Saturday, January 07, 2006
Reading Between the Lines of Yoga Studies
Just before Christmas this study started popping up all over the web. I'll break it down for you. They took 101 people with back pain and divided them into three groups. One group used books to learn about back care. Another did a gym style stretching and strengthening class. And the final group did a 75 minute yoga class once a week. The yoga group decreased their pain and increased their range of movement faster than the others. Eventually, the gym style stretching group caught up with the yoga group, and the book learners didn't show much improvement.
This study can teach us several things.
First, It has been publicized as a testament to the healing power of yoga, but there is an important caveat, the fact that the stretching group caught up to the yoga group. This tells me that the most important factor here wasn't the actual movements, but the breathing. The style they used in this study was vini yoga, a very soft, slow style that uses the breath even more than a regular hatha yoga form. Breathing properly has so many benefits, I would bet that alone accounted for much of the yoga group's improvement. The change in the just the lymphatic system shows how much better your health can get with proper breathing.
Second, you'll notice this study was done by "Seattle's Group Health Cooperative Center for Health Studies" with a test pool of only 101 people. This is not a major study in any way, and yet it was leading health headlines at BBC, CNN, and Yahoo News for almost a week. This shows that there is a public hungry for scientific news related to yoga. I can count on one hand the number of serious medical investigations involving yoga that I have read about in the last few years, and they were all done by non-profit organizations such as this Seattle group. (Many were led by Dr. Dean Ornish's Preventive Medicine Research Institute)
Why so few? Well, sadly, I think the answer is that yoga isn't going to make anyone rich. The pharmaceutical companies that sponsor the "real" studies that have 1000s or 10,000s of participants aren't very interested in telling us that significant health improvements can come from an investment in a yoga mat and a few hours a week.
But that's ok, people are smart, and they don't need a study to tell them that something is working! So we'll have to trust our instincts until science catches up and tells us exactly why yoga makes us feel so good.