258: What Does Science Say About Yoga?
We all know about the benefits of yoga, but maybe we’ve wondered about the science behind it all. In this episode, Dr. Mary Flaherty shares the knowledge she has gained from reading thousands of research papers about the effectiveness of yoga, answering the question – does yoga work?
Mary is a psychologist, researcher, academic and yoga teacher, and the author of Does Yoga Work: Answers from Science. Mary has been teaching yoga for over 20 years, and practicing for many more. With almost 40 years of academic and research experience working in universities in Australia, Japan, U.K., Ireland, and Singapore, Mary’s parallel interests in yoga and science come together in this book which answers some of our most common questions in an easy-to-understand way.
Mary shares some of the salient pieces of information that have come up in her research, including what science has to say about inversions during menstruation, yoga and fertility, the measurable impact of yoga on individuals, societies, and communities, and more. Mary also elaborates on the importance of having a healthy skepticism and bringing an open and critical mind to any research or information shared about yoga.
This is a great interview for anyone who has ever wondered whether yoga has been backed up by scientific studies!
[4:25] Shannon introduces her guest for this episode – Mary Flaherty.
[5:41] Shannon is giving away three copies of Mary’s book, Does Yoga Work?
[8:01] What is the work that Mary does and who does she do it for?
[10:10] What was Mary’s inspiration for writing the book Does Yoga Work?
[11:39] What is the overall answer to the question “does yoga work?”.
[16:52] Mary talks about her experience sifting through thousands of research papers and also reading through meta-studies.
“The way that the research was presented, it wasn’t just tested on psychological measures …subjective measures, but also physiological measures like at the molecular level, at a cellular level, we could see changes in hormones, all towards the positive.”
[18:13] Defining yoga is difficult, but the research seems to point to the fact that yoga that integrates different elements (like pranayama and meditation) is consistently superior to yoga that focuses solely on asana.
[20:38] Shannon pops in with a quick message from Allison of the Yoga Teacher Conf about staying up to date with professional development for yoga teachers.
[22:20] How can we develop a healthy skepticism?
“Scientific research shows that yoga is not just good for us as individuals, but at a broader level for society.”
[23:34] Mary highlights two interesting pieces of information she came across in her research relating to inversions during menstruation and yoga’s impact on fertility.
[26:59] It’s important to learn from different sources, and keep an open mind.
“We should question the science. We should question everything. Science is just one way to know the truth.”
[29:35] There are some aspects of yoga that science isn’t able to measure yet, such as the subtle body, spiritual experiences, and self-fulfillment.
“In terms of effectiveness from the scientific research, when pranayama and meditation are integrated with the asana practice, the effect was much much more superior. “
[34:37] Shannon gives a shout-out to Offering Tree’s amazing customer support team!
[36:15] Mary wrote her book to be really accessible and digestible for the average person.
[40:16] Mary shares more about her experience writing the book.
[46:23] Get Mary’s book and find out more about her work via her website.
[51:43] Leave a comment on the show notes page to stand a chance to win a copy of Mary’s book!
[53:26] If you would like to learn more from Mary, join the Pelvic Health Professionals membership site!
Note – since the recording of this episode, Mary’s website is no longer live but she can be contacted on Instagram at the link below.
- Mary Flaherty
- Does Yoga Work? by Mary Flaherty (student edition)
- ¿Funciona el Yoga? Respuestas de la ciencia, by Mary Flaherty (Spanish)
- OfferingTree User Group on Facebook
- Native Land Digital
- Pelvic Health Professionals
- Shannon Crow on Instagram
- The Connected Yoga Teacher Facebook Group
Gratitude to our Sponsors, OfferingTree and Yoga Teacher Conf.
I love this topic of yoga and science ! I’ve been super geeked out on how the two link together so this was perfect !
Love this episode! I’m super interested in the science and research behind yoga, because I know how it has helped me. This is one reason I became a yoga teacher. I can’t wait to read this book.
I love learning more about the science of yoga! And, I appreciate the explanation about OM being beneficial for respiratory health. Look forward to learning more from Mary! Thanks for another wonderful guest, Shannon!
As a fellow yoga teacher, I loved your podcast with Mary. There is so much incorrect information and folklore being shared by well-meaning yoga teachers, without having the science to back up their claims. I’d love to get a copy of Mary’s book to discover which claims have scientific merits and which don’t.
So fabulous! Thanks for having Mary on the podcast. I learned that yoga helps with Diabetes. Amazing! I’d love to be entered to win a copy of the book.
I loved listening to episode 258. Thank you for doing such an awesome giveaway for Mary’s book! Some key takeaways for me included : consistency with practice reduces stress, anxiety, and interestingly diabetes! I am a first Nation’s instructor and this is something that many of our community members deal with. I would love to learn more and integrate it into my teaching/practice.
Oh my goodness – did this podcast ever have divine timing. I’ve been really questioning a lot about things I was taught in YTT especially if it’s roots were from an energetic place. And I love how Mary doesn’t discredit it, but to explore these ideas again.
My biggest take away was talking about inversions while menstruating, and having the study, but sharing with our students the energetics and how that hasn’t been studied and ALLOWING them the space to make informed decisions and explore what feels good to them… music to my ears.
I’m so looking forward reading Mary’s book.
Thank you Shannon and Mary for encouraging us to be critical thinkers.
I have wondered forever whether it’s true that you shouldn’t go upside down while menstruating. I loved hearing Mary’s answer to that, and I would so love to read the whole book to learn more!!
Loved this podcast. So interesting to hear about the studies especially in relation to diabetes care in India. It’s so important to share evidenced base information with our students and also Shannon speaks Spanish 😘 thank you mary and Shannon
What a wonderful podcast! It’s so great to learn that many of the health benefits of yoga posted on social media haven’t been scientifically proven – yet, but some, like pranayama, definitely have. So interested to learn more!
I came out of the womb asking “why”? I loved this episode and all of the fascinating information presented. The most surprising tidbit was that excepting scoliosis, there are no specific poses that help specific issues. Also that pranayama and meditation in combination with the asanas provide a superior experience.
Thank you Shannon and Mary!
What a wonderful Interview. I’m looking forward to reading this book. I am fascinated with the “why” of things. There are so many things I have questions about! I love sharing practical science during my teachings. I feel it helps students grasp both the real and the intangible.
Super interesting podcast and now I want to read the book! Thank you, Shannon, for bringing us so many amazing topics. I appreciated the science behind inversions and menstruation. And the overall recommendation to think and look critically at everything. My lingering question is really how to discern what research is “valid”. I feel like we can find anything supporting anything in the web. Thanks so much!
I’ve been wondering for a long time whether it’s true that you shouldn’t go upside down while menstruating, and it was great to hear Mary’s answer to that. I would so love to read her whole book to learn everything I can!!
Thank you so much, Shannon! This was another amazing Podcast and absolutely at a very poignant moment for me. I just did the Yoga for Mental Health Summit that I found out about, from you, Shannon. It was amazing! As a high school teacher, and yoga instructor, there is a wealth of information that I can use to help my colleagues and students – and my biggest questions going into the summit was about peer-reviewed research. This question was touched upon, but this podcast with Mary Flaherty really hit the home run. I have been looking for this information! I tried Mary’s website that she mentioned on the podcast: doesyogawork.com – it does not seem to work or exist, perhaps you can help?
Hi Susanne and thanks for your comment here. I am so glad that you had a chance to attend the virtual Yoga for Mental Health Summit!
Also I checked with Mary and she said that she has closed down her website and it is best to reach her on IG @marydoesyoga
Just wow! I cannot wait to read this book. I was interviewing a therapist yesterday for my podcast and we were talking about how so many people disregard yoga & meditation because they don’t believe in it.
I am sooooo excited to have some hard backed evidence to share the benefits and science behind it allz
I can not wait to read this book! One of the first fascinating things to me was all the research she stated!
So much was answered for me. My biggest take away was inversions and menstruation. I am so glad to hear the research. Thank you.
I read the book “does Yoga work?” by Mary. The book gave answers to all my questions and cleared my doubts. I have been doing the yoga regularly in the morning ever since I read the book and benefited in so many levels. It’s so refreshing just listening to Mary’s postcast with Shannon today and I hope many people benefit from reading Mary’s book or just listening the podcast. Thanks Mary!
Thank you for a really interesting and energising podcast. I have read Mary’s book but your conversation brought it to life and made me even more committed and enthusiastic about incorporating yoga into my life. A really valuable and relevant work. Many thanks
Great episode loaded with a ton of information! You mentioned menopause at the beginning of the episode. I’m curious what the research says about how yoga affects menopause? What are the best type of practices for women going through menopause?
HI Kristi, Thanks for your feedback.
There has been lots of research done on how yoga affects menopause.
The overall findings tell us that a regular yoga practice (and indeed exercise) reduces some menopausal symptoms, including psychological (mood changes, anxiety, irritability), physical (weight gain), and urogenital (urinary frequency, vaginal dryness and loss of libido) compared to those who do no yoga or exercise. However, neither yoga nor exercise have definitively been shown to reduce the frequency of night sweats and hot flushes, but it seems that yoga may help a woman to deal with them better. It is possible that by teaching us to go inside, observe, embrace and accept – rather than resist sensations – yoga encourages a more accepting attitude to ourselves and where we are at, which conventional exercise may not.
The hormonal changes that occur during menopause, particularly the sharp decline in oestrogen, are associated with increased blood pressure and may contribute to the
higher risk of heart disease after menopause. An Indian study on postmenopausal women found a significant improvement in Heart Rate Variability, after a sustained daily practice of yoga (1 hour of asana, pranayama, relaxation) for 3 months. Heart Rate Variability can indicate current or future health problems, including heart conditions and mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
In answer to your question “What are the best type of practices for women going through menopause?”, as studies on yoga for menopause used a variety of approaches to yoga, it is difficult to determine what type of practice might help most with menopause symptoms. However, all the studies seem to conclude that the best type of practice is one that includes postures, pranayama and meditation/mindfulness and that the practice be regular and ongoing. In spite of claims in books and magazine articles, that certain yoga poses help menopause, I could find no research on this.
Enjoy your practice and I hope I have answered your questions. You can always reach me on Instagram @marydoesyoga
Thanks so much for this info Dr. Mary! I love how you balance the hard data with the more subtle effects of yoga and mindfulness to explain how yoga works!
Hi Kristi, You might be interested in reading an article I wrote reviewing recent research on this topic: “Yoga Helps Symptoms and Improves Quality of Life in Perimenopause and Menopause” https://www.kathleenpratt.ca/resources/61-yoga-helps-symptoms-nd-improves-quality-of-life-in-perimenopause-and-menopause
Thank you so much Shannon and Dr. Mary Flaherty for this podcast episode. I’ve always been a science nerd (did my masters in Urban Anthropology and Social Culture) and I love to learn more about how it connects with my other passion, yoga. I loved the example that Dr. Mary Flaherty made about OM and how it can not only benefit from a spiritual side but it has also been proven to be beneficial on a physiological side, and how we can use this knowledge to create a comfortable space for our students! I can’t wait to read Dr. Flaherty’s book and I look forward to discovering more as we learn more in the coming years!
Wonderful! I would love this book as I myself am a psychologist studying the positive effects of yoga.
What an enlightening and necessary episode! I loved hearing about how “OM” has benefits beyond the spiritual! As a vocalist, this is particularly relevant to me. Also interesting to learn that there is not (currently) any evidence to support the notion that certain postures have specific health benefits (other than a few studies about scoliosis). Additionally, question everything!
Thank you for writing this book and adding so much research in around yoga! Loved the addition of the conversation on mensuration in yoga.
Such a great topic, and I loved hearing that the research supports the benefits of pranayama and mantra in the yoga practice. <3
I really enjoyed this interview with Mary and think the book would be a wonderful resource for every yoga teacher! However, I also think about Scope of Practice, and have some concerns with yoga teachers feeling empowered with knowledge that goes beyond their SOP as a teacher. Having knowledge and awareness of a variety of conditions that our students present with is important, but knowing the professional limits as a yoga teacher must be followed, for the safety of our students.
This is a great conversation and Mary has reviewed a large body of research – the book looks like a great resource!
I so enjoyed this episode. I’m so grateful for teachers like Dr. Mary Flaherty and you Shannon. Research and topics like this makes the yoga teacher community stronger.
I loved this episode. I’m excited to see all the illustrations and visuals in the book. I loved that yoga helped people in a different way at every stage of life. I appreciated the review of scientific literacy basics and how to value each study or meta analysis appropriately. Thank you Dr. Flaherty & Shannon for doing this important work.
I thoroughly enjoyed this episode!
I loved listening to Mary’s findings about the things we claim are benefits of certain poses, versus the actual science.
I loved the way Mary says, “yet” when something hasn’t been proven. I also loved learning that pranayama and meditation have an even more beneficial impact than just asana, when it comes to managing depression and anxiety. And that (of course!) when one stops the practices, the symptoms return.
I’ve been teaching yoga to children since 2005, and while I agree with Mary that yoga should be taught in every school to every child, there is, and has always been, a fair amount of pushback. (My children yoga teaching was primarily in Toronto, Ontario over many years and many different boards.) There are still many folks who think yoga is a religion, so bringing it into schools across the board will be a challenge. That said, I certainly hope it is a challenge we do overcome!
Thank you for another excellent show!
Thank you! What Dr. Flaherty says is so important. We’ve got to take a close look at all the claims made in yoga to see if they are accurate.
Great interview, glad to know the new research includes more RCCTs, when I first looked into yoga research in the late 90s and early 2000s it was very hard to find quality studies.
Loved this episode! Thank you Mary for sharing your research! Loved learning about OM from the science perspective
This was a wonderful episode! I always try to incorporate the “why” behind what I am teaching in class. Having more of the science to back me up will be a tremendous help! I mostly teach an elderly population… just having the information about the respiratory benefits of aum, stroke information and the side planks for scoliosis is a great help. Things I already knew but now have more confidence sharing at large. Thank you!
Great podcast – thank you Shannon & Mary. There were so many great takeaways. I work as a yoga therapist and I’m also a science nerd. My favourite takeaway was the discussion of inversions, menstruation, endometriosis and retrograde menstruation. I loved how Mary framed this to point out that there is no research evidence that inverting during menstruation would cause retrograde menstruation but that the yoga tradition also speaks to the subtle body that science doesn’t have the ability to support or not support and that the view of apana vayu may still be a reason not to invert during menstruation. To be able to look at, understand and have respect for both views is fantastic. I feel as yoga teachers or yoga therapists we need to do our best to recognize where claims of benefits of yoga come from. Some of the false claims in yoga are not rooted in either science or yoga tradition. Being able to identify when we are talking about something that is backed by research/science/evidence and when we are talking about something supported by the energetic aspects of the yoga tradition, or when something is supported by both views (or neither), is a great way to practice discernment about our language and not simply repeat things that we’ve been told by our teachers.
Thanks for this podcast episode. It was interesting to learn how beneficial it can be to add a pranayama component to an asana practice.
I really enjoyed this interview episode. As yoga teachers, it can be intimidating to answer questions from students like “is it true that…?” I can’t wait to read the book so I can answer more confidently.
Thank you Shannon for interviewing Mary & bringing “the science” to the forefront. I’m taking a Yoga for Teaching the Stages of Menopause (Instinct Yoga…..a previous guest of yours) & Mary came up to this largely Irish group of students. I then discovered you’d interviewed her. Can’t wait to read her book. In the podcast, Mary mentions she offers a discount on the book for yoga teachers, but the website doesyogawork.com doesn’t appear to be working (or anymore?). Any more info there or an update? I of course, can just Amazon it.
For me, another “aha” moment, was when teaching and perhaps entrusting that all I’ve been taught in my training and classes must be true, must be based on something, only to find out that we can trust the science, and not everything we’re taught is necessary true. Be curious, keep learning, explore! Thanks Shannon & Mary
I will let Mary know about this link issue. Thanks or listening to the podcast and sharing your thoughts here.