New study: If nothing else, yoga’s got a great placebo effect

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that of popular alternative wellness activities, yoga beats natural supplements and chiropractic care.

Link to the study is here. Its distilled down here:

Not only are yoga enthusiasts much more likely to report that their downward dogs and tree poses improve their physical and mental health, they are also more likely to report that yoga motivated them to adopt healthier behaviors, such as eating more nutritiously and doing more aerobic exercise.

Indeed, the study found people who take up yoga are four times more likely to say the practice inspired them to eat healthier and three times more likely to say it encouraged them to run, walk or do some other kind of regular physical activity than those who take supplements or receive chiropractic treatments.


There is no good evidence-based research to support claims that any of these complementary practices boost the body’s immune system or improve memory or other thinking skills. Yet many of the people surveyed perceived that they did — a finding that likely reflects the placebo effect.

Indeed, 82 percent of the yoga practitioners, and about 67 percent of the users of supplements and spinal manipulation said their overall health had been improved because of the complementary practices.

Yet, when asked if these approaches had made it easier for them to cope with their health problems, less than 40 percent of the yoga practitioners and the spinal manipulation users and only 25 percent of the supplement users said yes.

That last paragraph sounds a weird note to me. Perhaps there’s something to the idea of “ease” that doesn’t translate. I suppose I wouldn’t say my yoga practice has made it easier — it perhaps has made me more effective at coping with things, but it isn’t easy to do so.

Of note: Across the board, yoga outscored taking supplements and chiropractic care in terms of people’s positive experiences and reactions.

Posted by Steve

Here’s your latest reason to drink coffee, and it involves your colon

Ashtanga practitioners, from my experience, can give just about any subset of people — emergency room doctors, workers in the morgue or new parents — a run for their money when it comes to a willingness, even pleasure, in discussing things that really ought not be talked about among polite society.

So putting the word “colon” in a headline here feels right.

It’s also appropriate, because colon health is our latest reason to knock back some coffee each day. (Getting up to attend Tim Miller’s 6 a.m. pranayama is another.)

Here’s from the New York Times, early last week (forgive me, I was busy surfing):

Colon cancer patients who were heavy coffee drinkers had a far lower risk of dying or having their cancer return than those who did not drink coffee, with significant benefits starting at two to three cups a day, a new study found. Patients who drank four cups of caffeinated coffee or more a day had half the rate of recurrence or death than noncoffee drinkers.

But, the researchers caution, cancer patients should not start ordering extra tall coffees. The study, the first to report such findings, does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between coffee drinking and a lower risk of colon cancer recurrence. As other experts note, there may be differences between heavy coffee drinkers and abstainers that the research was not able to account for.

Yes, so there’s a caveat. But the guy who led the research had this to say:

“No one has ever done this before in colon cancer patients. It does require confirmation,” he said. Patients should not start drinking coffee based on this study, but, “If you’re a coffee drinker and enjoy your coffee, stick with it,” he said. “If a patient says, ‘Well I hate coffee,’ I’d say there are other things you can do, like avoid obesity, exercise regularly and follow a balanced diet.”

I like coffee, so I’ll stick with it. You can read more about the study at the link, obviously enough.

Posted by Steve

Did you start practicing Ashtanga for one reason, and keep doing it for another?

I’ve admitted here before that a main reason I started Ashtanga — and probably, really, yoga (as in asana) more generally — was as a means to improve the quality of my surfing.

And then time passed.

Seven or so years later, I’m still doing Ashtanga (and, happily enough, still surfing — though more of the former, less of the latter).

And it’s not just to keep me in the water. The reasons I’ve still practicing must include:

  • The health benefits, which I’ve highlighted.
  • Some sort of spiritual fulfillment, or those trips to India were sort of silly.
  • To be honest (and she’s probably never heard me say it), it’s a shared experience for Bobbie and me.
  • Related to the health benefits, what I hope is a bit more of a even-keeled, able-to-handle-stress, calm and reflective state of mind.
  • The hope that one day I’ll actually touch my nose to my knee.

I suspect my experience of starting the practice for one reason and keeping going for another (or others) isn’t unusual. Anyone want to share what keeps them going, and what got them started. Did the practice have anything to do with the change? (I think the answer in my case is obvious.)

Posted by Steve

New study suggest yoga can be as good as cardio

You have to read through a lot of science to get to the bottom-line of this article, but once you do:

Compared to traditional aerobic exercise controls, there was no significant difference in how exercise or yoga changed risk factors, suggesting similar effectiveness of the two forms of physical activity and possibly similar underlying mechanisms. The mechanism behind the therapeutic effect of yoga for CVD is still unclear; studies have suggested that yoga may modulate autonomic function and beneficially alter markers of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.1214 Through practicing yoga, the effects of stress can be reduced, leading to positive impacts on neuroendocrine status, metabolic and cardio-vagal function, and related inflammatory responses.1214 The similarity in effectiveness on risk factors between the two forms of exercise suggest that there could be comparable working mechanisms, with some possible physiological aerobic benefits occurring with yoga practice, and some stress-reducing, relaxation effect occurring with aerobic exercise.

That’s from the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. What is means, more or less, is that yoga is about as good at combating things like high blood pressure and cholesterol as relatively strenuous cardio such as swimming or biking. (From my own experiences, I’m not sure anything really beats swimming.) CVD is short for cardiovascular disease.

And here’s from the conclusion:

Our review finds emerging evidence to support a role for yoga in improving common modifiable risk factors of CVD and metabolic syndrome. Whereas previous reviews have looked at a single or a few risk factors, our review updates the existing literature and encompasses numerous CVD and metabolic risk factors that can be used to calculate overall CVD risk. We believe that these findings have important implications for the acceptance of yoga as an effective therapeutic intervention. Given the growing popularity of yoga in the US and around the world, there is a need for larger randomized controlled studies that meet explicit, high quality methodological standards to ascertain the effects of yoga. This review demonstrates the potential of yoga to have an impact on concrete, physiological outcomes that represent some of the greatest health burdens today.

And of course that’s where yoga’s headed, right?

Posted by Steve

Another scientific study suggests benefits from part of Ashtanga practice

It’s true that it’s us who are tying some scientific findings to Ashtanga — the strains of working out six days a week proved popular, but we’ve also pondered if yoga just isn’t strenuous enough and highlighted the benefits of our semi-regimented diet — but we do so because there always seems an obvious link, but one that probably wouldn’t otherwise be made. (So, budding researcher, search around this blog a bit and find some Ashtanga-related studies you can do.)

Here’s the latest, and it suggests the early morning asana practice is good:

In a groundbreaking 2010 study, researchers in Belgium persuaded young, healthy men to stuff themselves for six weeks with a diet consisting of 30 percent more calories and 50 percent more fat than the men had been eating. Some of the volunteers remained sedentary while gorging. Others began a strenuous, midmorning exercise routine after they had had breakfast. The third group followed the same workout regimen, but before they had eaten anything.

At the end of the six weeks, the sedentary group predictably was supersized and unhealthy, having gained about six pounds each. They had also developed insulin resistance and larded their muscles with new fat cells. The men who exercised after breakfast had also packed on pounds, about three pounds each, and developed insulin problems. But the men who had exercised first thing in the morning, before eating anything, had gained almost no weight and retained healthy insulin levels. Their bodies were also burning more fat throughout the day than were the other men.

Of course, the early-morning exercise prevented weight gain, which is not the same thing as inducing weight loss. But the results are encouraging for those who hope to shave off a few pounds, said Peter Hespel, a professor in the Research Center for Exercise and Health at Catholic University Leuven in Belgium and the study author.

You can find out more at the link.

And of course we can counter with various reasons to practice later.

Posted by Steve

All your sitting is doing you lots of harm

We’ve already highlighted the dangers of sitting too long and too much. And now there’s even more. From the Los Angeles Times:

New research that distills the findings of 47 studies concludes that those of us who sit for long hours raise our average risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and early death.

Even for those of us who meet recommended daily levels of exercise, sitting for long periods of time boosts our likelihood of declining health.


But even those who punctuate a long day of sitting with a vigorous workout were estimated to be 16% more likely to die of any cause in a given time than were those who do not sit for long.

The studies that formed the basis for such aggregations defined prolonged sitting, as well as high levels of physical activity, quite differently. While one study included participants who spent as little as an hour a day seated, the rest defined prolonged sitting as those who watched television for at least five hours a day on up to those who had more than six and, in one study, more than 11 hours of “sitting time” a day.

And the thing is, is that an hour or so of exercise every day doesn’t seem to make up for this very much. It obviously is healthy and helpful, but the studies suggest that a whole lot of sitting — between a commute, work, watching TV — is a major factor in shortening life and upping the risk of contracting diseases.

Here’s a question to put into this: What about seated meditation? I wonder how that would factor in?

Easiest thing to do, according to researchers, is to get up for a minute to three every half an hour.

Posted by Steve

Study finds yoga may help your heart as much as aerobics

Combating studies that suggest yoga isn’t strenuous enough to provide significant health benefits, a new look at asana practice comes up a little more positively.

Here’s Reuters’ take:

Based on 37 clinical trials, researchers found that doing yoga lowered blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and other cardiovascular risk factors in increments comparable to those seen with aerobic exercise.

“Taken together, these improvements could facilitate and complement a regimen toward better cardiovascular health,” said Paula Chu, a doctoral candidate in health policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study.

She and her co-authors caution in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, however, that larger studies are needed to understand how yoga improves health, how much of it is ideal and if there are differences in benefits from various types of yoga before the practice becomes a standard prescription for heart disease.


The study team analyzed 37 randomized, controlled trials involving 2,768 people through December 2013. The trials either looked at yoga compared to no exercise or to aerobic exercises. Participants’ average age was 50 and they were followed for anywhere from 12 weeks to one year.

Those who did yoga had significant improvements in a range of risk factors. Systolic blood pressure (the top number) dropped by an average of 5.21 mm Hg, and diastolic pressure (the bottom number) dropped 4.9 mm HG. LDL “bad” cholesterol fell by an average 12.14 mg/dl and HDL “good” cholesterol rose by an average 3.20 mg/dl. Average heart rate was lower by a little over 5 beats per minute and weight loss averaged a bit over 5 pounds.

I’ve definitely benefited from lowered blood pressure and cholesterol, as just one tiny randomized sample.

Posted by Steve

Just what is yoga? Arguments in D.C. tax case may inform us

We’ve covered the proposed expanded sales tax in Washington, D.C., which would broaden things to include health clubs and, by initial extension, yoga studios already.

Now, Yoga Alliance has added its voice to the debate, arguing both that the tax should not cover yoga studios (that offer yoga solely, if I understand it correctly) and that the way the debate has been playing out is pretty unfair to the yoga world.

Let’s tackle the latter of those arguments first.

The Washington City Paper has a letter the alliance wrote to city leaders. In it, the alliance pretty much blames the media for dubbing the proposal a “yoga tax” because, it argues, the author of the proposed tax never mentions yoga — and by some extended logic, yoga ought to be kept out of the mix as it was never intended to be part of the tax in the first place.

I have to say, I’m not quite buying that. When a politician talks about a “wellness tax” or says it will apply to “health clubs, etc.” I am pretty sure that politician has a wide range of health-related businesses in mind. Calling it, in fact, a “yoga tax” would have created a similar, even stronger, argument for gyms, Pilates studios, etc. “If you want to tax yoga, go ahead. Just leave us out of it.” Yoga may be exercise, but weight lifting definitely isn’t yoga. (Although the trend to add “yoga” to every health craze hurts that argument.)

Plus, supporters of the tax could argue that yoga instructors still are providing a service, which is the real driving force behind the tax.

The second of the alliance’s arguments is more intriguing. My gut reaction when I saw the story was: It is going to go with the “yoga is religious” tactic. (And then we can imagine what that might mean for the yoga in schools lawsuit.) But, the alliance surprised: Yoga, it argues, is “a comprehensive system for well-being in every dimension of the human experience: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The physical postures and breathing techniques are only a fraction of the overall discipline of Yoga.”

Pretty good, with a broad range of benefits, even if there is the “spiritual” wiggle room for other lawsuits we’re watching.

I don’t think it is ironclad, though. Where this argument seems headed, to me, is to a question of whether a gym or health club provides a similar complement of benefits. Where would “burning off some stress” on a bike or by lifting weights fall into that quartet of “human experience”? Mental? Emotional?

And before you toss “spiritual” out as a possibility, don’t forget Crossfit.

The alliance’s strongest argument is that it references New York State’s exclusion of yoga-only studios from a health club, gym or weight-control business tax. The problem is that — unless the tax got changed and I don’t see note of that — it doesn’t just target health clubs but other service providers, as well. If that remains the case, it probably is going to end up being more an issue of whether yoga instructors are providing a service, and not if yoga is more than exercise, that carries the day.

At the least, we do have a tidy definition of yoga.

Posted by Steve

Don’t just sit there

Not seeing too much Ashtanga-related this week, so we’ll head into the weekend with a little more science.

This time, it’s a doctor offering us some sobering news: sitting is killing us. Here’s more:

We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit, writes Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk. Sitting all day is not natural and to blame for all kinds of ailments, including obesity, he says.

“We have created for ourselves a modern way of living that clashes with the way we’re meant to be,” he writes.

So the obvious answer is to move more, by, for example, taking walks after meals, something Levine writes that he does after every meal.


The science turns on the study of NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis, the energy expenditure of activity other than sports. It includes dancing, going to work, shoveling snow and taking a walk, Levine writes. So you can imagine a construction worker uses a lot more NEAT calories than a computer programmer in the course of a workday.

“Low NEAT is linked to weight gain, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer,” Levine writes.

In an experiment in which people were overfed by the same amount – 1,000 calories a day – Levine and his colleagues found that some people had a “powerful NEAT switch” that gets them moving to use excess energy.

“Those people who do not have a NEAT switch remain sitting in response to overfeeding and are predisposed to obesity,” he writes.

This caught my eye at the LA Times, I’m sure, because my job has be computer bound. A few of our fellow Yatris, for instance, seemed a bit shocked by my sedentary, eight-hour-a-day job. Yoga teacher, for instance, probably could compete with construction worker for the burning of NEAT calories.

But not all of us have jobs that allow that. And this doctor suggests that 60 to 90 minutes of Ashtanga in the morning may not be enough. (Not to mention you maybe ought to have five minutes of high-energy exercise.)

Is this starting to feel contradictory or competing at all? Is it five minutes of strenuous exercise? Is it about not sitting? What’s the secret?

Well, don’t sit without getting up all day. Don’t forget to do your yoga. (Remember, all this is focused very much on health and physical fitness; we don’t seem to be thinking about other factors much.) Maybe kick up that heart rate a bit more.

And, certainly, don’t eat 1,000 calories a day more than you need.

Posted by Steve

Study reveals great benefits to vigorous exercise — time to speed up your practice?

Here’s another opportunity to put 2 and 2 together and get: Ashtanga ought to be really good for you.

A new study, detailed here by the New York Times, has found that even a little bit — like five minutes a day — of vigorous exercise can have great health benefits:

Running for as little as five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely, according to a large-scale new study of exercise and mortality. The findings suggest that the benefits of even small amounts of vigorous exercise may be much greater than experts had assumed.


For decades, researchers there have been collecting information about the health of tens of thousands of men and women visiting the clinic for a check-up. These adults, after completing extensive medical and fitness examinations, have filled out questionnaires about their exercise habits, including whether, how often and how speedily they ran.

From this database, the researchers chose the records of 55,137 healthy men and women ages 18 to 100 who had visited the clinic at least 15 years before the start of the study. Of this group, 24 percent identified themselves as runners, although their typical mileage and pace varied widely.

The researchers then checked death records for these adults. In the intervening 15 or so years, almost 3,500 had died, many from heart disease.

But the runners were much less susceptible than the nonrunners. The runners’ risk of dying from any cause was 30 percent lower than that for the nonrunners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45 percent lower than for nonrunners, even when the researchers adjusted for being overweight or for smoking (although not many of the runners smoked). And even overweight smokers who ran were less likely to die prematurely than people who did not run, whatever their weight or smoking habits.

As a group, runners gained about three extra years of life compared with those adults who never ran.

Remarkably, these benefits were about the same no matter how much or little people ran. Those who hit the paths for 150 minutes or more a week, or who were particularly speedy, clipping off six-minute miles or better, lived longer than those who didn’t run. But they didn’t live significantly longer those who ran the least, including people running as little as five or 10 minutes a day at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile or slower.

For those who want to go right to the source, here’s a link to the study.

And then here’s why we can make a leap to Ashtanga:

The study did not directly examine how and why running affected the risk of premature death, he said, or whether running was the only exercise that provided such benefits. The researchers did find that in general, runners had less risk of dying than people who engaged in more moderate activities such as walking.

But “there’s not necessarily something magical about running, per se,” Dr. Church said. Instead, it’s likely that exercise intensity is the key to improving longevity, he said, adding, “Running just happens to be the most convenient way for most people to exercise intensely.”

The question, I suppose, is whether Ashtanga would count as vigorous exercise — unless done really leisurely, I can’t imagine it as moderate exercise. If you think it isn’t quite strenuous enough, there seems to be a few things to consider:

  • The focus ought to be on the vinyasa part of the practice (and maybe some of the tougher arm balances). Although it has been removed, for instance, maybe a short burst of full vinyasa might make sense. (That is, of course, with the intent of meeting these vigorous guidelines, which may not be your aim with your practice.)
  • I know in some quarters a Led Primary is pushing down toward an hour. While it has never been my preference, perhaps there’s something to it — again, for purposes related to this study.
  • Perhaps some intrepid rebel Ashtanga teacher wants to add a vigorous little section to the practice, maybe incorporate it into an improv class a few times a week. What about adding full vinyasa around Navasana?

Or, I suppose, you simply have to throw in five minutes of some other vigorous exercise per day. That’s not too much to ask, right?

What we really need is a study that looks at the combination of some vigorous exercise with a yoga practice.

Posted by Steve