The potential of yoga to contribute to people’s health must be founded on solid science. Strengthening the evidence is among key objectives of WHO traditional medicine strategy, Global Traditional Medicine Centre and the forthcoming Global Summit on Traditional Medicine.
What is in an athlete’s workout plan? How do they get ready to deliver their best performance under the intense physical and psychological stress of world-class competition?
When we think about it, images of fast, intense actions tend to surface on our minds – running sprints, high-intensity interval training, burpees, lifting heavy barbells. What we usually don’t think of are slow, measured movements such as the practice of yoga. Yet, more and more athletes, from amateur park runners to Olympians are incorporating this traditional practice into their daily exercise routines, whether as a form or recovery or as a preventative measure to protect against injuries.
For this athlete, benefits of yoga go beyond physical
Abigail Irozuru is a British long jumper and Tokyo 2020 Olympic finalist and she uses yoga in her everyday training routine. “Yoga is a part of my active recovery routine. It’s a pause that allows me to work on stretching and ‘lengthening’ tight muscles through mindful, expansive breathing. Doing this regularly enough, I see myself transferring into my daily life and high intensity training days.”
While it is important to focus on physical and mental health, a healthy state of mind is an equally important component of overall health and well-being of an athlete. “I find I can better manage my emotions, breathe through frustration and pain – physically and emotionally”, Abigail says. “I’m able to slow down both on and off the yoga mat….and my back pain is cleared, and pelvic hip alignment is so good, so often that my physios are always surprised when they see me. There is not much work to do here, they say.”
Abigail and many other athletes, amateur and professional alike, use yoga to prevent injury, but the benefits of this ancient practice can go beyond increased flexibility, greater strength and muscle tone. Abigail says it calms her mind, while mindfulness-based practices of yoga enhance her awareness of mind-body connection, and breathing helps manage stress and anxiety. Some studies have suggested that engaging in a regular practice has significant mental benefits, such as stress management, emotional health, and better sleep.
Yoga is an accessible, affordable way for many people, including children, to reach the threshold of daily activity on the way to achieving a lifetime of good health. In 2021, the World Health Organization launched the mYoga app, an easy way of teaching and guiding on how to start practicing yoga.
Practice of Yoga is part of several systems of traditional medicine
Yoga, 5 000-years old practice with a rich tradition and history, is rooted in culture of several systems of traditional medicine. It emphasizes a vital link between body and mind, and whole-of-person health. In WHO South-East Asia Region, for example, yoga is one of the many systems of knowledge and practices that countries use to improve overall health and well-being of their people.
Traditional medicine – the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness – has a long history. It is an important and often underestimated health resource with many applications, especially in the prevention and management of lifestyle-related chronic diseases, and in meeting the health needs of ageing populations.
Traditional medicine is found in almost every country in the world; the demand for its products and practices – including yoga – has significantly increased worldwide, often in a quest for more personalized and comprehensive health care. Nearly 170 WHO Member States have reported on the use of traditional medicine in 2019, while around 80% of the world’s population is estimated to use traditional medicine, either as a primary source of health care, or to complement conventional treatments.
WHO’s initiatives to establish scientific evidence and knowledge base on traditional medicine
As with many other practices of traditional medicine, there is a need to strengthen the evidence base on yoga, and show, in a systematic and standardized way, how it contributes to physical and mental health. Strengthening the evidence base is one of the objectives of the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014–2023, whose overall goal is to support Member States in developing proactive policies and implementing action plans that will strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy.
Another WHO initiative to create a body of reliable evidence and data on traditional medicine is the WHO Global Centre for Traditional Medicine. Established in 2022 with the support of India, the Centre will leverage modern science and technology – evidence and learning, data and analytics, sustainability and equity, and innovation and technology – to harness the potential of traditional medicine systems to improve the health of people and the planet.
On 17 and 18 August 2023, WHO will convene a global summit on traditional medicine in India to exchange best practices and game-changing evidence, data and innovation and to mobilize political commitment and evidence-based action on traditional medicine, aligned with science and nature. One of the central issues at the Summit will be the lack of evidence on safety and efficacy of traditional medicine practices and the need for rigorous science to evaluate traditional interventions. Strong scientific evidence would lead to their inclusion in WHO guidelines, to enable countries to integrate traditional medicine into their health systems and harness its potential to help achieve universal health coverage and health for all.