A recent study published in the journal Plos One suggests that yoga positively impacts the expression of genes related to immune function. When a gene is “expressed,” it means that its protein or RNA product is being generated, or switched on. The study found that yoga practice, compared to a nature walk and relaxation condition, resulted in greater activation at the molecular level. While a valuable contribution, this study tells us little as to the actual effects of the expressed genes on immunity or other health outcomes.
Research in the past five years has demonstrated that mind-body practices including yoga that initiate the “relaxation response” may result in enduring changes in gene expression. This study confirms and extends those findings, demonstrating connections between gene expression and immunity and demonstrating the immediacy of these effects following yoga practice.
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The team of researchers from Norway, led by Fahri Saatcioglu of the University of Oslo, hypothesized that yoga would change gene expression in circulating immune cells immediately following yoga practice. To explore this question, they recruited participants in a four-day yoga retreat in Germany. For two days, the 10 participants engaged in two hours of yoga each morning from 6:30-8:30am, which included gentle yoga postures, pranayamas and Sudarshan Kriya, and a final meditative relaxation experience. For the second two days, participants engaged in a 60-minute nature walk (to control, or account for, the movement or postures in yoga) and listening to music for 60 minutes while seated in the same room that they received yoga in (to control for relaxation). Immediately before and after each intervention session, blood samples were drawn from each participant and peripheral blood mononuclear cells, critical to the body’s immune function, were isolated and analyzed.
Yoga practice activated roughly threefold more genes than the control regimen. In other words, 97 unique genes were affected by yoga, whereas only 24 unique genes were impacted by the control regimen. Over 36% of the genes influenced by the control regimen were also impacted by yoga, suggesting that both conditions similarly impact biological processes. This makes sense; both conditions shared physical activity and relaxation. However, aspects of yoga are clearly distinct from nature walks and relaxation—for example, breathing, mindfulness, meditation—that may, in synergy with postures and relaxation, better facilitate the gene expression observed here.
While these findings are intriguing, a substantial amount of work remains to be done to clarify whether activation of these genes results in beneficial, adverse, or null effects. However, the vast literature documenting yoga’s beneficial effects on health suggests the former. While the study has some limitations, the authors note their findings “suggest that a yoga program may have additional effects over exercise plus simple relaxation in inducing health benefits through differential effects at the molecular level.”