Yoga helps back pain, mental effects not so much?

In yet another yoga study that sounds like it is sliding towards the ridiculous, Jennifer Corbett Dooren reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 25th:

“A study believed to be the largest of its kind suggests that the physical aspects of yoga are effective at relieving low back pain, but it didn’t find any evidence that yoga provided broader mental benefits.”

There is enough said in the 94 comments without me having to add much, but there are two points that I think need to be considered:

1. For someone to suffer pain, they must be cognizant of pain existing.  The cognizance of sensations (whether pleasure or pain) is controlled by what we call the mind – or, at the least, the nerve impulses that are translated into sensation by the brain. If someone complains of pain, it has to be questioned: where is pain experienced? While there may be illness or injury to the body, the mind, which assigns name, form and description to experiences via the sense organs, cannot be considered in isolation from the body. I am all for science – in fact, I wish I understood more of it – but I think the importance of the body-mind connection has been demonstrated conclusively and any study of pain management that ignores or tries to refute the importance of the mind in such management is taking backward steps.

2. These yoga studies need to smarten up. Yoga, as I mentioned in the last post, is not some far reaching ‘thing’ that can be blamed or praised for having particular effects. You can’t just say “yoga” – it is the type of yoga, the teacher, the experience of the teacher, the person who the teacher learned it from, the application of the method that is administered, etc.

To keep using yoga as a blanket description does not do justice to science (which a study, by definition, is part of) – would a peer- reviewed study on a specific type of medication that improves the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease be able to say in a study: “Medicine Helps Alzheimer’s”? No – the type of medication, the doctor, the designer of the study – all these aspects will be measured to gauge the efficacy of the study.

Many of the yoga studies that are done are deeply flawed, primarily because yoga is a practice that, if not done on a regular basis with a certain amount of diligence and enthusiasm, does not provide the benefits that it promises (for example, a class once a week and a 200 page book to study on your own does not fulfill the constant exhortation of every single yoga master from India that yoga cannot be learned from a book). To try to dissect the practice and apply it in a way that is scientifically acceptable may be a good way to adapt yoga into pain management programs, hospital use etc, but the premise of yoga cannot be ignored in these studies, or it is no longer yoga, and therefore the study cannot claim to be a valid assessment of  the discipline.

Therefore, when the article states that the study targeted the “physical aspects of yoga”, it does exactly what I mentioned above – to remove the practices of breathing and concentration from the practice yoga poses – even in a therapeutic setting – is to remove the yoga from yoga. There is no physical aspect of yoga that can be excised from the rest of the practice, because yoga, by definition, addresses the mind, and when the mind is addressed, the rest of our organism is altered as well – physical as well as non-physical.