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 asana, anyway?

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 challenges.

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 yoga practitioners.

Most 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.

To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore associations between different yogic paths 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.

These findings 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.

What’s the 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 One here.

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