One of the most mysterious aspects of modern medicine is the so-called placebo effect. Imagine a drug company that has a new pill. To see if it works, they give one group of people (the “test” group) the real pill and they give another group of people (the “control” group) an identical looking pill that does not contain any medicine (sugar pill). If the the “test” group improves in health and the “control” group does not – voila! – one can conclude that the medicine works.
What happens when the “control” group gets better? Hunh? but there was no medicine … how can they get better? This is known as the placebo effect – wherein a persons EXPECTATIONS lead them to feel better.
Believe it or not, it happens all the time in scientific research and in the pharmaceutical industry. Apparently the brain has a way of convincing the body that things are getter better (or worse). You probably have probed this complex mind-body interface at some point … “is the pain really in my back, or perhaps just in my head?” Indeed, you can almost hear the frustration among the blue suits in a big pharma board room, “Mind and body are connected?” “How much is this damned mind-body problem going to cost us?” Its a multi-billion dollar problem!
Ancient yogis seemed to understand the placebo/mind-body phenomenon. Its a part of what makes yoga so interesting. Its ALL ABOUT THE CONNECTION between mind and body – not one vs. the other.
Most folks who practice yoga will attest to its mental and physical benefits. This is true. However, one can still ask the valid question of whether the actual benefits are real? The purely physical benefits (muscles) are not in doubt. But, does yoga really improve a person’s mental life – or do we just want to think so (a placebo response)? I mean, have you left the yoga studio (fully relaxed) only to honk the horn after being cut off in traffic? Did yoga really change you? Is there evidence – in the scientific sense – that yoga leads to mental well-being?
Hats off to Dru worldwide – an organization that is “passionate about positive health and wellbeing. With yoga and meditation at [its] core.” – for taking on this important question!
In an article entitled, “The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace” [PMID: 20369218] published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, researchers from Dru Education Center, University of Gothenburg, Harvard Medical School and Bangor University used the scientific method and compared 24 people (mostly women with mean age of 39) who participated in a 1 hour yoga class each week (for 6 weeks) to 24 people who did not participate in the yoga training (the control group). Importantly, these groups were selected at random and showed similar profiles for age, prior yoga experience and health condition.
Specifically, the investigators sought to “measure” the effects of yoga using 2 instruments: the Profile of Mood States Bipolar (POMS-Bi) and the Inventory of Positive Psychological Attitudes (IPPA – you can take the assessment here). As noted by the researchers, these questionnaires allow investigators to track changes in both positive and negative feelings. To determine whether the yoga experience conferred a psychological benefit, the investigators measured the POMS and IPPA scores at the start and at the end of 6 weeks and then asked whether the change in score was different between the “test” and “control” groups.
The results (nice graph on the Dru website) show that the improvements in score (benefits) were higher in the yoga “test” group than the “control” group (who were on the waiting list for the 6 weeks).
In 7 of the 8 POMS-Bi and IPPA domains, scores for the yoga group improved 2–5 times more than those in the control group over the course of this study. The interaction term from a two-way ANOVA showed that in comparison with the control group, the yoga participants at the end of the program felt significantly less anxious, confused, depressed, tired, and unsure, and had a greater sense of life purpose and satisfaction and were more self-confident during stressful situations. Although the yoga group reported feeling more agreeable (less hostile) than the control group at the end of the program, this difference was not statistically significant.
Thus, the research team validly concludes that the yoga experience was associate with improvements in mental well-being. This is remarkable given the small size and short duration of the study. I do recall, when I first started yoga (9 months ago) that I felt sooo much better, so I think I can understand what the participants might have been feeling.
BUT, was this just the placebo response? Like me, did the study participants want to THINK that it was the yoga that made the difference? In other words, were the mental wellness benefits due to the EXPECTATION of feeling better – the placebo effect? The investigators are not unaware of this issue:
Because participants in our study were self-selected, it can be assumed that they were a highly motivated group who wanted to practice yoga. Participant expectations may have included a desire to feel less stressed by the end of the six-week sessions and this may have contributed to their perceived benefit.
So, the data suggest that yoga made a contribution to the mental well-being of the participants. This is a valid conclusion – and hats off to the research team for conducting the study. Are the effects “real” or “just in the mind” of the participants? Does it really matter?
Personally, I don’t think so. That’s the fun of exploring the mind-body interface via yoga and meditation. Not “knowing” but rather, just “feeling”!