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

This person read 50 studies on yoga so you don’t have to

We fairly consistently cover the cross section of yoga and science because we figure both sides — if you want to set them as counter to each other — can benefit from the strengths of the other. Yoga that takes scientific findings into consideration isn’t going to be worse; science can perhaps learn that there is more than meets the eye.

Apparently we aren’t along in our thinking. This reporter at Vox delved into 50 studies to satisfy her curiosity:

I wanted a more objective view on the health effects of yoga, so I turned to science, reading more than 50 studies and review articles and talking to seven of the world’s leading yoga researchers. Almost immediately, I was struck by how weak the research on yoga is. Most studies were small and badly designed or plagued by self-selection bias. Making matters worse, there are so many varying styles of yoga that it’s tough to say how meaningful evidence about one style is for others.

Still, what I learned is that there are a few things we can say about yoga, based on the available research. Yoga probably won’t hurt you, despite what haters claim, and it appears to be just as good for your health as other similar forms of exercise.

Yes, the New York Times article you recall gets mentioned. You’ll be happy with her conclusion: “But that piece was largely based on cherry-picked anecdotes, exaggerating these horrible cases to suggest they were representative of the broader yoga experience when they simply aren’t.”

You may be at times frustrated, though:

4) Does yoga have long-term health benefits?

Possibly. To be clear, there’s currently no direct evidence on yoga’s long-term benefits. Researchers simply haven’t tracked yogis over a span of 20 years or more and followed up to see whether they get diseases at a lower rate than non-yogis.

We now will await the report on 50 studies about coffee’s benefit.

(And speaking of a beverage, you saw the Lululemon beer story?)

Posted by Steve

On coffee: ‘The potential health benefits are surprisingly large’

Another focus on all the positive health benefits of coffee for you to, um, digest. This from an online New York Times blog:

When I set out to look at the research on coffee and health, I thought I’d see it being associated with some good outcomes and some bad ones, mirroring the contradictory reports you can often find in the news media. This didn’t turn out to be the case.

Just last year, a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies looking at long-term consumption of coffee and the risk of cardiovascular disease was published. The researchers found 36 studies involving more than 1,270,000 participants. The combined data showed that those who consumed a moderate amount of coffee, about three to five cups a day, were at the lowest risk for problems. Those who consumed five or more cups a day had no higher risk than those who consumed none.

The post goes on to list the increasingly large amount of evidence that suggests coffee is potentially good for you, in moderation — and that it certainly isn’t bad.

Because (repeat after me): No coffee, no prana.

(And thanks to the few of you who passed it on to me. I’m glad my reputation is established.)

Posted by Steve

More good yoga news: A healthy heart

After what felt like a flood of news about yoga-related studies on its health benefits, it has been quiet lately on the science front.

But here’s a little something. I’ll let the Harvard Health Blog (best said with a Boston accent) explain:

A recent review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking.

As I write in the April issue of the Harvard Heart Letter, the studies in the review looked at different types of yoga, including both gentler and more energetic forms. The participants ranged from young, healthy individuals to older people with health conditions. Over all, people who took yoga classes saw improvements in a number of factors that affect heart disease risk. They lost an average of five pounds, shaved five points off their blood pressure, and lowered their levels of harmful LDL cholesterol by 12 points.

Those findings actually track well with my own, albeit when I also radically altered my diet.

Posted by Steve

On ‘developing a universally acceptable yoga curriculum for our schools and universities’

Here’s a response to the latest ruling in the Encinitas schools yoga program that is worth a few minutes of reflection:

Anti-yoga activists fail to see the spiritual aspects of yoga. To many, the benefits of yoga are only at the body level. They fail to realise its potential benefits in uniting the body, mind and breath. Besides physical benefits like a strong and confident body, regular yoga provides us mental, psychological and neurological benefits. Yoga enhances our intuitive and creative capabilities.

The renewed global interest in yoga is mainly because of its health potential. It is time to understand the spiritual dimensions of yoga. Yogic spirituality is not just about healthy living. As Rev Joseph Pereira, a Mumbai-based Catholic priest and proponent of Iyengar Yoga, says, most people, however, have reduced yoga to acrobatics, but yoga is not just a work out, it is a work in.

You might recognize those last few phrases. We’ve heard, and I know passed on, Tim Miler’s describing yoga as a “work in” not a workout.

There’s a lot in this piece that makes sense, but I think it also illustrates how just claiming that yoga is a “science” and not a religion doesn’t quite make the case. The issue, I think, is yoga’s esoteric aspects. It isn’t science, as we tend to think of that — unless you’re talking quantum physics or something that pushes beyond the visible. (Probably it is worth noting that a lot of people I hear talking about yoga seem to swerve toward this idea of science.) There’s something out of body about it, which pushes toward notions like spirituality and religion.

The flip side to this is something — Crossfit, hyper distance running, maybe — that begins totally in the body and is maybe grounds itself in science. But then there’s an effort to describe how someone feels after, or even during — and that pushes it toward the more ineffable. Unless they call it the “burn” or something along those lines.

But because it starts as a workout, an exercise, there’s no issue with its religiousness.

Posted by Steve

Surprising yourself with an unexpected asana success might be great for you

A very intriguing bit of scientific news, courtesy the New York Times. Boiled down: Experience a sense of “awe” can be really good for you. From the story:

Far less is known, however, about the health benefits of specific upbeat moods — whether contentment, say, might promote good health more robustly than joy or pride does. A new study singles out one surprising emotion as a potent medicine: awe. And happily, awe seems to be much easier to come by than many might expect, even for the busy and stressed-out.


The students then supplied saliva samples, which were analyzed for interleukin-6, a molecule known to promote inflammation throughout the body. Because inflammation is tied to poor health, researchers figured that low levels of IL-6 might signal good health.


While happy moods were collectively still associated with low IL-6 levels, the strongest correlation was with awe. The more frequently someone reported having felt awe-struck, the lower the IL-6.

“There seems to be something about awe,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology and the senior author of the study, who is also the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. (He has studied laughter, empathy and blushing, too.) “It seems to have a pronounced impact on markers related to inflammation.”

I’m intrigued because I actually took a class on the topic of awe (and the sublime) in grad school — as it relates to English literature and art, specifically. You can find it in all types of art, from a Michelangelo sculpture (and the Sistine Chapel, for sure) to a Rothko, and a bunch of stuff in between.

But I also think there’s the sense of awe we can find — I’ve at least found — during an Ashtanga practice when we do something we didn’t think we could manage: handstand, maybe, or some other arm balance or an especially tough back bend. Or any of those wacky Third Series poses I’ve been seeing Bobbie attempt.

So maybe add that to all the other health benefits from asana practice. I’d be curious if it is more true for “tougher” practices than some of the more restorative or Kundalini types.

Posted by Steve

If you want, you can be part of a research study into the effects of Ashtanga

If you’re the type who likes to fill out questionnaires or wants to contribute to the greater understanding of yoga’s effects (or both), maybe this is up your alley: an online university study about yoga — targeted at Mysore practitioners.

Link to the survey is here. A little about it:

Purpose of this study. This study is part of a larger investigation aimed at gaining better understanding of the effects of yoga on emotional well-being.

What will the study involve? 

Participants will fill out a set of online questionnaires at seven time points (during the first week of March and every 4-5 months for two years). The completion of the questionnaires will take about 25-30 min per time point.
  1. Additionally, participants will receive a link to an online practice diary weekly, and asked to indicate how much they have practiced during the last week (takes about 1 minute to complete per week).

All questionnaires will be sent by e-mail and answers are strictly confidential. 

Why have you been asked to take part? You are currently practicing Ashtanga yoga Mysore Style. Following you along for two years will help us tremendously to further unravel the long-term effects of yoga, specifically the Mysore approach, on emotional health. Data from this study will altogether help yoga on its way to become an evidence-based complementary alternative medicine.

From what I can glean clicking on it, you still can take part despite that “first week of March” mention.

Note: I saw it originally at

Posted by Steve

Cultivating mindfulness to improve your Ashtanga practice

It seems fair to say that mindfulness and Ashtanga (and a yoga and/or asana practice in general) are intertwined.

Of course, mindfulness on its own is a broad topic — as all the focus on it of late attests.

Now, scientists have studied mindfulness’ — controlled awareness, in this case — positive effect on people’s exercise routines.

A link to the study is here. A user-friendly take is here, via the New York Times:

In essence, the scientists were trying to determine how much their volunteers exercised, how satisfied they were with that exercise, how mindful they were during exercise, and how those variables affected each other.

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that the people who reported being most satisfied with exercise were also the people who exercised the most, and vice versa.

But mindfulness also played a pronounced role in making exercise feel satisfying, the data showed. People who reported being mindful during exercise also generally reported satisfaction with exercise.

There was little correlation, however, between the amount of mindfulness people reported and their exercise habits, leading the scientists to conclude that mindfulness affected exercise mostly indirectly, by altering satisfaction.

The Times reports that the study — like virtually all — has its limitations, but “the data do suggest that “being present” during exercise and “observing all aspects that comprise” the experience might render the workout more satisfying.”

So, if you’re trying to work your way through the back part of Second Series — or, heaven forbid, tackling Third — maybe cultivating a mindfulness practice is an ingredient to add.

Posted by Steve

Let’s keep at it: More scientific evidence of yoga’s many benefits

This piece of scientific news has been making the rounds this weekend, although the article did come out a month ago in a European journal. (Link to it is here.) Here’s some of the scientific-sounding findings:

Yoga showed significant improvement of risk factors versus non-exercise controls for each of the primary outcomes: BMI (−0.77 kg/m2 (−1.09 to −0.44)), SBP (−5.21 mmHg (−8.01 to −2.42)), LDL–C (−12.14 mg/dl (−21.80 to −2.48)), and HDL-C (3.20 mg/dl (1.86 to 4.54)) (Figure 2). For the secondary outcomes, significant improvement was seen in all risk factors except FBG (−5.91 mg/dl (−16.32 to 4.50)) and HbA1c (−0.06% Hb (−0.43 to 0.31)) (online Supplementary Figure S2). Improvements reported in secondary outcomes include reductions of body weight (−2.35 kg (−4.33 to −0.37)), DBP (−4.98 mmHg (−7.17 to −2.80)), TC (−18.48 (−29.16 to −7.80), TG (−25.89 mg/dl (−36.19 to −15.60)), and heart rate (−5.27 beats/min (−9.55 to −1.00)) (online Supplementary Figure S2).

What’s that mean? Here’s a regular folk friendly description:

Results showed first that risk factors for cardiovascular disease improved more in those doing yoga than in those doing no exercise, and second, that yoga had an effect on these risks comparable to exercise.

 When compared to no exercise, yoga was associated with significant improvement in each of the primary outcome risk factors measured: body mass index was reduced by 0.77 kg/m2 (measured as a “mean difference”), systolic blood pressure reduced by 5.21 mm Hg, low-density (bad) lipoprotein cholesterol reduced by 12.14 mg/dl, and high-density (good) lipoprotein cholesterol increased by 3.20 mg/dl.

There were also significant changes seen in secondary endpoints. Body weight fell by 2.32 kg, diastolic blood pressure by 4.9 mm Hg, total cholesterol by 18.48 mg/dl, and heart rate by 5.27 beats/min. However, no improvements were found in parameters of diabetes (fasting blood glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin).

Risk factor improvements (in BMI, blood pressure, lipid levels) were significant when yoga was used in addition to medication. Among patients with existing coronary heart disease, yoga provided a statistically significant benefit in lowering LDL cholesterol when added to medication (statins and lipid-lowering drugs).
In comparisons with exercise itself, yoga was found to have comparable effects on risk factors as aerobic exercise.

A few other things I can discern from looking through the journal article:

  • The study didn’t find any evidence of much difference between yoga and aerobic exercise among healthy people — which counters some studies that suggest yoga is “too gentle.”
  • It does note it only used English-based studies, so that’s a limitation. And, in general, it didn’t find the studies it was studying to bee super well done. There could be improvements, in other words, to future studies.
  • The types of yoga studies varied a lot, so there’s no way to pinpoint if one style is better or if something in particular is best (in terms of the health being studied here).

But, overall, it looks like a good piece to add to the pro-yoga scientific literature.

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