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Yoga Research Comes of Age: Studies Show Broad Range of Health Benefits
The field of yoga research has grown exponentially in the past decade. A recent overview of yoga studies published in the Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy finds that there are now over 3,150 scientific publications examining the benefits of yoga for myriad physical and psychological conditions. As the body of evidence continues to grow, increasingly rigorous, sophisticated and well-funded studies will allow us to better understand how and why yoga works and for whom and increase the recognition of yoga as an effective adjunctive therapy.
Yoga Students Are Becoming Increasingly Diverse
Epidemiological and outcome studies provide important information regarding who is practicing yoga, for what purpose, and how certain components of a yogic lifestyle, such as asana or meditation are benefitting those with particular physical and psychological illnesses.
Epidemiological data suggest that over 20 million Americans, predominantly well-educated, Caucasian women, have adopted a regular yoga practice. However, recent studies find that the yoga community is becoming increasingly more diverse, and that more students from non-traditional age groups, such as children and the elderly, as well as overweight and obese individuals are adopting regular practice.
Although very little attention has been paid to why people practice yoga, new research suggests that the motivation for continued practice often changes from purely physical to spiritual over time. This is an interesting development given the tension between the need to maintain yoga as a secular practice in the West and its historical roots as a means to increase one’s connection with the divine.
Studies Review Yoga Effects on Back Pain, Heart Disease
There is increasing empirical support that yoga is beneficial for a wide variety of health conditions. A recent review of published research on the effects of yoga on chronic low back pain finds that regular yoga practice can help to alleviate symptoms and improve back-related functioning. It may also help reduce the side effects of back pain like depression and pain medication use.
The effects of yoga for people undergoing treatments for cancer such as radiation and chemotherapy have also been widely studied. A recent review of yoga as an adjunct therapy for cancer patients suggests that regular yoga practice may improve self-reported quality of life and decrease the symptoms of depression. More research is needed to establish whether yoga may be useful in other domains of cancer treatment as well.
Perhaps one of the most widely studied uses of yoga as therapy is in the treatment of cardiovascular conditions and their risk factors such as metabolic syndrome (MS), hypertension and obesity. A recent review of the research on yoga for heart disease suggests that yoga holds promise as an ancillary therapy to reduce correlates of heart attack and stroke risk like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, MS and dysrhythmia. While this research is still in the formative stages, these findings provide hope that yoga can be included as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle to decrease the incidence of heart disease.
Yoga Offers Relief for Depression, Anxiety and PTSD Conditions
A great deal of attention has been paid to the use of yoga as a supplementary tool for reducing the symptoms of a number of psychological conditions. A recent review of the studies of yoga for depression suggests that regular yoga practice can provide short-term relief for depressive symptoms; other studies on yoga for depression suggest that yoga may also yield long-term symptom reduction as well.
There is also preliminary evidence that yoga practices like movement, breath awareness and meditation may lessen the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). On the whole, however, findings for the effects of sustained yoga practice on mental health outcomes remain preliminary and require considerably more investigation prior to concluding their effectiveness for sustainable symptom relief.
One of the main ways in which yoga benefits individuals with physical and psychological conditions is in its ability to relieve stress. A recent systematic review of 25 randomized controlled studies examining the effects of yoga on the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response, showed that yoga practice leads to better regulation of stress, anxiety and the autonomic nervous system in a diverse population of individuals. (See article for more information on the effects of yoga on the stress response.) Given the destructive effects of chronic stress on every major system of the body (cardiopulmonary, endocrine, gastrointestinal, metabolic, nervous system etc.), this may be the most promising direction for yoga research to date.
What About Yoga Injuries? Studies Indicate that Yoga is Generally Safe
With few exceptions, most of the research suggests that yoga is feasible and safe for most participants. Like other exercises, however, yoga practices need to be performed properly, and under the guidance of a well-trained educator or yoga therapist in order to mitigate harm. Programs need to be modified to meet the specific needs of the individuals for whom they are tailored, particularly when students have significant physical or psychological conditions.
One of the greatest obstacles in yoga research remains the ability to recruit and retain participants and provide sufficient incentive for students to adhere to program recommendations such as home practice. The issue of creating contexts and practices that foster student’s intrinsic motivation to begin and continue their yoga regimen will continue to remain a focal point as the field of yoga research evolves. In addition, future studies on the health benefits of yoga will also need to achieve a high degree of empirical rigor in order for results to be recognized by the medical community.
The Need for a Holistic Approach to Yoga Research
Most of the existing yoga research follows a Western, medical model in that the effects of yoga practice are examined relative to a particular illness or condition. In many respects, this illness-based approach diverts us away from the intent of Patajali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, in which yoga was considered a lifestyle rather than a therapeutic modality or a practice. Consequently, the majority of Western empirical research evaluates the quantifiable effects of asana, pranayama and meditation, often neglecting practices of personal and social inquiry and transcendence such as adherence to the yamas and niyamas or dhyana (devotion to the divine).
As such, we have less information about how a holistic, yogic lifestyle may increase resiliency or decrease risk for physical or psychological illness. This begs the question – are we studying the effects of yoga or merely a subset of its constituent practices? For the future of yoga research this remains to be seen.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator of BREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com
Groessl EJ, Chopra D, Mills PJ (2015) An Overview of Yoga Research for Health and Well-Being. Journal of Yoga & Physical Therapy 5: 210. doi:10.4172/2157-7595.1000210