Yoga study finds mix of health benefits
December 1, 2008
Drill sergeants and yoga instructors
may seem like polar opposites. But a
group of veterans at the VA San Diego
Healthcare System is now dutifully
"following orders" from their yoga
teachers—and feeling less pain as a result.
According to a pilot study appearing in
the November Journal of Alternative and
Complementary Medicine, veterans with
chronic low-back pain who took part in at
least eight weekly yoga classes reported a
significant reduction in pain. They also
reported improvements in mood, energy
and quality of life. The more classes they
attended, the greater the gains.
The data were based on survey
feedback from 33 men and women,average age 55, who had back pain for at
least six months before starting yoga.
"The decreased pain, decreased
depression, and increased energy and
quality of life are all very important
findings," said lead author Erik G.
Groessl, PhD, a psychologist and healthservices
researcher with VA and the
University of California, San Diego. "Pain
is their main complaint, but depression is
also important in this population."
VA physician Sunita Baxi, MD, who
studied yoga therapy extensively in India,
started the classes at the San Diego VA in
2003. Weekly classes have been ongoing
ever since, attracting a mix of veterans—
including many recent returnees from Iraq
A study at the Tampa VA found that
about 45 percent of returning veterans
enrolling at the facility had pain of some
kind. Of those veterans, some 40 percent
had low back pain.
- Yoga originally developed as part of
ancient Indian medicine and philosophy.
- In the U.S. today, it is practiced by an
estimated 16 million people.
Yoga classes take place in at least a
handful of other VA centers across the
nation. The Minneapolis VA, for example,
offers yoga—as well as the gentle Chinese
martial art tai chi—to recovering
The Dallas VA offers class as part of its women's wellness
program. Outside VA, Walter Reed Army
Medical Center has also been using yoga,
mainly to treat PTSD in combat troops.
Past research has found a wide range of
health benefits for yoga, including reduced
back pain. But these studies have typically
included mostly women. And they have not
focused on people with multiple health
problems. Baxi and Groessl's VA study
included mostly men and analyzed a variety
of outcomes covering physical and mental
health. The researchers hope their results
will help broaden yoga's appeal within VA,
especially as a therapy for veterans with
People are realizing the danger of longterm
use of narcotic pain medications and
want something with no side effects," says
The group now plans a larger, longer trial
of yoga that will measure outcomes such as
pain, disability, function, depression,
anxiety, energy, and overall quality of life.
This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of VA Research Currents.