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The Science of Yoga

You've either experienced the positive effects of yoga or you have heard anecdotes about its benefits. But why is scientific research so crucial in understanding this ancient practice?

You might believe that your personal dedication to yoga is all the evidence needed. And you are not wrong, as far as personal practice goes, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. You might even view yoga as beyond questioning, something that must be experienced to be understood fully.

While there is merit to these perspectives, yoga encourages curiosity and self-awareness, prompting us to examine it through a scientific lens. Science is really just a deeper level of curiosity about a subject. This approach offers deeper insights into the physical, physiological, and psychological benefits, as well as creating a shared language for interdisciplinary collaboration with medical and psychological professionals. Which means more scope to offer holistic practices as a supportive tool alongside other health care providers.

Did you know that the scientific exploration of yoga dates back to the 19th century, with the establishment of yoga institutes in the early 20th century to systematically study it. The pioneers of yoga science recognized the importance of evidence-informed practice, especially when applying yoga therapeutically.

Yoga, as a holistic practice, addresses our physical, physiological, and psychological aspects, with each system influencing the others. Let's explore how yoga can help both ourselves and our students by examining research on breath work, meditation, and yoga asana.

Breath work (Pranayama) Over the last decade, breath work has gained popularity as a stand alone practice. Numerous studies indicate that diaphragmatic breathing can trigger relaxation responses, benefiting physical and mental health.

For instance, a 2017 study found that participants who completed 20 breath work sessions over eight weeks had significantly lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone) compared to those who didn't.

Another study in 2015 showed that practicing breathing techniques for 15 minutes per day, three days a week, over four weeks significantly reduced blood pressure compared to a control group.

A 2018 study from Trinity College demonstrated that steady breathing balances noradrenaline levels, improving focus and emotional regulation.

Meditation Mindfulness-based practices have long been associated with pain relief, but modern neuro imaging has allowed cognitive scientists to pinpoint the neural mechanisms involved. These practices have been shown to alleviate pain across a wide range of conditions, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, chronic pelvic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome, by targeting specific neural pathways. Hofmann, (2010).

A 2022 study from JAMA psychiatry compared mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) with medication for the treatment of anxiety disorders, the study found that MBSR had similar benefits to the medication in the treatment of anxiety.

Yoga Asana A 2020 review of 25 randomised controlled trials explored the effects of yoga on back pain, revealing that 20 studies reported positive outcomes in variables like pain, psychological distress, and energy levels.

A 2018 report from the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review analysed data from 28 trials of mind-body therapies, including yoga, for chronic low-back pain. It found that adding yoga to usual care led to moderate health benefits, including reduced pain and improved function.

An additional 2018 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality evaluated eight trials of yoga for low-back pain and concluded that yoga improved pain and function, similar to the effects of exercise.

In conclusion, research clearly supports the efficacy of yoga in addressing conditions like stress, anxiety, hypertension, and pain.

Teachers can confidently share the practice, knowing that its comprehensive approach can profoundly impact well-being. The benefits are tangible, even when only individual components of the practice are consistently embraced.

If you're like me, discovering research that validates the benefits of yoga is incredibly exciting and adds depth and richness to the practice you share with your students. It makes teaching this ancient art all the more rewarding and fulfilling!

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