The Psychology of Yoga Practitioners: A Cluster Analysis

Jeremy E.C. Genovese and Kristine M. Fondran, Cleveland State University, USA (Extracts)

The following are extracts from the original article, published in International Journal of Yoga Therapy No. 27 (2017)

Introduction

In his book Integral Yoga, Chaudhuri tells us 'it is believed that different yoga systems are particularly suitable for different individuals who belong to different psychological types (Chaudhuri 1965). This seems fitting as there are many different styles and systems of yoga, each one emphasizing different goals.

Two general currents seem to emerge in discussion of yoga styles. One current emphasizes physical benefits, such as health and fitness, the other focuses on spiritual factors. For example, the classic text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali barely mentions the yoga postures (asana) and emphasizes spiritual concerns, while some modern yoga books deal almost exclusively with the postures and their putative health benefits. These differing motivations for practice, physical and spiritual were explicitly addressed in a 2015 study. The authors surveyed 235 yoga practitioners and found that while physical concerns dominated, spiritual concerns were also important (Ivtzan & Jegatheeswaran 2015).

In 2008, Henrichsen-Schrembs identified four motives for yoga practice: 1) The Exerciser: yoga practised as a tool for physical and mental well beingonly; 2) The Explorer: yoga practised in order to foster self-development as well as physical and mental well being; 3) The Self-Helper: yoga practised as a form of self-help/therapy to various degrees; and 4) The Yogi: yoga practised as a lifestyle, life philosophy and as a form of spirituality.

The purpose of this study is to take a more integrative quantitative look at the factors that motivate yoga students. By having participants complete surveys that measure physical and spiritual concerns, we hope to create a classificatory framework using cluster analysis.

Cluster analysis is a systematic quantitative technique used to discover groups in data (Kaufman & Rousseeuw 1990). A typical procedure is to treat variables as axes in a multidimensional space and each individual is plotted as a point in that space. In such a space similar individuals will be closer to each other, while dissimilar individuals will be further apart, and more homogeneous groups can be discovered.

Physical aspects of yoga

Modern yoga promises many physical benefits. These include increased strength, improved physical appearance and longevity. In addition, yoga claims to be an effective treatment for many physical ills. McCall, in his book Yoga as Medicine, lists 43 health conditions where there is scientific evidence of benefit from yoga. The list includes arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and chronic pain (McCall 2007).

Spiritual aspects of yoga

MacDonald has noted a tendency of researchers to focus on the physical benefits of yoga practice, while ignoring its spiritual component. He argues that by incorporating measures of spirituality we may come to a better understanding of how yoga's spiritual and physical components interact to produce benefits (MacDonald & Friedman 2009). Following MacDonald's suggestion we are trying to create a typology of yoga practitioners using psychometric measures of physical and spiritual concerns.

Participants

Surveys were distributed at yoga studios and at university based yoga classes in northeast Ohio. The survey was posted online, and participation was invited through national online yoga and meditation message boards and yoga newsletters. Two hundred sixty-one individuals participated in the survey. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 77, with a mean age of 40. Fifty-five (21.1%) were male, and 206 (78.9%) were female. The higher representation of women reflects national trends. Experience practising yoga ranged from 1 month to 43 years. The participants practised yoga an average of 3.71 times a week.

INSTRUMENTS

MBSRQ

The MBSRQ is an instrument measuring 10 scales, including seven dimensions of body image: Appearance Evaluation, Appearance Orientation, Fitness Evaluation, Fitness Orientation, Health Evaluation, Health Orientation, and Illness Orientation. Evaluation factors capture an individual's self-assessment of that trait. Orientation factors measure an individual's investment of time and effort into trait related behaviours.

ESI

The revised Expression of Spirituality Inventory (ESI) is an instrument that measures five dimensions of spirituality, of which four were included in the analysis: 1) Cognitive Orientation Towards Spirituality refers to the strength of beliefs, attitudes and perceptions about the relevance and importance of spirituality; 2) Experiential/Phenomenological is concerned with the experiential component of spirituality and is related to peak and transcendental experiences; 3) Existential Well-Being captures the participant's general sense of contentment and ease with life; and 4) Religiousness measures the extent to which an individual's spirituality is expressed through religious channels.

Results

Cluster analysis produced three clusters, designated A, B, and C with 88, 84 and 89 members respectively. The table below reports the results.

Cluster A scored high on all four spiritual constructs. They had high positive evaluations of their appearance, but a lower orientation towards their appearance. Cluster B tended to have lower scores on the spiritual constructs, and a higher fitness and appearance orientation. Members of Cluster C had low scores for all spiritual constructs. They had a low evaluation of, and general unhappiness with their appearance. They felt unfit and tended not to invest in exercise.

Table 1. Cluster A (n=88)
Variable Mean SD Median
Cognitive Orientation Towards Spirituality .79 .16 .84
Experiential/ Phenomenological Dimension .79 .18 .81
Existential Well-Being .69 .23 .72
Religiousness .67 .22 .73
Appearance Evaluation .66 .23 .73
Appearance Orientation .45 .27 .43
Fitness Evaluation .53 .29 .52
Fitness Orientation .52 .24 .51
Health Evaluation .62 .24 .66
Health Orientation .67 .23 .71
Illness Orientation .59 .28 .62
Body Areas Satisfaction .68 .23 .74
Self-Classified Weight .44 .26 .37
Table 2. Cluster B (n=84)
Variable Mean SD Median
Cognitive Orientation Towards Spirituality .79 .16 .84
Experiential/ Phenomenological Dimension .79 .18 .81
Existential Well-Being .69 .23 .72
Religiousness .67 .22 .73
Appearance Evaluation .66 .23 .73
Appearance Orientation .45 .27 .43
Fitness Evaluation .53 .29 .52
Fitness Orientation .52 .24 .51
Health Evaluation .62 .24 .66
Health Orientation .67 .23 .71
Illness Orientation .59 .28 .62
Body Areas Satisfaction .68 .23 .74
Self-Classified Weight .44 .26 .37
Table 3. Cluster C (n=89)
Variable Mean SD Median
Cognitive Orientation Towards Spirituality .35 .26 .30
Experiential/ Phenomenological Dimension .36 .27 .27
Existential Well-Being .36 .29 .25
Religiousness .40 .30 .35
Appearance Evaluation .31 .26 .24
Appearance Orientation .47 .31 .43
Fitness Evaluation .33 .25 .28
Fitness Orientation .27 .21 .21
Health Evaluation .31 .26 .20
Health Orientation .24 .19 .20
Illness Orientation .38 .28 .32
Body Areas Satisfaction .29 .22 .25
Self-Classified Weight .66 .26 .69

We found a significant difference in years of practice between the three groups. Members of Cluster A have the most years of yoga experience and members of Cluster B have more yoga experience than members of Cluster C. Perhaps, as yoga practitioners persist they pass through a set of stages (C to B to A). It is possible that the significant difference in years of practice between the three groups is simply a matter of survivorship. Those who have the traits associated with Cluster A may simply persist longer in their yoga practice.

Discussion

Our analysis identified three clusters. Cluster A has both spiritual and physical health goals. Members of Cluster B are less interested in spirituality and are more exclusively focused on the physical-health goals. Cluster C differ dramatically, having low body satisfaction, low evaluation of health and little orientation towards fitness.

The results we report here provide some support for the model suggested by Henrichsen-Schrembs. Cluster A clearly resembles the group she describes as Yogis, who have adopted yoga both as a lifestyle and a spiritual practice. Cluster B resembles those she describes as Exercisers. Swami Niranjanananda also identified two similar types. One he calls sadhaks (spiritual seekers) resembling Cluster A. He also describes a group mostly concerned with the physical benefits of yoga, similar to Cluster B (Swami Niranjanananda 2012).

None of these writers acknowledge practitioners similar to Cluster C. Since this group was large, it would be good to know more about them. We would certainly want to know if these individuals change over time and become members of other clusters or if they simply pass out of yoga practice.

In his classic text, Light on Yoga, Iyengar describes the traditional eight limbs of yoga not as alternative practices, but as a set of stages (Iyengar 1966). Our results suggest that yoga should be viewed developmentally. We have found evidence of a relationship between years of practice and the spiritual and physical attributes of practitioners. A particularly interesting finding is that while body area satisfaction increases with yoga practice, appearance orientation declines. This suggests that practitioners become less attached to judgements about their appearance and more accepting of themselves.

The developmental model is supported by other research. For example, Ivtzan & Jegatheeswaran found that 'spiritual intentions increase over time, from when practitioners initially take up practice.' Other studies show that over the course of a yoga practice, orientation shifts from physical concerns to spirituality (Buessing et al 2012; Park & al 2016). Our findings suggest that a developmental trajectory may well exist, and further research is needed to confirm and better understand this path.

For full article and bibliography please see International Journal of Yoga Therapy No. 27 (2017), www.iayt.org.