A little science to back up Ashtanga’s early morning practice

According to a new study out this week, Ashtangis are doing something right in getting up and practicing at the crack of dawn. We do need to make sure of one thing, though: that we’re getting a little light during our vinyasas.

Because I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty dark where and when we practice.

According to this study, published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, early morning exposure to light — and it doesn’t have to be sunlight levels — corresponds to lower BMI (everyone’s faaavorite way to measure health). You can read through the study (not the least clear I’ve encountered), or we can let the LA Times explain:

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found only one variable that correlated to BMI: MLiT. That stands for “mean light  timing above threshold,” and it’s a measurement that takes into account the timing, length and brightness of each volunteer’s light exposure.

Translating that into practical terms, the researchers said the key was to bask in light of at least 500 lux, and that such basking was most valuable when the exposure came early in the day. For every hour that light exposure was delayed, BMI rose by 1.28 points.

And then there’s this:

But there’s clearly something special about morning light. They’re not sure what it is, but one possibility is the fact that morning light contains more wavelengths in the blue portion of the spectrum. “Blue light has been shown to have the strongest effect on the circadian system,” the study authors wrote.

Now, I know there’s a pretty solid split among yoga practitioners about applying Western science and medicine to yoga and its related practices. My basic thinking is there’s no reason not to use what’s beneficial — take what works, and what helps, and begin to form a practice/lifestyle that is informed by East and West (to crudely break down the distinction). If Western science can help us refine and improve Eastern practices, why not combine the best of all worlds? (And I’m not saying that BMI is a great measure; it seems like an OK one.)

In this case, though, my reason for highlighting this study is a bit different. I think of this study as offering evidence that some of the handed-down practices of yoga and Ashtanga have some unexpected benefits — and this evidence builds a case that there something inherently intelligent (researched and tested, perhaps) to the yoga practice. The trial and error in developing our modern asana practices, as explored by Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya, and now others, may not explicitly say, “We should practice in the morning because it is important to our circadian systems, which help regulate our health,” but they discovered some extra benefits to, in this case, practicing early. In other cases, it might be vinyasa, or a particular sequence of poses, or a way of breathing.

I like knowing that the teachers who have come before us seemed to be on to something. It gives me more reason to trust other things they say. (Although some of Krishnamacharya’s suggestions go a bit far for me!)

Or put another way, science is catching up to what the ancient rishis already knew.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “A little science to back up Ashtanga’s early morning practice”

  1. one risk of applying scientific empirical concepts to incorporeal ones and vice versa is that this invites conflation. for example, when we remove toxins from our bodies by boiling the blood during practice we had best not investigate this process with mass spec and thermometer. agni doesn’t measure in kelvin, and a toxin here is absolutely not the same as a toxin there. analogy perhaps, but not homology…

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