The striking rise of yoga and meditation (and what it means for providers)

Yoga and meditation are now the most popular alternative health approaches used in the United States, according to a report from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), Eliza Barclay and Julia Belluz write for Vox.

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The rise of yoga and meditation

According to the report, 14.3% of U.S. adults surveyed in 2017 said they'd practiced yoga in the past year, up from 9.5% in 2012. Similarly, 14.2% of surveyed adults reported having meditated in the past year, up from 4% in 2012.

There's even been a noticeable rise in the two practices among children, the report found. In 2012, less than 0.5% of children had meditated, but in 2017, that number rose to 5%. Similarly, just 3% of children reported doing yoga in 2012, but 8% reported doing so in 2017.

The health benefits of yoga and meditation

There's research to support the notion that practicing yoga can be beneficial to health, Barclay and Belluz write. Some randomized controlled trials have found yoga could improve the quality of life for people with diabetes and hypertension, and potentially reduce risk factors related to heart disease.

It's also been shown to help alleviate lower back pain.

In addition, a meta-analysis published in 2014 that observed the effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system found that yoga was able to reduce inflammation, as did a separate descriptive review published in 2015.

Michael Irwin, from UCLA's medical school and an author of the 2015 study, said, "When you look at the aerobic exercise necessary to decrease inflammation, people have to maintain very vigorous levels." However, Irwin said, with yoga, "[e]ven practices with minimum levels of physical activity can have large effect sizes."

Similarly, while research on meditation is sparse, what's out there has shown it can reduce anxiety, depression, and pain, Barclay and Belluz write. One 2014 meta-analysis by Johns Hopkins found that meditation was as effective as medication at treating anxiety, depression, and pain.

According to Robert Wright, an evolutionary psychologist, "Meditation is a discipline … that liberates you from the tyranny of feelings. It's a technique for taking things ranging from anxiety to remorse to actual physical pain and they're taking a perspective on them that somewhat releases you from their grip."

However, in a review published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15 prominent psychologists and cognitive scientists argued that the scientific data on mindfulness in some areas is lacking. Specifically, the authors cited meta-analyses that found mindfulness practices often yield "unimpressive results," and expressed concern that less than one-quarter of meditation trials included monitoring for potential negative effects.

How providers are adopting the practices

While yoga and meditation fall out of the purview of traditional medicine, some providers have started incorporating them into their treatments. For example, the Mayo Clinic runs a pain treatment program that incorporates deep breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation techniques to help patients understand and reduce their pain.

And Veterans Affairs has started encouraging chronic pain patients to meditate, attend cognitive behavior therapy, and increase their physical activity.

In 2016, Mount Sinai Hospital began studying whether meditation helped relieve pain in spinal surgery patients. One patient involved in the study said meditation helped him relax and wait for his next dose of painkillers, while another patient said meditation made it so he didn't have to take much of his prescribed oxycodone (Barclay/Belluz, Vox, 11/9).

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