Dr. H. R. Nagendra, President of the S-VYASA – From NASA to S-VYASA: The Launch of Yoga University in India

by Abha Gupta, Ph.D. , YSN Editor-in-Chief
(YSN Vol. 4, No. 2 – May 2016)

Dr. H. R. Nagendra, President, S-VYASA

Dr. H. R. Nagendra, President, S-VYASA

Wrapped in a white dhoti and wearing a broad smile, his unmistakable attire, Dr. H.R. Nagendra is the leading yoga researcher and advisor to the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Modi. Nagendra ji is the key person from India who led the effort for the proposal to the UN for International Yoga Day, celebrated on June 21. As the head of the world’s primary research university on yoga, S-VYASA (Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhan Samsthana), he and his sister Dr. R. Nagarathna (trained in western medicine) have been directing integrative medicine camps that incorporate yoga therapy for the last four decades, where they have handled more than 25,000 diabetic patients. He is now steering the national grassroots movement in India to uproot diabetes from the country by bringing public awareness to this debilitating and fast spreading ailment throughout that country. In a recent conversation, he judiciously explains why India is heading towards becoming the diabetic capital of the world (a disconcerting title, currently held by China), and the efforts by the Indian government to curtail the growing number of diabetics. Below are excerpts from my interview with this man, Dr. H. R. Nagendra, who resigned a coveted NASA research position in the USA in the 1970s to serve the country of his birth, India, inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s teachings.

Abha Gupta (AG): Please tell us about your early days and how the S-VYASA University came about.

Nagendra (HRN): I was in Kanyakumari (KK) in 1975, working in Vivekananda Kendra as the director of training for youth for service to the nation. Dr. Nagarathna joined me in 1978, and we started a yoga therapy center in KK. In this remote place, and with yoga therapy being a new field, there were hardly any patients – perhaps 30 to 40 in one year, so we moved the operation to Bangalore in 1979, hoping for more success. We set up our first camp with 250 patients, set up a control trial, and followed them up for 54 months; we submitted our first paper, based on the resulting data and positive encouraging analysis, to the British Medical Journal in 1985. This opened up our work to the whole world; people started asking us what type of yoga do you do, can you teach us, can we do collaborative research. One single research paper went global. Then we published another study on 660 patients of asthma with follow up results, and published in the Journal of Asthma in the USA. We began working with the Royal Free Hospital in London on the usefulness of yoga for diabetes and other health ailments. The GAIA Publishers in England published our first book, Yoga for Common Ailment, which refers to 18 ailments. This book was released in London, NYC, and Sydney, simultaneously. It sold well, and was translated into four or five European languages. It became a sort of textbook for yoga therapists. Based on these good results, we applied for a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant with MD Anderson Cancer Center (Texas), and received $ 4.5 million in funding, the biggest ever grant for research on yoga and breast cancer.

AG: Why did you choose this place in Bangalore for the university?

HRN: In 1986, when all these encouraging results started coming out on yoga and breast cancer, my father donated the land in Bangalore to a registered society that we formed, and the university slowly developed from that.

AG: Could you please elaborate on the current movement on “Diabetes Free India”?

HRN: India is close to becoming the diabetic capital of the world, right behind China. About four years ago, we started the “diabetes movement,” to stop this trend. Based on our research and experience at Prashanti, we knew of people who had been taking insulin and were able to stop external insulin dependency and become “normal.” We have handled about 25,000 diabetic patients in last 25 or so years. Based on our research, we started doing the ten-day camps, collecting data before and after. This started in Karnataka (Bangalore) and then Rajkot in Gujarat, where we had three or four camps, and then, based on the success of that, we set up camps in Maharashtra, Chennai, and Madhya Pradesh, amassing more data and experience. Then the nationwide movement began, with IYD on June 21.

AG: Why is India becoming the number one nation in the world in terms of the number of diabetic people?

HRN: As Indians, we are genetically prone to becoming diabetics. Insulin resistance is the highest among Indians, and then come Malaysians and Chinese. Once, when electricity was not there, and TV did not exist, people would go to bed by 8 pm or so, and get up early at sunrise; they had a lot of physical work and ate a simple diet, without high cholesterol food. This lifestyle was good, but with the industrial revolution and technology, things changed. Now people sleep late, and get up late, which has shattered the biorhythm of the body, going against nature, in a way. In addition, our food habits have completely changed, as we now consume high calorie, high cholesterol food, and junk food; this is a very big contributor to the expansion of diabetes.

We also used to have a lot of exercise and physical work. In my time, I would walk five kilometers to the Indian Institute of Science, but now our students use scooties (an Indian brand of motorized scooter) even if it is a half kilometer, executives go in their cars, and the physical aspect is almost lost. The household tasks, when we do them, are done with machines, so we do not have to do any physical work. The physical exercise needed to burn up the calories is almost non-existent in our daily lives.

The last reason for the increase in diabetes in India is related to stress, which suppresses the immune system and is the root cause for the sudden explosion of diabetes in our country. The immune system is our defense, and when suppressed, it becomes confused, no longer able to distinguish friend from foe and mistaking insulin as the enemy. Normally, when we take food, our blood sugar level increases, sending signals to the pancreas to send insulin so the sugar level can be brought down, thus, maintaining sugar metabolism in our bodies. In diabetics, the same thing happens, the signal is sent to the beta cells, which promptly send insulin, except that in diabetics, the immune system creates a barrier in its confusion due to stress, thinking the insulin is an enemy, and an auto immune barrier sets up. Though insulin is available, it is not available to the blood stream with high sugar level.

So what is the real solution? Current medical teaching advocates three things: (1) control of diet; (2) exercise; and (3) medicine. However, the confusion of the immune system is not removed by this treatment. Unless you reduce the stress, the confusion will not go away.

This is why we are doing yoga, bringing deep relaxation to the system. We have optimized a stress relaxation technique called “cyclic meditation.” We all have various ways by which we relax. If you get optimal sleep for six hours, it will give you rest of 9% as measured by the metabolic rate. But if we add cyclic meditation for half an hour, the metabolic rate is going to come down by 32%, more than three times that. Once you remove the element of stress, the confusion of the immune system goes away, the immune system normalizes, and insulin goes to the blood stream.

Cancer is the brother of diabetes: in diabetes, the immune system thinks friends are enemies; with cancer, it thinks enemies are friends, and allows the cancer cells to grow. This is also due to stress. There also, if you reduce stress, the immune system will blossom.

We have very severe diabetics who were taking 80 units of insulin, who are all now normal. Similarly, there have been success stories with cancer patients.

AG: What is your vision for 20 years from now for this university?

HRN: We want to bring Ayurveda and unani (refers to Perso-Arabic traditional medicine) to the forefront. For each patient, we must find out what his requirements are, and give the best of medical attention, physiotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, naturopathy, ayurveda, unani, etc. For this to happen, we have to bring the evidence base to the forefront. For yoga, now we have published 400 papers, about 75% of all the research on yoga that has been done all over the world. Similarly, we want to bring Ayurveda to the forefront, with research addressing all systems of AYUSH (the Indian Ministry on Ayurveda, Unani & Naturopathy, Siddha and Homeopathy).

Ultimately, what should happen in the next 20-25 years is that every hospital would have this holistic approach, what is called the integrative system. To that end, we have set up a school of integrative medicine. In America also, most of the hospitals have started putting together an integrative center. Accordingly, our mission is that in the next 10-15 years, there should be an integrative medical system for health care delivery. A doctor should be trained to use all these systems, and should know where and where not to use them.

The second thing being promoted, thanks to our Prime Minister, is the introduction of yoga to the education system. Unless yoga becomes a part of education system, it will not bring about the necessary changes in society. Only if you start to make yoga a way of life, can you evolve to a higher level of human existence, thriving by giving and sharing with others. At present, life is very self-oriented, with “everything for me, more and more for me, I don’t care for others.” A society of peace is dependent upon caring for others, helping others, sharing with others. Imagine a society where everyone wants to give and give and give. This is the transformation: from rajas (with a quality of passion or aggression), one moves to sattva (with a quality of constructive action and goodness and purity). Yoga brings about such a transformation. Yoga works at a very subtle level, from body level to the mind’s emotional and intellectual levels. This was happening in our ancient gurukula system (the traditional residential school system, under the supervision of teacher).

We have to move from the western concept of “bread earning” to “man making” and “nation building” education. This has been our approach since 1975. Now, yoga has been made compulsory in the schools all over India from 6th to 10th class. The NCTE (National Council of Teacher Education) has made yoga compulsory for all 23 lakh* teacher educators trained in a year. We have developed the syllabus for the requirement that all teachers are required to learn yoga, from pre-primary school, to elementary and high school, to BA, MA, and B.Ed. About 28 lakhs of teachers will be trained. I appreciate the efforts of our HRD Ministry to bring Yoga through NCTE, NCERT and then in higher education system also through UGC by starting Departments of Yoga in central universities and then spreading to other universities also. We were given the opportunity to set up the syllabus for the same, which we have completed and sent to the ministry. In the next ten years or so, everyone will know yoga in its broad sense, everyone will practice yoga, and India will become a role model for the entire world. What a fantastic world! There is great hope.

AG: Any last words for our readers?

HRN: To be happy all the time is real yoga. Patanjali called it “santosha” (contentment). Many people ask me what should a person do to be a real yogi; I tell them to be happy all the time. Whatever happens outside, you be happy. To be happy is our birthright, according to yoga. Easier said than done, and that is where you need the practice. Anandmaya kosha is our causal state, establish your birthright. Always be smiling. I also encourage people to read works by my role model, Vivekananda.

*One lakh equals 100,000.