CU Boulder research associate Charleen Gust demonstrates that the physical and psychological benefits of yoga last longer with consistent practice
While even one yoga class may yield short-term benefits for participants, those who hope for benefits lasting longer than a week should aim for regular and consistent yoga practice.
These are the findings from a newly released study of how yoga produces the benefits to mind and body that previous research has demonstrated, including improved mobility, reduced risk for chronic disease and decreased stress.
Charleen Gust, a research associate in the University of Colorado Boulder Institute of Behavioral Science who in August earned PhDs in social psychology and neuroscience, led the research with a goal of exploring how yoga benefits those who practice it.
Her research compared a typical yoga class (one that offers postures, breathing exercises, mindfulness and meditation) with a postures-only class (one that offers guided stretching). Gust says comparing the two classes let her probe how factors other than physical and psychological health change in response to yoga–factors that might also explain yoga’s health-promoting effects.
“This is what is meant by ‘potential self-regulatory and neurophysiological mechanisms’–factors related to self-regulation [or the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and behavior in a given situation] and neurophysiology [nervous system functioning] that help us understand how yoga works to improve health,” says Gust, who examined emotion regulation, self-control, distress tolerance and mindfulness, among other factors, before and after research participants completed a yoga class.
In general, Gust found that those examined factors improved after a yoga class, but the improvements only lasted about a week. And the changes in those factors didn’t differ much between those in a yoga class versus those in a postures-only class–a result Gust says she didn’t expect.
“It was surprising because the four major components of yoga–ethics, breath regulation, postures and meditation–informed our decision about which factors to assess,” she says. “For example, mindfulness was the factor we selected for meditation, since past studies have shown that meditation cultivates mindfulness. Because the postures-only class didn’t have a meditative component, we expected smaller changes in mindfulness for those in that class. But our findings didn’t support that. Those in the postures-only class showed similar improvements in mindfulness like those in yoga.”
She adds that because the two types of classes produced comparable changes in most of the factors she and her research colleagues studied, this suggests that there may be additional “mechanisms of action” underlying yoga’s health-promoting effects that researchers failed to consider.
“We need more research in this area to determine what these factors or mechanisms might be,” she says. “I will say that a major implication of our findings is that while people may notice small benefits after just one yoga class, regular continued practice is necessary to see more lasting changes since the improvements participants reported after taking part in yoga weren’t maintained one week later.”
Experience informing research
Gust speaks from experience. She first became interested in yoga more than a decade ago and now practices three to five times a week.
That’s the beauty of yoga; it’s not at all about social comparison. It’s about showing up, being present, doing your best and letting go of expectations.”
“For me personally, yoga is particularly helpful in maintaining a sense of overall well-being,” she says. “The time I set aside for practice is often the only time I can truly disconnect from the distractions and stress that leave me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. Yoga has also helped me cultivate a sense of compassion, both for myself and for others.”
Her advice to yoga newcomers?
“It’s normal to feel out of place. Even as a former gymnast of 13-plus years, I felt extremely self-conscious at my first few yoga classes. I couldn’t help but compare myself to others who I perceived as able to do the poses much better than me. But that’s the beauty of yoga; it’s not at all about social comparison. It’s about showing up, being present, doing your best and letting go of expectations.”
Gust says she believes the biggest misconception about yoga relates to accessibility.
“Many believe that you have to go to a yoga studio to do yoga, which simply isn’t true. Gyms and fitness centers, even companies, recognize the value of yoga and offer classes. And it’s perfectly fine to do yoga in your own living room. That’s what I do.”