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Vol. LXI, No. 25
December 11, 2009
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Yoga Is Researcher’s Lab Assistant

It might seem illogical that someone who wakes up at 4 every morning would have seemingly boundless stores of energy, but that’s exactly the case for Dr. Alfia Khaibullina, who conducts research on Batten disease in the department of anesthesiology and surgical services at the Clinical Center. She gets this energy from doing yoga, something she credits with not only spurring her on during the day, but also saving her life.

Khaibullina is a child of the former Soviet Union and grew up in the now-independent republic of Kazakhstan, a country the size of western Europe that shares borders with Russia, China and many of the other former Soviet territories.

“After Borat, everyone knows the name,” she said, referring to the popular film by the same title.

Dr. Alfia Khaibullina of the Clinical Center credits the practice of yoga with restoring her vitality and focus. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” she says. Dr. Alfia Khaibullina
Dr. Alfia Khaibullina of the Clinical Center credits the practice of yoga with restoring her vitality and focus. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” she says.

In Kazakhstan, the communist society encouraged her to go to school and achieve high goals, but discouraged her from thinking independently.

“There was no real freedom of speech,” she said. “And you could not go abroad, not only because you couldn’t afford it, but you would not get permission.”

While in Kazakhstan, she pursued an interest in physiology, even going so far as to prepare to defend her Ph.D. dissertation. But when the Soviet Union fell, it took with it the funding needed to support the committees who heard academic defenses. After years of study and countless hours spent in classes and labs, Khaibullina was out of luck.

Within a few years, she and her husband and their son moved in 1994 to New York City so her husband could pursue a Fulbright fellowship in economics at Columbia University.

“I couldn’t speak any English, but that was okay because we lived in Spanish Harlem and no one could speak English there either,” she joked.

Not willing to let a language barrier stand in her way, Khaibullina started volunteering at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and was eventually hired as a staff member. This experience would renew her love of medical science and spark a desire to understand the complexities of the human mind.

She applied to George Washington University, was accepted into the neuroscience Ph.D. program and the family moved to the Washington area so Khaibullina could resume her studies. Though this was a time of great optimism and progress for her, she soon found herself battling with her own body.

“Because my English was not very good, I was stressed and I gained weight,” she said. “I was fat and out of shape. I had exercise-induced asthma and I had trouble going up the stairs. At 36, I could barely move. That was a big wake-up call for me.”

This is when she discovered yoga, the athletic discipline she first heard of in her youth but was discouraged from practicing by Soviet doctrine.

“I was always a little curious, but it was prohibited in a way by the Soviet Union,” she said. “They said it was an evil ideology.”

So in 2000, free from the restrictions of her once-oppressed homeland, Khaibullina began stretching and breathing and relaxing and all the other things that go along with the ancient meditative practice. She started losing weight. Her asthma went away.

“It kind of saved my life,” she said.

She liked the results and after 5 years of practice, she decided to apply for yoga instructor training. She currently teaches twice a week at a studio in Arlington, Va., but once taught informal classes at NIH on Friday afternoons. She also gets up well before dawn 6 days a week to work on her own, highly rigorous form of yoga that burns up to 600 calories a session.

“It’s very strenuous, but it’s an addiction,” she said. “Once in a while you think it would be nice to sleep in, but when I do that I feel old.”

Not only does her knowledge of anatomy and biology help her teach yoga to others, the mental discipline required in yoga helps her focus when she’s faced with tedious or repetitive tasks in the lab.

“It gives me that energy,” she said. “Sometimes you have to sit in front of the computer all day, and sometimes you’re in the lab. When you have 384 well plates you have to work with, it’s tedious, but you can’t mess up or it ruins your experiment. Without yoga it would be hard to concentrate.”

At a vivacious 47, Khaibullina is defying and redefining any notions about women in their middle years and is a poster child for taking up yoga regardless of physical condition or age.

“I’m in the best shape of my life,” she says. NIHRecord Icon

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