Two studies at the University of California, San Diego Qualcomm Institute are attempting to answer that question by examining the physiological effects of the yoga postures known as asanas to see if they provide health benefits beyond what can be achieved with non-movement-based mindfulness practices or no exercise at all.
What is it about yoga that makes it such a healthful practice? Is it adding mindfulness to movement that does a body good, or adding movement to mindfulness?
The studies are part of a years-long research effort at the Qualcomm Institute (QI) and UC San Diego to quantify the effects of yoga on the human body using wireless biometric devices and clinical measurements – perhaps a fitting research pursuit for a region of California known for its high concentration of yoga devotees.
Leading one of the studies is Linda Hill, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health. Hill and her team will try to quantify the effect of yoga asanas on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) for subjects who have previously not been engaged in much physical activity (so-called ‘couch potatoes’). When at optimal levels — as measured by heart rate variation and other metrics — the PNS is associated with a state of relaxation and good health, hence its nickname as the ‘rest and digest’ function of the body.
A second study, led by UC San Diego cognitive neuroscientist Laura Schmalzl of the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, is examining how an asana-based yoga practice, as compared to a practice consisting of seated breathing exercises, might influence physiological and cognitive parameters including heart rate, stress hormones and the ability to sustain attention over time.
“These two studies complement each other beautifully,” says Schmalzl, who is also a certified yoga instructor. “Simply put, we’re looking at the effect of adding movement to a mindfulness-based practice, whereas Dr. Hill’s group is looking at the effect adding mindfulness-based aspects to physical exercise.”
QI Director Ramesh Rao, who also practices meditation and yoga, considers the Institute an ideal laboratory for this type of mind-body study. Rao is himself involved in a loosely organized group of researchers at QI called “The Science of Yoga” that includes primate researcher and associate project scientist Deborah Forster (a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method for reducing pain or limitations on movement) and David Shanahoff-Khalsa, a researcher in mind-body dynamics who uses techniques derived from Kundalini yoga meditation to treat psychiatric disorders. The group also experimented with the “Bliss Buzzer,” a digital health app Rao created with a team of students to alert users when they have achieved a particularly healthful heart rate variation, or moment of “bliss.”
“Instead of leaving yoga in the domain of spirituality or alternative health, we’re beginning to see there is a deeper way to understand how the science works,” says Rao. “The Qualcomm Institute has supported and continues to support these types of studies in different ways, whether it’s through our facilities, grants, widgets or gadgets. We are enabling, in some ways, a variety of new research projects, and the more people can take advantage of these resources, the larger our network can become.” Continue reading >>