Why look at mental, emotional, and spiritual effects?
As a lineage practice, benefits of yoga are often described in the mythological and philosophical language of the classical yogic texts. While those can tell us a lot about the effects of Ashtanga yoga, we can also learn by using the lens of science. There has been a significant effort in recent years to examine health and wellness benefits of yoga, but much of that research focused on how yoga can alleviate symptoms of disease and dysfunction.
We were interested in slightly different questions. So, in 2020, our yoganatomy research team launched a new research project looking at the mental, emotional, and spiritual effects of Ashtanga yoga. And now we’re ready to start sharing the results with you! As long-term practitioners of Ashtanga yoga, is our practice helping us evolve and grow? Are we getting closer to enlightenment? Are we even becoming nicer people? And, if our Ashtanga practice is contributing to our positive growth in some way, how is it contributing? What aspects of our Ashtanga practice are driving specific types of change, if there are any?
Our survey was designed to be scientifically valid such that we could analyze the results and publish them in a peer-reviewed publication. But, that’s more detail than we want to elaborate on here. We’ll share a more complete and detailed look at our methods on the project summary page in the future for those who are interested.
In order to gather data that could potentially answer some of our questions about the effects of Ashtanga yoga, we conducted a large-scale survey of Ashtanga practitioners. We asked them to report some basic demographic information, complete survey questions on their Ashtanga yoga practice habits, and complete five psychological questionnaires. Survey participants completed the survey online, anonymously.
Who was included in the sample?
We particularly wanted to know what the effects of long-term Ashtanga yoga practice were. So, although we included Ashtangis of all levels and years of practice, we made a special effort to contact long-term practitioners and let them know about our survey. One thing we needed to consider about Ashtanga yoga, was that benefits could simply be due to the physical activity aspect of practice. In order to explore that question, we also surveyed a control group of runners.
What data did we collect?
We collected basic demographic information from the participants who completed our survey, including: age, gender, and country where they were living. We also asked participants questions about their Ashtanga practice experience and habits. Additionally, our survey included questions about participants’ practice habits both pre- and post-covid. Finally, we asked survey respondents to complete five psychological questionnaires.
The five psychological questionnaires evaluated levels of: compassion, mindfulness, empathy, non-attachment, and spirituality. They included the Compassion Scale (Pommier et al., 2019), the Empathic Concern subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (Davis, 1980), the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory short form (Walach et al., 2006), the Non-attachment Scale (Sahdra et al., 2010), and finally, the Spirituality Index of Well-being (Frey et al., 2005). Runners completed the same demographic questions and psychological questionnaires that the Ashtangis completed, with a few additional questions about their running habits.
In this overview article, we share a summary of the demographics of our survey participants. We also give you a big picture look at the practice habits of Ashtangis. Then, in future articles in this series, we’ll dig deeper and share what we learned about topics such as: how Ashtangis really modify their practice, how we teach and practice breathing in Ashtanga, how we understand bandhas, how practice changed for Ashtangis pre- and post-covid, as well as other subjects. Stay tuned!
Demographics of participants
A total of 976 participants from 77 countries and 6 continents completed some part of our survey. However, the majority of respondents were from Europe (34%), the US (31%), and the UK (15%). That was likely due to the fact that the survey was only available in English. The majority of survey participants (78.5%) fell in the typical age group for yoga: 31-60 years old. And, as is also common for yoga cohorts, the majority of respondents (81.5%) identified as female.
Practice habits and experience
Our survey data represents the experiences of all stages of practitioners, from less than a year of practice to more than 20. We were especially delighted that so many long-term Ashtanga practitioners completed our survey! Their responses have a lot to tell us about what the effects of Ashtanga yoga are over time.
Unsurprisingly, Ashtangis are a pretty consistent bunch when it comes to doing their practice. More than half (67.9%) of survey respondents said they typically practice four or more days per week. Almost half (47.2%) said they practice five or more days per week.
Although our survey respondents covered a range of years of practice, a majority of practitioners were doing the primary series. Eighty-one percent of participants indicated their usual practice included at least part of the primary series. Only 6.6% indicated that they typically practice some part of the advanced sequences. Interestingly, although the majority of respondents in our survey were female, a greater percentage of the men who responded to our survey reported practicing the advanced sequences than the primary series.
What is your usual practice sequence?
Percent of total practitioners practicing each sequence grouped by gender
What are the mental, emotional, and spiritual effects of Ashtanga yoga? Of course, we’d like to know! That’s why we launched this research survey in 2020. In this article we shared some basic information about who participated in our survey. We also shared a bit about the practice habits of Ashtangis. Stay tuned for our upcoming series of articles if you’d like to learn more about our survey project results.
Daaleman, T.P. and B.B. Frey. 2005. Spirituality index of well-being: A new instrument for health-related quality-of-life research. Annals of Family Medicine. 2(5):5 pgs.
Davis, M.H. 1980. A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology. 10: 85.
Pommier, E., K. D. Neff, and I. Tóth-Király. 2019. The development and validation of the Compassion Scale. Assessment. pgs:21-39.
Sahdra, B.K., P.R. Shaver, and K.W. Brown. 2010. A scale to measure nonattachment: A Buddhist complement to western research on attachment and adaptive functioning. Journal of Personality Assessment. 92(2):116-117.
Walach, H., N. Buchheld, V. Buttenmuller, N. Kleinknecht, and S. Schmidt. 2006. Measuring mindfulness—the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI). Personality and Individual Differences. 40:1543-1555.