Exploring the Potential Health Benefits of Yoga

Dec. 14, 2006 -- Rising prescription drug costs and an aging population are making alternative medicine look increasingly more attractive.  Yet there are few rigorous, scientific studies examining the safety and effectiveness of alternative and complementary therapies in fighting specific symptoms or diseases.  Kim Innes, assistant professor with the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Alternative and Complementary Therapies (CSACT), is working to change this.

Innes recently received a $375,000 grant award from the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of Women’s Health to conduct a study about the effects of yoga on women’s heart health.  Yoga is well-known for decreasing stress and building strength, flexibility, and balance.  Research now suggests that yoga may provide other, substantial health benefits.

Innes sees yoga as particularly appealing therapy because of its promise as a safe and cost-effective method of preventing and managing cardiovascular disease and related chronic conditions.  She notes that yoga is widely used in India for this purpose.  “It really does have a lot of potential—and people can do it themselves,” comments Innes.  Since cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, the results of this research could have significant implications.

Unlike prescription drugs that may target only one symptom of disease, yoga is a holistic therapy that has shown promise in enhancing not only physical health but also overall sense of well-being.  “We are exploring alternative ways of not just being active but of altering neuroendocrine pathways,” explains Innes.

The subjects of Innes’ study will be sedentary, overweight, and post-menopausal women—a population that has a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Participants in the study will be randomly divided into two groups.

 The study’s control group will attend eight weeks of interactive group sessions where they will view and discuss films regarding women, menopause, aging, and heart disease.  The experimental group will receive eight weeks of intensive instruction in Iyengar yoga—a form of therapeutic yoga that is especially useful for treating those with chronic illness or disability because of its gentleness, slow pace, and use of props and supports.

Innes contends that Iyengar yoga is very amenable to doing research because its poses are very precise and easily standardized.  Before and after the eight week intervention, investigators will measure participants’ insulin sensitivity, as well as several other related physiological and psychological risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Innes and colleague Ann Taylor, director of the CSCAT, are also currently studying the effects of yoga in older adults with type 2 diabetes.  This study is supported by the U.Va. General Clinical Research Center as well as grants from U.Va.’s School of Nursing and Institute on Aging.  Both studies are currently recruiting subjects.  Contact Kim Innes for more information: 243-9933 or kei6n@virginia.edu.

The CSCAT was established in 1995 as one of the original NIH-funded centers to stimulate research in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).  Research in the CSCAT has focused on the efficacy of promising mind-body and other CAM modalities in preventing and managing chronic conditions as well as basic physiological mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of selected CAM modalities.