September is National Yoga Awareness Month. To mark the occasion, University of Minnesota School of Public Health Professor and certified yoga instructor Dianne Neumark-Sztainer shares the importance of yoga for better health outcomes.
Q: What is a short summary of yoga for those who may not know?
Prof. Neumark-Sztainer: Yoga is both a physical practice and a mental and spiritual practice. It involves asana, which is the physical practice, and the one that we hear about the most, but it also involves many other components including breath work, meditation and ethical living. It’s really a lifestyle.
Particularly in the West we think about the physical practice of yoga, when it’s so much more than that.
Q: How can yoga help achieve better body image?
Prof. Neumark-Sztainer: The theoretical underpinnings of yoga really focus on coming into oneself in relation to one’s social and physical environment, and as you become more grounded in yourself, and more accepting and having more compassion toward yourself and others, those characteristics link very nicely with body image and how we feel about our bodies.
Additionally, because there is this physical practice of yoga which can be done by people of all different shapes and sizes and skill levels, you really have the opportunity to come into your body in a positive way and recognize all that your body can do for you. When we conducted research on how yoga can impact body image, people who practice yoga shared seeing positive physical changes in their body, feeling more gratitude for their body, having more of a sense of self and having a sense of accomplishment. All of those factors fed into having a better body image.
Q: How does better body image relate to health outcomes?
Prof. Neumark-Sztainer: Body image is, together with dieting, the strongest predictor of eating disorders, which are serious, life-threatening diseases. Our research has also shown that feeling better about your body is actually protective against excessive weight gain over time. Additional benefits of a better body image include reduced depression and a more positive self-esteem. So feeling good about your body has health benefits, and it’s also just a nicer way to go through life.
Q: How often would you need to practice yoga to see positive results?
Prof. Neumark-Sztainer: The research in this area is pretty minimal, it’s emerging. Furthermore, I don’t think that the frequency is necessarily what it’s about. Anything can be done excessively, so it’s not always “more is better.”
In Project EAT, we defined regular practice as at least 30 minutes once per week, but we saw that people who did practice more experienced bigger and better benefits.
Q: What is your team doing to help Minnesotans achieve better body image and health outcomes?
Prof. Neumark-Sztainer: After serving as head of the School of Public Health Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the U of M for nearly nine years, I am hoping to spend the next few years focusing on deep study of yoga. I think this practice has so much to offer. I plan to focus on three key areas:
- How yoga can help people in leadership roles, both in public health and other leadership roles that deal with stress.
- Integrating yoga into teaching using a public health perspective. We know that so many public health problems are related to stress and unhealthy lifestyles, so I think integrating yoga into studies of public health could be very valuable and benefit the public.
- The study of yoga in relation to body image, embodiment and eating disorders. The research in yoga is really growing, and particularly for this area of study it’s still in its infancy. I hope to see more research in this area that incorporates more diverse populations in terms of body shape and size, age, gender, ethnic/racial background, able-bodiedness and people from different socioeconomic statuses.
Dianne Neumark-Sztainer is a McKnight Presidential Professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. As the principal investigator of the Project EAT studies, her research focuses on the promotion of eating, activity and weight-related health, including eating behaviors, physical activity, eating disorders/disordered eating, body image and weight status.