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