Wow! Genetic evidence for yoga’s health benefits

A new study from Norway is putting a deeper spin on yoga’s health benefits: It may go right to your genes.

The study, published online in PLOS ONE, concludes:

Here we have shown, to our knowledge for the first time, that there are rapid (within 2 hours of start of practice) and significant gene expression changes in PBMCs of practitioners during a comprehensive yoga program. These data suggest that previously reported effects of yoga practices have an integral physiological component at the molecular level which is initiated immediately during practice and may form the basis for the long term stable effects.

The fact that there were a larger number of genes (approximately 3-fold) which were affected by SK&P compared with the control regimen was consistent with our hypothesis that yoga has specific effects on gene expression in PBMCs.

OK, so what does that mean? Well, “PBMCs” are  peripheral blood mononuclear cells, which are critical to our immune system’s ability to do its job. Basically the Hatha yoga and Kriya breathing techniques seem to have a near immediate effect on genes — they turn certain ones on, especially these involving our immune system.

The experiment focused on 10 participants in a week-long yoga retreat. (Four others couldn’t be used in the study for various reasons.) The program including two hours of asana and breathing practice plus meditation for two days. For a control period, the subjects took a nature walk and listened to soothing music during two other days. Before and after each session, they got their blood drawn.

And the researchers looked at that blood. (You can get all that detail at the link above.)

The result? Researchers found changes to 38 genes among those who were walking and listening to the music. For those doing yoga? The number jumps to 111. Both exercises affected 14 genes, suggesting  “the two regimens, to some degree, affect similar biological processes.” But clearly, the researchers conclude, yoga’s impact was more widespread. And that means it “may have additional effects over exercise plus simple relaxation in inducing health benefits through differential changes at the molecular level.”

The sample size is, of course, small. And the researchers wonder about the lasting — longitudinal — effects, as well.

But they end their report with this intriguing statement:

This approach can now be used to more systematically interrogate these molecular changes, define the signals that are triggered by yogic exercises that eventually impact PBMCs, and provide a platform to conduct comparative studies between different yogic practices.

Let the Ashtanga vs. Bikram battle continue!

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

9 thoughts on “Wow! Genetic evidence for yoga’s health benefits”

  1. Hi! Thanks for the link!
    It is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately the sample size was very small.
    As a pilot study, it shows heaps of promise !
    Very encouraging, but it would be very difficult to use the study as “evidence” to convince some of my more skeptical medical colleagues !

  2. I agree–absolutely fascinating. I wonder if the benefits increase if one practices yoga, takes walks through nature, and listens to music on a regular basis? That is to say, is there a limit to the number of genes that can be changed? There is something incredibly optimistic about this study, even if it opens up more questions than it answers.

  3. To me it states the obvious: 1) exercise is good for you 2) eating a healthy diet is good for you 3) breathing fresh air is good for you 3) low stress is good for you. Everything affects your genes. You as others have said here you would need a much larger sample group and I would hope that they would use a control group of runners or rowers or something over say billiards, darts or curling. Another high air volume sport should be used like hockey, football etc. Interesting though. I wonder if lululemon paid for the study?

  4. first, i would not call this “genetic evidence” – what they did is simply take a tally of genes that were more used, or less used by some easily accessible cells – the pbmcs – under the two conditions. turning genes on and off is the way of cells to respond. Taking a snapshot of the differences between sets of genes utilized is just a way to capture some information on what the cells are doing or might be up to in response to a condition.

    second, the main difference between the 2 regimens is that one involved forced breathing (i.e. overriding the “autopilot”) and the other did not. It would therefore be quite interesting to see some blood-gas analysis data to go along with the gene profiling of the cells. authors do hint at the possibility of blood-gas changes when the cite lower lactate levels in yogis (not this study). 

    third, there seems to be some implied notion that the yoga in some way affects the immune system, of course in a beneficial way. the authors are quite happy in giving this impression even though they provide little more than handwaving when it comes to interpreting/guessing what the gene profiling actually means functionally. anyway the notion is misinformed. obviously, if one interrogates immune cells on their gene use, one will find enrichment for those genes that are used by the immune system preferentially. in order to assign any immune system specificity to the yoga effect, one would have to look at other cell types and find that say brain, liver or kidney cells don’t bother changing their gene usage, when immune cells do under the conditions tested.

    fourth, and just in case: turning genes “on” does not equal more/better/improved function. just as turning genes “off” does not equal the opposite. it depends on what the gene product is doing. and more often than not it’s difficult to say what any one gene product is doing because net effects are highly interdependent on the effects of other gene products. TNF was up under the control regimen – must be very unhealthy…

    fifth, authors spend one entire lengthy and one shorter paragraph in the discussion to quickly dismantle any of their sexy speculations on what their observation actually means. rightfully so. for once, i’d have to disagree with brad: the study doesn’t show anything that’s “obviously good for you”. it shows that it is possible for 2 activities to have distinct short term effects on pbmcs as measured by their transcript profile. 

    sixth, this kind of study is about as informative for yoga as a vaginal exam of the virgin mary would be for the catholic church

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