By Dipankar Das
The latest addition to the training program of the Indian armed forces is yoga training, which is helping to keep them in a fit-to-fight condition
What do you think is the latest addition to the Indian armed forces’ arsenal? Early warning systems, Ishapur assault rifles or perhaps stealth fighter-bombers acquired on the sly?
Wrong. The latest weapon in its armory is yoga. Introducing yoga in the Army’s training curriculum is not intended to stand the forces on their heads, but brace the soldiers to the extremes of climate. The institution responsible for this innovation is the Defence Institute of Physiological and Allied Sciences (DIPAS), whose brief is to evolve ways to help the armed forces acclimatize soldiers to adverse operational terrain like deserts, snow-clad mountains, underwater and aerospace.
The idea first occurred to the director of DIPAS, Dr W. Selvamurthy, 46, who wondered how it was possible for slovenly sadhus (mendicants) to roam about in various states of undress even in subzero temperatures, while the Indian soldiers stationed in Siachen (near the Sino-Indian border), Leh (near the Indo-Tibetan border) and other cold places go through terrible privations even with ample warm clothing.
More specifically, he asked whether the sadhus‘ esoteric ability stemmed from spiritual elevation or was there a physical element in their ascetic practices which could be fruitfully emulated to beat the cold. Experiments began in early 1985. One group of soldiers was made to do 50 minutes of yoga and five minutes of pranayama and meditation daily for six months, while another group continued to do the regular army drills and endurance training. Then both the groups were put in chambers in which temperatures were regulated at 10ºC, with minimal clothing on the soldiers.
It was observed that those trained in yoga were able to retain their body heat for a longer time as compared to those who did the routine exercises. Explains Dr Selvamurthy: ‘It was seen that the skin temperature of both the groups was very similar—that showed thermogenesis was not due to the differential release of heat but due to metabolic activity or through shivering. Shivering started much later in the yoga group—that meant heat retention was due to metabolic activity. This was also confirmed by other parameters such as an increase in ventilation and the level of oxygen consumption.’
American scientist Herbert Benson, he adds, has shown that yogis (yoga experts or masters) are able to raise their skin temperature at will by controlling the activity of metabolites like glucose, fats and free fatty acids, which give immediate energy. Not content with these results, Dr Selvamurthy led the first Indo-Soviet delegation to the Arctic in 1991, where these experiments were replicated; of course, this time without any artificial chambers, but with equally successful results.
Says Dr Selvamurthy: ‘Physical training can produce muscle power and endurance, while yoga helps to develop the right psychological profile to face the environmental conditions.’ This discovery took time to be accepted in the army circles. In 1995, however, the Director General of Military Training (DGMT) finally introduced yoga as a part of the curriculum, especially for the soldiers who serve in the Northern Command. Noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and junior-commissioned officers (JCOs) are being taught to impart training to the jawans, while trainers are also being invited from institutions such as the Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, and the Central Institute of Yoga, Delhi.
Says Dharmanand, of the Adhyatma Sadhna Kendra, Delhi, who conducted a 10-day training course in Leh: ‘Melancholia is a common problem in the high altitudes. I instructed the soldiers in dhyan (meditation), asanas (yoga postures), relaxation and contemplation techniques, which helped them cope with it.’
With some alterations, yoga training will be introduced in the navy and air force as well. While investigating the mind-body connection, an experiment was conducted to see if the benefits of yoga accrued from physical postures only. One group was put on tilted tables, while another did asanas which involved head-up or head-down tilts such as sirsasana and sarvangasana for 30 to 45 minutes daily for six weeks.
For the group practicing yoga, the blood pressure moved towards normal, blood electrolytes like sodium and potassium got corrected, as did the secretion of hormones like renin and angiotensin. For the other group, no such change occurred. In yet another experiment, it was seen that agnihotra—a part of Vedic rituals—has a relaxing effect on the body. It is performed by offering a prayer to the sun and lighting a fire using cowdung in a copper vessel in the shape of an inverted pyramid.
Rice and ghee are poured into the fire exactly at the time of sunrise and sunset, while reciting two specific mantras. Fire and organic gases cleanse the atmosphere. Using computerized measures of galvanic skin resistance, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration for those seated around, it was seen that the magnetic field generated influenced the body and mind functions. On all counts the body functions showed tranquillity.
With an annual budget of Rs 3.5 crore (35 million), DIPAS, which was set up in 1962, is also involved in research projects to develop holistic therapies. It is conducting research on stress-induced hypertension as also on breast cancer and immunity-deficiency diseases.
DIPAS has also developed a composite Indian herbal preparation made of aswagandha, the Indian ginseng, chyawanprash, an ayurvedic preparation, and 13 other herbs. It helps in stress management and adaptation to extreme conditions and is still being experimented on 5,000 soldiers in high altitudes. ‘It all depends on the generals in the GOC, most of whom are well-inclined towards our Indian systems and readily accept them when we show them scientific evidence,’ observes Dr Selvamurthy.
Dr Selvamurthy has come far from the days when people were amused to hear that he wanted to make yogis out of the soldiers. ‘I would give them the example of Arjuna, the great warrior from the Indian epic Mahabharata, who was a great yogi and warrior,’ he reminisces. He did his MSc from Christian Medical College, Vellore, India followed by a PhD in medical physiology from Delhi University. In 1996 he was awarded an honorary doctorate in alternative systems of medicine from Sri Lanka University. In 1973 Dr Selvamurthy joined the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). His interest in yoga began around this time, when he observed his roommate doing asanas. Soon he began taking regular lessons at a yoga center in Delhi.
‘The idea of studying yoga scientifically came to me when I wanted to know if others also felt as I did subjectively,’ he explains. His ambition: ‘To spread the message of our systems because the modern medical care in a country of 900 million is too expensive, while our systems are prophylactic. Our people are intellectually sound, but when it comes to looking after their health they just don’t bother.’
So the next time you go trekking in the high mountains and see an anchorite sitting cross-legged in meditative repose, don’t be alarmed. It is unlikely to be an apparition of Lord Shiva, sitting atop his snowy abode of Mount Kailash, it may be just another intrepid jawan (Indian soldier) braving the cold— the yoga way.
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