Study casts doubts on yoga's mental health benefits

(Think Stock Photos)
(Think Stock Photos)

It's the fastest growing sport in America, though for some it's more of a spiritual calling. The practice ofyogaengages both the body-through a series of stretching poses, and the mind-through meditation and breathing exercises. A controversial new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that while the body does in fact benefit, the mind may have nothing to do with it.

Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health, compared the effects of both yoga and stretching on easing chronic lower back pain. They discovered that the physical aspects of yoga may be far more beneficial than the mental aspects.

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Ninety people with chronic lower back pain were divided into two groups, those attended stretching classes for 12 weeks and those attending yoga classes. After 12 weeks of 75-minute weekly classes, the exact same amount of people (about 50 percent) in both classes noted marked improvement in their back. It didn't matter if they were in yoga or stretching classes.

Despite the yoga and stretch classes being fairly similar in terms of bodily movement, stretching doesn't take the same holistic approach to the practice. But this study suggests that extra tablespoon of mindfulness doesn't matter when you're targeting lower back pain.

The NIH study adds more proof that yoga is a natural medicinal. But it's also raising questions about the long-touted mental benefits of the practice. Another aspect of the study was comparing those who attended classes-both stretching and yoga-to those who learned a practice at home with a book. No surprise here that those in classes had significantly better results in terms of back pain reduction, compared to those who chose to practice at home. "They need that class format to get started," according to Karen J. Sherman, the study's lead author.

But once you get past the mental hurdle of getting to class, is the rest really up to your body? Not at all, according to another study on yoga this past year published in the Journal of Pain Research. The study found that two weekly 75-minute sessions of Hatha Yoga lowered heart rate, decreased stress to the nervous system and, as a result, increased the mind and body's ability to relax. The psychologists behind the findings believe that it's because of the mindful principles of yoga.

"They were better able to detach from their psychological experience of pain," writes lead author Kathryn Curtis, a psychology PhD student at York University."Yoga promotes this concept -- that we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain. This is extremely useful in the management of pain. Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain."

Both studies prove that yoga is a natural pain reliever. Whatever the ingredients, they seem to be working.

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