By Bill Nolan
Every Monday evening for the past six weeks, I have left the treasures of Western civilization and headed East. OK, so it is only two blocks from my home and only one of them is east, but go with me here. I have become a sojourner in a new time and space. I have been instructed to configure myself in ways previously thought to be impossible given my physical structure. I have begun the practice of yoga.
Now let me dispel a few misconceptions: There is nothing un-Christian about practicing yoga. My eternal soul is in no danger, at least not from this practice. And there is nothing particularly Christian about practicing yoga, either. Its roots are in Hindu and later Buddhist philosophical and theological thought; the ultimate purpose of yoga is to prepare for meditation—in other words, all movements are preparation for the experience of stillness. Thus, while a benefit of yoga might be increased physical fitness, the goal of yoga is spiritual enlightenment.
The first Monday night I attended class I asked if we had to sit “Indian style.” I thought I was supposed to bend at the knees in order to touch my toes. And every time I was supposed to inhale, I was exhaling and vice-versa. I couldn’t have been doing things more wrong and I was frustrated because everyone else had legs that crossed the way they were supposed to, could reach the floor easily and knew how to breathe correctly. If I hadn’t already paid the non-refundable fee for the eight-week course, my first formal yoga class might also have been my last.
Of course, any spiritual practice that seeks a greater awareness of my body, mind and spirit will take practice, patience and self-discipline. And it can be a frustrating experience because it never goes exactly as I map it out. Too often, my best efforts fall short because perfection—whether that be God’s definitive “yes” in answer to my prayer for happiness or the unmatched quality of my “downward dog” pose—is the only acceptable outcome.
Yoga has taught me much about my quest for spiritual perfection. First, no such perfection exists. That makes letting go of that goal a bit easier. Second, the mere awareness of my physical being is itself a path to enlightenment. I am more aware of my body, of how it moves and bends and takes in and expels oxygen. I am conscious of the rhythmic, if not always artistic, connections between my movements and my stillness and am more aware than ever of the need for balance in both. Third, there is a power and grace that is found in humility. Yoga is a humbling experience, not because it reminds me of what my body cannot do, but because it reminds me that if my soul cannot be silent, I cannot hear the voice of God. If my mind cannot be aware of my breath, my whole being will be out of sync. And if I cannot experience the One that is within me, I will never experience the One in another. Those are the insights from yoga so far. So I just signed up for six more weeks. I have so much more to learn…
A recent randomized, controlled, six-month trial of yoga practice among healthy seniors found significant benefits in physical health but no improvement in cognitive tests. It appears that a regular practice of hatha yoga does result in better health and even weight loss, the researchers found.
Yoga is a commonly practiced, mind-body approach that has components centering around meditation, breathing, and activity or postures. In recent US surveys of adults, 7.5% reported having used yoga at least once in their lifetime and 3.8%–5.1% reported having used it in the previous 12 months.1,2 Iyengar yoga, one of the active, or Hatha, yoga techniques, is a system for developing physical and mental well-being through stretching of all muscle groups for strength, flexibility, and physical balance. A person assumes a series of stationary positions that use isometric contraction and relaxation of different muscle groups to create specific body alignments. There is also a deep relaxation component. Iyengar yoga is amenable to easy adaptation for elders through modifications of the poses and the use of props, such as blankets and chairs.
The results of the study surprised the researchers. While there was no improvement in cognitive skills among the regular yoga practitioners, there were significant gains in other measures of health.
The improvements in physical measures directly related to the yoga intervention are not surprising. Yoga practice involves training on poses very similar to these outcome measures. One-legged balance may have some health implications, such as risk of falls, and has been shown previously to be improved in healthy older people practicing tai chi, another mind-body technique of which balance exercises are a component.61,62
Though this study did show that yoga produced beneficial effects on quality-of-life measures, the mechanism of action of these improvements may not relate directly to the yoga. Socialization, placebo, and self-efficacy effects are other potential mechanisms. The exercise group controlled for socialization to some degree, but there was less of a class format in the exercise group. At least 1 previous study has suggested that exercise-related improvements in stress were secondary to class participation and not to improvements in fitness. Future yoga intervention studies will need to carefully control for the class aspect that may be beneficial to everyone, but especially seniors. There is also likely some placebo effect related to the yoga intervention. One group has already shown that psychological benefits of an aerobic exercise intervention in a group of healthy young adults could be increased simply by telling subjects that the exercise program was specifically designed to improve psychological well-being.64 The placebo effect, expectancy, and self-efficacy may have a significant impact65,66 and are difficult to adequately control for in behavioral interventions that are necessarily non-blinded. Even reported cognitive improvements related to transcendental meditation may be related to expectancy of subjects recruited for trials.