Is Spiritual Yoga Better for You?

According to a recent study, Kripalu yoga that incorporates spiritual and ethical guidelines (integrative yoga) may be more effective at decreasing anxiety-related symptoms than yoga taught without these principles (exercise-based yoga).   Integrative yoga also appears more effective at reducing levels of the hormone salivary cortisol, which is an indicator of stress. This is the first study indicating that yoga practiced in its original context may provide additional benefits over yoga that is divorced of its spiritual origins.

Researchers at Southern University of Mississippi randomly assigned 81 undergraduate students with mild to moderate stress, depression, or anxiety to one of three groups: integrated yoga, yoga as exercise, and a no-treatment control group. The 60-minute yoga classes were taught twice weekly for the 7-week study duration, with two make-up sessions offered in the 8th week. Homework assignments were given once weekly.

Both yoga groups were based on Kripalu Yoga, a lineage that emphasizes mindfulness and self-compassion. Both also incorporated meditation; warm-up, stretching, and breathing exercises; traditional sun salutations; and selected yoga postures (asana), followed by a 10-minute final relaxation (shavasana).

The integrated yoga group additionally received training in yogic ethical/spiritual teachings, the yamas (moral observances) and niyamas (restraints). The elements of each class (meditation, breathing exercises or pranayama, and asana) were based on a specific yama or niyama, which the participants were instructed to reflect on during their practice. The yoga-as-exercise group was virtually identical, although it excluded the spiritual/ethical teachings, and students were taught to meditate on the breath rather than on the day’s yama or niyama. 

The researchers found that participation in both the integrated and exercise yoga groups reduced depression and stress, and increased both sense of hopefulness and flexibility in the yoga group versus the control group. Only the integrated yoga group, however, experienced significant decreases in anxiety symptoms and levels of salivary cortisol.

While these findings are encouraging, there are several concerns. First, the exercise-based yoga was not solely asana based. Meditation and pranayama were included. This aligns the classes more closely with classical yoga than the majority of truly exercise-based yoga in the US. Also, because of Kripalu Yoga’s intrinsic emphasis on mindfulness, this exercise-based yoga condition is unlikely to be representative of or comparable to classes which truly are exercise-based. Future work should thus explore the impact of purely exercise-based yoga that does not include meditation, pranayama, or mindfulness compared to yoga that does.

However, this study is timely given the recent spate of articles on the perils of exercise-based yoga, many of which trend towards the gymnastic. Ethical/spiritual components may help deemphasize the excessive focus on yoga postures and form common in western yoga, while amplifying the positive effects of asana, meditation, and pranayama.

What do you think about exercise-based yoga compared to yoga that integrates breathwork, meditation, and/or ethical/spiritual guidelines?

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