After many post-yoga musings with fellow yoga enthusiasts I became more and more curious about the subtle effects of this ancient practice on our modern way of life – diet, exercise, coping with the un-ending and ever-expanding list of ‘things to do’.  It seems that as our lives get more complex, with the merging of life and work via those little devices intent on grabbing our attention, our desire for the simple pleasures in life grows.  So, it is heartening (pun intended) that technology is now being utilised to improve our health and wellbeing, enabling our physiology to speak to us directly from our hand-held tools.

My curiosity has led me down the doctoral path, exploring yoga’s potential to support practitioners ‘off the mat’ in their daily lives.  Does a long-term yoga practice support us to make healthier choices?  The ithlete™ app will offer the chance to consider how yoga may uniquely support adherence to a healthy lifestyle via increased heart rate variability (HRV), i.e. the rhythmic change in heart rate with respiration indicative of activity within the resting (parasympathetic) mode of the autonomic nervous system. High HRV relates to parasympathetic dominance, and prior research supports both an increased HRV with yoga, and a positive association between HRV and the ability to ‘self-regulate’.  For example, we are ‘self-regulating’ if we make a healthier choice when we get the urge to eat.  Does that parasympathetic state allow us the space to pause before we grab that slice of cake?  To assess whether we are in fact hungry, and if so to hunt out a more nutritious option, or to consider whether the urge is one to move, to get some fresh air, to connect with a colleague.

In short HRV may offer a physiological explanation behind yoga’s impact ‘off the mat’.   The ithlete™ app will be tested in a pilot study (February 2017) on five experienced yoga practitioners.  Two further studies are planned, to consider long-term exercise in general (yoga and gym use), and the effect of yoga tenure (length of yoga practice).  A mixed-method design will bridge the gap between subjective experience and objective measurement, collating data across the physical (HRV, general health), psychological (subjective wellbeing, mindfulness) and experiential (interviews) levels.

By Wendy Reynolds, PhD Candidate, Auckland University of Technology (AUT)

References

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Thayer, J. F., & Sternberg, E. (2006). Beyond Heart Rate Variability: Vagal Regulation of Allostatic Systems. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1088(1), 361–372. http://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1366.014

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