Gaganyaan Unplugged-6: Is yoga playing a silent role in India’s manned space mission?

(Gaganyaan Unplugged is an Onmanorama series that will get you all exciting happenings from India’s manned mission. Read the other parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

Bengaluru: What has yoga to do with India’s manned space mission Gaganyaan? Is the ancient wisdom of yoga doing its bit to aid India’s four probable astronauts?

Onmanorama looks at the efforts that have been already put in place by aerospace experts to embed yoga as an effective tool to aid astronaut training.

Sources confirm that the Institute of Aerospace Medicine (IAM), a key wing of the Indian Air Force (IAF), did give basic orientation in yoga to the four astronauts who left India for training in Russia.

At IAM, in addition to training in combating stress related to acceleration, haemodynamic changes, hypoxia, vibration and space motion sickness, the trainees were also taught basic yoga asanas.

“Yoga plays an important role in your life if you practise it every day. During their stints with IAM, the astronauts were given exposure to a variety of asanas. They had the option to choose from these asanas, around 30, depending upon their needs,” an official said.

These yoga sessions were tailor-made for the astronauts. “Yoga was also part of Rakesh Sharma’s mission and we understand that it helped him. Yoga helps in resilience building, concentration, and helps one handle pressure better,” the official said.

Along with yoga, meditation techniques too were taught to the astronauts-select.

“We looked at everything that could cut the noise out during this critical period of training. Getting sound sleep is an essential factor during training. The best practices to keep emotions under control were also looked into,” said the official.

Wg Cdr Rakesh Sharma (Retd), India’s only man to have gone into space, told Onmanorama that during his sojourn, yoga was not very popular.
“When I did yoga, it was not fashionable. At that time, it was probably the first time that such a mode of practice had got into a space programme,” he said.

According to him, space sickness is a very real problem, and there were several efforts to find a solution and reduce its severity and impact.
“An experiment was mooted and that’s how I did yoga to see if it helped. No scientific data to say how it helped,” Wg Cdr Rakesh Sharma (Retd) said.

Space sickness is subjective and might not bother all astronauts, he said, adding: “May be I was one of the guys who got adequate training to overcome these issues.”

During an earlier interaction with Onmanorama, HAL’s Chief Test Pilot (Rotary Wing) Wg Cdr Unni Pillai revealed that he practises yoga every day.
“The reason is, earlier I spent a lot of effort running, playing squash and swimming; but I realized from my regular medicals that the parameters were steadily deteriorating over the years.  I took up yoga and realized that yoga concentrates on the torso where all the critical organs are, and one starts to feel healthier and fitter after some time,” Wg Cdr Unni (Retd) said.

According to him meditation is a natural offshoot of yoga practise.

“I got maximum benefits doing meditation. The mind is always stable even in the worst emergencies and one can come up with the most appropriate action for the situation,” the veteran Test Pilot said.

The steadiness of the mind from meditation practise also helps in communicating with designers, engineers and pilots, he added.

Interestingly, an international study had suggested in 2016 that yoga could be a remedy for backaches that plague astronauts after long missions.
Citing low back pain and mobility issues that bothered the International Space Station crew, the study observed that lack of gravity could weaken the muscles supporting the spine.

“There are several findings by scientists and researchers in the field wanting to aid manned missions. In India, we have seen the benefits of pranayama. Astronauts will have to give great attention to their breathing techniques and we are finding ways to make things easier for them when they head out on their mission,” said an official.

On their return to India, the Gaganyaan astronauts will probably be given yet another round of sessions in yoga and meditation besides modern methods to stay focussed on the mission, sans the noise. And, noise is something that’s bothering the Gaganyaan teams within ISRO and IAF.

(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)

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