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How Effective Is YouTube Yoga?
Here’s what the research says about online yoga practices (and how to make them work for you)
Since the beginning of January, over 1.8 million people have set out to complete a 30-day online yoga challenge posed by the most popular YouTube yoga channel — Yoga With Adriene — which boasts nearly 5 million subscribers.
Shannon Mentges, 33, is among the thousands of viewers who successfully reached day 30. The stay-at-home mom from Erie, Pennsylvania, decided to take self-care more seriously in 2019 and, so far, she says she’s been loyal to her daily practice. The convenience of being able to unroll her mat on the living room floor whenever her two toddlers are asleep and hit play on a class from her laptop has helped her keep her New Year’s resolution.
“Even though I am used to lifting heavy children, I now feel stronger in my upper body, and I have been able to walk up hills with more ease,” she says.
Research has found that yoga may help relieve pain, anxiety, and depression, as well as prevent heart disease and aid in weight loss. And now there are seemingly endless opportunities for people to practice from the comfort of their home, either through livestreamed classes or YouTube videos. But can people glean the same health benefits of yoga through virtual sessions?
Harvard Medical School researcher Jonathan Greenberg, who studies the cognitive and neural effects of yoga and mindfulness, believes home practice is crucial to achieving health benefits. “Home practice is one of the core elements of mind-body programs,” he says.
But there are hardly any studies looking at the impact of video-guided yoga by itself. “In almost all studies, there is an actual intervention class with actual instructors. Typically, videos are used as an aid,” says Greenberg.
Holger Cramer, the research director at the Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, says if executed correctly, it is likely that unsupervised yoga practice will have effects comparable to an in-person yoga session, though probably to a lesser extent and with higher risks. “There is evidence for positive effects of supervised tele-yoga,” he says. “These are, however, different from pure videos since practitioners still interact with their teacher.”
“Ideally, yoga should be learned in person, which is the preferred method for several reasons. But what is wonderful about the online experience is the accessibility.”
Aiming to fill this gap of available evidence, researcher and yoga instructor Ana Cláudia Gomes, a PhD student in psychobiology at the Federal University of São Paulo, decided to measure the immediate impact of video-guided yoga on her students’ emotional states and compare it with the effect of in-person classes. The men and women who took virtual sessions said it made them feel more productive. But the people who took conventional classes reported more benefits: They said the yoga classes made them feel lighter and calmer, as well as less shy and afraid. When practicing at home, the students reported that they missed the social interaction with fellow yogis.
In a still unpublished study investigating the impact of a single hour of yoga practice, psychologist Crystal Park, a professor at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Connecticut, also identified the social element of a yoga session as an important driver of change in people’s mental states. She notes that another caveat to virtual yoga is the absence of direct interaction with the instructor. “Even in large classes, a teacher can read the room, feel the energy level, and adapt the practice in real time, which is not possible in a pre-recorded video,” says Park.
Yoga Alliance, the largest credentialing organization for yoga schools and teachers, does not validate online yoga teaching in its current guidelines, says Christa Kuberry, the nonprofit’s vice president of standards. But this might change, as the institution is going through a standards review project. “Ideally, yoga should be learned in person, which is the preferred method for several reasons, including safety,” says Kuberry. “But what is wonderful about the online experience is the accessibility.”
Although the effectiveness of YouTube yoga has not yet been deeply investigated, some of the existing yoga research can provide insights into how to best conduct your home practice. Here are a few takeaways.
Aim for high frequency
It’s hard to determine exactly how much yoga is enough to obtain health benefits. But one of Greenberg’s studies found that people prescribed the highest amount of yoga home practice, four hours per week, achieved significant stress reduction, even if their level of compliance was lower than the groups with lighter prescriptions of two-and-a-half hours and one hour weekly. But it is possible to go overboard and end up discouraged, Greenberg says. Forty minutes a day is a good target, he says, but if a person can only get in 25 minutes daily, that is still good.
Create a dedicated yoga space
The lack of an adequate space to practice yoga at home was mentioned as the reason why a few people skipped a few classes in Gomes’ virtual yoga study. The researcher says that always practicing in the same spot, preferably in a quiet and private room, helps to establish a routine.
While distractions may be abundant at home, yoga studios tend to be viewed as sacred, purpose-driven places, says Park. “Whenever you walk into a yoga studio, you have an immediate relaxation. That has a lot to do with the environment, the right kind of music, [and] light.” If a person can reproduce this sort of environment at home, she suggests the calming effect could potentially be enjoyed beyond yoga time.
An occasional in-person class may help you stay on track
Even if a yoga video tutorial manages to be thoroughly explanatory, not every practitioner has the same level of body awareness and, for some, the presence of a teacher is needed. Scheduling an in-person yoga class every now and then can be a good complement to the YouTube sessions. Park says that even though she’s been practicing yoga for 15 years, teachers still point out when she is being “lazy” in certain postures. “It would be important to go to occasional live classes to get those reminders,” she says.
Learn how to prevent injuries
Cramer and his team found that the main risk factor for yoga-related injuries is unsupervised yoga practice at home. “This is not surprising because no feedback is provided on whether yoga exercises and breathing techniques are executed correctly,” he says. “If done wrong for a prolonged time, these exercises can be harmful.”
It’s important for inexperienced yogis venturing into online tutorials to avoid difficult inversion poses, such as the headstand. “When practicing yoga at home, keep in mind the concept of ahimsa, which means nonviolence,” says Gomes. “Respect the limits of your body and notice if a posture does not feel right.”
Having confidence in your ability to do it is a predictor of success
Finding motivation might be extra challenging for YouTube yoga practitioners. It is well known that group accountability can increase adherence to health behaviors, since groups raise pressure as well as motivation, says Cramer. “There most likely is a higher risk of non-adherence without a supporting group and yoga teacher or therapist,” he says.
In his yoga studies, Greenberg has found two variables that predicted the degree to which participants would stick to the program: self-control and self-efficacy, which is the individual’s belief in his or her ability to do it. “People who are confident and believe they are able to succeed are the ones who most comply with the practices,” he says.