Monday, March 2, 2015

Evidence-Based Yoga

Yoga is a holistic practice. Asana (poses), pranayama (breathing) and mindfulness (paying attention for an extended period of time, on purpose) are some of the main ingredients of this practice. When I began teaching yoga to people with cancer, I investigated how to apply these practices in a way that would be the most effective.

I had heard claims about twists releasing toxins, inversions supporting the immune system, backbends counteracting depression and forward bends curbing anxiety. I would try to repeat these claims in my yoga classes, but I always felt uncomfortable stating them. I have a bachelor's degree in engineering; I used the scientific method for decades, and to be simply restating someone else's results without having checked their accuracy felt fraudulent to me.

I began to look at yoga from a western, reductionist perspective, asking myself about the biology of each pose, each breathing technique, each mindfulness tool. I narrowed my focus down to the basic elements of each practice and searched through the scientific studies to find supporting data for using them.

I uncovered many studies that I dismissed, because they were designed without randomized selection and/or control groups. Randomized selection discourages bias and control groups help determine if the results are due to the placebo effect. Granted, it is difficult to determine a control situation for yoga practices, because most people know when they are practicing yoga and when they are not, but some researchers have become very creative when designing control groups. I collected these studies and used their protocols to support any claims I made in yoga classes, because I felt secure that the results from these studies were repeatable.

Still, yoga is a holistic practice. My classes are not just a list of studies. I offer the traditional longevity tools of asana, pranayama and mindfulness, but I make sure that the pieces of the holistic puzzle have research behind them, so that the practice is the most effective that it can be.