july2014_therapy_drFHDr. Frederick “Rick” Hecht on the Value of Research in Finding a Place for Yoga and Meditation in Conventional Medicine

The International Association of Yoga Therapists will hold its annual Symposium on Yoga Research September 24-26 at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Frederick Hecht, M.D. will be one of the keynote speakers at the event. He is a Professor of Medicine at UCSF and the Director of Research at UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, where he founded a research program focused on mind-body modalities and their effect on the endocrine, metabolic, and immune systems. We had a chance to talk to him about the importance of research in yoga and meditation.


Felicia Tomasko: What is the value of doing research in Yoga Therapy and Meditation?


Frederick Hecht, M.D.:  Approaches like yoga and meditation are effective in different conditions. The effects are often not as dramatic—and are gentler—as when drugs that are used in conventional medicine. One of the benefits I have seen of yoga and meditation is that instead of side effects, these approaches have additional benefits beyond whatever our primary therapeutic aim is or whatever we are measuring. These are often defined as the secondary benefits of the practice.

In the broad category of both yoga and meditation, there are real and important effects of these practices benefitting mood that are impressive, and I think sometimes underappreciated. If you look at the current literature on medical use of antidepressants, the effects are not very strong. With yoga and meditation, we are actually seeing effects that are within the same range as medication—or better than what you might initially expect. One direction of current and future research is how these approaches can be best used for emotional regulation.


FT: What has been surprising about doing this research? 

FH: Well, I wouldn’t say that this is surprising, but to do research well, it takes time and resources. Part of what we are trying to do is to carefully and rigorously test—not just find out if the practices of yoga and meditation feel good to people, but how they work in actual medical conditions.


FT: When we consider these practices and how they impact medical conditions, how important is it to consider the type of practice and the individual, since sometimes these practices are lumped together? 


FH: Anyone who is practicing yoga and meditation can appreciate some common beneficial effects. But they (yoga and meditation) are broad terms for a range of practices, and it really does depend on what exactly you are doing.

For example, one of the studies we do is on the effects of meditation on obesity. We are not simply investigating sitting meditation. We are looking at mindful eating practices and how they are integrated in daily life. We are working with emotion and stress management and looking for practices that can change the patterns people have so that they are not eating in response to stress. Instead, we are giving them other tools, and broadly calling it meditation, while tailoring the approach.


FT: How can people use the research that is done to make a difference in their own lives and practices? 

FH: There are two communities we are trying to reach and educate through research: the medical audience and the yoga teacher and practitioner audience. We would like to provide a more solid evidence base for what is really working for people. For example, many people have been saying that mindful eating is helpful for treating obesity but there is a limited evidence to demonstrate how well it actually works and for whom. The benefit of research done well is that is helps to answer these questions. Additionally, when influencing medical practice and medical professionals, the more solid evidence that there is that provides an understanding of what’s working and how well, the better.


FT: Speaking of acceptance, have you noticed an increase in acceptance of yoga and meditation in conventional medicine? 

FH: Yes, absolutely. One example is the growth of the Consortium of Academic Health Center for Integrative Medicine. In 1999, nine medical schools came together to create this organization of academic medical centers interested in teaching and research related to integrative medicine. Today, there are 57 members, which is only one measure of the interest being generated.


FT: How has your personal practice in both yoga and meditation influenced your research and is your interest in research in this area related to your personal practice at all? 

FH: Part of my interest comes out of personal experience; I think it’s useful. As a physician, I want to have a better basis for figuring out what I personally feel is helpful in my own life and with my patients. My meditation and yoga practices have influenced my medical practice, and my research shows ways that I can incorporate this more. My research has also inspired my personal practice.


FT: Thank you, Dr. Hecht. We appreciate the work you do to bring a broader perspective on the efficacy of yoga and meditation.


For more information on the International Association of Yoga Therapists and the upcoming Symposium on Yoga Research, visit: iayt.org