Though Americans of all ages practice yoga, there have been few rigorous studies of its effects on older practitioners. And despite the existence of more than 100 treatments for lower back pain, a common and hard-to-treat problem, most of them — including yoga — have not been studied scientifically.
“Scientific Results: Yoga for Health and Well-being” a video released by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, highlights new research by George Salem, associate professor at the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, on the physical demands of yoga practice by healthy seniors. The video also reports on research by Karen Sherman of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle on how yoga may benefit people with lower back pain.
For the past 30 years, Salem has used the science of biomechanics and specialized high-tech equipment, such as force platforms and high-speed cameras, to study how exercise targets the musculoskeletal system. The goal of his “Yoga Empowers Seniors” study is to develop and test an evidence-based yoga program for seniors that is designed to increase fitness and reduce fall risk. Salem’s research ultimately may enable clinicians and therapists to design individualized programs for patients.
“We recreate their poses,” Salem said of the seniors who participated in the research project, “and show them what their skeletal system would look like. They get to see their muscles light up and do different things. It’s very innovative and creative, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Salem said that preliminary results led his team to discover that some of their initial hypotheses were incorrect and that some poses challenged muscles and created joint torques that were unexpected. Salem plans to expand his yoga studies to other groups of healthy individuals and those with disabilities.
The studies led by Sherman, senior scientific investigator at the Group Health Research Institute, have employed viniyoga, in which a program is personalized for each student. She wanted to know how yoga compares to usual care and to conventional exercise. The effect of yoga versus conventional exercise was “statistically significant and intriguing,” Sherman said.
In a subsequent study, Sherman wanted to discover how yoga works — by strengthening and stretching only or also by promoting relaxation or other benefits. She said patients reported that the yoga interventions, which focused on postures and breathing, were helpful. In addition, three months after the end of each study, roughly two-thirds of the patients reported that they practiced yoga the previous week. Sherman said that the key is to establish a sequence of poses tailored to each person’s particular needs.
The video, which features demonstrations by certified yoga instructors John Acton and Yasmine Kloth, was produced for informational purposes only. Individuals who want to pursue yoga for lower back pain or other conditions are advised to speak with their health care provider first. People who have glaucoma, high blood pressure or sciatica, or who are pregnant, should modify or omit some poses. For more information or to view the video, visit nccam.nih.gov/video/yoga
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is one of 27 institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health, the national medical research agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.