I have practiced yoga nearly daily for the past 4 years. I have seen the effect that this has made in my own life both physically and psychologically. Yoga was the cornerstone of my recovery from cervical disc rupture and subsequent surgery. I found it to be much more helpful than traditional physical therapy and so despite pretty significant nerve damage to my left C7 nerve root I am pain free. Yoga has also helped me immeasurably in dealing with a previous job that proved to be a disaster, and helps me deal with the stress of my current job.
I know I am not alone in observing these benefits. In fact, at an anecdotal level the evidence seems so clear and compelling. Just talk to yoga regulars before and after a class and you will hear testimonial after testimonial to the healing and life transforming effects of yoga.
But the science behind this is very thin. In the listing of complementary and alternative treatments listed by the National Institutes of Health yoga is considered both a mind-body practice and a movement based practice. It has been around in various forms for around 5,000 years and is enjoying explosive growth in the U.S. where more than 15 million practice yoga and spend more than $27 billion on yoga annually. Yoga is a cornerstone of integrative medicine, but finding a clear evidence basis for this can be challenging. I think a big part of this is because yoga practices are highly varied and because the clinical outcomes are highly complex, too complex to easily reduce to simple metrics.
One way science deals with this level of biological complexity is through examination of genetic expression using DNA micro-arrays. This state-of-the-art technique allows screening for differences in genetic expression in tens of thousands of genes at once and is commonly used to develop individual DNA “fingerprints” of cancer cells, for example, permitting personalized approaches to the treatment of malignancy.
Now, researchers from Norway have used this technique to look at the effects of yoga in the peripheral blood monocytes (a type of white blood cell) of healthy volunteers. What they have found is that yoga practice altered the expression of more than 100 genes and that the effect was almost immediate!
I think this is a breakthrough in scientifically validating the effect that yoga has on health and wellness and is likely to spur additional research on yoga and related practices.