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Are you a high responder or low responder?

Why are some people ‘better’ at yoga? Why doesn’t one back-pain treatment work on everyone?


Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be able to pick up the advanced postures of yoga like handstand and crane more easily than other people? Or why Pilates seems to work for one person’s back pain but not another person’s? Covid has certainly shown us how differently our bodies can respond to the same virus or to the same vaccine.


For any given treatment, there are high responders and low responders — and sometimes even non-responders. Consider paracetamol (acetaminophen). For high responders to paracetamol, it sorts out their headache. For low responders, it might just lessen their headache. For non-responders, they experience no effect.

Image showing muscle cross-sectional size increasing on left and remaining the same on right.
Figure 1: After weeks or months of training, high responders will see significant changes in muscle size and strength (left) while low responders will see little to no change (right). Adapted from Mann et al., 2014.

The same is true with exercise or strength training. High responders will see great changes in muscle strength while low responders will only see modest or minimal changes (Mann et al., 2014). This also applies to skills that require coordination such as a handstand or another gymnastic skill. Some will crack the skill more quickly than others. Similarly, a yoga sequence designed for back pain might help certain people and not other people. Many factors are at play here but an important one is your genetics.


Graph showing normal distribution
Figure 2: A normal distribution curve. Quantitative researchers draw conclusions based on whether the average of the group changed but what if you happen to lie at the bottom of the curve or the top?

When quantitative researchers look at whether a treatment (i.e. yoga) is effective, though, they look at the average of the group. They draw conclusions based on the average of the group. But you or anyone could be at the very bottom or at the very top of that distribution. So, a 'calming' pranayama might not make everyone calm. A sequence for back pain might not improve everyone's backs. And you shouldn't feel bad if someone gets handstands more quickly than you.


As yoga teachers, we should be aware of the latest research on health, pain, etc. But we should also take a client-centred approach which means honouring the fact that each individual's experience will be different.


Reference:

Mann, T. N., Lamberts, R. P., & Lambert, M. I. (2014). High responders and low responders: factors associated with individual variation in response to standardized training. Sports Medicine, 44(8), 1113-1124.

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