What’s so special about yoga?

Even more special when practiced with cat

Ever since I read Yoga Body*, I’ve had one big question in my mind: if modern postural yoga is basically Indian gymnastics, is it actually any different to other forms of exercise when it comes to health benefits? Is there something special about yoga that makes it different?

First and foremost: what is yoga?

The most hilarious conversations happen on the Yoga Teachers UK Facebook group (these are closely matched by the Crouch End Facebook group), where people still argue about whether yoga is thousands of years old or a mere 150ish. Not to be mean or anything, but I’m kind of amazed that people who have studied yoga to teacher level still have this argument.

Regardless, herein lies our first problem: how do you define yoga? Clearly yoga as a concept has been around for a very long time, but most of what we practice today is really quite modern, some of it potentially younger than you are (eg yin yoga, Forrest yoga). So let’s be clear – today’s question relates to yoga as we practice it today, ie modern postural yoga that is sometimes combined with pranayama (breathing) and meditation (although chances are if you only practice at the gym then the latter two are skipped entirely, and then we are definitely back to Indian gymnastics territory).

The second problem I’ve written about before – the research is not consistent about what exactly it assess the effects of. One study might be looking at the effects of gentle stretching and pranayama, the other might be evaluating a more vigorous practice. Can the effects of an ashtanga or rocket practice really be the same as the effects of Iyengar yoga? Or, more extreme, Kundalini yoga?

So is modern postural yoga more than Indian gymnastics?

I’m going to put a massive caveat here to say that I haven’t yet looked at all the literature. This is a topic that I want to explore and deserves way more time than what I have given it today to write this post. So this is just a little taster, and hopefully more will come soon.

The evidence is mixed

For example, many people take on yoga when they experience back pain. But, although yoga offers improvements in back pain compared to doing no exercise at all, a Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis** of the evidence found that there was no difference between yoga and other forms of exercise in relieving back pain.

Now, there is a chance that this is because the studies that were re-analysed were not great themselves and that better quality studies would have yielded more favourable results for yoga. But until more studies are done, the evidence for yoga being special here is lacking.

Similarly, another systematic review and meta-analysis looked at the effects of exercise vs mind–body activities like yoga and tai chi on sleep. And, as with the back pain study, there wasn’t a significant difference between the two when it comes to relieving insomnia and achieving better sleep. (although important to note that both had a beneficial effect on sleep quality).

Perhaps it gains an advantage when we get to mental health?

Now I’m a believer in the ancient Greek saying of “νους υγιής εν σώματι υγιεί” (ie health mind for a healthy body). And that exercise in general offers huge mental health benefits. But does yoga have an edge?

Perhaps.

For example, a study that compared the effects of yoga and exercise on intuitive eating found that both have beneficial effects compared to being inactive. However, the yoga practitioners were better able to interpret signs of hunger (probably improved interroception?) and showed better eating behaviours, improved body image and general life satisfaction.

In another study looking specifically at people with Parkinson’s disease, yoga and a stretch and resistance training programme both offered beneficial effects in mobility for these patients. However, yoga practitioners showed reduced anxiety, depression and, importantly, health-related quality of life.

So, although the general effect was the same, yoga offers that little bit extra that makes us feel good about ourselves.

I’m going to go back to my caveat and say that this isn’t an exhaustive list, far from it. And in fact, there don’t seem to be that many studies out there (please, someone, research this, or pay me/hire me to do it!).

But I wonder whether there is more to it than Indian gymnastics. Even when practiced in a highly secular way, there is a spiritual element to yoga (maybe it’s just mindfulness, maybe something else) that is either lacking in other forms of exercise or isn’t as encouraged. And perhaps it is this that makes yoga just a little more special, at least when it comes to softer measures like quality of life and wellbeing.

What is your experience? Is yoga the same as other forms of exercise?


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*If you haven’t read it and are really into your yoga, I would highly recommend you do read it.

** Remember, a systematic review and meta-analysis is a very powerful type of study, as it collates all the existing evidence and re-analyses it to draw broader conclusions.

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