Yoga – Research Summary

At the end of my previous yoga blog post, I wrote about the connection between yoga and depression/anxiety and was left wondering whether or not India (the country that yoga originates from) had fewer depression and anxiety cases than Western countries due to yoga practice.
As a whole, the claim that yoga can act as an alternative medicine with regards to mental illness is largely inconclusive as there hasn’t been a sufficient amount of research done to confirm this, however there are a few studies that suggest this, which I will get to in a moment.

With regards to depression in India, it turns out that India has the highest amount of reported cases of depression in the world, according to a 2012 medical review.

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I found this statistic to be interesting as in India, yoga has a history of therapeutic benefits, which have been documented and edited by Sri Kuvalayananda in the first journal dedicated to yoga research, Yoga Mimasa, which was launched in 1924.

As we know, yoga originated in India thousands of years ago as a philosophical or spiritual discipline to deliver practitioners from suffering, or disease. The practice of yoga unifies the mind and body through coordinated breathing, movement and meditation, which has been known to promote wellbeing and reduce stress (Jeter Et al, 2015).

There have been numerous yoga studies undertaken that demonstrate the positive effects that the practice of yoga has on psychological wellbeing. Which has led to the rise of yoga studios in the West, popularizing yoga with a holistic wellness approach.

In 2009, Harvard Medical School released an article collating research that had been done on yoga in relation to anxiety and depression from 2004 onwards. While they state that they found that a lot of the studies had been poorly designed, they did find that there had been a rise in recent studies utilizing randomized controlled trials – the most accurate standard for proving efficacy.

A 2005 German study saw 24 women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed” attend two 90 minute yoga classes per week over a three month period. Another group of women in a control group were asked to maintain their normal activities and withhold from beginning an exercise or stress relief program during the study period.
While the women in this study had not been formally diagnosed with depression, they had all experienced emotional distress for some time prior to the three-month study period. They were also one standard deviation above the population in scores for perceived stress, anxiety and depression.
At the end of the three-month trial period, the women that were in the yoga group reported greater improvements in stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue and wellbeing than those in the other group.

There have been several other studies undertaken that have all shown similar outcomes. Another example of this is the Boston University Medical Centre Study that I touched on in my pervious blog post. This particular study saw researchers set out to contrast the GABA levels (Low GABA levels are associated with depression and anxiety disorders) of yoga subjects with those of participants who spent time working over a twelve week period.

One group practiced yoga three times a week for an hour, while the other group walked for the same amount of time. MRS imaging was used to scan participant’s brains before the study began. At the end of the twelve-week period, the researchers compared the GABA levels of participant’s in both groups.

In addition to MRS imaging, each subject was asked to assess his/her psychological state at different points throughout the study. Those that practiced yoga reported a more significant decrease in anxiety and greater improvements in mood than those in the walking group. The positive changes in this report were reflected in climbing GABA levels.

While there haven’t been any studies done that prove and explain the relationship between practicing yoga and improvement in mental health, the studies that have been done all positively warrant further studies and suggest that practicing yoga could be considered as a potential therapy for certain mental disorders.

References

Boston University Medical Center. “New study finds new connection between yoga and mood.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 August 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100819112124.htm>

Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Medical School, 2009, Yoga for Anxiety and Depression, Harvard Health Publications, viewed 23rd September, < http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-for-anxiety-and-depression&gt;


Jeter Pamela E., Slutsky Jeremiah, Singh Nilkamal, and Khalsa Sat Bir S, 2015, ‘Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention’, The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, Volume 00, Number 0, PP. 1-7, viewed 23rd September, < http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/acm.2015.0057>

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Yoga – Mind, Body Spirit – Connections

Yoga; a discipline that has become widely practiced in the Western world for a variety of reasons. Traditionally, yoga is a spiritual, physical and mental practice that originated in India. However, since the 1980’s has been popularized in the west as a means of physical exercise.

I’ve been practicing yoga for just over 5 years now and it is something that I am quite passionate about. I do yoga for the mental and spiritual aspects, I enjoy the peace of mind and self/surrounding-awareness that practicing yoga creates. The physical changes that come with practicing yoga for me are an added bonus that along with the mental calm and spirituality motivates me to continue practicing.

In my last blog post I wrote that at the end of the hatha yoga class everyone in the room seemed to be on the same wavelength. Every face in the room was at ease, happy and content. It’s a feeling that I’ve never put a lot of thought into, but rather just enjoyed the enigmatic sensations as it happened. Upon arrival at this class, I was feeling stressed out. A combination of things had me feeling uptight, and to be really honest I didn’t have a great deal of motivation to get up and do anything that day, let alone go to a yoga class. This isn’t the first time that I’ve gone to practice yoga with an invisible cloud of negativity floating around in my head, although, just like every other time, I came out of the class in a good headspace. Fresh and rejuvenated only an hour later.

The realisation of my apparent mood change had me wondering. I wondered if I practiced yoga more often would these disheartening moods become less frequent. Was there research already proving this?

Initially I Googled ‘Why do people do yoga?’

I was immediately greeted with over 42million pages on why people practise yoga. Reasons varied from better sex all the way to reducing pains with relation to cancer, asthma and autoimmune disease. The result of this particular search was very varied, leaving too much room and not enough time to cover the endless possibilities as to why people practice yoga. It was apparent that I had to choose just one of these reasons and stick with it.
One reason that popped up a lot in my search that struck my attention was yoga as an alternative medicine. Not only was there a lot of research available, it tied in with my own prior thoughts about yoga in relation to state of mind.

Science news website sciencedaily.com states that yoga has been used in America to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and improve coordination, flexibility, concentration, sleep and digestion.

Through my experience with yoga, I am able to confirm that all of these are true for myself.

However with regards to mood, the Boston University Medical Centre conducted research that showed that yoga might be a superior form of exercise than others with regards to a positive effect on mood and anxiety. These findings were the first that demonstrate a link between yoga postures, increased brain gamma-aminobutyric levels (GABA) and decreased anxiety.

I will draw more on this finding in the next blog post.
The only other thought I am left with is the status of depression and anxiety in yoga’s motherland, India. Is depression and anxiety less prevalent in the country that yoga originated from? Is there research that suggests one way or another?

funny-yoga-yogi-bear-pics

A Yoga Auto-ethnographic Experience

I turn the corner and enter the room, it oozes zen. A woman who introduces herself as the yoga instructor greets me at the door. She guides me to a rack at the back of the room where I am to place my belongings. Further along the back wall there is another rack filled with spare mats, bolsters, eye bags, blankets and elastics. I turn around and walk towards a vacant mat on the floor and sit down. I take in my surroundings; there are a few other people on mats, some lying down, some sitting. There are people coming in, placing their belongings on the same rack I’d just placed mine and are choosing which mat to make theirs for the next hour. There is relaxing, hollow, mountain sounding music quietly playing. At the front of the room there is a slightly raised platform, surrounded by luscious green plants, Buddhist mantra wall hangings and singing bowls.
The mood of the room is so calming; it makes it hard to believe that I am in the busy Shellharbour shopping district.

The lights are dimmed and we see the yoga instructor make her way to the raised platform as she tells us in her gentle voice to lie down and close our eyes as we begin our 7 minute relaxation.

During the relaxation we are taught to quieten our minds and relax our muscles. We slow our breath down, to a count of three. In two three. Out two three. Awareness is given to an area of your body one at a time and then it is gone, allowing that part of your body to sink into the mat which you are lying on. And then there is a minute of silence.

The silence comes to an end when we are told to raise our knees to our chest, hugging them and then rock side to side. This feels like a massage for the spine. We slowly open our eyes and come to a sitting position on our mats. We begin oxygenating our bodies with our breath. Deep breathe in through the nose to the abdomen. Deep breathe out through the nose, releasing all of the unneeded CO2. We do this for a few minutes before standing up on our mats to do some exercises to limber up our bodies, getting them ready for the array of postures that are coming up.

We practice different postures for about 40 minutes. Some on the floor some standing up, all using different core muscles. The postures come to an end with downward dog. From this pose we go into child pose before sitting up to do ten minutes of meditation.

Meditation consists of total mental quiet. Focus is on the breath. If desired, you can breathe a mantra. Today it was ‘peace’ as you breathed in to a count of three, and ‘calm’ as you breathed out to a count of three. The phrase peace and calm was repeated with every breath.
As we gently opened our eyes at the conclusion of mediation, everyone in the room raised their hands to a prayer position in front of their chests and said ‘namaste’ – the divine in me honours and worships the divine in you.

This class had come to an end. Looking around it’s as if everyone else is feeling the same. Relaxed, content, at peace.

Volunteering abroad from the perspective of a former volunteer

Rather then utilising this space to conduct a research analysis of “voluntourism”, I’m going to write about my time spent volunteering abroad, what I learnt from the experience and debunking a few myths that revolve around volunteering.

Firstly, I found this topic to be a touchy one. I 100% comprehend and understand the problems surrounding volunteering, or voluntourism, but I found that I somewhat disagree with some of the arguments that were being made.
We’ll start off with my story. In 2011 I volunteered at an HIV/AIDS rehab centre in Nepal. To put it short, this trip was very eye opening, educational and at times hard. A criticism that is often made with regards to volunteering is the ideologies that the “privileged white people volunteers” go over thinking; I’m doing something good for me and society, I am helping those less fortunate than I, I am going to have fun and see touristy sites whilst playing with children etc etc. None of these reasons for wanting to volunteer are ill intentioned, so it’s not so much a criticism that is being made, but perhaps a warning.
If you’re going abroad with that mind-set, let me tell you, you’re in for a huge shock! To be honest, I didn’t go volunteering abroad with any mind-sets. If anything, I was just shit-scared! I had no idea what to expect of a, Nepal and b, my placement. Upon arrival in Nepal I experienced culture shock, something that you can’t prepare for! And going in to the rehab centre for the first time, I was apprehensive, until I met the infected children and their mothers, who were very welcoming and friendly.

A few things that I learnt abroad that are worth sharing:

  1. Research volunteer companies well! I was made well aware of this issue one night when talking to my host Mum, who told me how much money she received for each volunteer she housed. I was shocked to learn that she only received a small fraction of what I paid to be abroad! So make sure you take the time to find a company that isn’t thinking of dollar signs – a good starting point in deciphering is the less it costs, the better.
  1. Look for companies that require skills in their volunteers! I didn’t have any issues with this as the rehab centre I worked at was run by a local woman, who only used the volunteer company in order to find extra workers, so she knew what she wanted us to do. Typically my day looked like this:
    – 9am: admin/translating work in the office

– 11: children have a break from schoolwork so can spend time with them doing an organised activity (dancing, drawing,           origami etc)
– 12noon: Help prepare food for lunches/help clean up kitchen
– 2: Help nurse in station (organise meds/filing) or fix up anything that needed it or spend time with mothers.
– 4: home time.

However, there are lots of companies who seek volunteers with no skills, these companies are the ones to beware of!

 

  1. Don’t go with the intention to see tourist sites. A lot of companies sell themselves by stating how many sites you can see. If you want to go abroad to see things, don’t volunteer.
  2. Don’t expect to make a difference in a short period of time. Real change happens over a long period of time. Although, this doesn’t mean that your time spent volunteering abroad is a waste! Volunteering is great and does make a difference, and the time you spend helping (while it may only be short) is a vital part of the greater change!

    For me, I obviously didn’t see any miraculous changes whilst abroad. However, my time in Nepal has given me drive to make a change. I was very upset to see how ill-stigmatised HIV/AIDS still is in Nepal and a trip to the hospital with the children had me in an even greater state of disbelief (there was a hospital 10 minutes up the road from the rehab centre, yet HIV+ people were not allowed there and instead had to travel an hour to get to the nearest hospital that allowed HIV+ patients)!
    During that trip I promised myself that one day I will make a change. Since Nepal I have remained active in working for different HIV/AIDS awareness foundations, have volunteered at raising awareness events and now am just about to complete a degree that will act as a good base for making a change!

So to anyone wanting to volunteer, my message to you is this: Don’t be put off by the negative things we hear/read/see in the media. Instead, approach the topic with a realistic mind-set, research companies in order to find the right one for you and prepare to work hard!