Kirsten very kindly gave us her blessing to share her final, 3000-word essay with you all. In this last assignment, students are asked to write about whatever they like, some make it personal to them, some are more academic, for example looking at statistics on how yoga helps anxiety, some are philosophical and some are funny. You can find Kirsten over on Instagram, @kirstinedavidson
Kirstine Davidson Final Essay – Could I Convince Jeremy Paxman to Try Yoga
A few months ago I was watching the topical news quiz “Have I Got News for You”, and Jeremy Paxman was the guest host. During the recording, he read out a statement containing the word ‘Namaste’, which he mispronounced. When Josh Widdicombe took this to mean that he probably didn’t practice yoga, and mocked surprise, Paxman retorted “You’re one of those people who sits on the floor going ‘om’ are you?”. As it it emerged that the rest of the panel had some knowledge of what yoga involved, Paxman said with obvious disdain “Am I in the presence of a group of yoga enthusiasts!?”
This got me thinking. Why was he so clearly derisive about yoga? And given the chance, could I change his opinion about it – or even persuade him to give it a go? Without talking to him, the first question is hard to answer. From his initial reaction, I can infer that he might think there isn’t much more too it than sitting on the floor chanting. Clearly there’s a lot more to yoga than that, but even if I were to talk to him about asana and pranayama, and the many different styles of yoga, that wouldn’t necessarily convince him to try it out. However perhaps if I could talk to him about the wide and varied benefits of practicing yoga, I might pique his interest.
With an undergraduate degree in Biology, and a postgraduate in Science Communication, I know how to be sceptical. I’m the first person to doubt the validity of therapies and fads that make pseudoscientific claims about their effects. I was probably even a little sceptical of yoga when I first tried it out. But since starting to practice, my lower back pain has decreased along with other joint problems, my sleep has improved, I’m more flexible, which has enhanced my abilities at hobbies such as surfing and climbing, and perhaps most importantly, it’s helped me to be more calm and measured in the way that I interact with people, and to cope better with the pressures and stresses of my day job. Of course, I wouldn’t expect someone as sceptical and discerning as Paxman to take my word for any of that. No doubt he would be looking for evidence of the benefits. So what evidence is there?
There are many well-documented benefits to a regular yoga practice, besides those that I felt. However for the purpose of this exercise, I’m going to focus on those that have been the subject of scientific studies that have appeared in academic journals. And I’m going to take “yoga” to mean the practice of asana, pranayama and meditation.
In his 2012 book William J Broad states that a search on PubMed, an electronic library of global medical reports, found nearly one thousand papers related to yoga, with reports being added every few days. My brief search lists more than 4000 now. Some only mention it in passing, but there a still many that focus heavily on the effects of yoga. So what are they?
Yoga and the physical body
A regular asana practice will convince anyone that yoga increases flexibility, strengthens muscles and improves balance. Gradually as they practiced more, postures that start of really difficult will gradually become available. According to Timothy McCall, medical doctor, and author of Yoga as Medicine, all of this leads to health benefits. He asserts that increased flexibility can lead to a better posture – and cites a study which found that people with poor postures were 2.4 times more likely to die of conditions like heart disease1. He also explains that building muscle strength can help to alleviate the symptoms of joint problems. What’s more improving balance can help to minimise the risk of falling. As Paxman is beginning to approach old age, these are the sorts of things could well become relevant to him. To fully understand the above benefits, he’d really have to give yoga a go, but there have been other studies that demonstrate yoga’s affects on the physical body.
A 2012 study aimed at assessing the impact of a yoga-based rehabilitation intervention on balance, balance self-efficacy, fear of falling, and quality of life after stroke, found that post stroke balance improves with yoga2. A similar study on healthy young adults found that a short-term yoga program (twenty four sessions in eight weeks) can improve balance substantially, produce modest improvements in leg strength, and improve leg muscle control for less-steady subjects3.
A later study to examine the effect of yoga on general physical fitness of healthy adults found that the participants that practiced yoga exhibited increased deadlift strength, substantially increased lower back/hamstring flexibility, increased shoulder flexibility, and modestly decreased body fat compared with control group4.
Yoga is also good for bones and bone density. In yoga as medicine, McCall talks about an unpublished study carried out by California State University, which found that six months of yoga practice, focusing on standing poses, significantly increased bone density in the vertebrates of eighteen women between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five, compared to controls who maintained their usual physical activity.
Something else that McCall talks about is the way that yoga can improve proprioception – the ability to feel where your body is in space – because a big part of yoga is bringing more awareness to your body. He tells a story about renowned yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater diagnosing herself with pneumonia in her right lung, because she felt she couldn’t inflate it, then later having it confirmed by x-rays. It’s not a scientific study, but it’s a great anecdote.
There have been studies into yoga and body awareness, although they appear to mostly be qualitative rather than quantitative. A 2005 study looked at the relationship of yoga, body awareness, and body responsiveness to self‐objectification and disordered eating5. The study compared three groups of women. 43 doing Iyengar and ashtanga yoga, 45 doing aerobic exercise, and 51 who did neither activity – and found that those practicing yoga reported more body awareness and body satisfaction than the other groups.
Yoga for health and the immune system
There are many claims that yoga improves immune function, and having learned more about it, it seems likely that it does. The lymphatic system is integral to the immune system and one of the body’s first lines of defence against disease. Unlike the circulatory system, it doesn’t have a pump. As Dr Carrie Demers explains in an article for Yoga International, the lymph system relies on the intrinsic muscle contractions of the lymph channel walls and, to a greater degree, on large muscle activity in the body6. In other words, in order for lymph to move around the body, the body has to move. And what better way to move than by practicing asana. Tensing and relaxing of the muscles during asana wrings out the tissues and force interstitial fluid into the lymph channels.
There have also been studies into yoga’s affect on the immune system. In 1998, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn conducted a study testing the hypothesis that stress reduction methods based on mindfulness meditation can positively influence the rate at which psoriasis clears in patients undergoing treatment7. The sample size was small, but the results were pretty significant. He found that patients who listened to a guided meditation while receiving treatment were almost four times as likely to have complete clearing of their skin.
A subsequent study in 2003 found significant increases in antibodies to the influenza vaccine among subjects that had completed a meditation course, compared with those in the wait-list control group8.
And it’s not just good for the immune system. There have also been controlled trails on the affect of yoga on specific conditions. One study revealed evidence for clinically important effects of yoga on most cardiovascular disease risk factors9. And another found that although larger studies would be needed to really confirm the emerging evidence, yoga could be a useful intervention to help people manage high blood pressure10.
In yoga as medicine, MaCall mentions that yoga has been shown to lower the need for medication for asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure and type two diabetes. He also talks about it helping with pain relief for sufferers of arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome. I found one study of yoga for patients with chronic neck pain, which found that participants attributed reduced pain levels, increased coping ability and better pain acceptance to yoga11. It was a qualitative study in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine, but the results were positive.
In terms of pain relief, the condition that has been most extensively studied in relation to yoga is lower back pain – something close to my heart, or should I say sacrum. In 2013, researchers carried out a meta analysis, which is a statistical procedure for combining data from multiple studies, on all the studies of yoga and lower back pain. They found strong evidence for short-term effectiveness and moderate evidence for long-term effectiveness of yoga for chronic low back, and concluded that yoga can be recommended as an additional therapy to chronic low back pain patients. And as I already mentioned, I’m living proof that it can help. Although my lower back pain hasn’t completely disappeared – and I suspect it never will – it’s the main reason I came to yoga, and it’s improved significantly since I started practicing.
To some extent, yoga might be able to help with cholesterol too. Not that I’m suggesting Paxman has a cholesterol problem; but a study last year found that almost every older person should be given potentially life-saving cholesterol-lowering drugs12. High cholesterol is clearly a problem that afflicts people of advancing years, so if he doesn’t have an issue already, why not stop it before it most probably starts? After all, there is science that backs up these claims. In 1999 a there was study into the effect of yogic lifestyle on the cholesterol levels of angina patients and people with risk factors of coronary artery disease, which found that yoga lowered cholesterol13. And more recently in 2004 a study suggested that incorporating yoga into a healthy lifestyle could help slow the progression of heart disease14. An element of this is probably due to yoga being a form of physical exercise, meaning it comes with the usual benefits, but McCall suggests it could also be due to yoga’s ability to act as an antidote to stress, because stress tends to boost cholesterol levels.
Yoga for the nervous system and mental health
There seems to be a reasonable amount of good evidence that yoga is good for the nervous system. Not least because slow breathing, which is encouraged in yoga, has a calming effect on the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes. It has two main divisions, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for stressful or emergency situations—fight or flight. It increases heart rate, causes the body to release stored energy and slows body processes that are less important in emergencies, such as digestion. The parasympathetic nervous system controls body processes during ordinary situations. Generally it conserves and restores, slowing the heart rate and decreasing blood pressure. Slowing the breath down also slows the heart rate, and this feeds back to the brain that everything is calm and peaceful, even in stressful circumstances.
Incidentally, there is also evidence to suggest that yogic breathing is more efficient. A 1998 study in British medical journal The Lancet, found that after a month of practicing controlled breathing, patients breath rate decreased and their exercise capacity increased, along with oxygen saturation in the blood15.
The nervous system is also linked to mental health, which is relevant to everyone, including older people. YouGov research carried out in 2017 for the charity Age UK found that half of adults aged 55 and over have experienced common mental health problems16.
Many people come to yoga because they suffer from anxiety, and it’s fairly well accepted that it can help. There’s also a fair bit of research to back this up. One study found that participating in two yoga classes per week for a two-month period lead to significant reduction in perceived levels of anxiety in women who suffer from anxiety disorders17. Another study following 64 women with post-traumatic stress disorder who practiced yoga once weekly for 10 weeks, found that they ended up with fewer symptoms, and that 52% of the participants no longer met the criteria for the disorder18.
In his 2012 book, on the Science of Yoga, William J Broad argues that, “recent studies indicate that yoga releases natural substances in the brain that act as strong antidepressants, suggesting great promise for the enhancement of personal health.” I suspect he’s referring to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is linked to the control of mood and though, and is also thought to help regulate other functions such as sleep and sexual desire. Yoga is also thought to decrease levels of cortisol, which influences levels of serotonin19.
There have been some specific studies into yoga and depression. An older study carried out in 1986 found that practicing kundalini yoga for three and six months lessened depression20. The study found that the yoga group and a control group who were treated with antidepressants, showed similar improvements in neurotransmitter levels, both experiencing a significant rise in serotonin levels. In 2005 a meta analysis to review the research evidence on the effectiveness of yoga for depression was carried out. The results, although not completely conclusive, were very promising21. Finally a very recent study that aimed to determine the effects of 12-week yoga and meditation based lifestyle intervention on patients with Major Depression Disorder, found that there was a decrease in depression severity at the end of the course22.
Last year NHS digital reported that prescriptions for 64.7m items of antidepressants were dispensed in England in 2016 – an all time high. That was 3.7m more than the 61m items dispensed during 201523. Perhaps if more people practiced yoga, these numbers would begin to fall.
And what about yoga for stress? Despite having stepped down from presenting Newsnight after 25 years, Paxman still works in broadcasting, which is a stressful industry. With a day job as a TV producer, I can vouch for that, and find that yoga massively helps me to cope with the demands of a highly competitive and fast paced industry.
As mentioned above, yoga reduces cortisol, the stress hormone – and there have been studies to prove it24. There have also been specific studies into the affect of practicing yoga on stress. One followed 24 women who considered themselves to be emotionally distressed as they embarked on a three-month yoga program. It found that at the end of the study, the women had significantly lower levels of cortisol, as well as lower levels of stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression25.
One last thing that I haven’t touched on that much is the wide-ranging benefits of mindfulness meditation – a big part of yoga. It’s huge news at the moment, and as a journalist, it can’t have passed Paxman by. From the sports field, to workplaces, to schools, it’s being embraced everywhere – and with good reason. As its popularity has grown, more research has been carried out into how it works, and brain imaging techniques are revealing that is can change the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other. This can actually alter the way we think permanently.
MRI scans have shown that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala appears to shrink. This is the region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, and is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As it shrinks, the brain area associated with higher order brain functions like awareness, concentration and decision-making – the pre-frontal cortex – becomes thicker. On top of this, the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the brain get stronger26.
“Basically this means that people who practice mindfulness meditation end up have a less primal and more thoughtful reaction to stress.”
So there you have it. The evidence speaks for itself. Yoga really is good for just about everything. This exercise has been really interesting for me because I love science. And I’ll definitely raise some of these findings in my classes, especially if I ever persuade any of my more sceptical friends to attend. But to be honest, I really didn’t need to read the studies, because I’ve experienced so many of these benefits of yoga first hand. I’m sure that like many people, Jeremy just has a preconceived idea about what yoga is, and it’s just not accurate. Yes there is chanting, and actually, chanting is very therapeutic – but that’s another essay. But in this day and age yoga really does come in so many different forms, that I’m certain that there are classes out there that would suit him. Who knows, maybe one day he could even become a “yoga enthusiast”.
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Mccall, Timothy. 2007. Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. Bantam
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