Why you need them and how to do it
While yoga is based on ancient principles, it is also accruing a substantial evidence base thanks to increasing levels of research. This is important for three reasons:
- Provides credibility about the benefits of yoga – Techniques that are backed up by sound research are more likely to be recommended by health professionals and accepted by the public.
- Keeps students safe – Research helps yoga teachers and therapists, health professionals and students understand which techniques are most appropriate or contra-indicated when working with different students or those recovering from illness or injuries.
- Helps develop the best learning environment for each student – This is achieved through providing clear data on which practices are most effective.
There are two ways for yoga teachers to engage with research:
- Develop the necessary skills for searching, assessing and applying the current evidence base.
- Undertake original research.
Developing skills for searching, assessing, and applying the current evidence base
The first question to ask yourself is: What do I want to know about? A more precise question will improve the quality of the information you turn up. For example, if you start exploring a very broad subject area such as ‘therapeutic yoga’ or ‘yoga for pain’, you’ll find huge volumes of information of varying quality. Start by being very clear about what you want to look for. For example, narrow your search to ‘yoga for back pain’ or ‘yoga for cancer’.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can decide where to look. Google Scholar is a great place to start – search for a yoga related term and it’ll bring up an exhaustive list of studies, research papers, articles and other information. The International Journal of Yoga Therapy is also a valuable resource for yoga related research.
The next challenge is knowing how to sift through this huge amount of data, especially given that not all of the results are going to offer relevant, good quality or even accurate information.
Top tips for deciding which results to focus on
Use recent studies – Because research is constantly being updated and evaluated, confine your search to studies that were completed within the last five years (ten years is the maximum timeframe).
Use peer reviewed studies – Higher quality studies are published in reputable peer-reviewed journals. You can also tell a lot about a study by how many times it has been referenced by other scholars – good quality papers will be read, reviewed and referenced by other studies.
Use research, not opinion – Some papers that appear in your online searches will be based on the opinion of the writer rather than objective data. While the informed opinions of experts can be helpful, only high quality data can give us a clear picture of what does, and doesn’t, work.
Assess the quality – If a study only has a small number of participants, or the methodology is unsound, the results can be unreliable. It’s also helpful to know who conducted and funded the research – there are many organisations and industries that have a financial interest in celebrating or selectively reporting on research results.
Defining ‘quality research’
There are many different types of research, ranging from case studies to meta-analyses that review the results of many previously conducted studies. Some research takes a qualitative approach (this approach can take the subjective experiences of the study participants into account), while others are quantitative (only looking at statistical outcomes). All types of research are helpful for putting together the bigger picture. However, it’s important to understand that you cannot take one piece of research and use it to prove that something does or doesn’t work.
Randomised Control Trials
Randomised Control Trials (or RCTs) are the ‘gold standard’ of research. In an RCT, study participants are randomly split into two or more groups. For example, if I want to find out if yoga helps people reduce anxiety, I might offer a 12 week yoga program to one group of participants, while a second group (the control group) would receive the standard treatment for anxiety (such as medication). I can then measure if the people who participated in the yoga program experienced a reduction in symptoms compared to a similar group of people who did not receive the yoga training.
However, RCT results are still open to interpretation, which is why the highest quality studies use ‘blinding’ to reduce bias. In a ‘blind’ RCT, either the researchers or the study participants (or both) do not know which participants received the intervention and which was the control group. Researchers analyse the data without knowing who did the yoga program and only compare the results between the two groups at the very end of the study. Without ‘blinding’, researchers are more likely to believe that interventions are effective (Nosworthy et al. 1994), demonstrating that even the best researchers are unintentionally biased.
Putting it all together
Once you’ve searched for and picked out your quality research papers, you can start to evaluate the findings. You may find that that some studies seem to contradict others or that it’s hard to compare the findings from different studies because the methodology or participants were very different. That’s ok – don’t try to make everything fit into a tidy box! Assess the information you’ve found, write up your observations and make the best evaluation you can based on the available data. While it’s tempting to rely on research data to prove a point, yoga research is still in its infancy and you’ll find much of it inconclusive.