YSC 2017 – The Science and Research Evidence for Yoga for Underserved Populations

I’ve been blogging about upcoming sessions I’ll attend at the Yoga Service Conference – and I’m looking forward to hearing about the science and research on yoga as it pertains to underserved groups.

“This presentation with Sat Bir Singh Khalsa will review some of the basic science underlying the psychophysiology of yoga practices…[it will] also examine the scientific rationale for the benefits of yoga as a therapeutic intervention for underserved populations including veterans, the elderly, trauma survivors, and in public schools.”

My impression is that people in general, including many medical professionals and social workers, see yoga as primarily a tool for physical fitness. The “yoga industry”  – which I also work for – probably bears a lot of the responsibility for this image! Obviously any serious research will help to frame yoga more realistically for the benefits it can offer.

I’m also fascinated by the limitations of research, how those limitations impact what is studied, and consequently, what sort of evidence we can reasonably expect to have regarding the benefits of yoga. (Sat Bir Singh Khalsa’s work is particularly interesting because of its depth and focus on mental health factors that more basic research might not capture.)For instance, blood pressure, heart rate, and even weight loss/gain are fairly easy to quantify.  It’s great to have research supporting these benefits of yoga, but these benefits certainly do not represent all that yoga can offer. Less tangible but arguably more important benefits – improved self-esteem, less preoccupation with body image, a sense of purpose or meaning or community – are much harder to quantify, and so, much harder to study. A lack of research supporting these benefits does not mean they do not exist, just that they are hard to measure and study.

In order to be “good”, research often needs a control group (a similar group of people who do not do yoga), a pre- and post-assessment of whatever is being studied (blood pressure), and some regularity or consistency in approach (a similar yoga class each time).

So, for instance, it’s very likely a physical practice of yoga DOES help people experiencing homelessness…but in a drop in homeless shelter, for example, it might be hard to get the same group of participants to come to yoga each time. They might not want to fill out a pre-assessment (not wanting to share their name, literacy concerns, arriving to class late)..or might not be willing to participate when told they will be part of a research study (and ethically researchers DO need to tell them). And while a yoga teacher would likely take a similar approach each class in this setting … any teacher will also take into account the group actually present, their focus, their energy level, their requests, and whatever is going on in the wider environment around the class.. most likely all of this is to the benefit of the students!

This very real setting varies in important ways from a more controlled “laboratory” setting, and may make any “research” in a drop in homeless shelter appear to be of poor quality. But it doesn’t mean that people aren’t benefiting. Just that the world makes it hard to standardize.


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