Why is most yoga research a bit shit?

Kitty despairs

This question (or a more polite variant of it) recently came up in the pranayama teacher training I’ve been doing. I think we can all agree, it’s a valid question. It’s not that there isn’t research on yoga – this is starting to change – but a lot of what is out there is just not great.

  • The studies are small (if you’re lucky, you might get a study with 100 participants but most are limited to 20 or 30)
  • They tend to have unrepresentative populations, most often young male students (although this is a problem with research in general, but a topic for another time, see this if interested)
  • There is little consistency on what yoga interventions are tested, so although they all says ‘yoga’, some mean a dynamic practice like ashtanga, some mean a slow hatha, some include meditation, some include pranayama etc
  • And are often badly designed, so for instance they don’t include a control (passive or active) to compare against and work out whether the yoga intervention has had an impact

This (and probably other reasons I have forgotten) makes it A LOT harder to draw meaningful conclusions about yoga for a wider population.

So why is that?

There are probably tons of reasons, but I’m going to distil everything down to the following three (because three is the magic number).

There is no commercial interest in yoga

This is the answer you hear the most – pharmaceutical companies will not benefit from the research and therefore they will not fund it.

Of course, there is a lot of truth to this. Pharmaceutical companies invest a ton of money in research and development of new treatments, most of which fail before we even think about them. On top of that, running large-scale clinical trials is incredibly expensive, so they are limited to treatments that are likely to have good clinical efficacy and will give good return of investment.

It is tempting to vilify pharmaceutical companies – evil Big Pharma is a really easy target after all – and sometimes I surprise myself defending them. Because, let’s face it, they are commercial entities, not charities, and so they do need to make money. So they will fund what is likely to deliver that (and, again, what has the most potential of delivering good clinical efficacy).

BUT, and it’s a big but – pharmaceutical companies are NOT the only entities that fund research. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance of an academic project that was funded by pharma from my lab days and from friends I have who still work in an academic research setting.

My PhD was funded by the British Heart Foundation (and fairly generously). And, likewise, most research is either funded by a charity, the Wellcome Trust (I’m not quite sure what that would fall under, are they really charity?) or a research body like the Medical Research Council, or MRC. This is obviously the UK landscape, but I believe that it’s the same across the board (so eg much research in the US is funded by the National Institutes of Health, or NIH).

So, while there is truth in this answer, it is not the whole story.

There is little interest in general on yoga research

For me, this is a big one. If you look back to papers from before 15–20 years ago, pretty much all of them were carried out in India, by Indian scientists. Which makes sense because yoga, especially in a therapeutic setting, was of most interest to those Indian scientists and medics. Yoga hadn’t quite taken off like it has today. For whatever reason (most likely a funding one), the research on the whole suffers from the elements I outlined at the start of this post.

Now, this is starting to change. There is a lot more research coming out of the US and Europe , some of which follows much more rigorous standards (And please, don’t think that I’m saying that research from the US and Europe is better. It’s just generally better funded so it can be better). I suspect that, in most of these cases, the principal investigator has a personal interest in the practice and therefore finds ways to make good research happen. They bring together their interest in the topic and scientific expertise to design and execute good quality research.

For instance, Michael Irwin is a well-respected professor who focuses on psychoneuroimmunology (my new favourite topic, the interface between mind–brain–immune system) and has also carried out research on the effects of mainly tai chi (eg) but also yoga (eg). While I don’t know this for a fact, my gut feeling is that he has a personal interest in mind–body practices.

Likewise, in the UK, Tina Cartwright is a health psychologist who has also been involved in research (eg) on how yoga fits into this topic. When I asked her what drove her interest, she said she had been practicing yoga and meditation for years.

Getting research funding is bloody hard

To get money to run a research programme in an academic setting, you have to prepare a grant application, where you outline what the project is, why it should be funded and how big an impact it will have. From my lab days I remember that you couldn’t just say that you wanted to investigate something because it’s interesting, you had to show what we called “translational impact” – what does this mean in a real-world, healthcare setting? (and most people obviously have to wildly speculate because in most cases research projects are highly specific and removed from the real-world setting; ask me about my PhD and you’ll see what I mean!).

Not only that, but you have to show that you are the right person to run the project, that you have been publishing consistently, that you are invited to speak to give talks at other research institutes, that you are invited to speak to conferences etc etc etc.

You probably need to have already done some sort of pilot study (probably with a Master’s student or summer research student) to get some preliminary findings to support your application. Which means running a small study for free (or with university money in some cases), findings participants to recruit and actually getting some interesting findings.

Unless you are one of the lucky ones who don’t need to keep applying for grants, being an academic is not easy.

And, importantly, gone are the days where there were few researchers and a nice pot of money to distribute among them.

It’s a bit like yoga actually: back in the day, there were a few yoga teachers, and therefore it was probably a bit easier to fill classes, to be seen as an expert etc etc. Today, in some parts of the world (especially in big cities like London and some parts of London like where I live), every other person is a yoga teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, it’s great that yoga is becoming more popular. It’s just harder to stand out. And research, and research funding, is no different.

So, for yoga research to happen, you need to have someone who is interested in the topic to jump through all the hoops of applying for a grant, find other people who are also interested in the topic to do the research itself. You also need to recruit participants and get them to stick to doing whatever it is you are testing. And when you’re done with the research itself, your work needs to be decent enough to go through peer review and get published.

Hopefully this gives you a better idea of why there isn’t a huge amount of good research on yoga out there. But I do believe that this has started to change and more exciting developments are on the horizon.

Anything I missed that you think is important?

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