Science Examines Yoga’s Powers of Preventative Medicine

Science took a look at yoga to see how it effects our gene expression, particularly in relation to immunity and using yoga as preventative medicine.

With everything going on in health care today, people are turning more and more to alternative medicinal practices and prevention. Often science-minded people like myself take a little more convincing since the alternative methods don’t always come armed with a strong clinical backing. But every now and again, some of these methods have both a long history and the science to back up their claims.

Yoga is one such traditional method. While many people use yoga purely as a mode of exercise and a method of stretching, many also purport its mental benefits and its use as actual preventative medicine. These sorts of claims tend to be harder to support, but in a recent PLoS ONE study, researchers attempted to do just that.

In the study, researchers looked at the effects of yoga on the gene expression of blood cells responsible for immunity. In particular, they used Sudarshan Kriya and related gentle postures and meditation techniques. Researchers had some study participants do this type of yoga and other participants performed a walk through the woods with soft music playing. Researchers then measured the gene expression in everyone’s immune systems afterward.

What researchers found was that the yoga had a three-fold greater response in gene expression than the walking did. About a third of the genes expressed were the same between the two groups, which the researchers said indicated a similarity in the genes that each activity affected. This, they concluded, formed the basis for long-term cell health and higher-level biological health.

The results aren’t as cut and dry as the researchers made it sound, however. One third of the same genes were affected in each group, which they think establishes a viable link in benefit, although both were fairly relaxing and light forms of exercise. I’m more surprised the yoga only affected one third of the same genes, to be honest. Also, just because yoga affected three times the number of genes doesn’t really mean much. The yoga training was more comprehensive, and during the postures and breathing, more focused and intense perhaps than just a walk. While some of the participants were well practiced in yoga, some were beginners, while few people are not master walkers. So, it makes sense that yoga activated more genes.

Now that’s not to condemn the results mind you. While there were no real blood changes observed, the researchers believe that the altered gene expression might impact long-term health, and that’s a good thing. However, the control wasn’t very strong, and the tests were all performed in the same order (everyone did yoga for two days and then walked for two days), so the results a little flavorless for me. It should come as no surprise that a comprehensive yoga program outperformed a walk. I’d only be surprised if it didn’t.

So, yoga is good. Not only do many athletes employ it for physical benefits it seems to have long-term health benefits as well. Compared to what, however, has yet to be seen. Better studies with more varied groups might be warranted. Who knows, maybe powerlifters have the best potential health outcomes?


1. Su Qu, et. al., “Rapid Gene Expression Changes in Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes upon Practice of a Comprehensive Yoga Program,” PLoS ONE 8(4), 2013

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