The Power of Yoga: Using yoga to promote psychological and physical health

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By Emma Halliwell

I was 21, living in Brighton, studying and partying when went to my first yoga class. I was immediately hooked. I have been practicing yoga, with varying frequency, ever since. In those early days yoga helped me cope with the aftermath of late nights and exam stress. Over the subsequent two decades yoga has helped me cope with more serious health and emotional issues.  I can definitely attest to the ‘power of yoga’ in my own life.

Despite my long relationship with yoga, I’ve only begun to research yoga relatively recently. Fortunately, I have a brilliant yoga teacher, Sam Burkey, as a collaborator. She has a wealth of experience and expertise about the benefits of yoga. Together we take an evidence-based approach, integrating evidence from the academic literature, classic teachings and professional experience.

Yoga improves both physical and psychological health. It offers benefits for numerous health conditions including diabetes, cancer, anxiety and cardiovascular disease. Of course, beyond peer-reviewed research, there is also an extensive and rich literature on yoga. The seminal text, The Yoga-Sutra, was written two-thousand years ago (although references to yoga date back 5,000 years). Numerous texts have been published as guides to practice and as testament to the benefits of yoga. Based on these resources, we can draw some clear conclusions and also identify some significant challenges.

For many people yoga is a lifelong pursuit. The benefits of this sustained practice are well documented. These benefits also change and emerge in response to an individual’s own development. There is also evidence that relatively brief yoga courses improve health and wellbeing.

Currently, we are seeing an explosion in the types of yoga on offer, from the more traditional to the more bizarre. It is not clear whether positive impact of yoga extends to some of the more recent variants. Also, we are seeing the emergence of programs that seem to take yoga away from the basic philosophical routes of self-compassion and acceptance, e.g. “beach body yoga workout”.  These developments makes it more challenging to simply recommend yoga as a route to improve well-being.

Against this backdrop, our aim is to evaluate stand-alone yoga-based interventions that also provide a foundation for future practice that will support psychological and physical well-being. Specifically, we are developing brief yoga-based interventions that

  1. target and improve specific aspects of psychological and physical well-being and
  2. offer an informed entry route into yoga practice.

To date, we’ve delivered yoga interventions in schools and university. Our initial data indicates that our targeted yoga-based intervention approach is effective. For example, our yoga-based intervention led to sustained improvements in mood and body image among young women and 40% of them continuing yoga practice.

We have many other projects planned. Most imminently, with an extended cross-disciplinary project team, we are working on yoga programs for individuals who’ve experienced cancer.

So far, this research area has been extremely exciting and rewarding. The significant intervention effects are very promising. Of course, some of the most compelling evidence comes from qualitative feedback. In our most recent study, one participant reported…

“I have taken up yoga and want to do it forever”

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