The Science of Self Care and Aqua Yoga
Last month Yoga Journal published an article titled The Science of Self Care (and Yoga). While I do have some problems with Yoga Journal because they don’t represent the diversity of people who practice yoga. Nor do they do enough to help audiences that aren’t already professional dancers. I did like this article though. It got me thinking about the research behind self-care and is aqua yoga a good form of self-care.
Most people have never heard of aqua yoga and it has no research to support it, so is it a valid form of self-care?
I thought I’d pull some research to find out. These 18 topics are the same from the original Yoga Journal article. The research cited here is all aquatics research. The original Yoga Journal article references the yoga research. If yoga offers improvements in these 18 areas, and aquatic exercise offers improvements in these 18 areas, we’re going to use common sense and infer that the benefits would apply to an aqua yoga practice also.
The Science of Self Care topics:
#1 – Boosts Immunity
A study examining the immune response to aquatic exercise for women with fibromyalgia found no immune boosting effects. Soaking in a hot tub doesn’t seem to boost your immunity either. This one would be thumbs down. The science of self-care does not support aqua yoga for boosting your immunity at this time.
#2 Reduces Chronic Inflammation
Kim, et al, showed a significant reduction of IgG ( a marker for inflammation) after aquatic exercise in kids. Research has also shown a reduction in disease activity for women living with rheumatoid arthritis who engage in aquatic exercise. As a case study, I live with multiple rheumatic diseases and aqua yoga helps me keep my disease activity down.
#3 Increases Self Control
#4 Improve Social and Speaking Skills
An aquatic training program for kids with autism showed no improvement in social skills. The only research in this area listed in PubMed is for kids. This is an area that the science of self-care needs more work in to draw any conclusions.
#5 Better Manage Stress
Several studies have shown improvement in quality of life scores for people practicing aquatic exercise. Managing stress is an aspect of quality of life so I’m using the term interchangeably. Some researchers have argued the case for improvements in quality of life is weak due to poor study design. I’m going to call this a thumbs up anyway as the link between quality of life and exercise in general is so strong.
#6 Enhances Memory
An Australian study found improvements in memory for adults with dementia who participated in a 12-week aquatic exercise program. The aquatic environment is a very different exercise challenge then land and really helps people of all ages work their neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity helps people of all ages build neural links and keeps our brains healthy and firing on all cylinders. Read my article on Aqua Yoga for Neuroplasticity.
#7 Lowers Blood Pressure
Aquatic exercise is as effective for lowering blood pressure as land based exercise in women with existing high blood pressure. The hydrostatic pressure of the water does increase the blood pressure of everyone though. For that reason anyone with high blood pressure should talk to their health care provider before starting any exercise regimen and especially an aquatic one. The science of self-care includes safety which is why everyone should always speak to their health care provider before starting an exercise program.
#8 Improve Motor Function and Balance
A pilot study with older adults participating in Ai Chi (aquatic Tai Chi) showed improvements in balance. Aqua yoga is hugely challenging for your balance. When we have some research I would think this is an area that would show measurable improvement.
#9 Boost Mood and Confidence
Aquatic exercise can boost the mood of older adults living with arthritis and reduces fall risk (which makes your more confident when moving). Also, a study on MS patients where patients recieved aquatic exercise or yoga showed decreased depression and fatigue in women who participated compared to non exercising controls. I think that study is highly relevant for the aqua yoga community. If yoga and aquatic exercise equally decrease depression and fatigue that would be a really good place to start aqua yoga research. Big fat thumbs up for that one.
#10 Better overall health
Research has shown many positive impacts to multiple body systems from aquatic exericse.
#11 Change Gene Activity
Cortisol, one of the ‘stress’ hormones, damages your DNA when it increases. Salivary cortisol levels go down when you participate in aquatic exercise. Land based exercise migh be more effective in lowering cortisol rates however. As research has shown land yoga reduces cortisol, aqua yoga specific research would be helpful. Too early to draw any conclusions on this one.
#12 Increase Relaxation
Everyone loves to float. A floating meditation is a wonderful way to end an aqua yoga class. Research also backs this up and has shown floating triggers the relaxation response. I just ordered a unicorn floaty because the only thing more relaxing than floating, is floating in rainbow style.
#13 Support Fertility
This area has not been looked at in aquatics research so we can’t draw any conclusions one way or another. The science of self care let us down on this one. No science, no thumbs.
#14 Build Bones
Aquatic exercise can build bone mass. To be fair however, it should be noted it takes high-intensity exercise in an aquatic environment for this happen. Aqua yoga would probably build more bone mass than a sedentary lifestyle but because of gravity, land exercise will make this happen faster. The results in this study looking at a land vs. aquatic exercise program for osteoporosis bore that out. Probably a thumbs down here.
#15 Improve Body Image
A pilot study on previously non exercising pregnant women found improvements in body image after participating in a 6-week aquatic exercise program. It should be noted that there are body image and representation barriers to entry in aquatic exercise too. Women don’t necessarily want to be seen in their bathing suits and here in the US, historic barriers to entry have resulted in continued low swimming rates for minorities1. For aqua yoga to be welcoming to all, it would help to make it clear a diversity of bathing attire is allowed, and you don’t need to be able to swim to participate. This is an area where less hard science and some good social skillsets would serve people better.
#16 Slow Aging
A meta-analysis comparing the benefits of land exercise to aquatic exercise found, “AE [Aquatic Exercise] may improve physical functioning in healthy older people and is at least as effective as LE [Land Exercise]. The study noted the poor methodology of the studies analyzed however. I think the adage ‘move it or lose it’ applies to everything. More research is needed to know if one way is better than another. The science of self-care here is mixed.
#17 Increase Pain Tolerance
Aquatic exercise reduces pain in people with a variety of musculoskeletal conditions. I think it’s interesting Yoga Journal chose to title this section “increase pain tolerance”. I have a high pain tolerance, it doesn’t really serve me as I just beat myself up. Don’t we all just want less pain?
#18 Strengthen Muscles
Aquatic exercise does increase your strength. It also does it in a very low risk way. Very few of these studies reported adverse outcomes. Aquatic exercise is considered very safe for a diverse range of physical needs.
Something not considered in the 18 aspects of self-care above is whether or not you’ll do it. Aquatic exercise is considered more fun and people stick with it better than land-based exercise programs. The science of self-care tells us any aspect of self-care that you actually do, is ALWAYS more effective than daydreaming about it. I think this reason is why aqua yoga should have a place in every yogi’s self-care arsenal. It’s a lot of fun.
So overall, the science of self-care for aqua yoga is mixed. I would give it a thumbs up and say the science of self-care does support aqua yoga, with a few reservations. These 18 measures were chosen because the research for land yoga shows positive outcomes. If you were to choose 18 science-backed positive outcomes for aquatics research, there would be some overlap but some differences too. Taken as a whole, the research indicates aqua yoga is likely to be a good modality for self-care.
The gold standard is of course what works for you and how it makes your body feel. If you’ve never tried aqua yoga, take your practice to the pool this summer and see what you think. Or, if you have an aqua yoga practice, enjoy it and appreciate being on the cutting edge of research.
If you don’t have access to aqua yoga resources near you and want to try, join me in my online ecourse, Intro to Aqua Yoga. The course opens every summer. Get on the waitlist.