Major study casts doubt on yoga’s mental benefits

Science is casting doubt on the “union” part of yoga.

At least a little bit of science, albeit what may the largest study of its kind by a group that wouldn’t be looking to disprove yoga’s value: the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The study went online on Monday. Here is a link to the abstract.

Two hundred twenty-eight adults with lower back pain took part in the study; some took yoga classes, some just stretching classes and a third group were basically handed a book and told to fend for themselves.

The key finding: there wasn’t a difference between the yoga and stretching groups in terms of pain reduction. Or, in the abstract’s parlance: “Yoga was not superior to conventional stretching exercises at any time point.”

What’s that mean? Well, according to this story in the Wall St. Journal, it means the study “didn’t find any evidence that yoga provided broader mental benefits.” Researchers had thought that some mental benefit — stress relief, relaxation — from yoga was part of what helped reduce back pain.

But if stretching did as well, then… it’s all physical.

The type of yoga used was viniyoga. Is that maybe our saving grace?

As I’m learning in “American Veda,” there’s been a long history of trying to discover the benefits from yoga scientifically. The Transcendental Meditation folks were maybe the most aggressive in this, but I think you’d have to be blind not to see it even with Ashtanga: Witness Guruji’s Ashtanga Yoga Institute, for starters.

Does this study provide any final proof that there isn’t a mental benefit to yoga? Obviously not. But it sure has the feel of something that could upset the asana apple cart.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

7 thoughts on “Major study casts doubt on yoga’s mental benefits”

  1. What does “yoga” mean? Transcendental Meditation is a specific technique taught by people who were all trained directly by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, either in person or via a carefully constructed course of study that includes many hundreds of hours of video taped lectures and structured class learning. Studies that lump TM together with arbitrary meditation classes from the YMCA or learned from a book, find that “meditation has no effect.” In fact, different forms of meditation have different effects, so when you average their effects together, you get a “null result.”

    This study on hatha yoga sounds like the same kind of silliness. In its crudest form, hatha yoga IS nothing but stretching, so just labeling some arbitrary class “yoga” means about the same as closing one’s eyes and chanting “one” while watching the breath and calling it “meditation.” Without quality control of the instructors, you’re not going to find any measurable effect beyond the most primitive, whether it is stretching for yoga, or “The Relaxation Response,” for meditation.

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