I am both a yoga researcher and a yoga therapist. Because of this, I can easily understand the latest yoga research and decide when/how to apply the findings from that research in my clinical practice. This is called evidence-informed practice (EIP). It means using the latest and best evidence in clinical decision-making. And it is the model that has been used by Western health professions ever since research became focused on answering practical clinical questions.
I have written and spoken a lot about EIP and want to quickly dispel a common myth that it means relying solely on research findings for clinical decision-making. In fact, there are three components to EIP: expert opinion, client preference, and research evidence. Each is essential to the therapeutic relationship. Yoga therapists are generally much more likely to apply the first two of these. We use expert opinion when we pass down knowledge from mentor to mentee, study relevant texts, and learn from experience to form our own expert opinions. Letting client preference inform our practice involves active listening, shared decision-making, and skills of observation.
But then there is the third component of EIP, research evidence. While yoga research is relatively small and young compared to some other disciplines, it is growing in both volume and rigor. If we ignore that growing body of information, we do a disservice to ourselves and those we serve. But informing our practice with research evidence requires a skill that is lacking among most yoga professionals—research literacy. In order to apply the research literature, you have to first be able to read and understand it. In fact, I wrote an article with two colleagues last year to propose research literacy and EIP as future competencies for yoga therapy training.
While yoga research is relatively small and young compared to some other disciplines, it is growing in both volume and rigor.
While I spent a decade of dedicated study becoming a professional researcher, it won’t take you that long to cultivate the skills necessary to read, understand, and apply the relevant research that is being conducted by experts around the globe. And all yoga professionals need these skills, not just yoga therapists.
While yoga therapists are increasingly moving into healthcare spaces where research literacy and EIP are expectations for communication and collaboration between professionals, yoga teachers have an equal responsibility for research literacy. Not all yoga research is about clinical application; research can also be used to improve the safety, accessibility, acceptability, and effectiveness of yoga practice for non-clinical populations.
In fact, research literacy is not merely a professional skill for those in health-related areas but a basic life skill in the modern era. We are bombarded by headlines based on research that can be incorrect, incomplete, and misleading. It is our responsibility to discern when new research findings warrant a change in our perspective and/or our practice.
Like any type of literacy, research literacy takes time to develop. Until it becomes a common aspect of yoga professional training, or even better, of a basic high school education, I want to share some suggestions about ways to build your research literacy muscles.
In order to find the relevant research related to your client/student population in general or to a specific case, you need to know where to find it. You can start with a few key databases where you are likely to find the bulk of related research. I suggest using PubMed and Google Scholar.
PubMed allows you to filter your results by the type of article, which is helpful to separate commentary from actual research findings (both can be useful). Everything indexed in PubMed is published in a peer-reviewed journal, which means that the articles were evaluated for quality by experts in the field before being published. In other words, it is more reliable than what you might find with a general internet search. While the peer-review process isn't perfect, peer-reviewed publications beat the Wild West of the internet for finding quality information.
Google Scholar is a good place to find research that is not directly related to health and medicine or that isn’t peer-reviewed. Doctoral dissertations can be found here, for example, and broader social science research than PubMed contains. Google Scholar also has books, which haven’t undergone peer-review but might be a good source of expert opinion. It can be a fun exercise to search for the actual research manuscript associated with a headline and determine for yourself whether the headline did the research justice.
Of course, once you find an abstract (synopsis) of a research article on one of the above sites, you have to get to the full text. Abstracts are notoriously unreliable summaries because they don’t leave room for the nuance of the findings and highlight only what the authors thought was most important. Because most journals operate based on subscriptions, many articles are not open access (freely available to the public). Again, much can be said about that system, but open access journals require payment from authors to publish, which creates its own set of limitations.
If an article of interest is not open access, don’t give up. Head to a local university library to access it on-site, check out social networks for researchers (like ResearchGate) where full texts are sometimes posted, consider subscribing to journals that publish much of the research that interests you, kindly ask a university student or faculty member to get it for you (don’t overuse this option), or contact the authors directly and request a copy. When all else fails, you can usually pay a fee to own or rent a single article.
Now that you know how to find the relevant research, you just need to work on increasing your research literacy so you can make good use of the information you find.
If you live near a university or college, take advantage of what they offer to the community. Get on their mailing list, subscribe to their newsletters. Very likely, they have lectures and events available to the public where researchers from near and far talk about their work. Even if the subject is not directly related to your work, attending such lectures can help to develop greater research literacy. Just as you learned your native language through exposure, so too can you learn the technical language of research.
Universities also might offer individual courses that make use of the research literature, including online courses, some of which are free if you don’t need continuing education credit (look into Massive Open Online Courses—MOOCs). If you forge connections with individual university departments, some may even allow you to attend Rounds, where specific clinical cases, conditions, or findings are discussed.
Journal clubs are kind of like book clubs for research. Everyone reads an article and then they gather to discuss it. Often there is a specific facilitator or presenter who guides the discussion. Our university offers a journal club for our students and another for our faculty. If you aren’t able to attend a journal club locally, explore options for joining an online journal club, or create your own! You don’t have to be research experts to discuss a paper, but it helps to have a mix of experience and expertise for rich and useful discussion.
The International Association of Yoga Therapists offers two conferences each year: Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) and Symposium on Yoga Research (SYR). The first is for clinicians and the second is for researchers. You will be exposed to some research at SYTAR and a lot at SYR. Both are excellent meetings where your research literacy will jump a notch in just a few days.
You may also want to consider conferences for integrative health, public health, health disparities, psychology, exercise science, spirituality, or other related areas. Additionally, there are research conferences for just about every clinical population. Because of my clinical focus, I attend conferences for arthritis and rheumatology in addition to those focused on yoga and integrative health. These conferences help me better understand my students and clients as well as the latest research that might impact their clinical care from other providers.
It has been said that we are best characterized by the five people we associate with most closely. If you are friends with a researcher, you are going to hear about research. It is the lens through which we observe and make sense of the world around us. And we are a pretty passionate and nerdy bunch, so most of us are happy to answer your questions about research if you ask us nicely and don’t abuse the privilege. You might consider finding a formal mentor who has research training or experience and can help expand your knowledge through individual guidance and coaching. In some cases, you may even find opportunities to get involved with a research project as the yoga provider, where you will definitely learn a lot more about the research process and its application.
As you pursue any of these means toward improving your research literacy, try not to get overwhelmed or discouraged. Learning the language of research truly is akin to learning a foreign language, which takes time and patience. If you don’t understand part of an article, don’t give up on the whole piece. Look up key terms to understand them better, or begin by focusing on the aspects of the article that are easier to understand and then come back to the dense, technical sections once you are better oriented to the general concept. Just as it took time and practice to develop your observation skills as a yoga professional, it will take time to develop these skills also. Both make you a better clinician, a more educated consumer of information, and a richer resource for those who have the benefit of working with you.