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.

[snip]

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

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New study: Yoga is as safe as other exercise

They’re still talking about that New York Times article. But good news! This time, it’s to point out (what we all know): That article was flawed, flawed, flawed.

A new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology determined this: “Findings from this review indicate that yoga appears as safe as usual care and exercise.”

So go ahead and do that shoulder stand, head stand and whatever else — while recognizing your limits.

Time magazine dives deeper:

Only 2% of people who did yoga experienced any adverse events, and some of those who did already had severe diseases. The study didn’t look at the types of injuries, but other data suggests that the most common kinds of injuries are musculoskeletal, like back pain, Cramer says. Other adverse events include aggravation of glaucoma in patients with the disease, especially in headstand or shoulder stand poses.

Serious yoga injuries are rare, these findings suggest; they bolster survey data last year that found less than 1% of yoga practitioners in the U.S. stopped because of an injury. Much more common than injuries are the benefits, find Cramer’s other meta-analyses.

What that means is: The danger of yoga is pretty darn small.

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

Study of older adults suggests yoga and stretching are different (and yoga’s better)

I’m grabbing a little different takeaway from a study announced this week that tracked older adults.

First, I’ll give you the mainstream conclusion: Practicing hatha yoga may help older adults improve their cognitive functions. That’s the findings from a study from the University of Illinois. Here’s from a release (and here’s a link to the study and to additional coverage of the study here and here and here that sums things up as above):

Practicing hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks improved sedentary older adults’ performance on cognitive tasks that are relevant to everyday life, researchers report.

The findings involved 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79 years of age, 61 of whom attended hatha yoga classes. The others met for the same number and length of sessions and engaged in stretching and toning exercises instead of yoga.

At the end of the eight weeks, the yoga group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than it had been before the intervention. The stretching-and-toning group saw no significant change in cognitive performance over time. The differences seen between the groups were not the result of differences in age, gender, social status or other demographic factors, the research team reported.

[snip]

“Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate,” Gothe said. “It is possible that this focus on one’s body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention.”

“Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information,” McAuley said. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

What I couldn’t help focusing on is that the comparison group, rather than doing nothing, or walking or doing some other exercise, “engaged in stretching and toning exercises.”

That suggests, as Gothe’s quote notes, that the focusing of one’s mind, breath and body may have positive benefits.

May, or, if you like, does. (More study needed.)

To me, this comparison sounds really critical and extremely interesting — it is much closer to an “apples to apples” study — maybe a Granny Smith to a Fuji. Because what is it that separate yoga from stretching?

The researchers do note that their results are preliminary and with a small cohort of people, and so more study is needed — and I say, more study along these lines would be great.

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.

[snip]

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

The study and practice of Ashtanga

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing. We’ll see if we have an experience this time around similar to the one detailed below.

***

I’m what you might call a semi-academic. Years ago, I deliberately walked away from a tenure-track job in my field (British Romanticism), profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled by academic scholarship. I went back to poetry writing. I took some time off, wrote some poems, worked some retail. Which meant, essentially, that I burned the bridge back to my academic career. With some distance in time, I realize it was the disconnect between academic study and academic teaching that made me so disgusted with the whole thing—-the disconnect between study and practice.

It’s possible that, initially, it was the extreme physicality of Ashtanga that drew me to it. It was as far away from study as I thought I could get. It was all body. Or so I thought.

The study, or sadhana, aspect of Ashtanga is sneaky, though. You want to learn the pose. Nobody is really telling you how to do the pose. What’s a former academic to do? Buy a book, of course. Thank you, David Swenson. Still, it’s not technically a book; it’s a “practice manual.” Right?

But that was just the beginning; it was years ago, some teacher trainings with the great reader, Tim Miller, and lots of books later when along came Eddie Stern, and Robert Moses, and theirsadhana yatra (which we are going on again in a few months). Along came many more books to prepare, and a much broader understanding of yoga, with deeper context. Somewhere in all of this, we learned of the existence of Namarupa, Robert and Eddie’s journal.

“Name and form.” That’s what the name of their journal means. Subtitled, “categories of Indian thought.”

When Steve and I went on the last pilgrimage, we took along volumes and volumes of Namarupaon our iPad, and tried to catch up with years of amazing articles, photos, and art. The new issue is out (catch it here), and it dedicates a number of its articles to. . .asana!

Why do I say it like this, you ask, as if I’m shocked? If you look at the covers of the slender offerings (pun intended) of American yoga journals, without doubt asana is the focus—the physical practice takes a front seat, with the thought in the back. Even meditative practices are almost always linked to physical benefits. In Namarupa, thought’s in the front seat, and “practice” means something totally different. Asana is for the most part absent. The focus is on Indian thought.

Most recent cover. All Hanuman, no asana.

After we  got over the bitter taste academia left in our mouths, Steve and I were hungry for this. (I include Steve here because it’s a well-kept secret that he’s also a reformed academic–he has two Masters degrees, and had even finished his Ph.D. coursework in English when he decided to become a journalist.) (I guess it’s now a poorly-kept secret.)

For those of us who roll out the mat every day, though, there’s always the question of how to integrate study into practice in a healthy way.

This issue, for instance, has an article written by Eddie Stern, and illustrated with photos by Sharath. You would think you’d get a sense there, from two of the world’s leading Ashtanga teachers, and pioneers in the field.

It’s a beautiful article. But it, too, is about pilgrimage—you will have to wait to the end to get an insight from Eddie on integration of pilgrimage into practice (and you’ll also have to read it yourself–”Pilgrimage to Srigeri” by Eddie Stern with a photo essay by R. Sharath Jois).

But hold on. There’s more: An extended meditation on a single pose, and, for me, the hardest pose of all:  “Shavasana: the Corpse Pose” by Jan Schmidt-Garre. There’s also a story-telling description of the asanas influenced by Hanuman—with advice on how to put yourself in Hanuman’s mental place as you practice them (“Hanuman’s Influence on Yoga Asanas” by Mayanak Dhingra). Many of these Tim Miller teaches as research poses for the practice, and it was right up Steve’s alley. Be Hanuman!

For me, though, the article with the most resonance is the “Teachings of Professor Krishnamacharya” by Claude Marechal. Marechal is a long-time student of TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son.

At his workshop with Robert Moses in New York, Eddie Stern pointed out that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was lured away from Krishnamacharya by an academic job, to teach yoga at the Sanskrit college in Mysore.

What’s the first thing you need, Eddie asked, when you get hired to teach a college class?

It was like he was asking me personally. “A syllabus!” I said. If you’re going to teach a class, you have to have lesson plans. A syllabus is expected of you. You can’t just walk in and improvise a bunch of stuff. The syllabus is your contract with the student. It outlines what you’re promising to teach the student, as well as policies and practices, what’s expected from the student. So Guruji took what he learned from Krishnamacharya, and framed a course.

Marechal’s article is an extended analysis and summary of the elements that Guruji drew upon as a young teacher, formulating what would become Ashtanga yoga–although Marchal doesn’t mention Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at all. As his title suggests, Marechal considers these things first and foremost the teachings of a professor of yoga. Because the nature of academic research is to advance the field, he also outlines the innovations that belong to Krishnamacharya. The practitioner of Ashtanga can clearly see these in the article; among them is teaching to women, something that allowed Guruji to welcome Nancy Gilgoff into his school, and the many women who followed.

The article also outlines the strong integration of practice and study, at the same time recognizing that there are different emphases in the practice at different times in our lives. It also outlines the correct attitude of the teacher toward the student, and the student toward the teacher. The role of mental attitude in our daily lives is why we practice, and practice is why we study: “Dhyana is asana,” Marechal writes,

The state of concentration arising from the practice of asana and pranayama is presented by Professor Krishnamacharya as a unifying movement between the body, the breath, the senses and the mind (kaya prana indriya citta samgati). This idea of junction, of connection, is an essential aspect of the teaching of the master.

And, arguably, of his student, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Pick it up, and all the many other Namarupa gold mines, here.

Posted by Bobbie

A roundup of some of the anti-yoga stories this week

Update No. 3 to the study of yoga and back pain relief.

The question: Does yoga have mental benefits? We’ve touched on that here and here.

Now, a few of the stories out there that I’d chalk up as taking a dim view of yoga.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which is web-only now, right?) gets in on the act:

This study disputes previous claims that the act of stretching combined with yoga’s soothing mental components can alleviate chronic back pain. Researchers studied 228 adults with back pain, and found that yoga and stretching alone were equally effective.

In other words, it’s OK to think about what’s on TV while you’re sweating on your mat. Even though your mind is wandering, your body might be getting healthier.

As does Reuters:

Finding that yoga and stretching had about equal effects means it was probably the stretching in yoga, and not the relaxation or breathing components of the practice, that helped improve functioning and pain symptoms, researchers said.

Time takes time to blog about it:

Chanting “om” might help ease your aching back, but only if it comes at the end of yoga practice. A new study finds that the physical act of doing yoga — but not its meditative aspect — may help reduce symptoms of chronic back pain.

Feeling panicky yet? Well… let’s let Yoga Journal ride (on horseback of course!) to the rescue:

Buzz asked Loren Fishman, MD, of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and  Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, who prescribes yoga to his patients.

“That is an excellent finding because it shows scientifically, and again, what we believed from our own experience all along–that yoga helps patients with non-specific back pain. And stretching does too,” he says. However, what the study didn’t measure–the psychological and behavior benefits of regular yoga–is what yoga practitioners know is unique about the practice. “It often takes more time for these types of positive changes to take hold.”

More time? I can attest to that… because I’m still waiting! (Hopefully we now are done with this study.)

Posted by Steve