I’ll cut to the chase and answer the question right away: I don’t know. But I’m hopeful.
Like many other researchers who were originally in other fields, I traded to Team Yoga a few years ago. Although I have only been tracking the yoga research field closely for about seven years, it has been the time of greatest change in the field.
Starting in 2008, I was completely enamored of going to conferences with other yoga researchers. My first yoga therapy conference blew me away. Strangely, one of the most vibrant memories from it was the animated Q&A minutes that were peppered in between presentations.
Instead of the typical questioning about methodological minutia or future directions, those minutes on the audience microphone were sparking hot debates. People were raising their voices – yep, here, at a yoga therapy conference! One by one, the subsequent presentations became a few minutes later, getting off schedule because the back-and-forth chatter would not stop. The chatter boiled down to this: should yoga research be done at all?
The field is growing in numbers, prestige, and credibility. Young researchers are cutting their dissertation teeth on yoga topics and setting themselves up for careers in this field. All of this is amazing.
But the momentum can lead to the adoption of methods, agendas, and philosophical baggage that makes yoga research a part of the biomedical research paradigm in a way that changes what is studied and sidelines some questions not to be answered at all because they don’t fit the random control trial mold.
So let’s also be clear about what this momentum is and is not. It is the adoption of yoga as a topic into a western paradigm of research. Overall, the momentum is a positive, to be sure, but it does not necessarily translate into the application of that knowledge. At least not yet. We need creative programming in health care settings and community service to cross that bridge.
The increased rate of publishing also does not draw in more funding dollars. There is still very sparse funding out there for any form of mind-body research, relatively speaking. Mind-body research goes against the current paradigm in health-related research of get some data, develop a drug or program to sell, and collect ROI.
Pitfalls in Popularity
There are some potential pitfalls to this exponential growth to yoga research. Just like with the surge in popularity of many different American yoga brands and yogilebrity teachers, when a field becomes saturated, then the players have to do something to make themselves stand out. Sometimes doing something different is truly innovation. Other times, it is noise. Sometimes, it is not really something different; it is instead a false partitioning into categories.
The very nature of science is to engage in that last tendency: to carve things up in clean, discrete categories, even though we know that nature is not compartmentalized that way. The joke among scientists is that as you continue along, you know more and more about less and less. This is because you specialize into your niche to differentiate (and therefore fund) yourself.
Is this going to play out in yoga research? If so, what will it look like? Competing camps of researchers, like in other areas of science? My yoga is THE form of yoga to practice to heal ___ [fill in your own blank]. My yoga is better than your yoga, p < .05. We will have entered the realm of statistical generalities and have moved farther away from yoga as individualized medicine.
Back to Basics
I included this Active Life DC figure in the introduction of an article called Yoga at the Intersection of Research and Service. Part 1: Experimental Foundations that I recently wrote for the Journal of Yoga Service, an article that is part of a much larger current writing project. Drafting this article helped me get clear on what I, as an enthusiastically unapologetic nerd when it comes to experimental design and measurement, have to offer the field of yoga research. For me, the next step is a return to basics and coming up with more basic recipes. It’s all about building a solid foundation of experimental design and statistics for mind-body researchers. Based on the feedback I’ve been getting now for seven years, it’s needed. Somehow my fate will be wrapped up in the phrase “ measuring the immeasurable.”As the face of commercial yoga has transformed, so too yoga research is becoming commonplace enough to do both great things and mediocre things. We have to make sure the foundation is solid.
If I sound ambivalent, it is only because I am.
Yoga research: We’re on our way! We just don’t know where quite yet.
Don’t miss this July workshop opportunity!
Building Resilience: Yoga for the Nervous System
July 27, 1-5pm
Join neuroscientist Dr. Stephanie Shorter for a Saturday afternoon workshop exploring how practicing yoga = flexible neurons = flexible behavior. Learn how cortical neural networks and peripheral nerves are tuned by mindful movement and the breath. $50. Location: AOMA, 4701 West Gate Blvd. Classroom E2.