Medical Therapeutic Yoga Series: Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention
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November 8, 2016
By Tim Koba, MS, ATC
As research continues to improve and advance, it is important to stay abreast of current trends. One of those trends is the development of yoga as a therapeutic intervention. While yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, its popularity for fitness has increased worldwide. In conjunction with this increase in practice comes an increase of research evaluating the therapeutic effectiveness of yoga on different diseases and populations.
There have been some recent literature reviews that evaluate the state of the current research and can help practitioners gain an understanding of alternative and complementary forms of treatments. Yoga has been routinely associated with breathing, movement and mindfulness that can improve stress levels. Indeed, one of the benefits of yoga is the ability to decrease stress. This reduction in stress has additional health benefits including the regulation of breathing; decreasing hypertension; and potentially modulating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. It has also been shown to be an adjunctive therapy for asthma.
The focus on the breath with yoga helps to regulate breathing and improve lung capacity. Recently, a study looked to see if this improvement in breathing ability transferred to actual physical performance. A small sample of matched female participants were measured for cycling performance before, during and after being in a yoga group or a control. The practice group showed improvements in lung regulation and capacity at rest, but no improvement in cycling performance or VO2max. So, while yoga may help with regulating breathing, it is still important to undergo training modalities to achieve physiological adaptation.
Another common reason to perform yoga is to improve balance and flexibility and both of these outcomes are achieved with routine practice of yoga. Athletes have even seen improvements in these areas compared to those who did not practice yoga. Unfortunately, no study has evaluated the on-field transfer, prevention or rehabilitation potential of yoga on injury risk and performance measures. It still remains to be seen if yoga is a viable standalone prevention or rehab strategy.
An area of rehabilitation that does show promise is chronic low back pain. One of the main reasons for participants to choose yoga relates to low back pain (20 percent). Yoga practice has demonstrated effectiveness in decreasing the pain and dysfunction associated with chronic low back pain. Yoga also improves the symptoms and function of those suffering from knee arthritis. Yoga can help to decrease the pain, swelling and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis (OA).
While the use of yoga is showing promise as a therapy, there are definite opportunities to learn more. It is important to note a few things regarding its effectiveness as a therapeutic modality. The range of yoga styles and instructors makes it very difficult to standardize yoga therapies, and thus, hard to compare outcomes to traditional therapies. The differences of the styles, instructor, location, class level and overall vigor of practice all have an effect on how a client will respond to the intervention. As studies regarding yoga become more robust, we can make better recommendations to athletes and clients regarding its use, but currently our knowledge is limited.
- Yoga can improve pain and stiffness of OA and improve chronic low back pain
- Yoga can improve balance, flexibility and strength
- Yoga can decrease stress, including the regulation of breathing and decreasing hypertension
- Yoga may have a positive benefit on PTSD, anxiety and depression
- Yoga may be useful as a complementary practice for treatments, but more standardization and research is required to make specific recommendations
Beutler, E., et al. (2016). Effect of regular yoga practice on respiratory regulation and exercise performance. Plos One, 11(4).
Chang, D., et al. (2016). Yoga as a treatment for chronic low back pain: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of Orthopedic Rheumatology, 3(1), 1-8.
Field, T. (2016). Yoga research review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 24, 145-161.
Jeter, P., et al. (2015). Yoga as a therapeutic intervention: A bibliometric analysis of published research studies from 1967-2013. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(10): 586-592.
Park, C., Braun, T., & Siegel, T. (2015). Who practices yoga? A systematic review of demographic, health related and psychosocial factors related to yoga practice. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38, 460-471.
Woodyard, C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga, 4(2), 49-54.
About the Author
Tim Koba is an Athletic Trainer, strength coach and sport business professional based in Ithaca, New York. He is passionate about helping others reach their personal and professional potential by researching topics of interest and sharing it with others. He contributes articles on injury prevention, management, rehabilitation, athletic development and leadership.