More good yoga news: A healthy heart

After what felt like a flood of news about yoga-related studies on its health benefits, it has been quiet lately on the science front.

But here’s a little something. I’ll let the Harvard Health Blog (best said with a Boston accent) explain:

A recent review of yoga and cardiovascular disease published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology indicates that yoga may help lower heart disease risk as much as conventional exercise, such as brisk walking.

As I write in the April issue of the Harvard Heart Letter, the studies in the review looked at different types of yoga, including both gentler and more energetic forms. The participants ranged from young, healthy individuals to older people with health conditions. Over all, people who took yoga classes saw improvements in a number of factors that affect heart disease risk. They lost an average of five pounds, shaved five points off their blood pressure, and lowered their levels of harmful LDL cholesterol by 12 points.

Those findings actually track well with my own, albeit when I also radically altered my diet.

Posted by Steve

If you want, you can be part of a research study into the effects of Ashtanga

If you’re the type who likes to fill out questionnaires or wants to contribute to the greater understanding of yoga’s effects (or both), maybe this is up your alley: an online university study about yoga — targeted at Mysore practitioners.

Link to the survey is here. A little about it:

Purpose of this study. This study is part of a larger investigation aimed at gaining better understanding of the effects of yoga on emotional well-being.

What will the study involve? 

Participants will fill out a set of online questionnaires at seven time points (during the first week of March and every 4-5 months for two years). The completion of the questionnaires will take about 25-30 min per time point.
  1. Additionally, participants will receive a link to an online practice diary weekly, and asked to indicate how much they have practiced during the last week (takes about 1 minute to complete per week).

All questionnaires will be sent by e-mail and answers are strictly confidential. 

Why have you been asked to take part? You are currently practicing Ashtanga yoga Mysore Style. Following you along for two years will help us tremendously to further unravel the long-term effects of yoga, specifically the Mysore approach, on emotional health. Data from this study will altogether help yoga on its way to become an evidence-based complementary alternative medicine.

From what I can glean clicking on it, you still can take part despite that “first week of March” mention.

Note: I saw it originally at Ashtanga.com.

Posted by Steve

A never-ending Ashtanga story: Research

During our Yatra, we are re-posting some of our top posts from the past 16 or so months. We’ll also try to get new posts up from India, Internet access-willing. We’ll see if we have an experience this time around similar to the one detailed below.

***

I am the product of extensive research. Research requires an attitude that is a generous mix of curiosity and tenacity, and a willingness to accept that dead ends are never wasted—just part of the process. Above all, the researcher needs embrace the fact that research—if you’re lucky—never ends, because the point of research is to advance study. Research must continuously advance the field, making it deeper, better, more interesting.

True in life, true in Ashtanga.

My teacher Tim Miller has a deep and abiding love of research poses. Not all teachers believe in them or will even allow them. Tim does, and integrates them into his teacher trainings. Viva la research!

They’re especially useful for those of awkward dorks like myself who weren’t athletic before we started the practice. To give you a sense of scope, the first research pose I remember learning was for sirsasana: head on the floor facing a wall, walking my legs up it, then lifting one leg at a time into space.

This freaked me out. I mean, I freaked. But I kept at it until I wasn’t freaked anymore; I turned around, and did the pose with my back close to the wall. I slowly moved away from the wall, arriving at the end of my mat, no longer afraid of falling and strong enough to hold myself up. That took about a year, I think. Throughout those first years of practice, I learned research poses for, heck, most of the First Series.

Now, I do them for Second. Take, for instance, eka pada sirsasana.

You can see in this short video Kino offering up some research possibilities that can go three ways: help for supta kurmasana in First, eka and dwa pada sirsasana (and yoganidrasana) in Second, along with any number of frightening feet-behind-the head poses in Third. And this “research” is really a variation on a Third series pose; although I wonder what would happen if we did these in the practice room in Mysore, or the anjaniasana sequence that’s also research for similar poses.

But I practice at home, or at Tim’s, so that’s not a problem for me. Some days, I just start busting them out–one after the other–the research poses I’ve learned from Tim and his students who teach. Among these are the hanumanasana sequence after prasarita padottansana, variations on viparita dandasanaone of the many preparations for kapotasana. I do these along with a sequence that one of my teachers called “the trifecta of doom.” That little nickname highlights the fact that sometimes the research poses are more difficult than the actual pose. Which is major motivation to get proficient enough that you no longer need them.

It’s definitely a line of thought in Ashtanga that the pure practice itself should be enough—the

Tim helping me research.

literal interpretation of Guruji’s famous line, “Practice and all is coming.” But I’m sure Guruji didn’t mean “practice and Advanced A is coming”; he meant samadhi—freedom.

There’s no doubt in my mind if I hadn’t been taught a way to get to stability and happiness in the difficult poses—given the sense of possibility—I wouldn’t have done Ashtanga at all. I was weak, sick, and in pain when I started. It was the research pose that gave me a sense of hope. And with any new skill, there must be hope as you practice.

It was research that allowed me to believe I could learn.

This isn’t the first time I’ve trumpeted the virtues of research, and of course there are strong voices in Ashtanga that advocate for it (David Swenson, for instance). But it struck me the other day as I was researching mayurasana that I took it for granted, and that it may be time for me to recognize how significant research poses have been in my learning not just the physical practice, but the mental tenacity needed in my life.

If the practice of the series of Ashtanga is so difficult that it often turns people away, it may be the research that invites them to stay, giving it potential to improve the diversity and scope of the practice and its practitioners, shooing away the stagnation that comes with elitism.

“Don’t freak,” Tim said to me once, while I was trying to drop back. It’s strange, but I often hear that advice off the mat, where it resonates like a kind of bell. The research instilled that in me, the calmness in the face of difficulty, the confidence that I can find a way to learn.

Post update: My teacher Maria Zavala, one of Tim’s students  (who not only taught me Second, but also most of the Second Series research poses) added this to our Facebook page. I thought it was worth sharing:

Research postures keep Ashtanga practice safe and accessible for a lot of people. You have to teach this practice to the individual. Different people need different things at various points in their practice. All the research postures that Timji taught were beneficial to me in my practice. Especially for all the lovely feet behind the head poses. To add a bit of yoga trivia, he got the Hanumanasa / Somakonasana sequence from John Scott, who learned it from Derek Ireland, who I originally learned it from in Greece.

Posted by Bobbie

For the Love of Research Poses

I am the product of extensive research. Research requires an attitude that is a generous mix of curiosity and tenacity, and a willingness to accept that dead ends are never wasted—just part of the process. Above all, the researcher needs embrace the fact that research—if you’re lucky—never ends, because the point of research is to advance study. Research must continuously advance the field, making it deeper, better, more interesting.

True in life, true in Ashtanga.

My teacher Tim Miller has a deep and abiding love of research poses. Not all teachers believe in them or will even allow them. Tim does, and integrates them into his teacher trainings. Viva la research!

They’re especially useful for those of awkward dorks like myself who weren’t athletic before we started the practice. To give you a sense of scope, the first research pose I remember learning was for sirsasana: head on the floor facing a wall, walking my legs up it, then lifting one leg at a time into space.

This freaked me out. I mean, I freaked. But I kept at it until I wasn’t freaked anymore; I turned around, and did the pose with my back close to the wall. I slowly moved away from the wall, arriving at the end of my mat, no longer afraid of falling and strong enough to hold myself up. That took about a year, I think. Throughout those first years of practice, I learned research poses for, heck, most of the First Series.

Now, I do them for Second. Take, for instance, eka pada sirsasana.

You can see in this short video Kino offering up some research possibilities that can go three ways: help for supta kurmasana in First, eka and dwa pada sirsasana (and yoganidrasana) in Second, along with any number of frightening feet-behind-the head poses in Third. And this “research” is really a variation on a Third series pose; although I wonder what would happen if we did these in the practice room in Mysore, or the anjaniasana sequence that’s also research for similar poses.

But I practice at home, or at Tim’s, so that’s not a problem for me. Some days, I just start busting them out–one after the other–the research poses I’ve learned from Tim and his students who teach. Among these are the hanumanasana sequence after prasarita padottansana, variations on viparita dandasanaone of the many preparations for kapotasana. I do these along with a sequence that one of my teachers called “the trifecta of doom.” That little nickname highlights the fact that sometimes the research poses are more difficult than the actual pose. Which is major motivation to get proficient enough that you no longer need them.

It’s definitely a line of thought in Ashtanga that the pure practice itself should be enough—the

Tim helping me research.
Tim helping me research.

literal interpretation of Guruji’s famous line, “Practice and all is coming.” But I’m sure Guruji didn’t mean “practice and Advanced A is coming”; he meant samadhi—freedom.

There’s no doubt in my mind if I hadn’t been taught a way to get to stability and happiness in the difficult poses—given the sense of possibility—I wouldn’t have done Ashtanga at all. I was weak, sick, and in pain when I started. It was the research pose that gave me a sense of hope. And with any new skill, there must be hope as you practice.

It was research that allowed me to believe I could learn.

This isn’t the first time I’ve trumpeted the virtues of research, and of course there are strong voices in Ashtanga that advocate for it (David Swenson, for instance). But it struck me the other day as I was researching mayurasana that I took it for granted, and that it may be time for me to recognize how significant research poses have been in my learning not just the physical practice, but the mental tenacity needed in my life.

If the practice of the series of Ashtanga is so difficult that it often turns people away, it may be the research that invites them to stay, giving it potential to improve the diversity and scope of the practice and its practitioners, shooing away the stagnation that comes with elitism.

“Don’t freak,” Tim said to me once, while I was trying to drop back. It’s strange, but I often hear that advice off the mat, where it resonates like a kind of bell. The research instilled that in me, the calmness in the face of difficulty, the confidence that I can find a way to learn.

Post update: My teacher Maria Zavala, one of Tim’s students  (who not only taught me Second, but also most of the Second Series research poses) added this to our Facebook page. I thought it was worth sharing:

Research postures keep Ashtanga practice safe and accessible for a lot of people. You have to teach this practice to the individual. Different people need different things at various points in their practice. All the research postures that Timji taught were beneficial to me in my practice. Especially for all the lovely feet behind the head poses. To add a bit of yoga trivia, he got the Hanumanasa / Somakonasana sequence from John Scott, who learned it from Derek Ireland, who I originally learned it from in Greece.

Posted by Bobbie

“More Research”: Tim Miller and the evolution of Ashtanga

Research is going on here. More benefit!

It’s early Saturday morning, and a day of rest for me and my fellow teacher trainees (perhaps for you as well). There’ll be an afternoon training session, though, starting with more on the Yoga Sutras and ardha matsyendrasana.

There are so many wonderful things going on, it’s hard to sort out where to start, but my mind keeps coming back to one aspect of Tim’s teaching that I think is important to stress. I’ll give you a concrete example to illustrate.

As I’ve said, we’re going through Second Series pose by pose. A student volunteers to demonstrate what’s “correct,” and while s/he’s doing so, Tim walks around points out the pertinent aspects of the pose—where the emphasis should be (he’ll ask, “What’s the point of this pose?”), alignment, effort, drishti, etc. Then, students who are more shall we say challenged in the pose volunteer, and Tim will demonstrate modifications and various adjustments for us. The volunteer gets help with difficulties, and the viewers learn solutions. (I’m a frequent volunteer for this part—you know how I love to be of use.)

But this is no mechanical set of instructions. It’s true there are some old standbys; at the same time, the room is full of Ashtanga teachers who have learned their own solutions. We ask questions, and make suggestions. Then, we pair up and try them on each other.

Cases in point: dhanurasana and parsva dhanurasana. For dhanurasana, a student suggests trying the pose with a bolster under the sternum, lifting the chest, allowing more ease in connecting the loop and giving lift to the legs. As we break out into pairs, I glance up at the front of the room, and I see Tim trying this modification. This is a frequent occurrence. He’ll walk around while we’re adjusting each other, and then he’ll try the things we’re suggesting and give feedback.

In the illustration in our manual for parsva dhanurasana, the head is straight. Many of us ask about the drishti—most of us have learned to look over the shoulder and up. “I don’t like that,” Tim says—but he never leaves it at that. He always says why: “It twists the neck at an odd angle. I prefer to keep the extension going in the neck. The pose is an extension, not a twist.”

There’s more: In our manual, the knees are apart in this pose. Tim’s demonstrator has her knees together, which heshows us as “correct”: gravity takes them down. He adds, however: “Knees apart, o.k.” A few of us, including myself, have a little freak out. I’ve been told always, knees together. “No, apart’s o.k.” We break out, and I see Tim walking around watching, answering questions, trying the pose out. When we come back as a group, he says this:

“I revise my previous statement.”

The knees, he says, should be slightly apart; it allows for more extension, more quadriceps opening, allows more opening of the chest and even the possibility of getting into the psoas.

Which brings me to the point I’d like to emphasize about Tim’s training. Back in my training with Nancy Gilgoff, she made the point that in the early days of Mysore with Gruruji, she felt that work on the series was ongoing. “We were the research,” she said, meaning the early students.

In that post, I mourned the fact that Guruji called his shala “The Ashtanga Research Institute,” and that word “research” had fallen out of the title, which I find…problematic.

Tim is emphasizing the need for research all throughout our training. “We’re not robots,” he says. We’re thinking, feeling practioners in a constantly changing world. He believes strongly in the continued improvement of the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and he is teaching a generation of new students to follow this path. Not only is he teaching us what is “correct,” but he is teaching us how to correctly research.

More to come.

Posted by Bobbie

Stern on back pain study: ‘Sliding toward the ridiculous’

First off, I know I said “no more” about the back pain study.

But Eddie Stern has added his considerable two cents, so… just one more. Here’s Stern, and he seems to have come down about where we did (maybe it’s the Ashtangi perspective?):

In yet another yoga study that sounds like it is sliding towards the ridiculous, Jennifer Corbett Dooren reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 25th.

[snip]

1. For someone to suffer pain, they must be cognizant of pain existing.  The cognizance of sensations (whether pleasure or pain) is controlled by what we call the mind – or, at the least, the nerve impulses that are translated into sensation by the brain. If someone complains of pain, it has to be questioned: where is pain experienced? While there may be illness or injury to the body, the mind, which assigns name, form and description to experiences via the sense organs, cannot be considered in isolation from the body.

[snip]

2. These yoga studies need to smarten up. Yoga, as I mentioned in the last post, is not some far reaching ‘thing’ that can be blamed or praised for having particular effects. You can’t just say “yoga” – it is the type of yoga, the teacher, the experience of the teacher, the person who the teacher learned it from, the application of the method that is administered, etc.

To keep using yoga as a blanket description does not do justice to science (which a study, by definition, is part of) – would a peer- reviewed study on a specific type of medication that improves the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease be able to say in a study: “Medicine Helps Alzheimer’s”? No – the type of medication, the doctor, the designer of the study – all these aspects will be measured to gauge the efficacy of the study.

The key thing Stern says (you’ll have to go to his blog to get it all) is this, I think: When a study just focuses on the physical asana, not even the breathing aspect let alone the mental, you’ve removed the yoga from yoga.

Here, here.

I suspect that statement may also give a pretty good idea of where Stern falls on the paddleboard yoga, acro-yoga, etc. My guess, anyway, and I might be judging his judgement too harshly.

Posted by Steve

A roundup of some of the anti-yoga stories this week

Update No. 3 to the study of yoga and back pain relief.

The question: Does yoga have mental benefits? We’ve touched on that here and here.

Now, a few of the stories out there that I’d chalk up as taking a dim view of yoga.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which is web-only now, right?) gets in on the act:

This study disputes previous claims that the act of stretching combined with yoga’s soothing mental components can alleviate chronic back pain. Researchers studied 228 adults with back pain, and found that yoga and stretching alone were equally effective.

In other words, it’s OK to think about what’s on TV while you’re sweating on your mat. Even though your mind is wandering, your body might be getting healthier.

As does Reuters:

Finding that yoga and stretching had about equal effects means it was probably the stretching in yoga, and not the relaxation or breathing components of the practice, that helped improve functioning and pain symptoms, researchers said.

Time takes time to blog about it:

Chanting “om” might help ease your aching back, but only if it comes at the end of yoga practice. A new study finds that the physical act of doing yoga — but not its meditative aspect — may help reduce symptoms of chronic back pain.

Feeling panicky yet? Well… let’s let Yoga Journal ride (on horseback of course!) to the rescue:

Buzz asked Loren Fishman, MD, of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and  Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, who prescribes yoga to his patients.

“That is an excellent finding because it shows scientifically, and again, what we believed from our own experience all along–that yoga helps patients with non-specific back pain. And stretching does too,” he says. However, what the study didn’t measure–the psychological and behavior benefits of regular yoga–is what yoga practitioners know is unique about the practice. “It often takes more time for these types of positive changes to take hold.”

More time? I can attest to that… because I’m still waiting! (Hopefully we now are done with this study.)

Posted by Steve