yoga as therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)

I’ve anticipated that yoga would be helpful for PTSD, and have been looking for clinical studies investigating that.  This study is precisely that, from Bessel van der Kolk‘s Trauma Center. (Van der Kolk is the leading authority on trauma treatment).  The summary:

64 women, 18-58 years old with chronic, treatment un-responsive PTSD, were studied in a randomized trial.  The Yoga Group exhibited statistically significant decreases in PTSD symptoms compared to the Control Group. 16 out of 31 (52%) of participants in the Yoga Group no longer met criteria for PTSD compared to 6 out of 29 (21%) in the Control Group.

Here’s a separate interview with van der Kolk, from the Integral Yoga Magazine.

Note:  many people think of PTSD as a disorder of soldiers returning from combat.  It is more prevalent in women, typically those who’ve undergone abuse.

meditation’s physiological changes to the brain

I’ve bumped into a number of articles recently around the how meditation makes physiological changes to the brain.

7 ways meditation can change the brain appeared recently in Forbes (of all places), posted at

This reminded me of the study a few years ago by Richard Davison at the U of Wisconsin, which got covered in the popular press as ‘the happiest man in the world‘. (That study unfortunately is not available online for free, but it’ll be at your local library).


yoga, your heart, and cardiovascular disease

A study appeared last month titled “The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome”, which concluded “There is promising evidence of yoga on improving cardio-metabolic health”, while also saying “No significant difference was found between yoga and exercise”.

Cardiovascular health is the usual suspects – blood pressure, heart rate, etc.  The health risks associated with high blood pressure is well-known.

“Metabolic syndrome” refers to changes in the body that usually precede the onset of diabetes, etc.  Included in that are cholesterol levels (both total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides), and body-mass index.

Exercise if one of the most important things one can do to preserve one’s health and to lead a long and healthy life.  This is important for both physical health and mental sharpness.  This study shows that yoga is one form of exercise that works in this regard.

fascia, and the origin of that morning stiffness

I bumped into a wonderful video by Gil Hedley on fascia, where he explains and shows with a human cadaver how layers of connective tissue grow fibrils which movement disrupts.  Lack of movement causes those fibrils to form a more solid network which inhibits movement.

In regards to yoga, one of the health benefits of the stretching is to disrupt these fibrils, and free up movement between layers of connective tissue, giving us more range of motion.


new study links meditation to changes in brain’s gray matter

An amazing new study documented for the first time how meditation produced significant changes inside the brain’s gray matter, as shown by MRI scans in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar, a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”  The accompanying press release quotes Britta Hölzel, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University:  “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life”


Meditation affects telomeres

A few days ago, I read a news report describing a recent study by Carlson et al which shows, astonishingly, that there are actual effects at the molecular level of mindfulness meditation, a typical component of a yoga practice, namely that telomere length is maintained.  An accompanying press release explains the results more accessibly, part of which states:

A group working out of Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary Department of Oncology has demonstrated that telomeres – protein complexes at the end of chromosomes – maintain their length in breast cancer survivors who practise meditation or are involved in support groups, while they shorten in a comparison group without any intervention.
Although the disease-regulating properties of telomeres aren’t fully understood, shortened telomeres are associated with several disease states, as well as cell aging, while longer telomeres are thought to be protective against disease.
“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” says Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.
“It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the three-month period studied,” says Dr. Carlson … “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news.”

Earlier, a 2004 study documented the link between stress and teleomeres; a 2012 commentary elaborated further on the societal implications of this work.

Teleomeres are the ends of chromosomes – the biochemical equivalent of the plastic thingies that hold the end of our shoelaces together.  As we age, teleomeres shorten.  Stress increases that rate of shortening.  The role of telomeres in cancer and other diseases was the subject of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine to Blackburn, Greider and Szostak.



IAYT Symposium on Yoga Research, Sept 2014

I attended the annual IAYT Symposium on Yoga Research co-presented by IAYT and the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, held on Sept 24-26, 2014 at Kripalu.  The thrust of this symposium is to present rigorous biomedical studies on the health effects of yoga and related activities.  Much of this work has received goverrnment funding, mainly from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  A number of talks described the issues around doing such rigorous research; their work is not included in my summary below, as it’s mainly of interest to those conducting yoga research.

My brief notes from each, where available, were:

 Helene Langevin, Connective Tissue, Stretching and Yoga

She has been studying the physiological role of connective tissue for many years.  The essence was that stretching as in yoga, massage, etc. has profound physiological effects on the body, in particular anti-inflammatory and anti-fibrotic effects.  These effects are due to effects on the connective tissue, which seems to form a type of communication system throughout the body.  An earlier publication describes much of this work.

The visual highlight of the conference was her lab photo of a rat in downward dog:


Dhanunjaya (DJ) Lakkireddy, Role of Yoga in the Management of Cardiac Arrhythmias and Vasovagal Syncope

I was surprised to learn from this talk that arrhythmia (irregular beating of the heart) and atrial fibrillation are major health risks, as it can lead to strokes. My notes are incomplete, but judging from an earlier publication, the key conclusion is that for those with atrial fibrillation, “yoga improves symptoms, arrhythmia burden, heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety and depression scores, and several domains of quality of life”.  This is likely due to the well-known effects of yoga and meditation on enhancing the the parasympathic nervous system, one effect of which is to stabilize heart rhythms.

 Lisa Conboy, Yogin Lessons: Benefits of adding qualitative data collection to yoga research

 Erik Groessl, Yoga Research with VA Patients and Military Personnel

My notes again are incomplete, but his main story is that, in working in the special setting of a veterans hospital, many of the known health effects of yoga have been confirmed, especially on lessening PTSD.

 Leslie Willis, Yoga After Stroke Leads to Improvements in Quality of Life

 Rick Hecht, Yoga: What Can We Learn From Mindfulness Research?

He studies the metabolic and immunologic effects of meditation.  The main point I took away was (in an incredible display of academic integrity) the difficulty in doing rigorous research on yoga – the variations in technique from one yoga teacher to another confound clear results.  Some of his earlier work found that yoga “offers a promising lifestyle intervention for decreasing weight-related type 2 diabetes risk factors and potentially increasing psychological well-being.”

 Jim Carson, The Yoga of Awareness Program: Conceptual Basis, Research and Clinical Applications for Symptom Management

His work is summarized here.  Among other things, he described his published work showing how yoga helps the symptoms associated with breast cancer, especially hot flashes.  He also described earlier work showing that yoga is beneficial for fibromyalgia.

His best comment was

In our approach, yoga poses serve not simply as healthy physical movements, but also as a canvas for learning to relate to bodily sensations – including pain, tension, or anxiety symptoms – in a nonreactive way. To that end, during asana practice, we provide cues for practitioners to remain aware of “simple being”, to observe changes in breathing, and to bring acceptance and love to bear on the moment, so that they can become aware of and change patterns of reactivity (such as fear, guarding, etc).

 Karen Mustian, Yoga For The Treatment of Insomnia and Fatigue in Cancer Patients

 Marieke Van Puymbroek, Improving Participation in Life Activities Through Yoga

One of her studies looked at the effects of yoga on stroke patients.  She showed that an 8-week yoga intervention resuted in improved activity, participation, and quality of life.  She also reported on her published work on the positive effects on yoga breast cancer survivors, and her published work on the positive effects of yoga on older adults with fear of falling.

As an aside, when I first saw her name badge, I mentioned the only time I’d seen the name Marieke was the title of the Jacques Brel song.  She replied that she was named after that song (she is from Belgium, where Brel is revered, as I learned years ago when I lived in Brussels).

 Tiffany Field, Yoga Effects Across Development