Yoga is becoming more and more popular. As such, yoga research has been exploding these last years. There have been dozens of studies showing both physical and psychological benefits. These studies show that, physically, yoga improves your physical fitness, strength, flexibility, as well as lung capacity. It reduces your heart rate, blood pressure, and back pain. The studies also show that, psychologically, yoga reinforces your social attachments and reduces your stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, as Marina’s story amply demonstrates, when we talk or hear about yoga today, we think about stretching exercises accompanied by relaxation and sometimes breathing techniques. Something, admittedly, purely materialistic. But yoga is much more than that. The physical postures (called asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama) together form Hata Yoga, which is only one of six branches of what yoga really is (the others being Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Raja Yoga). It has a whole psycho-spiritual side to it that is not always well reflected in yoga classes—at least that’s true for yoga courses in the West. That’s what happened to yoga: it has been Westernized! As a personal example, when I took a yoga class at my cégep, there was never any talk about something other than the physical feats. When I did ask my teacher about the underlying philosophy of yoga, she told me that it was taboo! This rich aspect of yoga has been excluded in the Westernized version. Maybe the resistance to spirituality we see today is caused by the way we associate it with religion, from which most people in our culture inherited some degree of disgust because of what has been done in the past in the name of religion (and is still done today in certain cases). In any case, yoga research often sees (or wants to see) yoga in a similar fashion: simply as a physical exercise, equivalent to Pilates, gymnastics or aerobics.
The problem is, by failing to recognize the spiritual side of yoga, we really miss a big piece of the puzzle that could contribute to our understanding of its benefits. We see the more apparent (physical) causes and miss the finer, subtler psycho-spiritual causes. I’m not saying the body is not important: yoga is all about connecting body, mind, and soul (don’t think I take the soul for granted, you!). Yet, all parts must be acknowledged.
That’s also the opinion of Douglas MacDonald, from the University of Detroit Mercy, in Florida. Dr. MacDonald reports that spirituality has a significant impact on health in general but more importantly, that psychological interventions using meditation with more spiritual components result in better outcomes than only secular meditation. So it’s easy to make the parallel with yoga. One problem, however, according to Dr. MacDonald, is the difficulty for researchers to take spirituality into account because of the historical difficulty to define the construct: more than 100 measures of spirituality exist, after all. Nonetheless, he hypothesizes that the real reason why researchers don’t put spirituality in their research is because they are not aware of the available tests. Some examples include the Expressions of spirituality inventory (ESI), the Spiritual Orientation Inventory (SOI), and the Spiritual Transcendence Scale (STS). There are also other tests more specialized for Hindu philosophy, in the case of yoga. The first (ESI), developed by Dr. Douglas himself, has five dimensions:
Cognitive Orientation toward Spirituality (i.e., beliefs about the existence and importance of spirituality to one’s daily living), Experiential/Phenomenological Dimension (i.e., non-ordinary experiences and states of consciousness of a spiritual nature which involve some alteration to one’s sense of self), Existential Well-Being (i.e., a perception of self as having meaning and purpose and the capacity to deal with the existential adversities of life), Paranormal Beliefs (i.e., beliefs in the validity of parapsychological phenomena), and Religiousness (i.e., beliefs in the existence of a higher power and involvement in practices and activities typically associated with devout religious life such as meditation and prayer).
But do we need spiritual constructs to be implemented only in research? Of course not! A good example of a clinical application of these principles is Yogaspire, which combines yoga and positive psychology. The “Spire” in Yogaspire symbolizes the intention to “inspire” a holistic perspective of the self. All of the spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational and emotional levels are considered fundamental. If you are curious about it and want to try, the Whole Being Institute offers a free 7-days Yogaspire program online. So, my last words will be: enjoy and may you be HAPPY! =D