One of the greatest challenges of health care is how to bring yoga to those in greatest need yet unable to afford or access it. Bridging the gap are an increasing number of nonprofit yoga service organizations like Kula for Karma, which provides yoga in collaboration with hospitals at no cost to those most vulnerable.
I am deeply honored to serve on Kula’s Board of Directors and witness the good it does. We serve many populations, including children and adults with cancer, children with autism and other special needs, caregivers, military veterans coping with PTSD, victims of domestic violence, older adults with cognitive and medical impairments, and adolescents and adults in recovery from substance abuse and addiction.
While it may seem apparent, it's important to do the research to support our intuitive senses that yoga can be of great value for all in need. To this end, I wanted to share with you a sampling of the growing evidence for yoga as a therapeutic intervention. By better understanding who and how yoga helps heal, we may one day see it fully integrated into our health care system.
Here are seven populations who can benefit from yoga:
1. Adults with cancer
The greatest number of hospital-based yoga programs and scientific research papers are related to the well-being of adults with cancer. One of the most recently published studies examines both clinical and immunological outcomes in 200 breast cancer survivors.
Researchers at the Ohio State University’s Stress and Health Lab found that women in the active treatment group (12 weeks of 90-minute twice weekly hatha yoga classes) reported significantly less fatigue and more vitality at the end of the three-month program compared with those in the control group (on a wait-list).
Also, of great interest, the group that participated in yoga classes had significantly lower immune system markers associated with inflammation, which is thought to cause a decline in physical function.
2. Children with autism
With the rising number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, parents are constantly looking for evidence-based strategies to help their kids. Several innovative yoga programs have been developed specifically for autistic children, and one was the subject of a promising controlled study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
Twenty-four autistic elementary school students participated in a daily yoga program for 16 weeks and were compared to a control group of 22 students maintaining their usual morning routines. Researchers at NYU found that students in the yoga program showed significant decreases in teacher ratings of maladaptive behaviors compared with kids in the control group.
The needs of those who care for medically- and emotionally-challenged patients are often overlooked. Yoga can be a tremendous support for those caregivers. One study published last year in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry examined the impact of yoga on the caregivers of patients with severe neurological disorders.
Forty-three subjects were randomized to a treatment group (a yoga program including asanas, praṇayama, and chanting) or a control group. After one month, the intervention group experienced a significant decrease in anxiety and depression as well as improved quality-of-life compared with the control group.
4. Military veterans with PTSD
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that up to 20% of Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yoga is one of the newer and more popular integrative therapies being studied to see how effective it can be for PTSD symptoms like anxiety, depression and sleep disruption.
A recent feasibility study published by researchers from the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Heath Care System in New Orleans followed 12 veterans with military-related PTSD who participated in a twice-weekly yoga program for six weeks.
Although not a randomized, controlled study, it did find significant improvements in hyperarousal symptoms and sleep quality. This promising pilot trial demonstrated that yoga is in fact a feasible and potentially effective adjunctive therapy for PTSD symptoms in military veterans and should pave the way toward larger, controlled studies.
5. Victims of domestic violence
Yoga has been proposed as a potentially effective complementary therapy for victims of domestic violence who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. While anecdotal reports suggest yoga can be helpful for these individuals, very little research has been published regarding this population. An interesting study from the Department of Psychology at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina examined the impact of yogic breathing techniques on feelings of depression in African-American and European-American abused women.
Researchers theorized that teaching these women how to calm their minds by focusing on yogic breathing might help them regain control over their bodies and their lives. In this study, yogic breathing was studied as an intervention alone and in combination with a technique known as “giving testimony” about experiences of intimate partner violence. Results indicated that learning yogic breathing techniques alone and combined with giving testimony significantly reduced feelings of depression for the women in this trial.
6. Older adults with cognitive impairments
Baby boomers are growing older and are at increasing risk for dementia and other cognitive impairments. While researchers are always looking for a magic pill to reverse these declines, perhaps yoga can provide not a safer and more effective route to do so. One controlled study evaluated the impact of yoga on cognitive function in residents of elderly homes in India. This randomized controlled study included an intervention yoga group of 44 seniors and a control waitlist group of 43 seniors who completed the study period of six months.
Those in the intervention group received daily yoga sessions for one month, weekly until the third month and then encouraged to continue unsupervised until six months. Compared with the control group, the yoga group showed significant improvement in areas of memory, attention, executive function and processing speed. Though not yet studied, it may be that practicing yoga can in fact prevent cognitive impairments from developing or progressing.
7. Adults with substance abuse/addiction
A number of complementary therapies have been evaluated in the treatment of those with substance abuse/addiction, including acupuncture and yoga. One of the most recent trials examined the effect of yoga on mood and quality of life in 75 Chinese women (aged 20 to 37 years) undergoing detoxification for heroin dependence.
The women were randomized to a six-month yoga intervention group or a routine hospital care control group. Measures of mood and quality of life were completed for both groups at study entry and following three and six months of treatment. Over this time period, the intervention group demonstrated a significant improvement in mood and quality of life compared with those in the control group.