A more positive take on the ‘yoga for back pain’ study

My initial take on the study released this week that determined yoga and stretching both relieved back pain at about the same levels was, I suppose, relatively pessimistic. I wrote:

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.

I do think there is something to that perspective, especially if researchers were expecting yoga to do more than just stretching.

But I don’t want to discount the positives from the study. Here’s a key quotation from a New York Times blog post about the study:

“This is good news for yoga,” said Karen J. Sherman, lead author of the study and senior scientific investigator at Group Health Research Institute in Seattle. “The smaller studies which hinted that yoga might be helpful all had problems one way or another. This is a much larger study, and the findings are robust.”

So, in that sense, this study suggests that the physical benefits of yoga are significant. And that’s nothing to sneeze at, right?

I also note this:

As an alternative to yoga, stretching may be a viable option. Dr. Sherman recommended taking an intensive stretching class, then establishing a routine at home. But she cautioned that her study looked specifically at deep stretching that is far more involved than the brief, light stretches most people do before or after a workout.

“It’s not like stretching each leg for 30 seconds,” she said. “It’s much more intensive. You might spend two minutes stretching each leg before moving on and stretching other parts of the body, so you’re really getting in there.”

That makes the stretching exercises sound a lot more like asana poses than a quick reach for the toes.

Of course, all of this reflects a pretty narrow view of yoga, right? Just Hatha, from the sounds of it. And, as a commentator on my earlier post notes:

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.”

In beginning that comment, the writer asks the key question: “What does ‘yoga’ mean?” I suspect the answer in mind is something that is not quite so easily measurable, but is that feeling you get when everything does unite.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

5 thoughts on “A more positive take on the ‘yoga for back pain’ study”

  1. “In beginning that comment, the writer asks the key question: “What does ‘yoga’ mean?” I suspect the answer in mind is something that is not quite so easily measurable, but is that feeling you get when everything does unite.”

    Actually, Fred Travis at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, IA, HAS started to get a handle on what “yoga” means, or rather, what the Yoga Sutras means by the statement “Yoga is the subsidence of mind fluctuations.” The “pure consciousness” state found in some TM meditators is characterized by high alpha EEG coherence in the front part of the brain and between the front and back parts of the brain. Some long-term TMers report having pure consciousness present 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, for years at a time, and they show this EEG pattern superimposed on top of the normal EEG of waking, dreaming and sleeping.

    This same EEG pattern also is more likely found in world champion athletes, classical musicians, top-level (business-saving, not Trump style) managers, and police officers who report that they consider police work to be a “spiritual calling.” They all tend to report “flow” more often than the average person, where they simply do the work, rather than think *about* the work they are doing.

    Abraham Maslow suggested that “great” music would be more likely to induce flow in its listeners than “average” music would, and I would expect that a “great” yoga class, or “great” tai chi class, etc., would be more likely to induce flow as well.

    This all goes back to the yogic concept of “dharma,” or “duty” where your highest dharma is the one that is most likely to induce “flow” in your life.

    1. All good points and no argument here (and I hope/think I mentioned TM as leading the charge to apply scientific study to Eastern/Indian practices).

      That said, even today I’m seeing additional reactions to this study that are coming down to the “yoga is good for your body, not so much your mind.” So in the sense that judging whether 200-odd people got relief from back pain is easier to quantify than whether they felt a sense of calmness or unity or otherwise heightened awareness, I think Western science is still a ways off from being able to measure much beyond the effects of the asanas across a large scale.

      To another point: Would a better study be one that sent some control groups to do a dharma yoga program? A bhakti one? Maybe — although I can’t imagine how they’d measure it.


      1. THere are various documented physiological effects of various kinds of meditation. If the long-term outcome of asana and meditation converge to the same thing (enlightenment), you can see if there’s some similarity in physiological effects of asanas while practicing them, and see if there is some long-term similarity as well.

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