From Stress Relief to Spirituality: Why We Practice Yoga

We all know that physical activity is one of the most important things we can do for our health. Research suggests that regular exercise reduces for the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and stroke, and that active people live longer than those who are inactive.

Knowing the importance of physical activity is one thing. Engaging in regular physical activity is another. Consequently researchers are continuously interested in finding out what motivates people to start and—more importantly—continue a regular exercise routine.

A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology takes a closer look at this question. Researchers examined why people begin a yoga practice and why they continue. Interestingly, the authors suggest, while people may start yoga for primarily external, physical reasons (like the desire to be more fit), people’s motivation often shifts toward intrinsic or spiritually-based reasons over time.

For the study, the researchers conducted a national online survey of over 500 yoga students and teachers and asked them their motivation for adopting and maintaining their yoga practice. The sample of 360 yoga students and 156 part- and full-time yoga teachers in this self-selected sample were primarily white, well educated women between 18 and 85 years of age.

Participants were asked to identify the type of yoga practice that they preferred, as well as number of minutes per week and number of years of practice. Then were then asked, “What was the primary reason you first started practicing yoga?”

Respondents were asked to choose only one of a number of options for adopting a yoga practice (relaxation, stress relief, pain relief, weight control, flexibility, spirituality, depression/anxiety relief, deal with physical health issues, get into shape, get exercise and “other”).  After identifying a primary reason they were then permitted to go back and provide alternate explanations for taking up yoga.

Participants were then asked, “Have your reasons for continuing yoga changed/did you discover new reasons since you first started practicing yoga” yes or no?  Similar to the first question, students and teachers were than allowed to provide additional alternate reasons for continuing their practice.

Why students practice yoga

Responses from yoga students and teachers were considered separately. Students practiced an average of 245 minutes (SD = 178 minutes) per week in a yoga studio and 85 minutes (SD = 82 minutes) at home. They had practiced 8 years 5 months on average (SD = 7.67 years). Most endorsed practicing Power yoga/Power Vinyasa (32.1%), Iyengar yoga (22.1%) and Hatha yoga (17.8%).

The top 3 reasons why students reported beginning a yoga practice were to get exercise (19.4%), gain flexibility (16.7%) and stress relief (14.4%). Other primary factors included getting in shape and relaxation.

Well over half of all students (61.3%) endorsed changing their motivation for practicing yoga. The top 3 revised motivations for practice included spirituality (58.1%), relaxation (53.9%) and stress relief (52.5%). When examining the relationship between length of time practiced and motivation for change, researchers discovered that experienced students were more likely to discover new reasons for continuing their practice than those with fewer years of practice.

Why teachers practice yoga

Teachers practiced an average of 374 minutes (SD = 192 minutes) per week in a yoga studio and 168 minutes (SD = 164 minutes) at home. They had practiced 13 years 2 months on average (SD = 9.26 years). Most endorsed practicing Power yoga/Power Vinyasa (41.0%), Hatha yoga (18.8%) and Vinyasa/Ashtanga yoga (16.7%).

The top 3 reasons why teachers reported beginning a yoga practice were to get exercise (21.2%), relieve stress (19.1%) and “other” (16.0%), which included curiosity and to meet new people. Among teachers, (85.5%) indicated that their motivation for practicing yoga had changed. Spirituality (50.4%), “other” (20.3%) and stress relief (12.8%) were among the top 3 reasons. For teachers, “other” included community, fun, self-knowledge and mindfulness. Similar to students, more experienced teachers were more likely to discover new motivation for continuing their practice.

Both students and teachers appeared to move from primarily physical rationale for taking up yoga to more psychological or spiritual motivation. In all, stress management, flexibility, spirituality and physical fitness were most frequently endorsed as reasons for participating in long-term practice. The authors suggest that this represents a shift from extrinsic, or externally based to intrinsic, or internally based motives. More research will be needed to examine that proposition.

Whether new to yoga or a long-term enthusiast, this study suggests that students and teachers alike see stress relief, flexibility, relaxation and spiritual growth as key motivating factors for adopting and continuing a yoga practice. Perhaps that rings true for you, or perhaps you are drawn to the mat for other reasons. Either way, the benefits of yoga are clear to those who practice.

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://isaeaorg.wix.com/isaea.

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