• Increasing Strength, Balance, and Flexibility, Reducing Tension and Stress
Hatha yoga, or, as it is commonly called in the US, simply “yoga,” is an exercise system derived from ancient traditions in India. There are many schools or varieties of hatha yoga, but all of them involve “asanas,” or postures. Many asanas function as gentle stretching exercises, increasing flexibility. Others encourage the development of strength and balance.
The practice of hatha yoga goes beyond exercise, however. Special breathing techniques are almost always part of the process; in fact, some forms of yoga focus primarily on breathing, and therefore overlap with traditional breathing practices generally known as pranayama. Because hatha yoga originated in traditional Hindu spiritual practice, it can involve meditation, chanting, as well as philosophical and religious introspection. However, completely secular versions of hatha yoga are widely available.
Hatha yoga is believed by its practitioners to provide benefits above and beyond simple exercise. For example, certain asanas are said to address specific health problems. However, there is only minimal scientific evidence that the practice of hatha yoga actually provides any well-defined medical benefits.
How Is Hatha Yoga Used Today?
There are numerous specific schools of hatha yoga, including Iyengar yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Kriya yoga, Vini yoga, and Bikram yoga, as well as “generic” hatha yoga. Yoga is ordinarily learned through inexpensive group lessons, but regular at-home practice is necessary to progress in skill (and to derive potential health benefits). Lessons are commonly available at hospital wellness centers, health clubs, city recreation departments, and private yoga studios. There are also a wealth of do-it-yourself yoga DVDs and books, but most serious yoga practitioners caution against learning the technique without an instructor present.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Hatha Yoga?
Although there is some evidence that yoga may offer medical benefits, in general, this evidence is not strong. There are several reasons for this (including funding obstacles), but one is fundamental: Even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to properly ascertain the effectiveness of an exercise therapy like yoga.
Only one form of study can truly prove that a treatment is effective: the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. However, it isn’t possible to fit yoga into a study design of this type. While it might be possible to design a placebo form of yoga, it would be quite difficult to keep participants and researchers in the dark regarding who is practicing real yoga and who is practicing fake yoga!
Some compromise with the highest research standards is, therefore, inevitable. Unfortunately, the compromise used in most studies is less than optimal. In these trials, yoga has been compared to no treatment. The problem with such studies is that a treatment—any treatment—frequently appears to better than no treatment, due to a host of factors. (See
Given these caveats, the following is a summary of what science has found out about the possible medical benefits of yoga.
Possible Benefits of Hatha Yoga
Weak evidence hints that hatha yoga may offer modest benefits for people with
A special breathing technique called yogic-style Buteyko breathing may reduce medication use and subjective symptoms, though it does not appear to actually improve lung function.
In another study, 42 people with
In a randomized, controlled trial, 8 weeks of daily supervised yoga was modestly more effective than a similar amount of supervised physical exercise in relieving
To date, only weak evidence has been reported regarding the possible usefulness of yoga for
Hatha yoga has also been promoted as a treatment for
What to Expect From a Hatha Yoga Class
Yoga classes typically last about 1 to 2 hours. Most of that time is spent practicing various asanas; however, other activities such as breathing exercises may take place as well. Hatha yoga is generally a gentle, nonaerobic form of exercise. However, some types of yoga, such as Iyengar yoga, are more physically vigorous.
By the end of a yoga class, many people report feeling relaxed and comfortable, and consider this a meaningful benefit in itself. However, without regular home practice, it is unlikely that performing yoga will provide any long-term benefit. For this reason, instructors generally encourage daily practice, ranging from a few minutes to an hour or more.
Hatha yoga is generally at least as safe as any other stretching-based exercise program. However there are a few hatha yoga positions, such as the headstand, that can cause injury when they are performed by a person who isn’t yet sufficiently advanced in yoga, or who has certain health problems, such as a detached retina. A properly qualified instructor can help you avoid injury, taking your own individual health status into account.
4. Janakiramaiah N, Gangadhar BN, Naga Venkatesh Murthy PJ, et al. Antidepressant efficacy of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) in melancholia: a randomized comparison with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and imipramine. J Affect Disord. 2000;57:255-259.
8. Shaffer HJ, LaSalvia TA, Stein JP. Comparing Hatha yoga with dynamic group psychotherapy for enhancing methadone maintenance treatment: a randomized clinical trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 1997;3:57-66.
Last reviewed April 2009 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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