Just what is yoga? Arguments in D.C. tax case may inform us

We’ve covered the proposed expanded sales tax in Washington, D.C., which would broaden things to include health clubs and, by initial extension, yoga studios already.

Now, Yoga Alliance has added its voice to the debate, arguing both that the tax should not cover yoga studios (that offer yoga solely, if I understand it correctly) and that the way the debate has been playing out is pretty unfair to the yoga world.

Let’s tackle the latter of those arguments first.

The Washington City Paper has a letter the alliance wrote to city leaders. In it, the alliance pretty much blames the media for dubbing the proposal a “yoga tax” because, it argues, the author of the proposed tax never mentions yoga — and by some extended logic, yoga ought to be kept out of the mix as it was never intended to be part of the tax in the first place.

I have to say, I’m not quite buying that. When a politician talks about a “wellness tax” or says it will apply to “health clubs, etc.” I am pretty sure that politician has a wide range of health-related businesses in mind. Calling it, in fact, a “yoga tax” would have created a similar, even stronger, argument for gyms, Pilates studios, etc. “If you want to tax yoga, go ahead. Just leave us out of it.” Yoga may be exercise, but weight lifting definitely isn’t yoga. (Although the trend to add “yoga” to every health craze hurts that argument.)

Plus, supporters of the tax could argue that yoga instructors still are providing a service, which is the real driving force behind the tax.

The second of the alliance’s arguments is more intriguing. My gut reaction when I saw the story was: It is going to go with the “yoga is religious” tactic. (And then we can imagine what that might mean for the yoga in schools lawsuit.) But, the alliance surprised: Yoga, it argues, is “a comprehensive system for well-being in every dimension of the human experience: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The physical postures and breathing techniques are only a fraction of the overall discipline of Yoga.”

Pretty good, with a broad range of benefits, even if there is the “spiritual” wiggle room for other lawsuits we’re watching.

I don’t think it is ironclad, though. Where this argument seems headed, to me, is to a question of whether a gym or health club provides a similar complement of benefits. Where would “burning off some stress” on a bike or by lifting weights fall into that quartet of “human experience”? Mental? Emotional?

And before you toss “spiritual” out as a possibility, don’t forget Crossfit.

The alliance’s strongest argument is that it references New York State’s exclusion of yoga-only studios from a health club, gym or weight-control business tax. The problem is that — unless the tax got changed and I don’t see note of that — it doesn’t just target health clubs but other service providers, as well. If that remains the case, it probably is going to end up being more an issue of whether yoga instructors are providing a service, and not if yoga is more than exercise, that carries the day.

At the least, we do have a tidy definition of yoga.

Posted by Steve

Don’t just sit there

Not seeing too much Ashtanga-related this week, so we’ll head into the weekend with a little more science.

This time, it’s a doctor offering us some sobering news: sitting is killing us. Here’s more:

We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit, writes Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk. Sitting all day is not natural and to blame for all kinds of ailments, including obesity, he says.

“We have created for ourselves a modern way of living that clashes with the way we’re meant to be,” he writes.

So the obvious answer is to move more, by, for example, taking walks after meals, something Levine writes that he does after every meal.


The science turns on the study of NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis, the energy expenditure of activity other than sports. It includes dancing, going to work, shoveling snow and taking a walk, Levine writes. So you can imagine a construction worker uses a lot more NEAT calories than a computer programmer in the course of a workday.

“Low NEAT is linked to weight gain, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer,” Levine writes.

In an experiment in which people were overfed by the same amount – 1,000 calories a day – Levine and his colleagues found that some people had a “powerful NEAT switch” that gets them moving to use excess energy.

“Those people who do not have a NEAT switch remain sitting in response to overfeeding and are predisposed to obesity,” he writes.

This caught my eye at the LA Times, I’m sure, because my job has be computer bound. A few of our fellow Yatris, for instance, seemed a bit shocked by my sedentary, eight-hour-a-day job. Yoga teacher, for instance, probably could compete with construction worker for the burning of NEAT calories.

But not all of us have jobs that allow that. And this doctor suggests that 60 to 90 minutes of Ashtanga in the morning may not be enough. (Not to mention you maybe ought to have five minutes of high-energy exercise.)

Is this starting to feel contradictory or competing at all? Is it five minutes of strenuous exercise? Is it about not sitting? What’s the secret?

Well, don’t sit without getting up all day. Don’t forget to do your yoga. (Remember, all this is focused very much on health and physical fitness; we don’t seem to be thinking about other factors much.) Maybe kick up that heart rate a bit more.

And, certainly, don’t eat 1,000 calories a day more than you need.

Posted by Steve

Study reveals great benefits to vigorous exercise — time to speed up your practice?

Here’s another opportunity to put 2 and 2 together and get: Ashtanga ought to be really good for you.

A new study, detailed here by the New York Times, has found that even a little bit — like five minutes a day — of vigorous exercise can have great health benefits:

Running for as little as five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely, according to a large-scale new study of exercise and mortality. The findings suggest that the benefits of even small amounts of vigorous exercise may be much greater than experts had assumed.


For decades, researchers there have been collecting information about the health of tens of thousands of men and women visiting the clinic for a check-up. These adults, after completing extensive medical and fitness examinations, have filled out questionnaires about their exercise habits, including whether, how often and how speedily they ran.

From this database, the researchers chose the records of 55,137 healthy men and women ages 18 to 100 who had visited the clinic at least 15 years before the start of the study. Of this group, 24 percent identified themselves as runners, although their typical mileage and pace varied widely.

The researchers then checked death records for these adults. In the intervening 15 or so years, almost 3,500 had died, many from heart disease.

But the runners were much less susceptible than the nonrunners. The runners’ risk of dying from any cause was 30 percent lower than that for the nonrunners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45 percent lower than for nonrunners, even when the researchers adjusted for being overweight or for smoking (although not many of the runners smoked). And even overweight smokers who ran were less likely to die prematurely than people who did not run, whatever their weight or smoking habits.

As a group, runners gained about three extra years of life compared with those adults who never ran.

Remarkably, these benefits were about the same no matter how much or little people ran. Those who hit the paths for 150 minutes or more a week, or who were particularly speedy, clipping off six-minute miles or better, lived longer than those who didn’t run. But they didn’t live significantly longer those who ran the least, including people running as little as five or 10 minutes a day at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile or slower.

For those who want to go right to the source, here’s a link to the study.

And then here’s why we can make a leap to Ashtanga:

The study did not directly examine how and why running affected the risk of premature death, he said, or whether running was the only exercise that provided such benefits. The researchers did find that in general, runners had less risk of dying than people who engaged in more moderate activities such as walking.

But “there’s not necessarily something magical about running, per se,” Dr. Church said. Instead, it’s likely that exercise intensity is the key to improving longevity, he said, adding, “Running just happens to be the most convenient way for most people to exercise intensely.”

The question, I suppose, is whether Ashtanga would count as vigorous exercise — unless done really leisurely, I can’t imagine it as moderate exercise. If you think it isn’t quite strenuous enough, there seems to be a few things to consider:

  • The focus ought to be on the vinyasa part of the practice (and maybe some of the tougher arm balances). Although it has been removed, for instance, maybe a short burst of full vinyasa might make sense. (That is, of course, with the intent of meeting these vigorous guidelines, which may not be your aim with your practice.)
  • I know in some quarters a Led Primary is pushing down toward an hour. While it has never been my preference, perhaps there’s something to it — again, for purposes related to this study.
  • Perhaps some intrepid rebel Ashtanga teacher wants to add a vigorous little section to the practice, maybe incorporate it into an improv class a few times a week. What about adding full vinyasa around Navasana?

Or, I suppose, you simply have to throw in five minutes of some other vigorous exercise per day. That’s not too much to ask, right?

What we really need is a study that looks at the combination of some vigorous exercise with a yoga practice.

Posted by Steve

Another study finds health benefits from coffee

We have yet another study to pass on that suggests health benefits from coffee.

Science is good for some things. Like making one of your so-called bad habits not so bad.

The New York Times has the rundown:

Over a 20-year period, researchers periodically collected detailed information on diet, lifestyle and medical conditions in more than 120,000 participants. They found 7,269 cases of Type 2 diabetes.

After controlling for smoking, age, weight, physical activity, alcohol consumption and a family history of diabetes, they found that people who increased their coffee intake by more than an eight-ounce cup a day in a four-year period had an 11 percent lower risk of diabetes than those whose consumption remained steady. People who decreased their consumption by the same amount had a 17 percent higher risk. The report appears online in Diabetologia.

“It’s not the caffeine,” said the lead author, Shilpa N. Bhupathiraju, a research fellow at Harvard. “We know that. But coffee has a lot of antioxidants and other bioactive compounds” important in glucose metabolism. The effect has been found in previous studies with decaffeinated coffee, she said.

Man, I’d hate to have been the sucker having to drink decaf, even in the name of science.

Posted by Steve

New study: Your Ashtanga practice isn’t enough to be healthy

OK, so this study doesn’t say Ashtanga specifically, but for all intents and purposes, that’s what it can mean.

The study, out this week in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, finds that even people who spend a fixed amount of time each day or week exercising are at greater risk for health problems if, the rest of the time, they are sedentary.

You know: Sitting around. Watching TV. Tied to a desk at work. Etc.

The Journal is online here. But a little easier to wade through is coverage by the LA Times and Reuters. From the Times:

In fact, for every hour of sedentary behavior, the odds were 46% greater that people older than 60 would have some disability in ordinary skills such as getting around the house and feeding themselves, according to the study published Wednesday in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health.


“A sedentary lifestyle is associated with a variety of poor health outcomes, including increased incidence for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mortality,” the researchers wrote. But many people may have thought they’d done what they needed to if they met the government suggestion of 150 minutes a week of moderate activity.

Apparently not so.

The question was whether people were sedentary because they were not doing any exercise, or whether being sedentary was on its own a risk factor for disability in what are called activities of daily living – getting in and out of bed, getting dressed, being able to walk in the house.

The study looked at data from 2003 to 2005 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, a nationwide study that included physical exams along with questionnaires of 2,286 people 60 years and older.

From Reuters:

If future studies can confirm that sedentary behavior causes disability, which this study does not, then older people may possibly avoid becoming disabled by being more active throughout the day.


The study can’t say whether a sedentary lifestyle leads to disability or if having a disability leads to a sedentary lifestyle, however.

In addition, the authors note that their records of physical activity may not take into account some forms of exercise, because the devices that participants wore may not pick up upper body movement or cycling. Participants also didn’t wear the devices while swimming.

Stephen Kritchevsky told Reuters Health it’s too early to tell if interventions that get people moving during the day will prevent disability, but they couldn’t hurt because other studies suggest activity improves functioning.

I might, typically, put a caveat on the study’s focus on older Americans — but we know plenty (and increasing numbers of) Ashtanga practitioners who are older. And the researchers are quick to point to a rising number of sedentary children in America.

I’m also, obviously, the one linking this to an Ashtanga asana practice (or any yoga asana practice, I suppose). But I can’t help draw the comparison between a fixed time of activity — that 60 to maybe 120 minutes of your Ashtanga practice — and this study’s delineation between physical activity and sedentary “activity.”

And perhaps because I fall into my above category of person tied to a desk a lot, it really hits home. Because I do like to think that my asana practice is “enough” when it comes to healthy living, fitness-wise.

I do wonder whether physical activity along the lines of yoga — including all the benefits that studies are discovering — would show differently in a study like this. With all the yoga studies happening, maybe that’s on the horizon.

Perhaps the quote from one of the researchers that ends the Times story is a good suggestion: “Just get up and move.”

Posted by Steve

File this away for your next debate about Ashtanga being OK for older people

I really wanted to say “older practitioners” in the headline, but it didn’t quite fit on two lines, then.

Anyway, I’m extrapolating a little here, but I think this recent Well piece at the New York Times is pretty relevant to the Ashtanga asana practice. (Thoughts on asana coming tomorrow.) The reason is this: Ashtanga often is cited as being “an extremely vigorous” form of yoga, or very high impact, lots of stress on the wrists and elbows… you know what I mean.

It’s one of the reasons that Ashtanga and aging is such a popular topic.

So… I think this is worth adding to the reasons why Ashtanga is OK, after all:

Is there any scientific study to substantiate the claim that older people (over 45) should limit high impact exercises such as jogging, sprinting, etc.?

Actually, much of the recent science about high-impact exercise by “older people” like me — I prefer the term “seasoned,” by the way — reaches the opposite conclusion, suggesting that in many cases high-impact exercise can be beneficial for those middle aged and beyond. A seminal 2003 studyof people aged 30 to past 70, for instance, found that while sedentary adults lost about 10 percent of their maximal endurance capacity every decade, young and middle-aged athletes who regularly engaged in intense and high-impact exercise, such as running intervals, experienced a much slower decline, losing only about 5 percent of their capacity per decade until age 70, when the loss of capacity accelerated for everyone.

There is also little evidence to support the widespread belief that high-impact exercise speeds the onset of arthritis.

For the complete answer, including how high-impact exercise effects bone density, click on the link.

And then make sure you practice on Sunday.

Posted by Steve

Two great things tasting great together: Coffee and Ayurveda

As we’ve said recently, the “confluences” we are counting down to are myriad. For instance, this confluence of coffee (hurray!) and Ayurveda.

Video from Yoga International:

Although it often gets a bad rap, coffee can be a helpful digestive aid. Taken moderately after a meal, in a way that complements your constitution, will enhance this effect.  So, coffee lovers, take heart!  You can still enjoy this popular beverage using a few ayurvedic tips.

“Coffee is an excellent digestive.” (Yes, she emphasizes in a “moderate” amount.)

Posted by Steve