It's all right to be skeptical of yoga. The deep breathing, the incense, the whispered koans—put together it can all seem a bit freshman-year-at-Sarah-Lawrence. But it turns out that your yoga-loving friends might not be as spacey as you thought.
According to a new study out of York University, practicing yoga for 75 minutes twice weekly significantly reduced pain and promoted the release of stress-relieving hormones in women with fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is a disorder whose symptoms are sensitivity to touch and chronic aching. Sufferers also have lowered levels of the steroid hormone cortisol, which is released in response to stress.
Eight weeks after taking up yoga, study participants reported feeling less helpless and less worried about their fibromyalgia symptoms. They also reported feeling less pain. "Yoga promotes this concept that we are not our bodies, our experiences, or our pain," said Kathryn Curtis, who led the study. "This is extremely useful in the management of pain. Moreover, our findings strongly suggest that psychological changes in turn affect our experience of physical pain."
Before you naysay, note that researchers found the women's results weren't just psychosomatic: After swabbing their saliva immediately following their yoga sessions, tests showed increased levels of cortisol in the women's systems. Of course, pretty much all exercise releases cortisol, but yoga is gentle enough that even someone in moderate pain can enjoy it and derive benefits from it.
Perhaps you should think twice before laughing at those people with the dainty rolled-up mats on the subway. There's a good chance they're feeling a lot better than you.