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Hold on to your mats -- yoga may not clear your head (or help your back) any more than ordinary, run-of-the-mill stretching.
A large study funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine set out to determine whether yoga was any better than stretching exercises in treating chronic back pain. (It wasn’t.) But in the process, researchers also found no evidence that yoga provided better mental health benefits.
Past research has shown that yoga helps reduce pain and improve mobility in people who suffer from lower back pain. Up until now, scientists assumed that these benefits came from the combination of stretching and deep relaxation. To test that theory, this study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, put 75-minute yoga and stretching classes head to head, and found that both helped lessen symptoms better than standard back pain care, but neither outshined the other.
"We expected back pain to ease more with yoga than with stretching, so our findings surprised us," said study investigator Karen Sherman, Ph.D. M.P.H. in a written statement.
This suggests that the mental benefits derived from yoga come principally from the physical aspects of the exercise, rather than the meditative qualities that yoga is said to have, explained Sherman. “The most straightforward interpretation of our findings would be that yoga's benefits on back function and symptoms were largely due to the stretching and strengthening of muscles."
Granted, the study’s stretching class was more intense than what you might do at the gym or on the living room floor, but volunteers engaged in the experiment began to relax, just as people did in yoga.
That, to me, is great news, because while I enjoy bending over backwards to limber up, all that chanting and belly breathing kind of gets on my nerves. And even though yoga does calm me down and elevate my mood, it has never given me quite the big mental boost that I get from a run. While that doesn’t mean I’m ready to toss in my yoga mat just yet, this study is heartening to those of us who have always just kind of scratched our heads at the practice. If someone doesn’t like yoga, there are plenty of exercises she can do to feel calm and relaxed (like running right on past a yoga studio!).