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Ashtanga, Expectation, and Possibility

January 27, 2015

One of the greatest challenges I face as a teacher (either of writing or of yoga—both apply here) is to avoid categorizing my students. It’s a constant temptation.

It’s a temptation because it makes teaching seem easier. It’s a time-saver. And to some extent, it’s also necessary to apply the right solution to the right problem—being able to diagnose a problem is an opportunity for me to apply my experience and find a solution.

But sometimes “diagnosis” becomes “assumption” and the “solution” misfires. You can just as easily fall into a kind of teacher torpor and just abstract the individual student into a type so your can easily apply an equally abstracted solution. You get a range of results from this: Nothing happens, and you both continue on this road in a horizontal way, going no where. Or something happens, but not what either one of you expected, and that’s not always good. Or the student gets worse; or worse yet, discouraged. The student may give up. Sometimes the teacher gives up. Sometimes (rarely) the student transcends the teacher, and improves in spite of it.

I’ve known teachers both on the mat and behind the desk that operate their entire careers this way. The sheer numbers of students they take on can hide the results, because just enough of them either stagnate or transcend that it looks like…Well, not success exactly. More like “okayness.” Mediocrity. Meh.

There actually is scientific data that not only supports this phenomenon, but points a way out of that behavioral maze. The teacher behavior I’m describing is called the “expectancy effect,” demonstrated first by psychologist Robert Rosenthal (nice summary here). NPR’s radio magazine, “Invisibilia,” recently did a show on the role our expectations have in the performance of those around us. It’s worth a listen, but to summarize Rosenthal’s core experiment:

If you give a person a lab rat, and you tell that person that the rat is not very bright—dumb, in fact—and then tell them to put that rat into a maze, the rat will have some serious problems getting through the maze.

But if you give the same rat to a different person and you tell them that rat is exceptionally bright, and to put that rat into the same maze, the rat will perform exceptionally well.

What makes the difference?

The people who thought the rat was dumb handled their rats, well, like a dumb rat, and the rat performed poorly. If they thought their rat was bright, they were more careful and responsive to the rat, so the rat blew through the maze.

Replace “rat” with “student” and you see where I’m going with this.

Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck (also interviewed on “Invisibilia,” but her TED talk on the topic is here), took this further than rats, to people, and found that in humans, our expectations translate immediately to our behavior toward others, and that in turn changes the behavior of the people we interact with.

Of course, this made me think about my own teaching, and the little tricks I have to play on myself so I don’t formulate negative expectations about my students based on assumption. I change the material frequently. I use universally difficult poems so all writers, no matter their abilities, must rise to the occasion. I only teach a few students at a time so I don’t “conveyor belt” my feedback.

But then that got me thinking about Ashtanga, where the material never changes, the difficulty depends on the students’ abilities when they start (an ex-gymnast will find the practice easier than say, someone who’s sat in an office chair the last ten years), and nobody can survive as a career yoga teacher with just a few students.

I realized I’m a beneficiary of teachers who managed to keep their perspective on their students fresh, even after years of teaching and many, many bodies. (Steve’s recent post quoting Tim Miller’s impressions of Guruji reflect his admiration as a teacher to handle a full Mysore room, one that only got bigger as the years passed.) There is absolutely no reason why I should still be doing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, much less working on Third Series: when I started, I had advancing joint degeneration, arthritis, asthma, a range of illnesses, and so much pain. But my best teachers, like Tim Miller, never assumed I couldn’t do a pose, and always found a way to get me there.

But perhaps I also benefited from positive assumptions. I’m sort of evenly distributed when it comes to size and weight. I’m a woman, and “women are more flexible than men” (I hear this all the time). I disguise pain very well. I’d never done anything athletic at all before I started Ashtanga, so I really didn’t know any better myself. Since I’d never tried a headstand before, I didn’t really know if I could do it until I tried, and because my teachers never thought I couldn’t do it, I could.

So I worry about Steve, and students like him—the stiff guy, the guy who has been told he’s impaired for so long, it seems like fate. The people for whom “stability” and “ease” in the asana are ever-elusive qualities—they’re in an eternal state of tapas. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that—Walter Pater believed “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But that’s not all there is to Ashtanga, and those students are not only limited by their teachers, but also by themselves in a kind of invisible conspiracy.

So you might consider this post an open letter to both teachers and students, to occupy yourselves with not what is, but with what might be. As Emily Dickinson put it:

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

Posted by Bobbie

The true stories of yoga teachers

January 27, 2015
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This site isn’t new, but in the way of the Internet, it’s new to me: Yoga Teachers’ True Stories. We’ll link you to Tim Miller’s:

When I first studied with Guruji in ‘78 his command of English was fairly limited and these first couple of trips to the States he was teaching all Mysore style. So this was a fairly good size room and there were probably thirty to thirty-five people who were all practicing at the same time Mysore style. So him just being one man and trying to cover such a large room and so many students, basically his geographic presence, his proximity to you would inspire you to 200% in the asana for fear of being adjusted.

He was quite a powerful man at that time. He was in his early sixties at that time and his adjustments were quite strong. Although he had a good sense of humor and seemed quite light he still inspired a certain amount of terror when he came close by, so it was quite interesting.

I was just learning the second series at the time and after classes, after savasana he would arrange those people who were doing second series or beyond in a big circle and teaching us pranayama. So that was quite an interesting experience.

Richard Freeman, David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff are included — as are other styles’ teachers.

Posted by Steve

Obama in India, namaste and tea

January 26, 2015
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This New York Times collection of moments from President Obama’s current trip to India is about the best sum-up I’ve seen, and it starts with namaste:

President Barack Obama was so honored to be invited to India’s Republic Day celebration that he showed it.

After arriving at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential palace, for an elaborate welcome ceremony, Obama clasped his hands in the traditional “namaste” greeting. During namaste, a person’s head is slightly bowed and the hands are pressed together, palms touching, fingers pointed skyward and thumbs touching the chest.

Namaste often is performed at the end of yoga practice.

Asked about being the chief guest at Monday’s celebration, Obama said: “It is a great honor. We are so grateful for the extraordinary hospitality.”

Obama’s wife, Michelle, accompanied him to India.

The big news thus far is the start of an agreement to allow India to develop nuclear power plants — to help slow its contribution to greenhouse gas.

Posted by Steve

Let’s keep at it: More scientific evidence of yoga’s many benefits

January 25, 2015
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This piece of scientific news has been making the rounds this weekend, although the article did come out a month ago in a European journal. (Link to it is here.) Here’s some of the scientific-sounding findings:

Yoga showed significant improvement of risk factors versus non-exercise controls for each of the primary outcomes: BMI (−0.77 kg/m2 (−1.09 to −0.44)), SBP (−5.21 mmHg (−8.01 to −2.42)), LDL–C (−12.14 mg/dl (−21.80 to −2.48)), and HDL-C (3.20 mg/dl (1.86 to 4.54)) (Figure 2). For the secondary outcomes, significant improvement was seen in all risk factors except FBG (−5.91 mg/dl (−16.32 to 4.50)) and HbA1c (−0.06% Hb (−0.43 to 0.31)) (online Supplementary Figure S2). Improvements reported in secondary outcomes include reductions of body weight (−2.35 kg (−4.33 to −0.37)), DBP (−4.98 mmHg (−7.17 to −2.80)), TC (−18.48 (−29.16 to −7.80), TG (−25.89 mg/dl (−36.19 to −15.60)), and heart rate (−5.27 beats/min (−9.55 to −1.00)) (online Supplementary Figure S2).

What’s that mean? Here’s a regular folk friendly description:

Results showed first that risk factors for cardiovascular disease improved more in those doing yoga than in those doing no exercise, and second, that yoga had an effect on these risks comparable to exercise.

 When compared to no exercise, yoga was associated with significant improvement in each of the primary outcome risk factors measured: body mass index was reduced by 0.77 kg/m2 (measured as a “mean difference”), systolic blood pressure reduced by 5.21 mm Hg, low-density (bad) lipoprotein cholesterol reduced by 12.14 mg/dl, and high-density (good) lipoprotein cholesterol increased by 3.20 mg/dl.

There were also significant changes seen in secondary endpoints. Body weight fell by 2.32 kg, diastolic blood pressure by 4.9 mm Hg, total cholesterol by 18.48 mg/dl, and heart rate by 5.27 beats/min. However, no improvements were found in parameters of diabetes (fasting blood glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin).

Risk factor improvements (in BMI, blood pressure, lipid levels) were significant when yoga was used in addition to medication. Among patients with existing coronary heart disease, yoga provided a statistically significant benefit in lowering LDL cholesterol when added to medication (statins and lipid-lowering drugs).
In comparisons with exercise itself, yoga was found to have comparable effects on risk factors as aerobic exercise.

A few other things I can discern from looking through the journal article:

  • The study didn’t find any evidence of much difference between yoga and aerobic exercise among healthy people — which counters some studies that suggest yoga is “too gentle.”
  • It does note it only used English-based studies, so that’s a limitation. And, in general, it didn’t find the studies it was studying to bee super well done. There could be improvements, in other words, to future studies.
  • The types of yoga studies varied a lot, so there’s no way to pinpoint if one style is better or if something in particular is best (in terms of the health being studied here).

But, overall, it looks like a good piece to add to the pro-yoga scientific literature.

Posted by Steve

Another scientific study suggests benefits from part of Ashtanga practice

January 24, 2015

It’s true that it’s us who are tying some scientific findings to Ashtanga — the strains of working out six days a week proved popular, but we’ve also pondered if yoga just isn’t strenuous enough and highlighted the benefits of our semi-regimented diet — but we do so because there always seems an obvious link, but one that probably wouldn’t otherwise be made. (So, budding researcher, search around this blog a bit and find some Ashtanga-related studies you can do.)

Here’s the latest, and it suggests the early morning asana practice is good:

In a groundbreaking 2010 study, researchers in Belgium persuaded young, healthy men to stuff themselves for six weeks with a diet consisting of 30 percent more calories and 50 percent more fat than the men had been eating. Some of the volunteers remained sedentary while gorging. Others began a strenuous, midmorning exercise routine after they had had breakfast. The third group followed the same workout regimen, but before they had eaten anything.

At the end of the six weeks, the sedentary group predictably was supersized and unhealthy, having gained about six pounds each. They had also developed insulin resistance and larded their muscles with new fat cells. The men who exercised after breakfast had also packed on pounds, about three pounds each, and developed insulin problems. But the men who had exercised first thing in the morning, before eating anything, had gained almost no weight and retained healthy insulin levels. Their bodies were also burning more fat throughout the day than were the other men.

Of course, the early-morning exercise prevented weight gain, which is not the same thing as inducing weight loss. But the results are encouraging for those who hope to shave off a few pounds, said Peter Hespel, a professor in the Research Center for Exercise and Health at Catholic University Leuven in Belgium and the study author.

You can find out more at the link.

And of course we can counter with various reasons to practice later.

Posted by Steve

Benefits of yoga in school: ‘higher attendance, less bullying and violence’

January 23, 2015

The onward march of yoga in schools continues, this time in a low-income part of California’s Bay Area. (For those wondering, yes, there are low-income and underserved areas in a part of the state best known for San Francisco and Silicon Valley.)

Behind this latest is our Ashtanga-related Sonima Foundation:

Thanks to a partnership with the Sonima Foundation, which is based in Southern California, 3,400 students from five schools in East Palo Alto and two in Menlo Park will join more than 24,000 boys and girls across San Diego County, New York, Houston and Florida in a yoga-based health and wellness program aimed at improving their mindfulness and nutrition.

“We’re thinking that we will see results within the first two months,” said Superintendent Dr. Gloria M. Hernandez-Goff, who expects immediate improvements in attendance and office referrals. “That’s how much impact this program has. And then, of course, there is the long term, which has a lot to do with building those resiliency skills, learning how to cope with issues and problems and self regulation when things don’t go well.”

The Sonima Foundation curriculum, which is funded for three years, aims to provide children — in this case transitional kindergarten through eighth grade — with the skills to handle stressful situations, curtail bullying and violence, prevent obesity, and improve their ability to absorb information in the classroom.

“Success is synergistic with environment,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who praised the district for not dismissing the importance of mindfulness. “Create the right conditions, create the right climate, success becomes irresistible. So as we try to struggle to address the issue of academic achievement, we have to be cognizant of the conditions to which we are trying to advance that principle.”

Hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, chairman of the Sonima Foundation Board, added: “If we could have the kids in Ravenswood achieve in mind, body, soul and spirit the level of health and wellness that out lieutenant governor’s hair exemplifies, this will be the greatest success in the history all projects.”

There’s also coverage here.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t seen any recent updates about the lawsuit against the yoga-in-school program.

A key piece to the Sonima program — as with its others — is a research component, in part through Stanford University. One reason these studies are important is because public policy changes don’t happen — or at least happen a lot less frequently and with a lot more effort — without data-driven evidence. So if you want to see a yoga/wellness program like Sonima’s be made a part of the K-12 school system’s health/physical education program — in other words be OKd as something that fulfills the definition/requirement for those programs — there has to be some facts to back up your case.

Sonima seems intent on building up a body of evidence.

Posted by Steve

One more coffee benefit: Sunscreen!

January 22, 2015

You can notch another happy benefit from drinking coffee: It looks like it may protect against melanoma, the worst of all skin cancers.

Here’s the LA Times coverage of a new study (and here’s a link to the study for you sciencey types):

The participants completed a food frequency questionnaire at the beginning of the study, including their coffee intake. Then the incidence of melanoma among subjects was tracked over an average of 10.5 years. Over this period, 2,905 test subjects developed melanoma — the fifth most common cancer and the leading cause of skin cancer death in the United States.

The researchers found that the more coffee participants drank each day, the less likely they were to develop melanoma. Drinking four cups a day was associated with a 20% lower risk. Those results remained consistent regardless of participants’ age, sex, body mass index, alcohol intake, smoking history and even ultraviolet radiation exposure, which is the primary risk factor for skin cancer.

The association was only found among participants who consumed caffeinated coffee, not decaffeinated. Coffee also only appeared to reduce the risk of malignant melanoma, not melanoma in situ, an early form of the disease in which melanoma cells have not spread beyond the outer cells of the skin. This “may indicate different disease etiologies or an inhibitory role of coffee consumption in disease progression,” the researchers write.

According to the study, bioactive compounds in coffee suppress UVB-induced skin cancer by protecting against oxidative stress and DNA damage in cells and by reducing inflammation in epidermal cells. And caffeine, the researchers say, taken both orally and applied topically, has been shown to absorb ultraviolet radiation, “functioning as a sunscreen.”

The researchers are quick to note that the safest thing to do is limit your exposure to the sun and UV rays. I guess because coffee drinkers otherwise aren’t so bright?

I also want to make sure you noted the caffeinated versus decaf difference. There’s no prana in decaf!

Posted by Steve