The modern Western world has embraced the ancient Indian practice of yoga in the quest for improved physical health and mental well-being. A growing number of evidence-based research articles show various health benefits of practicing yoga once per week. Could yoga be the answer to our modern health woes?
What is Yoga?
Yoga originated over 2,000 years ago in India as a spiritual and physical practice. Yoga as practiced within the United States typically consists of physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dyana). Some of the popular yoga styles such as hatha, vinyasa, iyengar and bikram utilize these elements.
Benefits of Yoga
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of practicing yoga. After examining the effectiveness of specific yoga postures, studies have shown significant results for:
- Chronic pain
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Prenatal Health
- Cardiovascular disease
Chronic Low Back Pain
A systematic review and meta-analysis demonstrated strong evidence for short-term improvement on chronic low back pain (CLBP) levels, back-specific disability ratings and global improvement when patients participated in yoga. A randomized control study that assessed a 16-week Iyengar yoga intervention supported these findings by showing reduction in pain, functional disability rating and pain medication usage. Another randomly controlled trial contrasted a seven-day yoga intervention with physical therapy exercises for CLBP. The CLBP participants in the yoga program showed significantly more reduction in pain, anxiety, depression and spinal mobility compared to the CLBP who completed physical therapy exercises. Medical professionals can feel confident recommending yoga for CLBP patients particularly as yoga was not associated with any serious adverse events.
Chronic Neck Pain
Yoga may also be beneficial to reduce chronic neck pain and functional disability ratings as compared to control groups. The number of high-quality RCTs were too low for a stronger recommendation.
Flexibility and Balance
Elderly men showed more improvement with flexibility performing hatha yoga poses as compared with calisthenics after a one-year program. While a biweekly 12-week program of Iyengar yoga demonstrated improved balance and mobility in older adults as compared to a control group. In another study, young college male athletes showed greater gains in flexibility and balance measures in a biweekly yoga program compared to regular workout group.
Yoga vs. Physical Therapy
Do these studies reveal that yoga is a better option for patients seeking to address chronic low back or neck pain, or improve balance and flexibility? Patients with CLBP present with more comorbidities and produce a greater economic burden due to increased prescription of pain medication as well as utilization of health care resources. In addition, as the population ages, the number of individuals with low back pain is likely to increase substantially. Therefore, physical therapists should not view yoga as a competitor but rather an evidenced-based recommendation to assist in treating these complex patients.
Physical Therapy and Yoga
Physical therapists are movement experts who will provide individualized assessment for patients seeking to address musculoskeletal pain such as CLBP through a combination of hands-on skills, prescribed exercise and education. An important partner in the PT regime of prescribed exercise and education can be a recommendation for yoga. PTs should be sure to educate their patients to search for an experienced yoga instructor who will be attentive to their unique physical restrictions.
If simple home interventions are not helping to lessen aches, pains and discomfort, it’s time to see a physical therapist. Stop by your nearest ATI Physical Therapy clinic for a complimentary screening and get back to being you.