Friday, July 27, 2007

Yoga: Is it woo? Is it religious?

Hey, it’s only exercise! That’s the usual rejoinder I hear. A commenter, expressing astonishment that I would regard Yoga as woo, goes on to make my point by making a woo based Yoga claim:

And, unlike most gym type workouts, it stimulates the parasympathetic system rather than the sympathetic system, which is useful for the majority of people that are under chronic stress and therefore in sympathetic overload. A gym workout for someone in chronic stress is counterproductive as lifting weights or running on a treadmill further stimulates the sympathetic system, the stress/cortisol response and all that that entails.

It’s woo on two levels. First, there’s no evidence that Yoga somehow uniquely activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Secondly, traditional “gym workouts”, carried out over enough time to condition the cardiovascular system do in fact increase parasympathetic tone, as evidenced by the slower heart rates of conditioned individuals.

I plan to parse the religious and pseudoscientific underpinnings of Yoga in future posts.


Beach Bum said...

As someone who has practiced Yoga for several years, I can agree with you that it has at the very least a philosophical framework and at the most a religious one. Yogis encourage a very particular worldview (one that I appreciate, for the most part), and to suggest that it is simply exercise is to be deliberately obtuse.

Having said that, I have found it to be personally helpful. In my former life as an opera singer, and in my current one as a medical student, I use my yoga practice as a way to energize my body, calm and refresh my mind, and focus my thoughts and energy. Would a run around the block do the same thing? Quite probably, but I hate running, and I like doing Yoga.

Vreni said...

Two points:

1) I am not suggesting that yoga does not have religious and philosophical roots - obviously it does, and if you really look for it, I'm sure you can find a yoga class that teaches that. However, the bulk of the yoga classes out there are exercise classes with some relaxation training. To me it seems a bit like throwing out the baby with the bathwater to dismiss yoga as "woo" because of its heritage, without looking at what it has become in its modern incarnation. At one time washing hands to prevent disease was considered "woo" by the medical establishment too. Being open to a different approach is what progress is all about.

2) I agree that in healthy people a gym workout or a cardiovascular training session will result in improved parasympathetic tone. That is the result we want from an exercise program, and this would have worked for probably 95% of people in 1970. Many people today however, are overly stressed and many people do not get the results they expect in the gym. Probably you have patients in your practice that tell you that they eat a diet of rabbit food, go to the gym three times a week, and can't lose any weight. Frequently the reason is they are in sympathetic overload.

Take an athlete for example, that is in an over-training state from doing too many high-intensity workouts without adequate recovery time. According to Dr. Tudor Bompa, a very well respected exercise physiologist that has aided many Olympic athletes, the symptoms of over-training include increased excitability, insomnia, lack of appetite, poor heart-rate recovery, digestive disturbances, slower recovery rate, more prone to skin and tissue disturbances - these are all symptoms of sympathetic dominance. To recover, the athlete must stop doing intense workouts completely, can only handle light rhythmical exercise, and must do all that is possible to reduce his/her stress.

In today's world, many people (particularly women) are overly stressed, in stage 1, 2 or 3 adrenal fatigue and in sympathetic dominance, although not due to stress from exercise. Usually it is chronic time stress, work stress, relationship stress, possibly chronic pain etc. As you know, the body does not make a distinction with respect to the source of stress - the response is the same. They frequently have those same symptoms listed above. In my opinion, high intensity workouts in the gym for these people will drive their adrenals further into the ground. They would respond better to lower intensity, calming, rhythmical exercise possibly timed to the breath - the kind of exercise that does not speed up breathing rates or heart rates too much, and would not overly disrupt digestion etc. (parasympathetic exercise) like walking, and yes, yoga. You may consider this idea woo, but in my mind, it is basic physiology. Because what I do is design exercise programs for people, I have found that being mindful of the chronic systemic stress loads people are under has been very helpful in creating individualized exercise programs that actually work.