A year ago, I started practising yoga, having spent years thinking about it, but never actually getting round to doing it. I’ve since done around 10 minutes every day, usually on my own. It’s the very first thing I do when I get out of bed, before my brain wakes up enough to put up more resistance.
I’ve definitely gained some satisfaction from having built my yoga habit, having failed to do it for years. And I feel more invigorated for doing something resembling exercise early in the morning. But in truth, I haven’t enjoyed it – at least not during the session itself – and I’ve always had a niggling doubt as to whether it’s is all it’s cracked up to be, or my daily yoga is a waste of time.
After a year of cat-cows and chaturangas, I’ve finally made the time to step back and investigate whether my daily downward dogging is worth it. Here’s what I found.
The benefits of yoga
So let’s start with the pros: I feel livelier after doing yoga first thing in the morning. I get a sense of pride/achievement from doing something to try to look after my body early in the day, every single day. The fact I’m now (marginally) better at the poses would also suggest I’m more flexible and with better balance than when I started. I also enjoy the social element of occasionally doing it with my partner’s family over FaceTime1.
But what about all the other transformative effects that are supposedly backed by science? It’s claimed that yoga can decrease stress and anxiety, reduce inflammation, reduce back and joint pain, help you sleep, increase strength, promote mindfulness, and generally improve everything about your life. If all those things were true, then it would be the most effective thing I’m doing with my day. If you could take a drug that gave you all those things at minimal cost, you’d be popping them like Smarties.
But without removing the other variables that could be influencing those outcomes, it’s impossible to say with confidence that it’s the yoga that’s causing the benefits. For instance, am I less stressed because of my yoga, or because I’m also doing regular meditation? And is it the specific nature of yoga that causes the benefits, or just that doing yoga counts as doing some exercise? So I decided to look into the scientific evidence behind the claims.
The evidence – is yoga a waste of time?
I started by searching in the Cochrane Library for reviews of the evidence. At time of writing, they had 13 reviews with yoga in the title, but each was focused on the effect of yoga on a particular health condition. I’m fortunate enough to not have any of the conditions mentioned, nor am I seeking to give medical advice. But neither did I expect there to be a study into exactly how yoga improves the lives of healthy, white men with a privileged background. So I thought it was reasonable to read some of the reviews to consider where I might extrapolate the results to apply to my own life.
For instance, if yoga benefits those suffering from chronic back pain, might it be useful for me to do it to avoid getting back pain? In ‘Yoga treatment for chronic non-specific low back pain’ the authors concluded:
“There is low‐ to moderate‐certainty evidence that yoga compared to non‐exercise controls results in small to moderate improvements in back‐related function at three and six months… It is uncertain whether there is any difference between yoga and other exercise for back‐related function or pain, or whether yoga added to exercise is more effective than exercise alone.”
I then looked at the reviews on ‘Yoga for asthma’ and ‘Yoga for secondary prevention of coronary heart disease‘, as well as a separate review of randomised controlled trials on ‘Yoga and immune system functioning’. But the conclusions were also cautious enough to make me think there would be little-to-no benefit for me to do yoga for these reasons, given I already have a separate exercise regime.
Stretching the evidence in favour of yoga
I then did a Google search to look for articles that tout the benefits of yoga, hoping to find the scientific papers on which they base their claims. There are tonnes of websites that don’t link to any evidence, but even those that do cite published studies often fall foul of journalistic overstretch, overlook the caveats in the research, or generalise from specific examples.
Those articles often link to papers that, whilst being featured in reputable journals, are seriously flawed, because of a lack of proper controls, small sample sizes, or methodological issues. Consider this study, which compares yoga with ‘relaxation’, or this study, which shows that yogis have lower serum cortisol levels than…stressed people.
On the basis of the evidence I found, I would conclude that yoga does not yield significant benefit over and above what you experience yourself. Whilst it’s reasonable to practice yoga if you feel better for doing so, the claims it will make a huge difference to your life seem overstated.
Is it unfair to to say yoga is a waste of time?
It is worth considering how there could possibly be evidence that yoga causes its supposed benefits. For starters, although yoga has been around for thousands of years, most of the scientific research into it is from 1990 onwards. And as we have discussed, a lot of the literature also focuses on whether yoga can improve outcomes for patients with specific issues, rather than whether it can improve the lives of healthy people. This suggests it is worth checking back in a couple of years to see if the evidence has significantly changed.
There are also some serious challenges in applying standard scientific methods to the study of yoga. We don’t have a standard measure of what ‘yoga’ is. Is it yin or vinyasa? Twice a day, or twice a week? A ten minute session at home, or an hour as part of a class? So we can’t measure the effect of the input if we don’t have some sort of standard for what that input is.
Yoga also includes various elements, such as a cardiovascular workout, mindful breathing, and stretching. That confounds the effect. Is the benefit a result of yoga in particular, or is yoga just a vehicle for the active ingredients? And given many people have some understanding of what yoga is, it would be difficult to give ‘placebo yoga’ to a group in a ‘blinded‘ trial.
Despite these difficulties, future studies could improve the strength of the evidence either way. It would also be valuable to have a more rigorous explanation of how yoga causes the effects it is supposed to have, over and above the effects of the various elements within it.
The costs of yoga
But before throwing the Lululemon leggings out with the bathwater, it’s worth doing an analysis of the costs of practising yoga. After all, there are some benefits that I am confident in, based on my own experience. Thanks to free YouTube videos, the direct costs of my personal yoga practice have been quite low:
- 2 Cork Yoga Blocks – £24.90
- Money spent on Yoga With Kassandra – £0
- Total – £48.84
I’d estimate that the little equipment I have bought will last me at least another three years, despite claims you should be buying a new mat every year. So let’s make that a cost of £12.21 per year for equipment.
It’s worth noting that the studies suggest yoga has a low risk of side-effects like pain, or injuring yourself. I also managed to maintain this daily practice whilst travelling for more than ten weeks of the year. Not everyone’s the same, but this suggests it could be a good option if you struggle to stick to exercise while travelling.
The opportunity cost
But we also need to consider the opportunity cost of the time taken. The average time to do a class, including getting into suitable clothing, getting my mat out, finding the right video, cleaning my mat and putting it back, is approximately 15 minutes. That adds up to 5,475 minutes, or 91.25 hours a year. In purely financial terms, that equates to £2007.50 in my main job, for an overall total of £2019.71 per year.
It wouldn’t be fair to look at it as akin to spending all that money on doing yoga – not least because my employer wouldn’t have me working 24/7 anyway. But it’s a useful measure to compare other activities against. Looking at it another way, 15 minutes is 1.56%, or 1/64th of my waking time each day, which seems like quite a large chunk.
I also have to reckon with the mental cost of doing yoga each day, given it’s not really my thing. If for some reason I don’t do it first thing in the morning, it’s on my mind for the rest of the day. I’ll then resort to yoga of questionable value just to make sure I don’t break my habit.
So yoga is a waste of time?
How one weighs the costs and benefits of this kind of activity is partly subjective, in that we all value our time differently. We will likely feel subjectively different after our ‘dose’ of yoga. But for me at least, the evidence gives me low confidence that there are significant benefits over and above what I have observed in my own experience. And so for me, yoga is a waste of time.
As I don’t enjoy yoga for its own sake, I intend to try to find ways of getting the benefits I do get from it via less costly means. I do still want to feel invigorated, I want to be more flexible, and I still want to do something positive for my body early in the day. But I intend to incorporate this into the things I do anyway – such as doing ten star jumps while I wait for the shower to warm up, stretching between sets at the gym, and turning the shower to cold at the end – rather than doing a deliberate practice in itself.
When the evidence changes, change your opinion
I also plan to do a further search of the available evidence in two years’ time, given this is likely to be an area that receives lots of new research. I am happy to be shown evidence to the contrary in the meantime. And if I restart yoga, I will consider ways I can increase the cost-effectiveness, such as trying different styles, or changing the length or regularity.
I don’t pretend to have read every study into yoga ever published. But I have spent an amount of time commensurate with the time I spend doing yoga, and to the goals I am seeking in doing it. In other words, yoga is a waste of time for me. And hopefully this article gives you a framework for doing your own analysis.
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