New York in January can be a harsh place. It can beautiful, as when a fresh layer of snow turns Central Park into a downright wonderland. But then there are days when the snow has crusted at the edges of the sidewalks and each trip on the subway feels like a barrage of grouchy, wind-chapped faces. These are the grey days.
Me? I’m from Northern California wine country. Winter there is more about wearing coats for their fashion than their utility and, even in January, you take the tickle of sun on your bare skin for granted. So perhaps it is just a vitamin D deficiency, but in New York winters, I find that keeping positive takes much more work.
This being a post on a yoga blog, you can probably tell when I’m going with this. The tagline is clear: “Stressed? Do yoga. Glum? Do yoga? Yoga will cure your winter blues.” But this isn’t just another article claiming the ancient Indian tradition as a panacea. I’m not here to sell you on some snake oil. Because while nothing can cure everything, even yoga, this is far from snake oil. This is science.
I moved to New York to go to school at Columbia, pre-medicine. And as a longtime yogi, my schooling has furthered my fascination with the medical benefits of a steady practice. Fortunately, as preventative care and wellness become more and more a part of the national medical dialogue, there are an increasing number of clinical studies that look specifically at yoga.
A tumble through Columbia’s e-resource catalog immediately reveals some hidden wonders. We all can intuit, for instance, that fifteen minutes in savasana is probably better before bed than fifteen minutes on your laptop. But did you know that pediatricians are taking a look at yoga as a prescribed complement to various specific conditions? In their October 2015 article “Complementary, Holistic, and Integrative Medicine: Yoga” published in Pediatrics in Review, medical doctors Lawrence Rosen and Anu French and registered yoga teacher Grace Sullivan make just that point. Compiling recent studies, they cite several notable outcomes. In one such case, a South Bronx afterschool program, fourth and fifth grade students who participated in a tradition yoga practice with an inclusion of “physical postures (asanas), breathwork, meditation, and relaxation” showed “significant reductions in the use of negative behaviors in response to stressors.” In two more studies, these with high school students in rural Massachusetts, participants who engaged in a ten-week Kripalu based practice were shown to have improved “mood and anxiety markers, as well as negative affect ratings.”
Another one of my favorite finds is an October 2012 article published in Preventative Medicine. Titled “The effects of yoga in prevention of pregnancy complications in high-risk pregnancies: A randomized controlled trial,” the principal investigators A. Rakhshani, R. Nagarathna, R Mhaskar, A. Mhaskar., A. Thomas, and S. Gunasheela demonstrated that “yoga can potentially be an effective therapy in reducing hypertensive related complications of pregnancy and improving fetal outcome.” The article acknowledges that this is only a foundation, that more research needs to be done. But it is, undoubtedly, a promising foundation and one that I, a future physician, can find hope in.
Yoga’s benefits to obstetrics and pediatrics are interesting, yes. But what about now? Statistically, you, the reader, are probably not pregnant. And if you are reading a yoga blog, you probably aren’t a kid either. So how can yoga apply to you, medically, today?
To answer this question, let’s come back to winter. When it is cold or wet or snowy, when going outside means tacking on an additional half an hour of time simply dressing and undressing, for me anyway, these are the times when I am most likely to neglect my yoga practice. But these are the times when I need it the most. These are the times when the grey skies will sink my spirits and when my stress just seems to circulate inside me without escape. Yoga and mental health benefits are not necessarily a surprising correlation to make, especially if you see the serene faces come out of Friday night’s Restorative class. Still, there is something significant in scientific validation.
Clinical studies are beginning to show promise in the correlation between yoga and alleviated symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Mental health, notoriously difficult to systematize, can be an elusive gain. As a consequence, recent studies tend to be couched in the language of qualifications – “Further investigation of yoga as a therapeutic intervention is warranted,” reads one study. Nevertheless, physicians are optimistic. A 2012 article in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing examining yoga’s physiological and neurological mechanisms states “current research supports the idea that various yoga interventions can help participants improve self-reported perceptions of stress and well-being and decrease self-reported depression, dysthymia, and a number of episodes of major depression.” So while a downward dog probably won’t completely cure my wintertime claustrophobia, I am still doing myself a world of good.
A. Rakhshani, R. Nagarathna, R. Mhaskar, A. Mhaskar, A. Thomas, S. Gunasheela, The effects of yoga in prevention of pregnancy complications in high-risk pregnancies: A randomized controlled trial, Preventive Medicine, Volume 55, Issue 4, October 2012, Pages 333-340, ISSN 0091-7435, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2012.07.020.
Gangadhar, B., & Porandla, K. (2015). Yoga and mental health services. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 57(4) doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/10.4103/0019-5545.171844