As a yoga teacher, your students look to you for advice. You may not feel like an expert, but your students trust you. That trust often extends to areas of knowledge outside your expertise and training. For example, a student may ask you for help with their anxiety or shoulder pain. What do you do if you haven’t undertaken specialised training in these areas?
If you’re like most yoga teachers you head to Guru Google to do some ‘research’. Here’s the thing. Googling something is NOT research. The internet is full of yoga ‘experts’ (I’ve written about this before) and it’s easy to believe what you read online, especially if it comes from a source you think you can trust, such as a well known teacher.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that there are plenty of people out there sharing half truths and misinformation - many are doing so with the very best of intentions. So how do you know if the pranayama practice that popped up when you Googled ‘yoga for anxiety’ is going to help - and not harm - your student? How do you know if the asana sequence you’re teaching your student with scoliosis is going to offer long-term benefits?
Facts versus opinions
If there was a pranayama that somebody with anxiety might find triggering, wouldn’t you want to know about it? If there was an asana practice that helped students manage chronic pain, wouldn't you want to teach it? As a yoga teacher, you are responsible for giving your students information that, at the very least, keeps them safe. You may want to take it a step further and give them information that can help them heal.
Either way, if you have not been trained to work with a specific health issue, you need to do more than work off your own intuition and advice from Google. If you want to support your students with integrity, you need facts, not opinions. In other words, you need to do some research.
What IS research?
Research is what we do to sort out fact from opinion. If a website recommends down dog for a shoulder injury, what is that recommendation based on? Is there any evidence that down dog is useful for healing shoulder injuries and, if so, what is the quality of that evidence?
Perhaps an individual yoga teacher practiced down dog while recovering from a shoulder injury and found that it helped. Does that mean down dog will help everybody with a shoulder injury? Could it possibly make a shoulder injury worse in some cases? When we rely on the subjective opinion of an individual (or even the collective opinions of many people), we can’t answer those questions.
Somebody who has a strong grasp of anatomy - perhaps a yoga teacher who has also trained as a physiotherapist - may have a more informed opinion. But you’re still relying on their opinion and it’s worth digging a little deeper to see if the advice you’re getting is useful.
The best way to know if a particular practice is helpful - or harmful - is to do some real research. That means finding fact-based information that has been tested for accuracy. In the world of yoga, that can be a challenge.
Yoga research - an inexact science
Research into yoga is booming. Yoga has always been subject to deep, empirical scrutiny. Yoga masters in India have spent over 2,000 years painstakingly studying the effects of yoga practices, learning how different techniques work and adapting them to meet the individual needs of their students.
In recent years, yoga has become a subject of fascination for Western researchers and more and more studies are applying the principles of clinical research to the practice of yoga.
This is great news for several reasons, including:
- High quality clinical research gets the attention of health professionals. For those of us who want to see yoga integrated into our health system and accessible to everyone, this is essential.
- When we know what works, we can use it to help people.
- When we know what doesn’t work, we can focus energy elsewhere.
Yoga research, in the Western sense, is in its infancy. Many studies are low quality (learn more about what constitutes high and low quality research here). Researchers often study different yoga techniques so even if they conclude that yoga is helpful for addressing a particular health issue, it’s hard to know which technique(s) makes the difference. And the question of ‘how much yoga works’, or dosage, is an ongoing dilemma - an hour a week? 20 minutes a day?
However, despite the challenges of studying yoga, there is a growing body of work that demonstrates what dedicated yogis have always known - yoga can be an effective adjunctive health modality that is cost effective, accessible and has few side effects. So where do you go to find that research?
Where do you go for quality research?
If you want to get quality results, you have to look in the right places. So where do you go to find good research?
At Adore, we’ve upgraded the research component of our Graduate Diploma in Yoga Therapy so our trainee yoga therapists know exactly where to get high quality, accurate information. They also learn how to carefully interpret research and talk about findings in a confident way. This gives them two important skills:
- They know how to teach evidence based practices that will help their students manage their health issues.
- They can confidently work alongside health professionals as part of an integrated team caring for their students.
If you want to know what the research says about yoga - what works and what doesn’t work - I’ve provided some pointers for reliable sources of information in the links below. Don’t panic if the papers seem challenging to read at first. With practice, you’ll learn how studies are structured and how to interpret the data.
Also, don’t be put off that many research papers are hidden behind a paywall. You can always see the abstract (a short summary at the start of the paper) to get an overview of the study. What’s more, it’s absolutely free to join your state library and you can use your membership to access many papers that you would need to pay for otherwise.
Quality research sources
Adore Yoga does regular research round-ups, highlighting key findings in yoga studies. You can get a copy of our Yoga for Cancer Research Roundup here:
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.