A few years ago, mindfulness was placed in the limelight. As much as it’s possible for a meditation technique to become a media darling, mindfulness was it; discussed in glowing terms and hailed as a cure for scores of modern problems. To a lesser but still significant effect, yoga joined this upsurge, swelling in popularity and cementing itself as a trending topic both in news sources and on social media.
Yet with every new cultural trend there is inevitably a backlash. With recent, widely-reported stories suggesting that mindfulness is demotivating employees and that yoga makes people smug, it appears that this response may have begun in earnest.
This isn’t a cause of concern or resentment in the yoga community, as you might expect. But it does raise some interesting questions about the ways in which scientific studies on mindfulness and yoga have been reported in the media, in both a positive and negative light.
Mindfulness and yoga: The rise to superstardom
The cultural expansion of mindfulness from East to West has been decades in the making, and involves many different characters. Perhaps the leading light was Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn – and specifically the development of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979 – who can be argued to have pioneered the introduction of mindfulness to the Western world’s collective consciousness. It would be over 30 years later, however, that mindfulness truly became a household phrase, with apps such as Headspace (established in 2010) doing a huge amount to popularise the technique.
Yoga experienced its first major wave of popularity in the West in the 1920s. By the 1980s, it was a widely practised system of physical exercise and meditation, gaining ever more acceptance into the mainstream as time went on. In the last few years, yoga has become very fashionable — and perhaps most importantly, “Instagramable”. With everything from goat yoga to hot yoga hitting the headlines, the practice has enjoyed perhaps its greatest cultural visibility to date.
With anecdotal evidence seemingly pointing towards mindfulness and yoga’s potential to help people manage a variety of problems – from chronic physical illnesses to mental health issues – an extensive amount of scientific research has been done in an attempt to comprehensively determine the benefits (and the mechanisms behind them).
As a result, studies are now published with great regularity pertaining to mindfulness and yoga, all adding to a wider body of evidence from which we can draw conclusions. But sometimes, the ways these studies are interpreted and reported in the press can be misleading or sensationalist – especially in regards to small, singular studies whose findings are presented as indisputable facts, and almost entirely without context.
When scientific findings are presented inaccurately to the public, there is a potential for misinformation to become an accepted and unchallenged part of our cultural narrative. In extreme cases, science and scientific language can be inadvertently – or even deliberately – manipulated to create the most attention-grabbing headline, or sell products on spurious grounds. An example of this can be found in marketing concerning antioxidants and their benefits.
Responsible use of scientific literature
It can be tempting, especially for those of us involved in complementary therapies, to accept positive reporting of scientific studies at face value, and to not explore the findings further or read the original study. It can also be tempting for journalists, looking to write the most compelling copy or to chime with a particularly popular narrative, to sensationalise or “beef up” the discoveries of research scientists.
As yoga therapists (and other practitioners), we bear a responsibility when using scientific language or studies to communicate the value of our practice to have fully understood the complexities of the research. Reading the original studies is the first step, but it’s also important to communicate that single studies do not provide the kind of certainty that is often presented by news outlets – but instead, as mentioned previously, contribute towards a wider body of evidence.
Perhaps the most notorious example of this unsound journalistic certainty is the Daily Mail’s habit of reporting that X, Y or Z gives you cancer, often in the most lurid way possible. There is also a habit in science journalism to present one study, and the theories around it, as fact. In this article, it’s stated that “girls really do prefer pink – and not just because it is pretty” after a study found women were more likely to be drawn to pinks or purples.
However, there is no mention of studies which point to other conclusions, and the claim that scientists “believe the explanation lies our hunter-gatherer past” (when women apparently collected berries) is misleading. Firstly, “scientists” as a group cannot be claimed to believe this; and secondly, this is not the result of any study, but speculation by the author to explain its findings.
Another feature of science journalism which can warp the true findings or value of a study is when a story becomes popular, and writers glean their information from other news sources in order to quickly capitalise on public interest. Here, instead of reading the original findings, they simply rewrite the second-hand interpretation of another journalist. Repeat this process and you have a style of reporting that is akin to ‘I heard it through the grapevine’. When amplified in this way, the value of one study can become hugely inflated – because so many different outlets have run with the story.
There is a huge wealth of scientific evidence which points to the efficacy of yoga and mindfulness to help people living with a variety of challenges, and these studies are our most reliable means of communicating exactly how and why yoga improves people’s outcomes and experiences. Yet when filtered through the simplifying and sometimes distorting lens of the media, these benefits (or, more recently, the apparent negatives) can be misunderstood.
Here at Minded, we use the expertise of professionals such as physiotherapists and counsellors, as well an evidence-based yoga practice, to create the best possible program to address particular issues – from lower back pain to PTSD. Yet when a newspaper reports that “yoga is good for PTSD/back pain” it often fails to convey how vital it is for a yoga practice to be tailored to the individual, in order not to cause them any harm.
On the other side of the coin, the same is true of “negative” findings that prove popular with readers. In this study – which suggests that yoga boosts self-enhancement rather than quieting the ego – 93 yoga practitioners were found (by the measurements determined in the study) to report higher self-enhancement. The resulting headlines of “It’s Official – Yoga Makes You Smug” and widespread coverage could be argued to have been a misrepresentation of one relatively small study.
Understanding scientific studies
Rather than a machine which churns out a stream of undisputed facts, the scientific process is an exploration – one long journey towards greater knowledge and understanding. Without the context of other research, the results of one study can only hint at the complete truth, and new findings are constantly calling into question things we had taken for granted.
Because of this, the scientific process (how studies are designed, conducted, and reported) is often discussed and debated. The ideal study is one that has been so perfectly designed that another scientist could repeat the method and arrive at exactly the same results; as such, great pains are taken to ensure that any human bias or error is removed from the process. By this measurement, studies that rely on self-reporting from participants are a little shakier in their results, though this does not always compromise their validity.
It can be helpful to view scientific research as a discussion amongst experts. This discussion is in constant flux and often involves contradictions, weak arguments, and the need to go over old ground in the light of new discoveries – and some voices are more reliable than others. Scientific research must include uncertainties and conjecture because it’s an inquiry into the undiscovered, and it’s only through repetition and analysis (that may even extend over multiple lifetimes) that we can come to any firm conclusions.
Some good practice we can all carry out when reading about scientific studies includes:
- Taking a moment to check who commissioned and funded research, and the scientists involved, as some studies can be influenced by vested interests. It doesn’t immediately invalidate the research, but it’s important to bear in mind.
- Ensuring that studies are critically/peer-reviewed and published in respected papers.
- Reading beyond press releases and abstracts, which will illuminate key points, but don’t provide all the information necessary to accurately report findings to the public.
- Understanding the limitations of certain types of studies. For instance, in the study concerning self-enhancement, a limitation may be the difficulty of defining and measuring self-enhancement as a phenomenon. In other studies, the scope may be too small to come to reasonable conclusions – for example, participants taking part in one 15-minute mindfulness exercise rather than practising over an extended period.
- Ask yourself: are any pertinent points omitted from the study? Could it be interpreted in a way which suggests something different from the stated conclusion? How does this work fit with other research on the subject?
For those of us who aren’t scientists, the disciplines above won’t necessarily come naturally. It’s difficult when the filter of media reporting obscures or distorts results – or indeed, the nature of the scientific process itself – and we can all make mistakes or become carried away when a particular finding has caught our imagination. But in trying our best to first understand scientific research as much as possible, and to pass on this information as accurately as we can, we will both improve our own knowledge and help to build a greater level of understanding for others.