Yoga: Good for what ails you? OSU study, local practitioners and hospitals say it can help heal

CINCINNATI - Bridgette Pearl runs a busy life: wife, mother of two, human-resources director at Cintas Corp. in Mason. Not yet 40, she battles asthma, migraines and pulmonary problems. She began 2014 “feeling my body deteriorating.” In January, Pearl’s doctor recommended a non-medicinal therapy: yoga.

Pearl knew nothing about the practice. But she was willing to try anything, so since the second week of January, she’s been going to a yoga class four times a week, and now?

“This sounds so corny,” she said, “but it’s changed my life.”

Healing the mind and body

The regimen of breathing and stretching exercises called yoga comes with an ancient reputation for delivering a host of physical and mental benefits: improving heart function, reducing chronic lower back pain, even easing depression. Western medicine is rapidly adding support to the notion that yoga can be effective; there are dozens of randomized, controlled trials backing up millennia of anecdotal evidence about yoga.

In January, researchers at The Ohio State University announced results of a new study that found that yoga practice alone – without additional aerobic exercise or even weight loss – can facilitate sleep, increase a sense of vitality and reduce inflammation, an important consideration not just for cancer survivors but for anyone contending with an aging body.

“It’s really, really helpful and beneficial, especially as we get older, when flexibility matters greatly,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, the study’s lead researcher. “You don’t want to be the 70-year-old person who has somebody else cut your toenails for you.”

Pearl is already convinced of what yoga can do.

“Mentally, it allows my mind to heal itself. And then it allows my mind to heal my body," she said.

Yoga: Ancient and accepted

The American Yoga Association says the precise birthplace of yoga is unknown, but stone figurines in yoga positions at least 5,000 years old have been found in western India. Yoga terms are in Sanskrit, the classical language of India. Practitioners say its combination of exercise, breathing and meditation is not a religion in terms of deity worship but a way of living in the body.

Yoga arrived in the United States in the late 1880s but did not become widely known until the 1960s, when Americans by the millions explored Eastern disciplines.

Yoga was slow to take root in Ohio and Cincinnati, but today, yoga studios proliferate like Starbucks stores. The region’s major health systems – including UC Health and Mercy Health – offer yoga in their fitness centers and special classes for people recovering from particular problems.

At Mercy Health-Anderson Hospital, cardiac rehabilitation therapist Cindy Ackerman has added a customized cardiac yoga program. She trained to teach the class herself, although she’d never sat a lotus pose before. Starting out was tough: “I realized I was not in as good a shape as I thought I was,” she said.

Most physicians agree yoga is not a cure-all or replacement for proven remedies and treatment regimens. Still, the new OSU study bears out what Ackerman hears from cardiac patients new to yoga.

“A lot of them come to their first class thinking the same thing, ‘Can I do yoga?’ And they are pleasantly surprised that they can participate,” she said. “We do a lot of chair-assisted poses, where they can use the chair to get down to the floor and get back up. After that, they’re thrilled. They tell me, ‘I’ve never looked inside of me like that before.’ ”

In April 2013, UC Health opened its women’s center for integrative medicine at the physicians complex near West Chester Hospital.  Director Stefanie Stevenson, a doctor, and psychiatrist Geraldine Wu, who teaches three special yoga classes a week at the center, are thrilled to see the OSU study.

“It’s really neat to have the biological marker,” Stevenson said. “Because it does show that the more you do, the more benefit you receive.”

Wu, who has practiced yoga for about 10 years, designed the center’s special classes for beginners, for people living with chronic pain and for people dealing with depression.

“I believe I’ve actually become a better doctor, through yoga,” Wu says. “Yoga is a good way to deal with not only diseases but also with the misuse of our bodies, with the misalignment of our bodies, how we hold our bodies.”

More about the OSU study

Kiecolt-Glaser conducted the research with colleagues at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at OSU’s College of Medicine in Columbus --including her husband immunologist Ron Glaser, who is institute director. The  team recruited 200 breast-cancer survivors between 27 and 76 who were finished with treatment when they started doing yoga. Finding enough study subjects took six years.

“We’re in central Ohio, and yoga is still a little 'woo-woo' for lots of folks,” Kiecolt-Glaser said. The researchers overcame this challenge, “by emphasizing the benefit in terms of flexibility and strength. And the fact that yoga is physically demanding, but not physically demanding

like running a mile.”

The average age of the women in the study was 51. They were chosen precisely because they were not active, had not practiced yoga before and were still dealing with the overwhelming fatigue, loss of pep and body soreness from their illness and recovery.

Half of the cancer survivors served as the control group, with no change in habits. The other 100 women enrolled in a twice-weekly yoga class for three months. The yoga students were encouraged to practice at home daily and on average, they spent about 30 minutes each day doing yoga. If they missed a class unexpectedly, the teacher called to check on them.

All 200 participants took blood tests at the beginning, during and at the end of the study. The tests searched for blood markers that indicate inflammation in the body.

Three months after the yoga class ended:

  • Fatigue was, on average, 57 percent lower in the yoga class participants than in the control group
  • Inflammation in the yoga practitioners was down 20 percent over the control group

The study did not require the participants to lose weight or add aerobic exercise. The positive results, Kiecolt-Glaser said, show yoga’s unique effects on inflammation in cancer patients.

“And there’s no reason to think yoga wouldn’t have the same benefit for inflammation in other diseases," she said. "Unfortunately, it’s a complication of a large numbers of diseases of aging: heart disease, diabetes.”

Embracing yoga

A year ago, Pearl’s medical problems went bad all at once, putting her in the hospital. Recovery was a struggle.

“I was getting migraines. I was using my inhaler more than I desired," she said. "I have three bottles of Excedrin at home. At one point I had five medications. And it wasn’t solving the problem.”

Her doctor mentioned a restorative yoga class at Yoga with Pooja , a small studio in a strip mall at the corner of Tylersville and Snider roads in Mason.

A desperate Pearl signed up. She is stunned with the results.

“Even after a week, my migraine stopped. I promise you. I’ve had three headaches in the last 45 days, but I’ve only had to take Excedrin once,” Pearl said. “Yoga has allowed me to stop stressing on my breathing. It allowed me to leave that stress there.”

On a Saturday morning in mid-February, Pearl bustles into class a few minutes late. Her daughter’s been sick and Pearl’s been feeling stressed. She’s been glad to realize that her asthma did not get out of control through the ordeal.

Pearl slips off her shoes, sits on her mat. The studio lights dim. Soft notes from a sitar float out of an iPad. Instructor Savi Chinta directs everyone to use bolster pillows and blankets to support their postures through a pose. Pearl stretches out her body. She takes a deep breath, exhales and closes her eyes for practice.

Note: While you don't need a doctor's recommendation to try yoga, it's wise to check with your physician before starting any new physical regimen.

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Connect with WCPO Contributor Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker .

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