Yoga: An Ancient Practice Meets Modern Science...


Nothing delights me more than teaching yoga to a class of beginning students. It is very rewarding to witness the moment they connect to the breath. Their faces soften, their bodies relax and I know with this simple breathing exercise they are experiencing an immediate and positive change to their physiology. This is the beauty of yoga, a centuries-old practice which engages and integrates the physical, mental, subtle and spiritual bodies to improve health and well-being.

Although yoga's history is not always definitive, it is thought to have arisen 5,000 to 10,000 years ago in Northern India. The first written treatise on yoga and meditation, Patanjali's "Yoga Sutra's", was written around 400 CE. The 196 "sutras or threads" describe the eight fold path of yoga from the observances and restraints to the attainment of Samadhi or union with the divine. Each sutra is a gem of wisdom that is as relevant today as they were many centuries ago.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we find that yoga has evolved considerably since Patanjali's time. There are many lineages each with its own style and philosophy of teaching. The physical practice has become more dominant especially in the United States where there are over 20 million practitioners. Yoga is also being adapted for those with a variety of health challenges. As a result of its popularity the scientific and medical communities have taken note and conducted numerous studies, trials and reviews in the last 40 years to determine the therapeutic benefits of the practice.

Noted health journalist Julia Belluz, in her July 2015 Vox article on 50 yoga studies, feels the research on yoga is limited because of small, poorly designed studies. I agree that more, well-crafted studies with larger groups of participants are needed to prove yoga's therapeutic benefits. With that said there have been a few promising trials and studies on the health benefits of a regular yoga practice. One trial conducted in 2005 by Karen J. Sherman, et al and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine compared the Viniyoga program, an exercise program and a self-care book as tools to reduce chronic low back pain. Viniyoga is an individualized, therapeutic style of yoga. Based on the outcomes of this trial, the Viniyoga participants were able to perform more activities and take fewer pain medications. As a result yoga is recognized as an effective treatment for low back pain. A small 2013 Norwegian study published in PLOS ONE researched the impact yoga has on immunity and concluded that there were positive changes in gene expression after only two hours of yoga practice. Researchers used gentle postures, breathing and meditation and compared this with a nature walk and music. The yoga group had considerably more changes in gene expression and researchers concluded, "In summary, the data we present shows that yogic practices have rapid effects at the molecular level in circulating immune cells." The results from this study are in alignment with other similar studies. A 2014 Ohio State University study on breast cancer and yoga recruited 200 women and like the Norwegian study took blood samples to measure biomarkers. Their findings support that a regular yoga practice can lower fatigue and improve inflammation markers in breast cancer survivors. In the yoga group fatigue was reduced by a remarkable 57% and inflammation markers improved by up to 20%. Researchers believe that the breath work and meditation practices were instrumental in creating these positive outcomes. In addition, as participants practiced more their vitality and sleep improved while depressive symptoms and fatigue lessened.

As a breast cancer survivor I am encouraged by these outcomes and look forward to future studies on the therapeutic benefits of a regular yoga practice. Based on ancient wisdom and my 25 years of practice, I know that yoga calms my mind, improves my physical health and enhances my creativity. I believe yoga's approach, based on integration of physical, mental, subtle and spiritual aspects is part of what makes yoga an effective tool for improving well-being.