(BOX 1) DNA and measuring stress at the molecular level

The DNA that you inherited during conception is the DNA that you will have for the duration of this life as a human being. DNA contains the material that codes for specific traits, and it will determine the characteristics of a host of activities in your life through a process called genetic expression, in which genes in your chromosomes affect bodily processes, with specific genes being selectively activated or silenced in a predetermined automatic fashion. However, your DNA will also be expressed in various ways depending on external and internal influences. The stages of development, for instance, are a well-orchestrated array of gene expression and silencing to the beat of environmental cues. What you may not know is that genes can be selectively and specifically activated or silenced by your own behavior, and that it is possible to measure gene expression and determine the degree of gene expression involved in specific biological processes within your body.

Using measures of gene expression in the research of contemplative practices including yoga offers an additional measure of the physiological and psychological impacts of practicing these interventions, and one that is objective rather than subjective. For example, it may not be enough to sell to a scientist a self-report from yoga practitioners who claim increased awareness from practicing yoga and meditation. However, evidence of documented changes in gene expression that relate to the production of specific proteins responsible for brain and body growth and functioning offers a more concrete determination of the potential of these practices.

The first study of this kind was conducted by researchers in the laboratory of noted meditation researcher Herbert Benson at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School; see: They found that in long-term practitioners of meditation or yoga techniques (like the ones used in the Panacea Project), and in novices who had practiced for just 8 weeks, that there were “significant alterations in cellular metabolism, oxidative phosphorylation, generation of reactive oxygen species and response to oxidative stress…that may counteract cellular damage related to chronic psychological stress.” This is unbiased, objective evidence that these practices can affect physiological processes related to stress at the molecular level. 

BOX 2 KUNDALINI, for improved mental and cognitive functioning

Turning to another aspect of molecular biology and behavior, there are segments of DNA at the end of the chromosomes that are not responsible for the expression of any specific trait. These DNA segments are known as telomeres and they prevent the loss of important genetic material. Over-time, however, the telomeres deteriorate with aging and can be further degraded under conditions of chronic stress. An enzyme known as telomerase facilitates the lengthening and restoration of telomeres, and it is possible to enhance levels of this enzyme. Dr. Helen Lavretsky at UCLA, in collaboration with Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation published a study evaluating the effects of Kirtan Kriya  (a specific practice used in the Panacea Project) on telomerase levels within caregivers, who often suffer negative side effects in cognitive ability from increased stress see: For 12 minutes a day for a total of 8 weeks participants practiced Kirtan Kriya whereas others in a control group practiced a simple relaxation technique. The study concluded: “…that brief daily meditation practices by family dementia caregivers can lead to improved mental and cognitive functioning and lower levels of depressive symptoms. This improvement is accompanied by an increase in telomerase activity suggesting improvement in stress-induced cellular aging.” This is more evidence of the role of contemplative practices at the molecular level. 

A recent study just published by Dr. Benson and his team has showed more specifically that mind-body interventions cause changes in ”expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways” This has further expanded our knowledge of the profound and diverse effects of these practices at the molecular level.

In a collaborative study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine on which I (SBSK) am a coinvestigator, the BHI is currently conducting a study comparing different mind-body interventions in healthy individuals under chronic stress using three different types of measures: self-report questionnaires from participants, measures of genomic expression, and biochemical analyses of blood, saliva and urine; see: This study will not only provide information about the efficacy of the different interventions used, but will also assist in identifying the most efficient and cost effective means of measuring the impacts of the interventions. One of the interventions is a Kundalini Yoga protocol developed in collaboration with Shanti Shanti Kaur Khalsa of the Guru Ram Das Center for Medicine and Humanology. Participants assigned to this intervention will practice a brief Kundalini Yoga set at home daily for 8 weeks. A weekly practice session instructed by some Kundalini Yoga instructors in Boston includes the Basic Spinal Energy Series, the Calmness and Anti-Anxiety Series and the Stress Set for the Adrenals and Kidneys. We are looking forward to the results that will further reveal the effects of Kundalini Yoga at the molecular level.