Subscriber OnlyYour Fitness

Growth in scientific studies supporting the physical and psychological benefits of yoga

Studies have found yoga to be beneficial for conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and generalised anxiety disorder

From its origins in the Ayurvedic medicine system in India more than 2,000 years ago, yoga is now practised throughout the world by people of all ages and religions. Everyone from elite athletes to people with intellectual disabilities and frail older people can now access different types of yoga with varying focus on physical strength, flexibility, balance, breathwork, relaxation and meditation.

Alongside this surge in popularity is a growth in scientific research exploring the physical and psychological aspects of yoga.

On May 13th and 14th, Yoga Therapy Ireland will host its first international conference on yoga in healthcare with speakers from the United States, Germany, the UK and Ireland. One of the speakers is Dr Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, neuroscientist, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and practitioner/instructor of Kundalini yoga. Dr Khalsa is also editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and chief editor of the medical textbook The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Healthcare.

In a recent talk on research into yoga, Dr Khalsa outlined scientific studies which found yoga practice to be beneficial for post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic insomnia and generalised anxiety disorder. “In the past two to three decades, through research on brain scans, molecular biology and biochemistry, we are coming to a deeper understanding of how self-regulation and mind/body awareness occur with yoga practice over time,” says Dr Khalsa. Some studies have relied on subjective self-reported assessments of yoga, while others have measured improvements in stress hormones, blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose levels and blood lipids of those practising yoga compared with control groups who don’t.


Dr Khalsa believes yoga can be part of a preventive and health maintenance strategy helping people to be more resilient to stress, physically active, eat more healthily and reduce unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and overconsumption of alcohol.

A University of Westminster evaluation of the Yoga4Health programme found that participants reported less stress and anxiety and improvements in physical and social health following the courses

Paul Fox, the administrator of the Yoga in Healthcare Alliance (YHA) in the UK, will also address the Yoga Therapy Ireland conference in Dublin. The YHA has been delivering 10-week yoga programmes to patients referred by their doctors or by social prescribers [ie those whose job it is to find suitable community-based activities for their patients] since 2016.

“Our programmes are about early intervention and prevention for people at risk of type two diabetes or those who are overweight and at risk of a heart attack or a stroke. Our Yoga4Health programmes are not for people in the acute stage of an illness,” explains Fox. Sufferers of stress, mild/moderate anxiety or depression and/or social isolation are also referred to the yoga classes. A University of Westminster evaluation of the programme found that participants reported less stress and anxiety and improvements in physical and social health following the courses.

The YHA has also just started six-week workplace-based yoga programmes for National Health Service (NHS) staff. “Both of our programmes are accredited by the Royal College of General Practitioners and our aim with the classes for NHS staff is to reduce stress and burnout which will in turn reduce absenteeism and make our healthcare system more sustainable,” explains Fox. Several Irish hospitals also offer reduced cost blocks of yoga sessions to staff and yoga and chair-based yoga are among a series of HSE videos of exercises classes for healthcare staff and the general public.

Dr Lisa Corrigan, a trained occupational therapist and yoga teacher, will speak at the conference about her Trinity College Dublin study of pregnancy yoga. Carried out the during Covid-19 pandemic, the yoga classes were held online for 43 women at various stages of their pregnancy.

“The study showed that there was a statistically significant reduction in self-reported stress and anxiety among the women who did the six yoga sessions,” explains Dr Corrigan. For her study she also reviewed more than 30 studies on pregnancy yoga. “Some studies found that women who did yoga in pregnancy were 2½ times more likely to have a vaginal birth than those who didn’t do yoga,” she explains.

Dr Corrigan admits that her research was driven by her own fear of childbirth which was alleviated during her first pregnancy by attending regular pregnancy yoga classes. She is a keen advocate for pregnancy yoga to be made available as an option for all pregnant women in Ireland as part of their antenatal package. Currently, the midwife-led team at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Co Louth, offers this option. “Pregnancy yoga can really support women to trust their bodies as well as alleviating many of the discomforts of pregnancy. A class can also offer a community of support for pregnant women.”

Yoga is also gaining ground as a therapeutic intervention for some conditions. For instance, it is now among the non-pharmacological therapies recommended for treatment of lower back pain. The American Society of Clinical Oncology has also recommended yoga to reduce anxiety and stress in cancer patients.

Registered nurse and yoga teacher Connie Walsh, who will also speak at the yoga conference, has been giving yoga classes to people with cancer for about 15 years. “Yoga is complementary to medical treatment. It can be a wonderful support helping people tune into and trust their bodies again. The breathing and meditation is all part of the movement and awareness of sensation but people shouldn’t feel pressure to do yoga. Sometimes it can be too much,” says Walsh.

Walsh says that specialised yoga classes for people with cancer or recovering from cancer allows them to release tensions in their bodies. She recommends that people with cancer or recovering from cancer seek out yoga teachers with three years or more training who also have specialist training to work with cancer patients. “The best route to find suitable yoga teachers is through the Irish Cancer Society support groups,” she advises.

Dr Holger Cramer, research director at the Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, who has published more than 200 articles on yoga, meditation and integrative medicine in peer-reviewed scientific journals, will also speak at the conference on how yoga can help people manage pain.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment