By: Colin Poitras
More than 15 million people are believed to be practicing yoga in America today, and a great many of them are doing so with the encouragement of a doctor or therapist to improve their overall health.
As interest in yoga continues to expand, scientists are beginning to refine their methods for accurately gauging the health benefits of the millennia-old practice.
Crystal Park, a professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who is affiliated with UConn’s Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), is leading a national team of researchers in developing a standardized assessment tool that can be used to measure and compare different yoga therapies.
The research is being supported by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine or NCCAM.
“A lot is happening in the yoga world right now,” says Park, a yogi who has been regularly practicing yoga for six years. “But one thing the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is concerned about is whether the studies are being done well, and there is no good way right now for researchers to compare the interventions they are doing.”
Park is the principal investigator for the five-year study. Collaborators include A. Rani Elwy and Susan Eisen from Boston University’s School of Public Health; Dr. Chris Streeter from Boston University’s School of Medicine; and Erik Groessl, director of the University of California, San Diego’s Health Services Research Center. UConn psychology graduate student Kristen Riley and several UConn undergraduates will assist Park in gathering the research data.
The research will include literature reviews, surveys, focus groups, direct observations, and personal interviews with yoga teachers and practitioners in an attempt to break down, measure, and ultimately better understand how different forms of yoga therapy may improve physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Research studies have shown that yoga can be beneficial for people with many specific health problems, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, eating disorders, and chronic pain. Yoga has been known to reduce stress, increase strength and flexibility, and improve concentration and mood.
The problem, Park says, is that it is difficult for researchers to compare the effectiveness of different yoga interventions because yoga practice is, by its nature, so diverse.
“You may read a study in which individuals did yoga for back pain or did yoga for a headache, but was it the same yoga intervention? Probably not,” says Park. “Because yoga interventions can differ dramatically from each other, it is hard to compare yoga across studies. Our project is designed to identify what the different dimensions of yoga interventions are, and then create an instrument that is reliable and valid for researchers to use to describe their interventions.”