Dr Ramesh Manocha’s results in asthma relief. The laypersons version.

“Meditation is playing an important role in modern medicine. Guy Allenby reports. July 24th 2003”

There’s good clinical evidence starting to emerge of the extraordinary physiological effects of meditation; there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence on the efficacy of various techniques; plus there’s considerable support for its use in the medical community. All that’s considered lacking now is the weight of research on its therapeutic effects to help direct and share its benefits.

“The important new frontier is looking at clinical outcomes,” says Monash University’s Hassed.

Not that this is a straightforward undertaking by any means.

Dr Ramesh Manocha, a clinical research fellow at the Sydney Royal Hospital for Women’s Natural Therapies Unit, says: “One of the problems with meditation research is that the definitions are very imprecise, and that has led to very mixed and mediocre results under scientific conditions.”

Manocha headed a research team that conducted a randomised controlled trial on using Sahaja yoga meditation in the management of moderate to severe asthma. The results were published in the world’s leading asthma journal, Thorax .

“We selected a very specific definition that is a very traditional definition of meditation – Sahaja Yoga.”

Sahaja Yoga meditation was founded by Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi in India in 1970.

It is, says Avinash Nichkawde, Sahaja Yoga’s national co-ordinator, based on an understanding of “a subtle energy system that exists within each one of us … that governs all aspects of our life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual,” he says. “With the techniques of Sahaja Yoga you can understand how it works. It’s practical in nature, very results orientated, very genuine, very scientific.”

Nichkawde provided Manocha with meditation tutors free of charge for the study. Manocha is at considerable pains to point out that he is indebted to Nichkawde for being able to use the technique, and for his expert guidance during his research.

“My name gets out there in connection with this technique,” says Manocha, “and people think that I developed it.”

The trial compared two groups of people with moderate to severe asthma over 16 weeks.

The first group was taught a standard form of stress management, says Manocha, while the second group was taught Sahaja Yoga meditation techniques.

Each group practised twice a day for 10 minutes during the trial period.

“What we found was that the meditators improved more psychologically, and they showed significant improvements in physical dimensions of the disease process as well,” he says.

The same improvement wasn’t seen in the people doing the stress management.

What this means, says Manocha “is that this mental silence approach to meditation isn’t just making people feel better, they are also doing something that is reducing the severity of the disease process.”

All subjects were tested for airway hyper-responsiveness (“considered the best and most objective measure currently available to assess disease severity in the asthmatic lung”) over the 16 weeks.

Manocha says the results of the study were remarkable, because often meditation trials compare “meditation to nothing”, while this study compares meditation with stress management. Trials that measure the effectiveness of meditation alone, he says, will show “that meditation does something”, but that often “more conventional approaches to reducing stress come out looking equally effective”.

“What that really means is that the scientific evidence [until now] doesn’t support the idea that meditation is anything better than a placebo effect,” he says. “The main aim of our research at the Royal Hospital for Women is to what effect there is above and beyond the placebo effect and simple relaxation and rest.

“With this technique called Sahaja Yoga,” he says, “we have actually found that there is an effect, and it is quite substantial in the areas that we looked at. It’s better than any research that’s been done in the world.”

It’s a big call. And as well as being published in Thorax magazine, Manocha’s trial is also mentioned in an editorial, The Therapeutic Effects of Meditation , in the British Medical Journal in May.

British Medical Journal
bmj.com/cgi/content/full/326/7398/1049