Friday, April 8, 2016
Yoga and You
Knowing that I am a registered and practicing yoga teacher (RYT-200), someone brought this article to my attention. It was from the Health tab on the Fox News website and the headline read: Can Yoga Change Your DNA? The article went on to say that yes it can, and favorably. You would expect that I should have been all excited about this news, a new and positive way to entice people to sign up for and attend my yoga classes. But I like to practice critical thinking, which led me to do some research.
The original study was done in 2010, published in a cancer magazine in November 2014, cited by the Huffington Post in August 2015 and finally featured by Fox this week.
According to Huffington, researchers at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada administered a yoga and meditation program or supportive-expressive group therapy or a 1-day stress management seminar to breast cancer survivors. The sample size of those finishing the full study was 88, not large but adequate. They all suffered from significant emotional stress.
Blood samples taken at the end of the study showed those in the yoga program maintained telomere length. Telomeres are stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and help prevent chromosomal deterioration. “Telomeres, located at the tips of DNA chromosomes, shorten with aging and age-related diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. As telomeres shorten, cells age and die more quickly. Conversely, telomere lengthening can increase a cell’s longevity.” So something that positively affects telomere length is good!
So what’s the problem? First, the author of the Huffington article writes: “The yoga group participated in weekly 90-minute yoga sessions for 8 weeks. The yoga group also practiced the yoga and meditation program at home.” Then she goes on to plug books she wrote on yoga and stress relief. The trouble is, these women did not go to regular yoga classes. They attended a program called mindfulness-based cancer recovery (MBRC), developed in-house based on some of the researchers’ experiences with different types of yoga and meditation.
The second issue is that the yoga group was not the only group to do well. The original study tells us: “Researchers found the yoga and group therapy participants had maintained their telomere length.” Only those in the one-day seminar had shortened telomeres. Another smaller study from Harvard compared meditators to non-meditators and found the meditators had longer telomeres, but did not find a cause and effect relationship concluding only that meditation “might alter relative telomere length.” [Emphasis added.] In addition, the University of Calgary study itself says clearly, “longer telomere length is associated with better post-cancer survival.” [Emphasis added.] (Associated with, especially from only one small study, does not guarantee any real-world relationship.)
Finally, the primary author of the study has her own book on Amazon on MBRC and has good reason to have been promoting this for the last 5 years. That makes me suspicious of any claims that go beyond the bounds of the original study.
So what should I honestly tell students and perspective students? For most people yoga can make you feel good physically and mentally. It can reduce stress. For a limited number of stressed cancer survivors, about 8 weeks of something resembling yoga was as effective as 8 weeks of stress therapy. So if you want to reduce stress, which may lead to a longer life (but they are a long way from showing any significant relationships), give it a try. I will not, like some complementary health guru, present the findings of a couple of very limited studies, even ones that may agree with my personal preferences, as the indisputable truth. (Look how often researchers have waffled back and forth between the benefits and dangers of coffee drinking.)
If yoga is not for you, there was also an article on the Health tab of Fox News saying, “a recent survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health [found] 87 percent of men and women said that spending time with their pet helped them feel less [stressed and more relaxed]." If you have a dog or cat and also do yoga, you should be super mellow!
Researchers, even at prestigious universities, apply for grants, do studies and publish the results of the studies with sexy headlines and lots of hype to secure more grants to do more studies. (It’s called job security.) One way critical thinkers reduce stress is to do a little of their own research instead of reacting to headlines and hype about "some flavor of the week" discovery leading them off in yet another direction in search of easy answers to life’s problems.