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Research report: bridging yoga practice and scientific research

Monday, May 20, 2013

The most recent peer-reviewed International Journal of Yoga Therapy published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists highlights the dominant idea in the yoga world these days: constructing a collaborative bridge between yoga therapy and scientific research.

Dr. Marshall Hagins of Long Island University and Dr. Sat Bir S.Khalsa of Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital offer their perspective on the importance of conducting research to boost the credibility of yoga as a safe and cost-effective intervention and to provide evidence base required of incorporation of yoga into education and healthcare systems.

Although there are people on both sides of the debate in the yoga community who are either unsatisfied with the current research strategies or imply that yoga is beyond conventional scientific study, these esteemed researchers and yoga advocates enthusiastically state that “the bridge connecting science and yoga therapy is under construction”. And they encourage for that bridge to be a sturdy one.

How does one study the change in health and behavior that occurs as a result of a yoga practice? The gold standard for conducting research in biomedical science is the randomized controlled trial (RCT), where participants are randomly assigned to either a standardized yoga intervention or a control condition (e.g. exercise, or treatment as usual). In addition, case studies, observational research, single subject multiple baseline designs, qualitative investigations, and other strategies are suggested as complementary. These methods are also well established in biomedical research and can provide unique and important information, in addition to being less expensive and complex and easier to perform. However, although these types of research add to the rich tapestry of information providing the clues and insights that can inform the design and execution of subsequent more complex studies, they are limited in establishing the yoga therapy as the main cause for any observed changes in a study.

The authors move on to discuss the issue of securing funding for the research on the effectiveness of yoga. The majority of researchers in this field are scientist-yogis with a personal practice that inspired them to undertake scientific research. Yet obtaining research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is extremely difficult, even with the establishment of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) of NIH whose grant proposal review panels include scientists with yoga expertise. NCCAM also recently produced a report on the yoga research, available here.

With these considerations in mind, the same IJYT issue features a systematic review paper discussing the peer-reviewed publications on the yoga in schools research. This report reviews twelve published studies (pilot studies, single cohort studies, as well as RCTs) in which yoga and a meditative competent (breathing practices or meditation) were taught to youth in a school setting.

As stated in the paper: “As there is an increasingly urgent need to develop and test cost-effective, evidence-based wellness programs for youth that can be delivered in school settings, recent school-based interventions that include yoga suggest a link between yoga practice and positive academic, cognitive and psychosocial outcomes… Participation in a yoga program was associated with decreased body dissatisfaction, anxiety, and negative behavior and increased perceived self-concept and emotional balance”.

At Yoga 4 Classrooms, we also believe that although the primary goal of traditional school programming may be academic education, the skills such as coping with stress and tools for maintaining physical and emotional health are invaluable both in and outside of the classroom.

With these findings, the authors of the report conclude that although showing generally supportive results, a lack of methodological and statistical rigor, small sample sizes, absence of systematic randomization are the limitations that need to be improved in the future studies. This is consistent with the issues that Drs. Hagins and Khalsa addressed in their article. For more on this topic, view our past blog post, Why do we need science to prove the effectiveness of yoga-based programs in education.

But even with these challenges, the field is still growing and expanding, thanks to the efforts of researchers, editors and thought leaders, such as IAYT board members and CEO John Kepner, who have promoted the value of the science of yoga across multiple platforms, such as research conferences.

Upcoming in June 2013, the annual Symposium on Yoga Research (SYR) and the Symposium of Yoga Therapy Research (SYTAR) are both taking place in Boston, MA, providing a forum for the latest scientific research on yoga for researchers and therapists to present recent findings, interact with colleagues and develop collaborations and initiatives.

The bridge between yoga practice and science is not being built overnight, but the foundation is being well laid, and certainly we will all continue to contribute to it brick by brick.

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