Why is yoga therapeutic?

Roughly half of those who practice yoga say they do so for health reasons. And although yoga is not a cure-all for physical or mental problems, research is beginning to confirm yoga therapy’s promise to offer relief from the suffering associated with a number of chronic and debilitating conditions.

That evidence base is growing, too: For example, the International Association of Yoga Therapists, which publishes this website, also produces a peer-reviewed, Medline-indexed journal, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. The organization also hosts an annual research conference, the Symposium on Yoga Research, which took place last week.

In honor of this first-ever virtual Symposium on Yoga Research, we’re highlighting the yogatherapy.health list of high-quality research studies. Many additional studies have been published, with more being added to the literature all the time, but those on our list lean toward randomized controlled trials, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews. These types of studies are important for establishing objectively that yoga has an effect on certain conditions.

Research roadblocks?

As regular readers of the blog know, however, yoga therapy is a holistic practice that can’t easily be broken into the constituent parts necessary for these types of studies. And because the therapeutic connection between yoga therapist and client, plus the use of specifically tailored practices, are key to yoga therapy, we might actually expect better outcomes from yoga therapy compared to the results achieved with a more limited, less individualized approach (as you might see in a research trial).

Image by KaylinArt.

You won’t often find “yoga therapy” specifically mentioned in articles because the practice is so highly customized to each client: After individual assessment by a yoga therapist, yoga therapy is offered one-to-one or in small groups of people with a similar condition or life circumstance (like age or life stage). This makes yoga therapy challenging to study scientifically in the same way you’d study, for example, a physical therapy routine for frozen shoulder or a pharmaceutical for glaucoma, which would typically be examined in bigger groups of people all receiving exactly the same treatment.

Researchers are finding creative ways to design yoga studies, though, to address these and other challenges. The best research balances interventions that use a full range of therapeutic yogic elements (physical poses, breathing exercises, meditation, philosophical teachings) with standardization that allows for rigorous scientific study. As the body of research grows, yoga therapists are working more and more closely with yoga researchers to find ways of investigating the practice’s health benefits.

We DO know a lot

We already have strong—and growing—evidence for yoga’s effectiveness in several key areas. Broadly speaking, researchers think that some of the reasons behind yoga’s effects include increases in

  • strength, flexibility, balance, and so on (musculoskeletal and neuromuscular effects);
  • respiratory function (including improved breath capacity and breathing patterns);
  • parasympathetic tone (improved strength of the nervous system’s “rest and digest” functions);
  • resilience (related to tolerance to stress and ease of bouncing back after difficult situations);
  • mindfulness (the ability to pay attention as we choose to, in the present moment, without getting lost in the past or the future); and
  • other effects that come from (re)connecting the body and the mind.

    Photo by Ksenia Makagonova.

The way it’s done has changed over the millennia, but yoga has always been a practice of personal experience. Regardless of the state of the evidence, individual exploration is the best way to determine its effects on your own body-mind-spirit. Find a qualified IAYT-certified yoga therapist to help here.