Informational tidbits about the myriad benefits of a regular yoga practice. Enjoy!
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #23: Activates the Left Prefrontal Cortex (Sun., July 28th, 2013)
So today's lesson is that yoga makes your brain more flexible. Yep, that's what I said. Have you ever come across that person who nothing seems to phase? They never seem bothered by life's little snafus? Or maybe you've noticed that since you've been practicing yoga the little things don't bother you like they used to. Let's allow Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, to explain further:
"Using a sophisticated type of brain scan called a functional MRI, Richard Davidson found that the left prefrontal cortex shows heightened activity in people who meditate, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness, better immune function, more flexibility in outlook, and a temperament that is harder to anger or fluster. The most dramatic left-sided activation Dr. Davidson has seen was found in a Westerner trained as a Tibetan monk. The calm demeanor and softness in the eyes you see in some spiritual masters seems to have physiological correlates in the brain."
Part of this ability to ignore life's petty problems is due to a yogic practice called "non-attachment". The more we can separate, or distance, ourselves from the material things we desire, from relationships that are unhealthy for us, or from the moods and attitudes of those who cross our daily path, the further we go towards regulating our own psyche, allowing in only that which serves us. Now that doesn't mean that we ignore others. Compassion plays a big part in yoga too. The balancing point is the ability to be there for others with warmth and sincerity, but without allowing their problems to become our own. Sounds easier said than done, yes? Well, that's why yoga is a daily practice, and not something we do just once and expect miracles to occur. So whether it's through meditation, physical asana, or any of the other practices found in yogic studies, we are learning that we have a great map with which to navigate our emotions, become open-minded and flexible in our thought patterns, and optimistic about the possibilities that this wonderful world has to offer.
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #22: Improves Brain Function (Wed., July 24th, 2013)
Who woulda thunk it! Well actually, now that you're over halfway through our "40 Ways" segment, the idea that yoga improves brain function probably just seems like common sense. We already know that yoga can help us keep our cool in intense situations, and/or recover more quickly and efficiently from such situations, including the ability to think in a calm and rational manner. But let's see what Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing can add to this:
"Yoga has been shown to improve coordination, reaction time, memory, and other measures of effective brain function. When you study yoga, you are learning completely new ways to move the body, and coordinating different actions simultaneously. Beyond all the variety in asana, there are breathing techniques, visualizations, mantras, and different kinds of meditation. Each of these activities causes the brain to build new synapses, the connections between neurons. Scientists now believe that continuing to learn new things into older age is one key to increasing neuroplasticity and maintaining brain function. Yoga also teaches you to focus your attention."
So, taking into account that your teacher is asking you to breathe, keep your core engaged, and move your arms and legs in various directions, all simultaneously, it's no wonder that all of this required coordination stimulates brain function. And we've also previously discussed how the practice of yoga can improve reaction time, such as stepping off that curb and NOT turning an ankle in a miss-step. But what about some of the other things Dr. McCall mentions, such as meditation and visualization? Studies have shown that both, which are also considered yoga, can help improve focus, increase attention span, and develop creativity. Perhaps one of the single most impressive aspects of yoga as it relates to the brain in my opinion, is it's ability to evolve and refine our problem-solving skills. How many times have you felt that you were butting your head into a brick wall over and over, trying to figure out the answer to a dilemma? Eventually, the mind "lets go" of the stress of the situation. It's in this "wide open" space, when we aren't even thinking about our particular problem, that the answer usually just arrives from out of the clear blue. That's no coincidence. Creating space for solutions is key in yogic studies. Whether it's space in our physical postures, the extra lung capacity acquired as our pranayama, or breath practice, is refined, or space in our minds as we open ourselves up to new and unlimited possibilities.
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #21: Improves the Function of the Nervous System (Mon., July 15th, 2013)
We dont' usually think of our nervous system as being "flexible", but that's exactly the word that Dr. McCall uses here to describe it. We tend to focus on the manner in which yoga assists our nervous system with the relaxation response, but don't give much thought to how the physically demanding postures of yoga exercise the "fight or flight" response of our sympathetic nervous system. Let's give Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: the Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, the opportunity to give a little greater detail on this point:
"To say that yoga simply relaxes the nervous system is an oversimplification. Many yogic practices, like backbends and strong pranayama techniques, actively stimulate the SNS, so yoga's benefits can't be reduced to just relaxation. What you want is an ANS that's finely tuned to respond to whatever stresses life brings, shifting the relative activation of the PNS and SNS as needed. My guess is that yoga, by a combination of stimulating and relaxing practices, tones the nervous system to give it this flexibility. Researchers analyze the function of the ANS by looking at such factors as how well the body senses and adjusts to changes in body position (baroreceptor sensitivity) and whether the heart maintains a healthy though subtle variation in its rhythm (heart rate variability). Yoga appears to improve both of these measures."
So while yoga helps our parasympathetic nervous system kick in once the danger is past, we may not have considered that it also allows for a quicker reaction time to the danger itself, activating the sympathetic nervous system with more efficiency. The definition of yoga being "unity", and it's function to help us balance the various aspects of our lives, it just makes sense that this balance should include the functioning of our autonomic nervous system in it's entirety.
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #20: Relaxes the Nervous System (Wed., July 3rd, 2013)
For the longest time, no credibility was given to the relationship between our health and our stress levels. More and more these days, however, we're hearing that many of the disorders and diseases we suffer in our society are stress-induced. Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, gives a great tutorial on our stress-response system:
"When people talk about stress reduction, they often mean changing the balance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), switching it from a hypervigilant state, mediated by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), to relaxation, mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The ANS regulates the function of internal organs such as the heart, lungs, and intestines; it is sometimes dominated by the SNS and sometimes by the PNS, depending on the circumstances. The SNS, the "fight or flight" response, becomes more dominant in emergencies. When there is no perceived emergency, the PNS dominates. The PNS is calming and restorative; it lowers the breathing and heart rates, decreasing blood pressure, and increases blood flow to internal organs such as the intestines and reproductive organs, allowing you to "rest and digest." These effects, which are the opposite of fight-or-flight, constitute what Dr. Herbert Benson has dubbed "the relaxation response." The system he popularized to elicit it, which involves closing the eyes, following the breath, and repeating a word or phrase, is directly modeled on Transcendental Meditation (TM), a type of yogic mantra meditation, though other yogic tools including asana and pranayama can similarly shift the balance of the ANS. Conventional medicine is increasingly recognizing the role of stress in a wide variety of medical problems - not just the obvious ones like migraines and insomnia."
Unfortunately, in our current age of racing from one obligation to another, worrying over whether everything is "good enough", etc., keeps us in that hyper-vigilant state of the SNS long after the PNS should have kicked in to relieve our anxiety. We are simply so used to being in a stressed-out state that we don't know how to behave otherwise. If this sounds like you, try taking Dr. McCall's advice to "pause for breath". To my own experience, and yes, I've had my share of perpetual anxiety, it really does help to take a few moments to pay attention to our breath, which in turn will lower our heart rate, returning us to that even-keel that's so much more healthy, and can actually help us be more productive in the long run. So maybe as you're enjoying the fireworks this Independence holiday, take a pause, regulate your breathing to the beautiful patriotic music that almost always accompanies such grand displays of beauty, and you will not only come away more relaxed, but also feeling that you actually received the blessing of freedom from stress and anxiety that a few nurturing moments can provide.
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #19: Promotes Weight Loss (Sun., June 23rd, 2013)
Whether you're an advocate of "hot" yoga, enjoy a good Vinyasa flow, or regularly participate in a gentle Hatha style class, all information indicates that yoga brings a mindfulness of being that simply makes us more aware of what we put into our bodies. And no, that doesn't preclude the occasional indulgence, but it does seem to bring us back to the straight & narrow with a little more diligence. Per Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing:
"Several studies have found that people who begin regular yoga programs lose weight. In addition to weight loss, one study found significant reductions in fat folds - at the back of the arms, beneath the shoulder blades, and in several other locations - as well as in body circumference. Beyond the calories burned by practicing yoga, there can also be a spiritual and emotional dimension to overweight that yoga addresses; this may be a part of the reason that many people find that yoga works for them when prior attempts at weight loss have failed. A final way that yoga may aid in reducing overweight is the consciousness it can bring to eating."
I personally like the spiritual and emotional observation that Dr. McCall makes above. As a life-long yo-yo dieter, I've always felt that I struggled to maintain a reasonable weight. What yoga has taught me is that not only is it our duty to observe the substances that enter our body (or temple, depending on your philosophical outlook), bu that we also need to practice self-forgiveness. Once I realized the harm that the yo-yo pattern was really creating, I was able to moderate, and also realize that it's not about the number on the scale, but about how comfortable you feel in your body. I've discovered that a perfect size isn't perfect, and the number that's perfect for me is just that, perfect. I hope you come to feel the same way too!
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #18: Conditions the Cardiovascular System (Mon., June 17th, 2013)
These days it seems there's a type of yoga for everything, and yes, that includes cardio conditioning. Any class with the key words "vinyasa", "power" or "flow" can certainly get you sweating in no time. But not everyone feels these types of classes are accessible to them, whether due to injury, current condition, age, etc. The good news, it seems, is that ANY kind of yoga provides cardio benefits. Just the simple act of becoming mindful of the breath is the beginning. As we become more focused, our breath span increases, our rib cage expands, allowing more room for fuller, deeper breaths. Let's allow Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing enlighten us a bit further:
"From lowering the risk of heart attacks to relieving depression, aerobic exercise is a powerful force for prevention and healing. Not all asana practice is aerobic, but when done vigorously it certainly can be. Even yogic exercises that don't bring your heart rate into the aerobic range can improve your cardiovascular conditioning. Studies have found that yoga practice lowers the resting heart rate and increases the maximum uptake of oxygen as well as endurance during exercise, all indications of improved aerobic conditioning. One study of forty young men in the Indian army found that a group practicing yoga one hour per day had similar gains in aerobic capacity to another group doing conventional exercise, but the yoga group alone showed significant reductions in perceived exertion on maximal exercise. In people with heart disease, a comprehensive lifestyle program that included yoga resulted in an improvement in the heart's pumping ability. One study found that subjects who practiced just pranayama could work harder with reduced oxygen consumption."
Now, if you've been to one of my classes, then you already know that we don't need fancy words like "vinyasa" to challenge and push us further. Not to mention, the part that yoga plays in all this is to teach us to gain control of our breath, not huff & puff through class. So rest assured that whether you're tackling a challenging flow, or practicing your pranayama (i.e. breath work) in an ubber-relaxing Yin practice, you'll be more likely to respond well "in the moment" when your cardio is called upon unexpectedly than you were before you became fixated on this little thing called yoga.
Yay for yoga! If you think you're exempt from osteoporosis because you're a guy, or because you're young, think again. And if you think that drinking milk is the best defense, think even harder. I've just finished reading a book focused on this topic, which indicates that dairy is actually the LEAST effective way of building strong bones. Scientific studies indicate that the simple act of muscle pulling against bone stimulates growth (i.e. exercise). Adding to this, the wringing and twisting effect of some yoga poses, and pressure-point stimulation of others, flushes and detoxes our entire endocrine system, . There are seven glands in this system, which work in harmony to keep us healthy. This includes the creation and absorption of calcium into our bones. But before I get too carried away with my soap-box antics, let's explore what Timothy McCall MD, author or Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing has to share:
"Many yoga poses involve weight bearing, which strengthens bones and helps ward off osteoporosis. Such standing poses as Warrior II requires weight bearing in the legs. Unlike most other forms of exercise, such poses as Downward Facing Dog and arm balances place weight on the wrists, a frequent location of osteoporatic fractures. An unpublished study done at California State University, Los Angeles, found that six months of yoga practice, focusing on standing poses, significantly increased bone density in the vertebrae in eighteen women between the ages of eighteen and sixty-five, compared to controls who maintained their usual physical activity. In addition, yoga's documented ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol may help calcium in the bones because excess cortisol both decreases bone formation and increases its breakdown."
Although Dr. McCall focuses above primarily on standing postures, keep in mind that ANY yoga is beneficial for bone growth, calcium absorption and retention. Just as all of those hip-openers we do help maintain flexibility across the pelvis, they may also help prevent fractures and displacement. And inversions build upper-body strength in both the torso and the arms, assisting us in the event that if we do take a tumble perhaps we come away without suffering injury. In all, yoga helps build a strong foundation not just for our muscles, but for THEIR foundation as well, our skeletal structure.
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #16: Increases Control of Bodily Functions (Mon., June 3rd, 2013)
Not just "those" bodily functions, but yes, those too(lol)! My personal favorite is the focus I've gained through yoga to be able to control anxiety through breath-work. I've also recently begun to learn and understand more about how we use yoga to stimulate and regulate our endocrine system, which controls a LOT of what goes on with us both physically and emotionally. Here's what Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing has to say:
"With greater awareness comes more control over the body. While few people could aspire to the extraordinary control exerted by Swami Rama, many people could use simple yoga techniques to lower their blood pressure a few points, bring more blood flow to their pelvis if they're battling infertility, or induce relaxation if they're having trouble falling asleep."
Take just a moment to consider your yogic journey from a different perspective. We tend to spend a good amount of time thinking about the improvements we have yet to make in our practice, but take just a moment to see if you can come up with a way that yoga has improved your life that you may never have thought about until right now. And then consider yourself blessed by it.
Awareness. Proprioception is just a big word for awareness. If you're been practicing yoga for any length of time at all, then you may have already recognized how it increases your attention to what's going on, both around you as well as within yourself. Maybe it's as simple as noticing that when your breathing gets out of control it's a stress response, your cue to take a moment to focus your mind and calm your breath before the sympathetic nervous system has a chance to fully engage. Whatever the scenario, learning to listen to our bodies and the signals they send can be of significant value in leading a full, rich life. Further from Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing:
"Proprioceptin is the ability to feel where your body is in space, even with your eyes closed. Most people with bad posture or dysfunctional movement patterns aren't aware of what they are doing wrong, and their lack of awareness prevents them from making changes. The regular practice of asana, however, steadily builds the ability to perceive what your body is doing. Body awareness is part of the larger concept of awareness that is central to all yoga practice. With awareness comes the possibility of making different choices. As you become more sensitive to internal processes, you become more likely to notice subtle symptoms of serious disease at a stage when it may be more susceptible to treatment. Years ago, yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater told her husband, "I have pneumonia in my right lung." He looked at her skeptically and said it was just a bad cold. "I'm a professional breather," she said, "and I cannot inflate my right lung." An X-ray proved she was right. Similarly, if you notice tightness in your neck and address it early with simple yoga stretches, you might never get that full-blown migraine. Awareness can also temper your stress response. As soon as you sense it kicking in, you might use a breathing technique to slow it down. Yogic awareness also allows you to tap into emotions earlier, to recognize, as Buddhists put it, "the spark before the flame." This gives you more chance not to react impulsively out of anger or fear, to analyze feelings before a cascade of bio-chemical events sweeps you away and you do something you might regret later on."
I know I've mentioned this before, but one of the most beneficial areas where yogic awareness has helped me is in my klutz-prone behavior patterns. Through my childhood and into early adult-hood, stepping off a curb and spraining an ankle, with the resultant goose-egg size swelling was at the least an annual occurrence. I attribute both improved reflexes and increased awareness, both gained through a regular yoga practice, for the ability to say I've probably sustained only one or two such injuries in the entire 15+ years since that I've been practicing yoga. And I hadn't even given this much thought until we began exploring Dr. McCall's theories. So take just a moment to reflect, and see if you can come up with at least one thing that you are more aware of, or some change that you have made in your life, perhaps even subconsciously, that you can attribute to your journey in yoga. You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover!
Much Love & Namaste! Teresa
Alternative Yoga Therapies www.alternativeyogatherapies.com firstname.lastname@example.org 469-525-3933
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #14: Improves Function of the Feet (Mon., May 20th, 2013)
I just LOVE this one! Having had my fair share of foot problems, and the occasional chronic flare-up, I can truly identify with how it affects the way I feel over-all when my feet are out of shape. In yoga, specifically the standing postures, our feet are our foundation. If we don't start with grounding through our feet, we cannot truly stabilize the pose, and the balance doesn't quite "lift off". From Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing:
"The Chinese have a saying, "Aging begins in the feet," and yoga teaches that the feet are the foundation of good posture. When they aren't working properly, it can lead to problems in the ankles, knees, hips, lower back, and beyond, as the uneven forces are transferred upstream. Experienced practitioners of alignment-based yoga styles gradually develop greater distance between their toes and between their metatarsals (the long bones of the feet), widening and stabilizing their base. Many common foot problems, like fallen arches, can be improved and sometimes even corrected by regular practice of yoga standing poses."
You've all heard me talk at one time or another about the chain reaction that's created by the bone structure and musculature within our bodies. If we're out of whack in one area, of course it throws the entire body out of alignment. As Dr. McCall suggests, this does in fact begin with our feet.
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #13: Increases Circulation of Lymph (Sun., May 12th, 2013)
Happy Mothers Day(if it applies to you)! And if it doesn't, make sure to acknowledge this special day for all of the wonderful women you happen to cross paths with today.
While today's topic is not so glamorous in the scheme of the more immediate changes we can "see" yoga making in our lives, like muscle tone and weight loss, this is one that definitely gives evidence over time of the power that yoga can have when we embrace it whole-heartedly. For the first few years of my practice I fit yoga into my schedule when I could, but certainly not with any zealous determination. While it made great improvements in my life, even when practiced sporadically, I really began to notice improvements in my over-all health once my practice became more of a daily ritual. Let's see what Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing has to say about it:
"In addition to arteries and veins, there is a third system of vessels that circulates fluids throughout the body. That system carries lymph, a fluid rich in lymphocytes and other immune-system cells. The lymphatic system fights infection, kills rogue cancer cells, and disposes of some toxic waste products of cellular functioning. Like veins, lymphatic vessels lack the muscles in their walls that arteries use to propel blood. When you contract and stretch muscles, move organs around, and come in and out of yoga postures, lymph flow improves and with it lymphatic system function."
While I do still battle the occasional bout of upper-respiratory infection, it dawned on me with the passing of this last winter that I cannot recall the last time I suffered a full-blown case of the flu, or was otherwise incapacitated by the typical bugs that make their yearly rounds. Just like that reflex that now keeps my clumsy nature from stepping off a curb and twisting an ankle on a habitual basis, yoga is working internally as well to keep me safe and sound. And all I have to do is honor it with a regular set intention to practice. Certainly sounds better than spending time and money at the doctor's office, doesn't it!
Much Love & Namaste! Teresa
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #12: Improves Return of Venous Blood (Wed., May 8th, 2013)
Hello Faithful Yogis,
When I first read this week's topic, it brought to mind the term "prana", which is another word for energy. When we sit for long periods of time, such as many of us do at our desk jobs, our blood flow slows, and energy stagnates. We don't notice this right away, but the longer we are immobile, the easier it becomes to remain so. If you sit at work all day, and then wonder why you're so tired when you leave, you're certainly a victim of this dilemma. The same goes for standing for long periods of time. Our bodies were meant to move, in long continuous flowing motions, which is where yoga comes in. Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, has a more scientific explanation, so here goes:
"Since veins, unlike arteries, can't push blood along, they depend on the movement of adjacent areas of the body, such as happens in asana practice, to move blood back from the periphery to the center. Upside-down poses encourage venous blood from the legs and pelvis to flow back to the heart. Improved return of venous blood could help with such problems as swollen ankles. With better return of blood to the heart, the heart doesn't have to work as hard."
Improved blood flow, decrease in peripheral bloating, lowered blood pressure, the list goes on. As we get deeper and deeper into our "40 Ways" topics, it does indeed seem to reveal a circular pattern, doesn't it? And doesn't that provide even more reason to nurture and strengthen your practice? No matter how often you come to class, try to get a little yoga into each and every day, especially in those moments when you're feeling lethargic and least like doing something physical. Given just a few minutes of easy, flowing movement combined with a focused breath, and I can pretty much guarantee you'll suddenly feel ready to take on the world. Or at least your own world!
While last week was one of my favorite, this week's topic is perhaps one of the most important of all reasons to practice yoga. As we settle into the patterns of our lives, some of us sitting for long hours, others on our feet all day long, we find that neither is optimal for the health of our spine. Unfortunately, many of us come to this conclusion after much damage has been done. Yoga, while it may not be a "cure-all", is certainly an excellent tool to preserve the health of the spine. Let's allow Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing to tell us in his own words
"Like joint cartilage, the cartilage that makes up the spinal disks lacks an independent blood supply and requires movement to deliver nutrients from nearby blood vessels. A well-balanced asana practice that includes backbends, forward bends, and twists, as well as a gentle elongation of the spine, helps prevent the drying out and degeneration of these disks, helping them do their job as shock absorbers between the vertebrae. Cushioning the vertebrae protects the nerves exiting the spinal column from compression and impingement."
Perhaps the biggest mistake I've seen people make is the assumption that they just have to live with the damage that is already done. While this may be true, yoga can still provide a great benefit if applied appropriately. For those with serious injury or damage, a very gentle class will help as much as a more vigorous class would suit a healthier spine, in terms of building muscle, creating flexibility and providing ease of movement. If back pain is your primary reason for not having already tried yoga, then get thee to a studio pronto! Mine, or another, but you just simply owe yourself the improvement in quality of life that a healthier spine allows.
Much Love & Namaste! Teresa
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #10: Improves Joint Health (Mon., April 22nd, 2013)
Hello Fellow Yogis,
This is probably one of my absolute FAVORITE of the "40 Ways", at least in the top five. There are a number of ways in which yoga helps improve our joints, not the least of which is increased range of motion. Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, gives us a little more in-depth run-down here:
"The cartilage in joints such as the knee acts as a shock absorber and allows the bones to glide smoothly over one another. Functioning something like a sponge, this cartilage is nourished by synovial fluid, which is squeezed out with movement, allowing a fresh supply to be soaked up. If range of movement is limited, areas of the cartilage degenerate due to a lack of sustenance, and become unable to cushion the bones as they move. Along with increasing range of movement, asana practice can also help improve the alignment of bones, potentially reducing the wear and tear. By increasing the range of motion in a joint, and taking you out of familiar movement patterns - and the literal grooves in the joint surface that can result - there tends to be less wear and tear in any one area."
This gives a whole new meaning to the old catch-phrase about being "stuck in a rut", doesn't it? Perhaps one of the most popular bits of feed-back I hear regularly from beginning students is the lessening of pain and discomfort they experience as their joints open up and lubricate, making their other activities easier to manage and more enjoyable. Simply being flexible isn't the issue here. It's regularly and habitually putting our joints through their range of motion that keeps us that way as we age. From my own personal experience, anytime my joints are stiff and achy, I feel older than my years. Even just taking 10-15 minutes to flow through a few targeted asanas, however, and suddenly my whole outlook changes, ready to take on the world! So don't wait for class to find relief. Take at least a few moments each day to change your body, your perspective, and perhaps your decisions about what you feel ready to tackle. Re-planting the entire flower bed may not seem so out of reach after all!
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #9: Increases Oxygenation of Tissues (Sun., April 14th, 2013)
Hello Fellow Yogis,
It may be easy to envision how yoga gets the blood flowing freely through the body. But what does that, in combination with regular, steady breathing do for our health? A number of things, as it turns out. In today's excerpt, Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing helps us understand just how beneficial healthy, oxygenated blood is to our over-all well-being:
"More oxygen to the lungs may translate into more oxygen to the brain and other tissues, including those areas that are in the process of healing. Yogic relaxation has been shown to increase blood flow to the periphery of the body, such as the hands and feet. Yoga has also been shown to increase levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, the carriers of oxygen to the tissues. People who breathe quickly and shallowly eliminate more carbon dioxide from their lungs than is desirable, causing the pH of the blood to rise (that is, it becomes more alkaline). In response, hemoglobin holds on to oxygen more tightly, meaning less gets to the tissues in need. While it has not yet been documented scientifically, twisting poses are thought to wring out venous blood from internal organs, allowing more oxygenated blood to flow in once the twist is released ( a phenomenon some yogis call "wring and soak"). There is also evidence that when muscles are chronically tight, blood flow through them may be restricted. Some areas may build up metabolic waste products, potentially contributing to soreness. Less oxygen and nutrients being delivered to the tissue inhibits normal functioning, and we might therefore expect the muscle to be less strong, less efficient, and more prone to injury than it might otherwise be."
So whether you're dealing with a medical dilemma, or simply suffering from stiff muscles or a slow digestive system, here's yet another reason to include yoga in your daily healthcare regimen. If you're not practicing daily, consider adding just 15-20 minutes a day (or even 10 if you're in a pinch) to detox and re-oxygenate your body. There is no hard and fast rule that you must practice for an hour at a time. Even simply re-visiting your most favorite postures from class, or adding an easy stretch routine before bedtime will provide more benefit than you would otherwise have gotten, and you'll feel so much better for it.
Just when you were beginning to think I might have forgotten you and our goal to learn 40 things about yoga this year. Well, I only needed a little hiatus, a breather if you will (pun intended). And speaking of breathing, we have just one more thing to learn about how yoga benefits our breathing before moving on to other equally fascinating topics.
So the question of the week is...are you a mouth breather? Or a better question yet, would you even know if you were??? So often, we just go about our lives, paying little, if any, attention to our breath at all. Until, that is, we get a cold or allergies kick in, etc. Of course, if you're stopped up, running a marathon, or maybe just got the bejeebies scared out of you, then of course you're taking in all the air you can muster, gasping for it most likely. But what about when you're just going about the day-to-day, again, not thinking much about the process? According to Dr. Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, the practice of yoga brings our attention more and more to correcting the little things that can bring improvement to our lives:
"Yoga promotes breathing through the nose on both inhalation and exhalation. The nasal passages filter, warm, and humidify the air, removing some of the pollen and pollutants you've inhaled before they get to your lungs. Warm, moist air is less likely to set off an asthma attack. Mouth breathing dries out your mouth, and is felt by dentists to contribute to a misaligned bite, bad breath, and other problems. There is also some evidence that mouth breathing at night contributes to snoring and possibly sleep apnea, a common and potentially deadly condition in which people repeatedly stop breathing while asleep. Because the nasal passages are narrower than the mouth, there is more resistance to air flow in them, which tends to slow the breath, calming the nervous system and the mind."
So as you can see, the effect of yoga on "re-training" the breath, provides a multitude of benefits for our health. And if nothing else, we can take the opportunity before spring flits away, to stop and smell the flowers, which of course, we must do with our...noses!
Much Love & Namaste! Teresa www.alternativeyogatherapies.com email@example.com 469-525-3933
40 Ways Yoga Heals - #7: Leads to Slower and Deeper Breathing (Sun., March 3rd, 2013)
But wait, you're thinking...didn't we cover this last week? As it turns out, there are many benefits to our breath and lung capacity gained from the practice of yoga. As a matter of fact, this may not yet be the last you hear of it from Dr. Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. This week's focus is on breath "efficiency" if you will. Let's see what he has to say.
"Yogis, compared to other people, tend to take fewer breaths of greater volume. Slower breathing is calming to the nervous system. Yogic breaths are also much more efficient. This effect was shown in a study, published in 1998 in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, done on people with breathing problems due to congestive heart failure (CHF). In advanced CHF, fluid can accumulate in the lungs, interfering with normal oxygenation, creating a feeling of suffocation. The natural response is to get agitated and breathe very quickly to try to get in as much air as possible, but it turns out that this is counterproductive. Many rapid, shallow breaths actually delivery less air to the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs where oxygen exchange happens, than a few slower, deeper breaths. After one month of practicing a yogic technique known as complete breathing, patients in the study dropped from an average of 13.4 breaths per minute to 7.6, while their exercise capacity increased significantly, as did the oxygen saturation of their blood. Indeed, patients who started out feeling so short of breath that they were breathing more than twenty times per minute wound up with higher levels of oxygen in their blood by taking only six yogic breaths per minute."
Wow, that's a big difference! And yet another reason why we pay such close attention to our breath in class, focusing the inhale and exhale not only to direct the sensation in the muscles, but in the lungs themselves. Not to mention the added benefit to our sympathetic nervous system, with the calming response generated by slowing the breathing pattern.
If you've been doing yoga for any length of time, then you most likely already recognize the multitude of benefits this weeks focus provides. Increased lung function not only clears the waste and toxins from our bodies, but also makes us more alert and increases energy. If you're into swimming, hiking, or any type of endurance sport, then you'll appreciate the benefit of this ten-fold. Here's what Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing has to say:
"Yoga (improves lung function) through both posture and breathing. A slumping posture pushes the bottom ribs into the abdomen, restricting rib movement and further limiting the amount of air taken in. If you don't bring a good amount of air to the base of the lungs, you compromise the ability to replenish this blood-rich area with oxygen and remove gaseous waste products. The better posture that yoga encourages will open the region of the lower ribs, and learning to use the abdominal muscles to exhale more fully will allow you to take in more air on the subsequent breath. Yoga practice has been shown to improve vital capacity (the total amount of air you can blow out), how much you can blow out in one second, and breath-holding time, as well as the peak flow rate, which helps explain why yoga appears to be useful in asthma."
While it may seem that some of these benefit topics overlap, better posture relating to improved breath capacity for instance, this is just one perfect example of how yoga unites the many for the strength of one. So whether you're practicing yoga to improve sports performance, or simply to find ease in daily activities, having open and healthy lungs provides immeasurable benefits to the quality of your life.
Well, this one kind of seems like a no-brainer, huh? But yoga doesn't just improve your posture, it makes you more aware of it as well. For all my years of practice, I still catch myself slumping at the end of a long day at the office. But I kid you not, that niggling, nagging little voice will creep in, reminding me to straighten up. While that may seem pretty hard when we're weary, it can actually help change our mind-set and the way we feel in our bodies as well. Slumping pulls the muscles against each other in an un-natural manner, affecting not just the shoulders, but all of the muscles along the back and core. It also weakens the abdominals through lack of use, as those muscles don't fully engage until we stand up straight, our natural girdle if you will. But I find myself on my soap box. All of you who take with me regularly know how I harp on yoga abs in every class, and maintaining an open chest in all postures. For now, let's see what Dr. Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription For Health and Healing has to say about the effects of yoga on our posture.
"Many back, neck and other muscle and joint problems can be caused or made much worse by poor posture, something that yoga can very effectively improve. Think of your head as a bowling ball, big and round and heavy. When that ball is balanced directly over an erect spine it takes much less work for the neck and back muscles to support it than when it's held several inches forward, a common postural habit. The head-forward position can lead to back pain, and contribute to such problems as headaches, arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and even fatigue. Hold up that bowling ball for eight or twelve hours a day and you may have less energy to do whatever else you need to do. More surprisingly - to people who aren't yogis - there's even scientific evidence that poor posture contributes to premature death. The precise mechanism of how bad posture could increase the death rate from heart disease isn't known, but yogis believe that slouching compresses the heart and potentially compromises its blood supply. The lungs also have less room to expand if your chest is hunched over, which means you can't bring as much oxygen into your body, the fuel the heart depends on. A pilot study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that a program of yoga poses, modified to meet the students' needs, improves posture, postural awareness, height, head position, functional skills and well being."
So there you have the method to my madness. An explanation for all of those verbal cues to "engage the core" and "open the chest". It just plain makes us feel better to stand up-right, take in more air, and increase energy flow through the body. If you're not already experiencing it, hopefully you too will soon hear that nagging little voice in your head, even when you step off your mat.
Much Love, Namaste, & Happy Valentine's Day! Teresa
Alternative Yoga Therapies 6401 W. Eldorado Pkwy., Suite #230 McKinney, TX 75070
With the constant fluctuations in weather patterns here in Texas, even during winter, who couldn't use a good immune booster? While many of us tend to spend the majority of our focus on the physical practice of yoga, there is much to be said for quieting the mind in meditation. As a matter of fact, through the ages the primary purpose of the physical exercises was to release nervous and excess energy, quieting the mind in readiness for meditation. It's been our more recent Western influence on yoga that has taken it away from its philosophical roots and implanted it into the gym and studio environment. But whether you ascribe to the physical practice, something quieter, or a combination of both, yoga can go a long way in helping to keep you healthy during this winter season and through-out the year. Take a moment to see what Dr. Timothy McCall, MD has to say in an excerpt from his book Yoga As Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. He even relates studies conducted by another top noted physician and proponent of yogic healing, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.
"Many yoga practices are likely to improve immune functions, but to date, meditation has the strongest scientific support. Meditation appears to increase immunity in instances where that's helpful, as well as lower it in the case of autoimmune diseases, marked by inappropriately aggressive immune function. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, former director of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic, conducted a study of people with moderate to severe cases of the autoimmune skin disease psoriasis. Those who listened to a guided meditation while they received the standard treatment of ultraviolet light therapy were almost four times as likely to have complete clearing of their skin. Says Kabat-Zinn, "The power of that study is that it shows that the mind can influence a healing process all the way down to the level of what has to be gene expression and cell replication." More recent research by Kabat-Zinn and Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin examined a group of high-tech workers who learned simple meditation techniques and yoga postures. The group developed a higher level of influenza antibodies in their blood after getting a flu shot than a control group, an indication of better ability to fight the infection."
So there you have it. If you've never tried meditation, why not give it a whirl? No fancy instructions, books or teachers needed. Simply find a peaceful place, quiet your mind and "Zen out". If finding that quiet seems easier said than done, just let those random thoughts float across your radar, but don't cling to them. Acknowledge them, then let them go, and with a little regular practice you'll find it easier and easier to slip into the process. My own favorite tip? A few pages of journaling beforehand, getting some of those random (or not so random) thoughts down on paper helps to quiet the chatter.
Okay, the first three so far seem to be no-brainers - flexibility, strength and this week adding balance to the list. As we go on, the list may begin to surprise you, but for now, let's entertain Dr. Timothy McCall's words of advice, compliments of his very informative book, Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing:
"While strength can help avoid a fall, you're also a lot less likely to trip on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night if you've improved your balance by regularly practicing asana like Tree pose. Better balance may not seem like a big deal until you consider that falls are a leading cause of hip fractures, the loss of independence, and admission to a nursing home. Yoga also helps you use your body in an overall more balanced way, left to right and front to back, which can help minimize the muscle imbalance that so often leads to bothersome symptoms and injuries."
I have my very own testimonial to add to the mix for this week's topic. Confession...dancer or not, I am a TOTAL clutz. As far back as I can recall, I would suffer from a twisted or sprained ankle on at least an annual basis. It just seemed to be a fact of life for me, goose-egg size lump and all. I've been practicing yoga for about seventeen years now, give or take. Not just a week ago I was discussing heightened reflexes compliments of yoga with a student. It occurred to me during that conversation that it's been at least a decade now, to the best of my recollection, since I've suffered a sprain or twist at all. For me, it was typically stepping off the curb. Now my improved reflexes and increased balance kick in automatically to correct what could be potential disaster. Thank goodness for yoga!
Last week we discussed what's probably the most obvious benefit of yoga - flexibility. While not everyone realizes it, yoga is also great for increasing muscle strength. So this week, Dr. Timothy McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine gives a very convincing argument for why we should include yoga in our regular workout regimen:
"Muscle weakness contributes to numerous problems, including arthritis, back pain, and falls. Many of the physical limitations that people associate with aging, including weakness and progressive disability, are due to a loss of muscle, a condition recently dubbed sarcopenia. Studies have shown that even people in their eighties and beyond can make rapid gains in function when they adopt a regimen to build muscle. Asana practice not only strengthens muscles but does so in a functional way, attending to every area of the body, balancing strength with flexibility. In contrast, some weight lifters have routines that aren't well balanced and result in uneven strengthening and loss of flexibility. Similarly, many people do stomach crunches to protect the back but strong abdominal muscles tend to tug the pubic bone up, flattening the lower back, which actually makes some back problems worse. In addition to strengthening muscles, yoga appears to build endurance and delay the onset of fatigue."
While we're on the topic of building strength through yoga, I simply must share with you a YouTube story that one of our own students recently shared. It's about one man's journey from disability to independence. I couldn't help but shed a tear. Please take another moment to review this clip. If you weren't already aware of just how valuable a tool yoga can be in your life, this just might convince you.
Hello to all my beautiful yogis! It's hard to believe the holidays are over and we are already a full week into the new year. Whether you've declared a resolution or an affirmation, I'm just so pleased that yoga is part of your strategy for a fabulous 2013. To help keep you stoked, we will spend the next 40 weeks or so gleaning insight from Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, as well as medical editor for Yoga Journalmagazine.
Perhaps the most obvious, and not coincidentally first on our list, yoga increases flexibility. As the weeks go on, we may uncover benefits that will surprise you, but for now, let's explore the obvious. So without further ado, in Dr. McCall's own words:
"Anyone who has ever taken a hatha yoga class knows that yogic postures ask you to stretch in ways you never would have thought of; anyone who has hung in with asana practice has also observed that tight areas open up over time and poses that were once impossible become possible. While it seems obvious, scientific studies have documented the increased flexibility of muscles and the increased range of movement in different joints that come with yoga practice. The question remains: How might this benefit health? Consider just a couple of examples from a potentially very long list: A lack of flexibility in the hips can put strain on the knee joint, due to improper alignment of the thigh and shin bones. Back pain can be caused by tightness in the hamstrings - muscles in the back of the thighs - that leads to a flattening of the lumbar spine."
So there you have it. Most of us do yoga just because it makes us feel good, or better. And this is just one reason why. Being flexible facilitates ease of movement, decreases likelihood of injury, and over-all really does just make us feel better. Stay tuned. Next week we will explore how yoga strengthens muscles.