Some people turn to Yoga to burn calories and work up a good sweat when it’s hot Yoga, but Hatha Yoga has always offered a combination of strength conditioning and relaxation.
A new study out of York University published in the Journal of Pain Research found that Hatha Yoga can have a profound effect on physical pain and psychological symptoms of chronic pain in women who suffer from fibromyalgia.
The focus of this study was the stress hormone cortisol and how Yoga would affect these levels as it has been shown to stimulate cortisol. In women with fibromyalgia, cortisol levels can be quite low and this contributes to their symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue, muscle stiffness, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal discomfort, anxiety and depression.
These women were studied for a period of eight weeks and took a 75-minute Hatha Yoga class twice a week. After which their saliva samples were taken to test for cortisol levels and the results showed they were higher than before.
“Ideally, our cortisol levels peak about 30-40 minutes after we get up in the morning and decline throughout the day until we’re ready to go to sleep,” says the study’s lead author, Kathryn Curtis, a PhD student in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “The secretion of the hormone, cortisol, is dysregulated in women with fibromyalgia” she says.
Cortisol is part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. As a steroid hormone, cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands in response to stress.
“Hatha yoga promotes physical relaxation by decreasing activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which lowers heart rate and increases breath volume. We believe this in turn has a positive effect on the HPA axis,” says Curtis.
As well as the saliva test, the study group women filled out a questionnaire rating their levels of pain before and after the eight-week study. The main areas of improvement after eight weeks of Hatha Yoga were:
- Less pain
- Fewer symptoms
- Psychological benefits
- Acceptance of their condition
- Reduced anxiety and feelings of helplessness
- Less likely to “catastrophize” over their condition
“We saw their levels of mindfulness increase — they were better able to detach from their psychological experience of pain,” Curtis says. Mindfulness is a form of active mental awareness rooted in Buddhist traditions; it is achieved by paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgmental awareness of inner and outer experiences.
“Yoga promotes this concept — that we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain. This is extremely useful in the management of pain,” she says. “Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain.”
The study – Curtis’ thesis – was published July 26 in the Journal of Pain Research. It is co-authored by her supervisor, York professor Joel Katz, Canada Research Chair in Health Psychology, and Anna Osadchuk, a York University undergraduate student.
Curtis was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Canada Graduate Scholarship and a CIHR Strategic Training Grant Fellowship in Pain: Molecules to Community.
York University. “Yoga boosts stress-busting hormone, reduces pain, study finds.” ScienceDaily, 27 Jul. 2011. Web. 1 Aug. 2011.