The science of yoga - Written by our Ambassador Clemens Frede

For a long time yoga was considered a pseudoscience. And actually yoga is - as a philosophy - more related to the humanities or arts than to science. But we keep hearing how yoga is good for us and our health. Well, is it? Or are we looking at yoga lovingly like a mother is looking at her newborn child?

Yoga and empirical study
The number of empirical studies on yoga is continuously increasing - primarily in the USA. The selection of studies is impressive. You can find studies on „laughing yoga with seniors“ to „yoga and schizophrenia“. Unfortunately many of the older studies are not reliable, often even inconclusive without any results. In the past studies have often been conducted with insufficient samples sizes and without control groups. Also yoga isn’t standardized. What exactly is yoga? Each style has its own rules and foci. Where do we draw the line between fitness and yoga? With pranayama and meditation? What influence has the teacher and their training? Often Iyengar or Kundalini Yoga are used in studies, because they are most standardized or specific. Many other studies deal exclusively with meditation techniques - independent of asanas.

The positive effects of yoga
Much has changed in the past years in regards to studies on yoga. The studies have become more precise and comprehensive. Research is primarily concerned with the physiological and psychological effects of yoga. Li & Goldsmith (2012) analyzed 35 yoga studies on anxiety and stress. They found that yoga reduces anxiety and stress, but also noted the limitations of the studies and that further research was required. Studies have also shown that yoga can improve one’s physical self-image and reduce self-objectification - more than other physical activities (Impett, Daubenmier, Hirschman, 2006; Flaherty, 2014). Yoga also helps with lower back pain better than conventional treatments (Tilbrook et al, 2011). There are additional studies on yoga and depression, eating disorders and other diseases. 

And although we have always felt, that yoga is beneficial to our well-being, it helps to see it confirmed in empirical research studies. In yoga classes we often hear how specific asanas are activating the kidneys or strengthening a specific chakra. Little to no empirical research is available on this (that I know of). Chakras are assumed to be intercellular gap junction connections, but that hasn’t been validated yet. In another theory chakras are related to our glandular system… Well, let’s just say you shouldn’t blindly buy into everything you hear in yoga classes. 

Keep a critical mind - in all respects
It’s great to have more research studies on the topic of yoga, even when they need to be considered with care. We experience every day in our own bodies (hopefully) that yoga is good for us. Don’t forget that even science develops continuously. Studies can help confirm generalizations, but in the end we have to find a balance between reason and intuition. Perhaps one day we will realize that the concept of chakras does relate to our glands after all - who knows?

For yogis and yoga teachers it’s important to differentiate between own experience and universally proven connections. It’s not about one being better than the other, but about how to join both perspectives optimally. 

 

End note: 

If you do have access to interesting studies on yoga (especially effects of specific asanas), please let me know (info@clemensfrede.com). Thank you!

 

References:
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Li, Amber W., & Goldsmith, Carroll-Ann W. (2012). The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress.(Report). Alternative Medicine Review, 17(1), 21.
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Flaherty, M. (2014). Influence Of Yoga On Body Image Satisfaction In Men. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 119(1), 203-214.
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Tilbrook, H. E., Cox, H., Hewitt, C. E., Kang'ombe, A. R., Ling-Hsiang, C., Jayakody, S., & ... Torgerson, D. J. (2011). Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain. Annals Of Internal Medicine, 155(9), 569-W-167.
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Park, C. L., Groessl, E., Maiya, M., Sarkin, A., Eisen, S. V., Riley, K., & Elwy, A. R. (2014). Comparison groups in yoga research: A systematic review and critical evaluation of the literature. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22(5), 920-929. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2014.08.008
- Impett, E. A., Daubenmier, J. J., & Hirschman, A. L. (2006). Minding the body: Yoga, embodiment, and well-being. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 3(4), 39-48. doi:http://
dx.doi.org/10.1525/srsp.2006.3.4.39

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