Sunday, May 9, 2010

Yoga Research Paper--Liz Affa

Anxiety in Western Culture: Is Yoga a Possible Solution?

Liz Affa
the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

This article explores the practice of yoga as a remedy for people living in Western Society who are affected by severe anxiety brought on by cultural notions . By practicing yoga in a routine fashion, people may be able to reduce the amount of anxiety in their lives. The ideas within the article stress the importance of studying the origins of yoga along with practice in order to achieve successful results.


Many people throughout the United States are affected by anxiety. In our society, the idea of having a certain image to uphold is drilled into the heads of civilians. Only few decades ago, females were expected to look and act a certain way as well as cater to others. Males were expected to uphold an image of masculinity and come off as intelligent, strong and independent. We have made some progress over the years but there are still many issues that involve the media that continue to put pressure on males and females. We see the influence that the media has on us through television, music and even the news. It seems as though all we are all "supposed" to look a certain way in order to be successful and loved throughout our lifetime. This brings a gigantic amount of stress and anxiety into our lives. Anxiety means feeling highly tense and panicky and these feelings may also be accompanied by tightness in the chest and difficulty swallowing or breathing (Udupa & Prasad, 1985, p. 326 ). As Americans, we begin to obsess over appearances, in ourselves as well as others. These obsessions lead us to focus only on the outside of our bodies and not within ourselves. Our bodies then become physically affected by the stress that haunts us everyday, leading us to feel tired, worn down and ultimately anxiety ridden. Bordo (2003) states the issue of women presented in the media perfectly "....No actual person has a body like that. But that doesn't matter--because our expectations, our desires, our judgements about bodies, are becoming dictated by the digital. When was the last time you actually saw a wrinkle--or cellulite--or a drooping jowl---or a pore or a pucker--in a magazine or video image?" (xxvi) Since many false ideas of body image that were born in Western Culture are being instilled in men and women today, one can find a peaceful solution by looking at the ways of Eastern Culture. The practice of Yogic exercises not only helps calm the body but it also helps calm the mind and brings peace to oneself. "Yoga is defined as a practice consisting of three components: gentle stretching; exercises for breath control; and meditation as a mind-body intervention" (Kirkwood, Rampes, Tuffrey, Richardson, Pilkington. 884)
Growing up as a female, I have felt much pressure throughout my life to look and act a certain way. I found myself trying to loose an unhealthy amount of weight, dye my hair many different unnatural colors and act excessively more soft and feminine. I was acting much older than I really was and had no clue what I was doing. All I knew was that all of the women around me were doing it, so I thought I had to follow the leaders. All of these ideas were placed in my head by what I was watching, reading and listening to. This brought much unneeded stress to my life. I felt the pressure from the media, men and my peers. That stress combined with the stress from personal problems soon developed into an anxiety disorder. Over the years, I have tried many different treatments for my issues with anxiety and they have helped. But I have found that adding the practice of Yoga to my weekly routine helps eliminate my stress and helps me feel relaxed and at peace with myself.

Studies on Yoga and Anxiety

Although there is information proving that Yoga can help reduce symptoms of Anxiety, there is little research on the issue of solely women, anxiety and Yoga. A study performed by the Department of Physiology at the I.H.C. of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences between the years of 2002 and 2003 suggests that Yoga does in fact reduce the symptoms and effects of Anxiety. The study was based on data that was collected from 175 different subjects who's ages ranged from 19 to 76; 77 of these subjects were female and 98 were male. (Gupta, Khera, Vempati, Sharma & Bijlani, 2006) The program was divided into two different ways: theory and practice. The subjects spent 3 to 4 hours each day learning and practicing Yoga for 10 days and they were split into groups of 6 to 8 patients. Below is a table that was created by the researchers which states how each day of the program was spent.

The results of this study came to be by measuring the levels of anxiety in the subjects at the beginning of day 1 and at the end of day 10.

It seems as though this specific study acts similarly to a Yoga Theory and Practice class. Each day starts off with a lecture learning about a certain aspect of Yoga, followed by actually practicing. This is very similar to the way I was introduced to Yoga which is maybe the reason why it was so effective for me. Learning about the practice and why we practice it is just as effective as actually performing it. I do not believe that Yoga would be as effective for me if I did not know the history and motifs behind it. The ideas presented in Yoga are the core of this practice. These ideas enforce alternative thinking and self-awareness which results in it actually benefiting your mental and physical state.
Another study on Anxiety and Yoga that took place between March and June of 2004 in the United Kingdom. This study was based on a collection of evidence from many different sources. The objective of this review was to look at evidence from many different sources to determine the effectiveness of Yoga as a source of treatment for anxiety. The summary of the search strategy reads as follows, "A comprehensive search for clinical research was carried out. Searches were conducted on major biomedical and specialist databases and websites. Citations were sought from relevant reviews and various appropriate specialised books. Relevant websites were also included in the search, including those of specialist yoga and mental health organizations" (uk study*) Here is a table of the studies, the details of each test and the outcomes:

In a way, this article is working similarly to how I am. I am taking evidence from many different studies to prove that Yoga is, in fact, a solution if practiced the right way. I am also using myself as a source of evidence by bringing my own personal experience as a female affected by anxiety to a front. Based on the data tables from this article, we can conclude that most results for these tests state that anxiety levels were either mildly or intensely reduced, not eliminated. I think the reason for this is because each trial was conducted consecutively but only for a short span of three days. In order to understand yoga and receive its benefits, one must fully immerse themselves within the exercise.
The last study I read about was conducted in 2004 in the United States by Alison Woolery, MA , Hector Myers, PhD, Beth Sternlieb, BFA and Lonnie Zeltzer, MD. The study took place at a college campus recreation center with twenty-eight volunteers who were all between the ages of 18 and 29, none of whom had significant yoga experience. Over a 5 week period, the subjects attended two yoga classes each week. Here are the changes in anxiety and depression found when conducting the study:

In my opinion, this study seems to be equally as effective as the study that was performed by the Department of Physiology at the I.H.C. of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The only reason I could find this test as less reputable is because of the number of participants that were present. Twenty-eight seems like a small number compared to the one hundred and seventy-five that participated in India but maybe this could prove something as well. Maybe participants in a smaller, more hands-on yoga class could benefit more from the practice. I know that when I am in the classroom, despite what subject I am studying, I have a better grasp on what I am learning about when the group is smaller and more intimate. Maybe this could be a factor in whether or not the yogic experience can help cure anxiety. This can also relate back to women and body image. As a female with anxiety, I know that going to exercise in a large gym with many other people can be very nerve-racking. I think that same feeling could be experienced in a yoga class. If there is a smaller group practicing, people feel more at ease and more comfortable with themselves. When students are first learning yoga in the classroom, I feel as though participating in a small group is quite necessary to get the full benefits of the practice before moving onto practicing individually.

The Importance of Routinely Practiced Yoga

Although there is no "one" single conclusion for all of these tests combined, by taking the results of each study we are able to come to some sort of a conclusion. Many of the studies stated that instead of an overall elimination of stress and anxiety, there was just a reduction. I think that this is a very important fact to address. Practicing yoga will not flat-out cure anxiety or stress. Yoga is a practice that takes time and dedication. The meditative and physical training is a process that takes much patience. There is no "end result"; it is simply a way of life. A primary idea involved in the application of yoga is to live in the present moment. Training your mind to refrain from wandering to the past and future is a key component to the yogic performance. The one idea we are trying to attain is a state of peace, which is not a final destination.
Ever since yoga has become a popular practice over here in the west, Americans have attempted to twist the original practice's motifs to their own liking. Instead of it being a spiritual practice, it has turned into a practice of solely exercise. The idea of obtaining an end result has been instilled into the western versions of yoga, which completely diminishes the building blocks of the original origins of the practice. Most people in the west use yoga to get thin and achieve that "perfect body", not to achieve internal peace. The only way for yoga to act as a remedy for anxiety and stress is for it to be practiced routinely and actually studied. I feel that if I were to just jump right into a westernized yoga class and not study the origins of the practice that it would be a falsified experience. I simply do not feel I would gain anything from the experience except maybe some tighter abs, which is the exact opposite of what yoga strives to achieve. Yoga is not about our physical appearances. It is about recognizing our inner self and accepting it.

Based on my research and my own personal experiences as an American citizen, I can say that I truly believe yoga has the power to reduce stress and anxiety in Western inhabitants. However, there are certain ways that the yoga needs to be practiced in order for it to be effective. The origins of yoga need to be studied and examined in order for it to be experienced to the fullest extent. The ideas behind it are the core and the physical practice only enforces these ideas. Performing yoga is not primarily a physical exercise, but an exercise for your mind as well. Yoga also needs to practiced in a routine fashion. Practicing yoga in a scattered, unorganized matter will not grant one with the gifts that it offers. It is important to practice yoga regularly to reduce stress and anxiety that is brought on by everyday life. Another way for yoga to be experienced by beginners is in a small group. I have found that studying yoga in a group of no more than fifteen to twenty participants is ideal. This leaves room for questions, discussion and also leaves anxiety at the door. Yoga for treatment of anxiety can be looked at as a sort of therapy session. It is important for each session to be intimate and personal. Yoga is a form of meditation that seeks to find a balance between the physical self and our inner self. Members of Western society should take advantage of Eastern ways of thought in order to cleanse themselves of unnecessary stress and irrational ways of living. As Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, "There is great happiness in not wanting, in not being something, in not going somewhere" As Americans, we can all learn something about living in the present moment and not letting the past haunt us and the future taunt us. Yoga can help us achieve that balance and live at peace.

-Bordo, Susan. (2003). Unbearable weight: feminism, Western culture, and the body. University of California Press.
-Udupa, K.N. & Prasad, R.C. (1985) Stress and its Management by Yoga. Motilal Banarsidass Publishing.
-Kirkwood, Graham. Rampes, Hagen. Tuffrey, Veronica. Richardson, Janet. Pilkington, Karen. (2005) Yoga for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence. British Journal of Sports and Medicine, 39 (12), 884-891
-Gupta, Nidhi. Khera, Shveta. Vempati, R. P. Sharma, Ratna. Bijlani, R. L. Effect of Yoga Based Lifestyle Intervention on State and Trait Anxiety. (2006) Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 50 (1) 41-47
-Woolery MA, Alison. Myers PhD, Hector. Sternlieb BFA, Beth. Zeltzer MD, Lonnie. (2004) A Yoga Intervention for Young Adults with Elevated Symptoms of Depression. Alternative Therapies. 10 (2), 60-64
J. Krishnamurti (1895 - 1986)

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