Dean Ornish's Spectrum includes nutrition, stress management, fitness, and community support. These four pillars align with the yogic path. All of yoga is designed to reduce stress and culminate in mastery over the mind through meditation. A plant-based diet promotes optimal nutrition. Hatha yoga improves fitness. Karma and Jnana yoga encourage healthy relationships with others and within ourselves.
Ornish's research supports the claim that practicing a yogic lifestyle improves health in people with disease. To my knowledge, it is some of the most rigorous research available on the effect of yogic practices on health. For this reason, his Spectrum program is the first to be covered by Medicare for people with heart disease.
Luckily, many of Ornish's studies are available for free on his website. The study I'm excited about right now, measured telomere length in patients with prostate cancer, before and after using the Ornish Spectrum for five years. Telomeres are at the ends of chromosomes in our DNA, which protect the chromosomes from being damaged. Damaged DNA is a significant factor in developing disease. Or as the study explains,
In human beings, telomere shortening is a potential prognostic marker for disease risk and progression and for premature death...Short telomere length...is associated with ageing and ageing related diseases, such as cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
Ornish and his research partners found that by utilizing the Spectrum program for five years, patients with prostate cancer not only halted telomere shortening, they had reversed it! Those who had followed the program had increased the length of their telomeres. A dosage effect was also apparent, as those patients who followed the program very closely had lengthened their telomeres at a faster rate than those who didn't follow as closely. This was a small study, so there is still more research needed to draw conclusions about how and why this telomere lengthening effect is being observed.
However, this is important research for the yoga community and the medical community. As Yoga Therapy looks to coordinate with the medical community, we need studies as rigorous as Ornish's. Hopefully, more studies with similar methodological rigor will document the effect yogic practices have on all sorts of populations.
Ornish, D., Lin, J., Chan, J.M., et al. "Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes of telomerase activity and telomere lenght in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study." The Lancet (2013). Published online. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(13)70366-8
Erin Haddock is the director of Five Keys Yoga, LLC.