Last month Groessl et al., from the San Diego School of Medicine, published the results of their study examining the benefits of yoga on military veterans with chronic low back pain. Of the 150 participants in the study, 35% were unemployed or disabled and the mean back pain duration was 15 years. The mean age was 53 years. The group was generally thought to have “fewer resources, worse health, and more challenges attending yoga sessions than community samples studied previously”.
Hatha yoga classes, designed specifically for people with low back pain, were held twice a week for 12 weeks. They were led by an experienced certified instructor. Home practice (15-20 mins/day) was encouraged. The classes consisted of yoga postures, movement sequences, breathing exercises and brief meditation.
The veterans that completed the study had less disability and less pain. Although the decreases in pain were small, they happened in spite of reduced opioid use.
A group of researchers from McGill University looked at the effects of yoga on people with arthritis. Their findings were published in The Journal of Rheumatology. 75 sedentary adults with either rheumatoid arthritis or knee osteoarthritis and with a mean age of 52 years were randomly assigned to a yoga group or a waiting list. The yoga group took part in two 60 min classes and one home practice each week for 8 weeks duration. Yoga poses were modified to suit individual requirements.
Significant improvements were noted in physical, pain, general health, vitality, and mental health scales with most benefits still evident 9 months later. The researchers conclude that this new evidence suggests yoga may help sedentary individuals with arthritis safely increase physical activity, and improve physical and psychological health.
Dr Loren Fishman et al. studied a group of 25 patients with scoliosis. They taught the patients how to perform the side plank, which is a static exercise performed in Yoga and Pilates. The patients were then asked to perform the exercise once a day for as long as possible. They were instructed to only perform it on one side, with the scoliotic convexity downwards. The theory being that it would strengthen the weaker side of the spine and help address the muscle imbalance.
Measurements and x-rays were taken pre and post treatment. On average, patients reported practising the pose for 90 seconds a day, 6 days a week, for just under 7 months. A significant improvement of 32% was found in the Cobb angle of the primary scoliotic curve. The improvement rose to above 40% among the 19 most compliant patients.
This is an amazing result given the minor time investment!
A study by Seppala et al, published in last month’s issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress, looked into the effects of yogic breathing on war veterans with post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). They found that after the course of controlled breathing exercises the test subjects had reductions in PTSD scores, anxiety symptoms, respiration rate, startle signs and other hyperarousal symptoms. The benefits were still present 1 year later. It’s thought that the breathing exercises help balance the autonomic nervous system.
Gothe et al. from the University of Illinois recently conducted a study to look into the effects of hatha yoga on cognition. They recruited 118 senior citizens (mean age of 62) and randomly assigned them to one of 2 groups: a hatha yoga intervention group and a stretching/strengthening control group. Each group took part in hour-long exercise classes 3x/week for 8 weeks. At the end of the study period the yoga group showed improved results at information recall, mental flexibility and task switching. Whereas the stretching/strengthening group showed no improvement.
Although the underlying mechanisms are not known, it’s possible that the improvements in mental function may have been secondary to a reduction in stress. Alternatively, they may be down to the focussed attention on breathing, body position and movement.
A new study by McDermott et al. was carried out to see if yoga could be effective at preventing type 2 diabetes in those who presented risk factors. The participants were randomly split into 2 groups: the yoga group and a walking group. The participants either had to attend a yoga class or complete monitored walking 3-6 times a week over an 8 week period.
Over the course of the study, there were significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, anxiety, depression, negative affect and perceived stress in both the yoga intervention and walking control groups but the yoga participants had significantly greater reductions in weight, waist circumference and BMI.
This study proves that yoga can reduce weight-related type 2 diabetes risk factors, which is interesting given that previous research has generally not shown yoga to be of benefit in weight control.
A study published in this month’s Journal of Clinical Oncology by Lorenzo Cohen and colleagues from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has proven that yoga can complement the medical treatment of cancer. Women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer were split into 3 groups:
- yoga (including asanas, breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation techniques) group
- stretching (specific to condition) group
- control group
The yoga and stretching groups practised 3 times a week for an hour during the 6 week duration of radiotherapy. Data was collected before, at the end and 1, 3 and 6 months after treatment.
Compared to the two other groups, the yoga group showed statistically significant improvements in subjective measures of physical functioning, ability to engage in daily activities, general health perceptions and in the ability to find meaning in the illness experience. The changes were maintained over time. Additionally, measures of cortisol in saliva revealed better stress hormone regulation in the yoga group.
I recently read William Broad’s new book ‘The Science Of Yoga – The Risks and the Rewards‘. William Broad has practised yoga since 1970. He works as a science journalist and is a 2-time winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. It took him 5 years to write this book. It covers the history, the origins of the different schools, the gurus that contributed to yoga’s growth, the physical and mental health benefits, the effects on fitness, injuries, therapy, sex and creativity. The book draws heavily on over a century of research and successfully puts across an unbiased view of yoga…the good, the bad and all the rest…
Some of the benefits of yoga that are substantiated by research are:
- increased telomere length (telomeres cap chromosomes and prevent gene degradation) which may help to increase longevity
- decreased inflammation
- increased production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which acts as a feel-good neurotransmitter
- increased testosterone secretion (increases sex drive, improves mood, increases attention and sense of well-being)
- stimulation of the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system and inhibition of the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system . This means that the metabolism will be decreased not increased and so the potential for weight gain. This may seem contrary to some of the propaganda released by yoga schools. For those that want to lose weight, engage in cardio-vascular exercise and not yoga.
Now for some of the bad…this is important to mention as it is a subject that is not often talked about. Biased yoga gurus have done such a good job of branding and marketing yoga that most of us naïvely believe that only good can come of it! Most of the injuries that occur during yoga are muscle strains and joint sprains that primarily affect the low back, shoulders, knees and neck. There are however several cases of more serious injuries such as fractures, nerve injuries and even strokes! Some of the most dangerous positions are the Head Stand, Shoulder Stand and the Plough. Extreme caution should be used when attempting these positions as they place a tremendous amount of strain on the neck. They should be modified if practised at all. It is also interesting to know that injuries don’t just happen to beginners, several prominent yoga teachers are now speaking more openly about the damage they have suffered over the years.
See my earlier post ‘Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?‘ if you would like some advice before taking up yoga.
What William Broad has managed to do is give a more informed and honest view of yoga. He has redressed the partiality that existed. Some may react by questioning whether to take up yoga…those that have practised for years may find denial easier and simply ignore the information. Personally, I think anything that educates us and gives us a clearer and fuller picture of reality is beneficial. His book has confirmed the doubts I had about certain poses.
By no means do I think we should avoid yoga, on the contrary, I think an intelligent and cautious attitude towards practice can limit any potential harm and will be far outweighed by the plenitude of physical and mental benefits.
- A 20-minute Hatha yoga session with progressions from sitting to standing and then lying in a meditative position whilst focussing on breathing
- A 20-minute aerobic work-out on an inclined treadmill with participants working at 60-70% of their maximum heart rate
- A baseline assessment
They found that mental performance after yoga was significantly better for both inhibition and working memory tasks (ie. shorter reaction times, increased accuracy) than after aerobic exercise and after baseline measurements.
Prof Gothe commented that, “The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”
A new study by Cohen et al. at the University of Pennsylvania has found that yoga can help lower blood pressure. In fact, it was more effective than a supervised diet/weight reduction and walking programme. The patients did yoga 2-3 times a week for 24 weeks and lowered both their systolic and diastolic pressures by 3 mm Hg. It’s thought the reason yoga is so successful is because of the relaxation and mindfulness associated with it.