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Namaste in the New Year

Hub Health logoby Megan Tripp

Your New Year’s resolutions for 2014 probably involve two things: getting healthy and being happy. Yoga is a great way to combine both into one convenient resolution. And Boston doctors agree.

Researchers are examining yoga closely and have found it to be a cost-effective and successful way to improve a variety of ailments like decreasing pain, lowering stress, and improving brain function.

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center studied yoga’s effect on lower back pain, and found it to be a safe alternative to pain medication. Participants of the study were split into two groups: one attended a weekly class and one attended biweekly classes. Both groups experienced relief from back pain, and researchers concluded that as little as one weekly yoga class could result in increased pain relief.

“Given the similar improvement seen in once weekly yoga classes and that once a week is more convenient and less expensive, we recommend patients suffering from lower back pain who want to pursue yoga attend a weekly therapeutic yoga class,” says the study’s author, Dr. Robert Saper, an associate professor of family medicine at BUSM and director of integrative medicine at BMC.

In addition to yoga’s physical benefits, a number of Boston-based studies conducted in 2013 focused on the positive effects that yoga has on mental health. Dr. Chris Streeter from Boston University’s School of Medicine has conducted a number of studies that provide evidence of yoga’s mood-lifting effects. Compared to walking, Streeter’s research found that yoga stimulates a larger increase in gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, levels in your brain. People with anxiety and depression have low GABA levels, and anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications are designed to increase GABA levels to improve mental health. “People with too much stress have an overactive sympathetic nervous system,” Streeter says. “One of the reasons yoga is helpful, is that it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system—the one that controls the variability of time between heart beats—and reduces stress.”

Once Streeter established that yoga has the power to decrease stress and increase GABA levels, she began a study that is focusing on what positive effects, if any, regular yoga practice will have on people who are clinically depressed. Her study, which is ongoing, is looking to see if yoga could be prescribed as an adjunct therapy to standard anti-depressant medications.

If you’re a little more adventurous, doctors are saying that Bikram yoga, a 26–pose yoga routine performed in a 105-degree room for 90 minutes may be an effective treatment for depression. Researchers at MGH launched a study where participants rotated between an eight-week waiting period and an eight-week Bikram yoga regimen. Dr. Maurizio Fava, director of the MGH Depression Clinical and Research Program, says that although there is only minimal empirical evidence, heat has traditionally been used to promote wellness. “The heated environment may enhance the antidepressant effects of this form of yoga,” he says. This study is still ongoing, but MGH doctors hope that Bikram yoga can one day prove to be an effective alternative for antidepressant medications.

Still not convinced you can twist your body into a pretzel to de-stress? Rest assured, anyone can. Boston yoga studios offer classes for children as young as four, and researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have recruited participants as old as 90 for their yoga study, which examined the effects of yoga on Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Two groups were compared for this study; one received standard cognitive impairment care, and one participated in a program that involved meditation and yoga. The yoga and meditation participants experienced improved brain function, according to MRIs before and after the yoga sessions. Beth Israel researchers concluded that yoga and meditation should be an integral part of standardized Alzheimer’s and dementia treatments.

No matter who you are or where you live, research from some of the nation’s top hospitals is backing up the claim that yoga is good for you. And the practice can be inexpensive, too, especially with donation yoga and community yoga studios opening up in abundance this year. Why not Namaste in the New Year?

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