nidra to release stress. So yoga helps with the management of experiential stress on all the three levels of perception.

Physical versus yoga training

At DIPAS we have carried out research using the physical aspects of ashtanga yoga – asana and pranayama – without the yamas and the niyamas. We conducted a controlled experiment on two groups of soldiers. The control group practised the routine physical training (PT) program of the army schedule and the experimental group practised yoga as their physical training. These two groups were monitored for a period of six months. We gave the soldiers in the experimental group a one hour program consisting of 50 minutes of asanas, i.e. postural exercises; 5 minutes of pranayama, i.e. deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing and abdominal breathing; and 5 minutes of meditation. The control group continued with the normal PT schedule which improves flexibility, endurance, etc.

We submitted the soldiers in both groups to some experimental measurements, which included observing the brain functions to see how bodily equilibrium is maintained in terms of balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems through a computerized spectoral display of the brainwave activity. We also observed some of the cardiovascular activities using a biograph to monitor the electrocardiac blood flow of the brain, and using a magnetic encephalogram we were able to map brain activity. Here we tried out the cerebral biography as opposed to the thoracic biography.

We looked into how the brain processes information. Any stimulus, any information that comes in from the external environment is sent to the brain via the arousal receptor. In the brain efferent processing takes place and the behavioural and physiological manifestations occur both through the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. We used this brain processing to see how information received is handled in the brain by the evoke-potential technique. Similarly, we wanted to see how tolerance of stress, whether physical or environmental can be modulated by yoga.

Some effects of yoga training

We studied these two groups, i.e. physical training and yoga training, for over a period of six months. In the experimental group (i.e. yoga training) we found that the autonomic equilibrium between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems was altered. The parasympathetic tone had a gradual build-up (after comparing the cardiovascular response, heart rate, the pressure at systolic and diastolic level between both groups) which is very vital. During stress one needs the activation of the excitatory system (the sympathetic system) and when stress is removed there is a need to restore equilibrium (the inhibitory or parasympathetic system). Over the six month period, the soldiers practising yoga sadhana had a very low pulse rate of about 50, 55 or 60.

The physical conditioning of yoga sadhana has two main advantages. One is to create very high inhibitory tone and the other is to optimize temporary reaction to stress (i.e. sympathetic reaction or arousal to stress whether it be emotional, physical or environmental). So this research indicates that yoga sadhana modulates and optimizes sympathetic activity in the stress situation and immediately restores equilibrium, so that the situation no longer demands or requires stress control by the intervention of the inhibitory parasympathetic system. How long do we need to remain in a condition of stress after the need has disappeared? Need we go home in a state of stress, sleep in a state of stress? The wear and tear on our system will be tremendous. So this data indicates that with yoga sadhana there is a gradual build-up of inhibitory tone or parasympathetic tone, and heart rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressure tend to show a fall.

This then is the message the research gives us. Yoga builds up the vehicle tone of the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. It also cultivates energy conservation so the body functions from a more equilibrated state. Energy is not wasted and performance is enhanced. During times of rest, energy conservation is optimized so that reserves are built up which can otherwise become overdepleted during times of stress.

Prana is of vital importance here. The starting point of regulation of prana is respiration, i.e. breathing. If we can synchronize, modulate, regulate our breathing then we can attain this equilibrated state. That is why yogis have a very low breathing rate of four to six breaths per minute, whereas ours may be about eighteen, twenty or twenty-two breaths per minute. So even if ordinary people like us can do yoga sadhana for just six months there is a tendency for the breath rate to decrease. The rate decreases but ventilation remains optimized, so this lower rate of breathing is more economical but not at the expense of ventilation.

When we are in states of anxiety, under tension and pressure, we will have a very high frequency wave which has a low amplitude. However, once we start to relax this will shift towards a lower frequency and a higher amplitude. In the experimental group (yoga), over the six month period, there was a gradual build-up, and even a resting level of alpha activity indicating a state of mental tranquility and brain synchronization.

At the Siachen base camp we were amazed to see that the swamis of the Bihar School of Yoga who helped us in our research were able to move around with minimal clothing and had better tolerance to cold, while we were all wearing woollens. So we conducted some experiments with the control group (PT) and the experimental group (yoga) along these lines. The tendency is to lose body heat due to the environment. After six months of asana and pranayama practice the yogic group was able to sustain a higher core temperature. This can be achieved either by heat conservation or by generating more heat to compensate for the loss. We examined the blood flow to the skin. In both groups this difference was insignificant, which suggests that the inner core temperature maintenance is sustained by heat production rather than by heat conservation.

So we looked into the electromyographic factor. We found that shivering started much later in the yogic group and was also of a lower magnitude, suggesting that heat production was achieved by non-shivering thermogenesis, i.e. the metabolic means of heat production which does not use energy but only substrate and hormones that are available in the body. Yoga practices help to tone up non-shivering thermogenesis as is evident from the fact that the shivering response manifested much later and was much milder in the yoga group than the PT group. Even six months of yogasana practice showed a definite improvement in tolerance to cold.

Body flexibility forms an integral part of physical fitness. We measured the angle of flexion and extension of various joints, using the latent flexometer. After six months with both groups we found equal achievement with some components and found total flexion in all joints. However, with the experimental group we found regular yoga practice can improve the flexibility of various musculature systems even if begun after middle age, 40–45 years.

We looked at the bio-chemical profile, the blood cholesterol, proteins, hormones which are related to sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. We found that the experimental yoga group's response did not swing to the higher, normal rate but to the lower, normal rate, so there is a greater buffer which can be used during stressful activity.

Next we examined the psychological functions. Yoga is not just the practice of asanas. If the mind is not involved an aspect of the asana has been lost and it is no longer yoga. The spin off from doing each asana with mental concentration is improved learning efficiency, memory, determination and better psychomotor performance. We measured these by using psychological instruments which distinguished between simple reaction, super reaction and changed reaction. We found improvement particularly in the area of learning efficiency.

Yoga also serves as a prophylactic against certain diseases. If we take any one disease, we can attribute it to any one of five factors: lack of exercise; disharmony between body and mind; stress due to occupational and social demands; pollution; and infection. Yoga can protect against these five hazards by forming a pattern of complete exercise . It tones up the muscular and skeletal system and massages the internal organs to activate both the neural and endocrine systems. It brings harmony between mind and body, modulates the stress response and one's attitude to the stress, tones up the nervous system, strengthens the detoxifying systems to handle pollutants and toxic substances effectively, and fortifies the immune system. It also has a curative effect on some of the psychosomatic disorders such as hypertension and diabetes. It is a complete physiological and psychological exercise.

One may wonder how yoga can effect all these responses. The practice of asanas may send a volley of nerve impulses from muscles and joints, spine and other receptors located on the surface as well as inside the viscera. It can influence the haemodynamic mechanisms, improving blood circulation to vital organs. It may also act through the neuro-endocrine axis. Yoga is an effective system of preventive health, and scientific evidence in support of this concept is fast emerging.