Everybody remembers learning about the placebo effect; it’s that sugar pill that does nothing medically and therefore should make absolutely no change in a person’s physical being. Nevertheless, it cures or improves the patient’s condition. It’s all about the patient’s expectations, and numerous studies have been done researching the impact of the size, color and shape of different placebos and how those variations impact patient perceptions of the effect that taking the pill has had on their condition. There have been endless discussions about whether the use of placebos is ethical –if a physician or researcher gives the patient what is essentially a piece of brightly colored candy while offering them the hope of a cure, isn’t the patient being lied to? Even if they are, is the lie a bad thing if the patient actually gets better?
In the past, this has been a topic that was largely restricted to the realms of science, psychological research and traditional medicine, but the question has occasionally infiltrated the world of wellness, and is likely to garner even more interest as the result of a recent study that involved college students introduced to an invented breathing technique called the Maximum Pause. The students were told to perform the exercise with specific regularity and warned that, if done correctly, it would cause some discomfort but would yield both emotional and physiological benefits. The technique was chosen specifically because it has been studied extensively and has shown no demonstrable effect, yet the students reported a perceived benefit based upon both the level of difficulty that they thought the technique entailed and their expectations of the benefit. The harder they thought the exercise was to do, the more they felt that they had benefited from doing it.
The results of the study raise two questions: can we provide our own students and clients with an even greater actual result by pushing them to perceived challenges that offer no actual reward, and even if they do feel better, more balanced or more accomplished as a result, are we wrong in doing so?
The real difficulty posed by the question is that though the placebo effect may be created by the imagination and misplaced beliefs, the impact is quite real. We may know as professionals that a specific pose or exercise that is seen as more challenging or that we describe as more challenging offers no greater benefit then a simpler one, but if the client feels that they have gotten stronger, or achieves a greater sense of accomplishment by having done the pose, are we doing wrong by letting them believe in the greater sense of impact they experience? Students of yoga or clients of wellness therapies seek us out because they already have a mindset that favors a wellness approach; they are primed to believe in the improvement that our classes, exercises and therapies provide, and therefore receive a greater benefit than those that would be experienced by people who are hesitant or unsure.
A large component of wellness is the power of positive thinking; we know that there is real therapeutic value in belief, hope and trust. As instructors leading clients who are eager for a variety of answers, whether strength, pain relief, balance, personal growth and inner peace, or something else, it is our responsibility to provide each individual with what they need, and it is not difficult to identify those who are driven to push themselves and who seek challenges to make them feel more accomplishment. As professionals fully enmeshed in the mind-body relationship, allowing a client to believe in their own strength and ability in order to achieve a greater actual result probably should not be viewed in a negative light.