Yoga: Greater than sum of parts?
A recent study
sheds some glimmers on the science of yoga debate: What type of yoga practice
is most effective in promoting mental and physical health? Do different
practices have different benefits? And what’s the problem with just practicing
To date, much of
yoga research has been riddled with inconsistencies, partially attributable to
yoga’s multivariate nature. While there’s general consensus that yoga appears
helpful for some health concerns (e.g., low back
pain), problems with standardization and the tendency to conflate physical
asana (only one of yoga’s eight limbs) with “yoga” has presented research
As reported in part 1,
this cross-sectional study of Iyengar practitioners found home yoga practice to
be the single greatest predictor of physical and psychological well-being. The
researchers attribute this, in part, to the observation that home yoga
practitioners reported greater incorporation of multiple yoga practices,
including pranayama and meditation, than did class-going yoga
practitioners. Home yoga practitioners
were also more likely to attend yoga classes consistently than were non-home
interestingly however, the researchers discovered that yoga practices drawn
from different limbs of yoga were associated with different health benefits. In a sense, this makes intuitive sense!
It stands to reason that meditation would boast different benefits than yogic
breathwork, asana, or philosophy. This is why yoga is said to be a “whole
system,” that practiced in the context of its original eight-limbed path will offer
more than the sum of its parts.
knowledge, this is the first study to explore associations between different
yogic limbs and standardized measures of physical and psychological health in
the same individuals. The researchers found yoga asana were linked most
commonly with physical health benefits, including improved sleep, diet, and
reductions in BMI. Gentle yoga postures (including supine restoratives and
savasana) were linked to improved diet and lower alcohol intake. This may be
partially attributable to invocation of the relaxation response, as well as the
deep meditative states sometimes accessed in gentle yoga. Meditation and
pranayama were linked to mindfulness and subjective well-being. Finally, yoga
philosophy was positively associated with numerous improvements in each domain.
follow on a preliminary research report published last year suggesting that an
“integrative” eight-week Kripalu yoga program incorporating philosophy,
meditation, and pranayama was more beneficial at improving anxiety and cortisol
levels than the same program without philosophy.
take-home? Firstly, home practice may be an important predictor of how likely
you are to practice multiple limbs. Secondly, the type of yoga practiced may
predict the benefits gained, as yoga philosophy has long reasoned. There’s
nothing wrong with practicing just asana, but the related outcomes and benefits
may be primarily physical in nature. For more comprehensive improvements, a
well-rounded practice will integrate all eight limbs.
What is your
home practice like? Do you practice multiple yogic practices, or just asana?
Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part