Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yoga for Your Brain

I often speak in class about how the postures that we practice on the mat create a change in our brain chemistry, with noticeable and measurable effects on our lives. Here is an article from the Kripalu Center website that shares some of the latest research on yoga and the brain:

How Yoga Changes the Brain
by Angela Wilson

For many of us, the practice of yoga helps us feel calmer and more soothed. We go into class feeling stressed from the day’s activities, and we leave with a little more ease. So what’s happening in the brain, as a result of yoga, that produces these feelings? With the steady rise in the number of people practicing yoga—from 13 million in 2007 to more than 20 million today—researchers have begun to focus their attention on how yoga actually changes the brain. The results echo what many of us experience: Studies show that yoga increases relaxation in the brain, improves areas of the brain that help us manage pain, and protects us against age-related decline. Together, these benefits begin to reveal the scientifically validated effects of yoga practice on brain health.

Yoga Floods the Brain with Relaxation

To investigate why yoga induces feelings of calm and peacefulness, Dr. Chris Streeter and her research team from Boston University set out to discover whether practice helps our brains produce more GABA, a neurotransmitter that increases feelings of relaxation. When we don’t have enough GABA in our brains, we feel anxious or depressed; medications such as Xanax work by upping GABA levels.

To answer this question, the team had one group of subjects do yoga for 60 minutes, while a control group read for an hour. Both groups were scanned in the MRI pre- and post-intervention. Would yoga release more GABA in the brain than reading?

The results were an unequivocal yes. The yoga group had a 27 percent increase in GABA, while the readers had no increase. But to rule out the possibility that any type of physical movement can increase GABA levels, Chris ran a second study, comparing the effects of yoga with those of walking. Again, the yoga practice showed greater changes in GABA levels in the brain. Not surprisingly, the increase in GABA was correlated with self-reports of decreased anxiety.

Studies such as these suggest how yoga might be used as an adjunct treatment to mental-health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and point to how yoga positively impacts the brain.

Yoga Improves Regions of the Brain that Manage Pain

Yoga has also been shown to improve pain tolerance. A study conducted by a group of pain experts found that, compared to matched controls, yogis could tolerate pain twice as long. This subjective difference was correlated with distinct brain differences in both of these groups: The yoga practitioners had larger insular gray matter volume than those who didn’t do yoga. The insula is a region of the brain in the cerebral cortex that helps regulate body temperature and maintain homeostasis; is related to perception and self-awareness; and has a role in regulating the parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of the nervous system that helps us feel calmer and more relaxed.

Researchers believe that yoga offers a combination of physical practice, conscious breathing, and cognitive frameworks (for example, the idea of seeing pain as “sensation,” without labeling it as “good” or “bad”) that allows us to manage and tolerate pain with more ease.

Yoga Protects Against Age-Related Decline

A 2014 study by a team that included two researchers affiliated with the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, Tim Gard and Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital, found that the long-term practice of yoga has several buffering effects on age-related decline. The study compared longtime yoga and meditation practitioners with control subjects of the same age and demographics. Specifically, the researchers were curious whether or not yoga and meditation would help maintain fluid intelligence—the ability to cope with novel situations and engage in abstract thinking—a function that notoriously declines with age.

To explore these questions, Tim and Sara invited 16 Kripalu Yoga practitioners, 16 vipassana meditators, and 15 controls into the lab to have their brains scanned with MRI/fMRI technology and to undergo cognitive testing for fluid intelligence. The yogis and meditators all had at least 20 years of extensive practice under their belts (total practice hours ranged from 7,400 to 13,000 each). Control subjects were matched for age, education, exercise, race, and reading ability.

Results indicated that, as hypothesized, long-term practice of yoga and meditation buffered against age-related decline. Both yogis and meditators had higher average scores on fluid intelligence tests than controls. In addition, these two groups had higher scores on mindfulness questionnaires than controls. Previous studies suggest that both fluid intelligence and mindfulness are related to cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt to and cope with stress). Additional studies might tweeze out more differences between the groups, but these initial results indicate that the long-term practice of meditation and yoga protects cognitive abilities well into older age.

Studies such as these are essential in understanding not only that yoga works, but also how it works. These findings add to a growing body of research on how yoga might be beneficial not just for healthy people, but for clinical populations—those suffering from depression, anxiety, even dementia. Continued investigation in how and why these practices induce change will help us deepen our understanding of their clinical applications for improved brain health.

Angela Wilson, MA, is a Kripalu Healthy Living faculty member who teaches on the science of yoga. She is a licensed mental health counselor and has contributed to Yoga International and Yoga Therapy Today, writing about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Celebrate Summer Solstice with Sun Salutations

As we once again move around the wheel of the year, we are enjoying the lengthening days which will culminate on the Summer Solstice, June 21st. The practice of Surya Namaskar, or Salutation to the Sun, offers us a way to honor the sun's journey, to reflect on the many gifts that we receive from the sun, and to welcome its return to fullness.  It is a meditation-in-motion that draws upon the qualities of our own divine light, connecting with the radiance of our true Self.  This is a practice which is both contemplative and physical, toning and strengthening our muscles, nourishing our internal organs, awakening the energy body with prana, and cultivating a sense of devotion and gratitude.

Our practice begins by tuning in to the breath. Just as the sun moves from emptiness to fullness as it circles from Solstice to Solstice, and rises and sets from day into night, so moves our breath--filling, emptying, filling again in this continual, life-sustaining rhythm. If we add a short retention at the top of the inhale and at the bottom of the exhale, we mirror the pause of the sun at the Winter and Summer Solstices (the word "solstice" comes from the Latin sol, meaning "sun," and stitium, which means "to pause or stop." The sun appears to linger for a while at the peak of long, light-filled days in Summer, or in the very short, dark days of Winter, before we can perceive a slow shift in the length of the days). So as we turn our attention to our breath, inviting in a pause in fullness and in emptiness, we still the mind and calm the nervous system, while honoring the rhythm of life.

While taking a few minutes to breathe deeply, try bringing the hands into Surya Mudra (the mudra of the sun), which increases the fire (Agni) element in the body. This mudra creates warmth, preparing us mentally, physically and energetically for Surya Namaskar.

The twelve sun mantras
Every year the sun passes through twelve different phases, known in Western astrology as the Zodiac,, and 'rashis' in Hindu astrology. Each rashi has a specific attribute or mood, and in each of these twelve moods the sun is given a different name. These twelve names comprise the twelve Vedic sun mantras, which are to be mentally repeated in their respective order in conjunction with the twelve movements of surya namaskara.

These sun mantras are not merely names of the sun, but every sound syllable contained in them is the vehicle of a basic, eternal energy (shakti) represented by the sun itself. By repetition and concentration on these mantras, one's entire mental and subtle body will be energized.

Although these mantras do not require intellectual understanding, translation of their meaning is given below for those who wish to use the mantras as a form of attunement with the source of spiritual illumination symbolized by the sun. 

Here is the sequence of twelve postures of Surya Namaskar, with the associated mantras:

1. Om Mitraya Namaha
(Salutations to the friend of all)
Pranamasana: standing with palms joined at the heart center
This first position embodies the attitude of reverence to the source of all life as we know it. The sun is regarded as the universal friend, endlessly giving light, heat and energy to support this and all the other planets. In the scriptures, Mitra is described as calling us to activity, sustaining earth and sky, and beholding all creatures without discrimination, just as the early morning sun signals the beginning of the day's activities, and sheds its light on all life.

2. Om Ravaye Namaha
(Salutations to the shining one)
Hasta Uttanasana: hands raised to the sky, slightly bending backwards (if comfortable)
Ravaye means one who shines and offers divine blessings upon all life. In this position, we are stretching our whole being upwards, towards the source of light, to receive these blessings.

3. Om Suryqya Namaha
Uttanasana: Standing forward bend, hands to the floor
(Salutations to the one who induces activity)
Here the sun is in a very dynamic aspect as the deity, Surya. In ancient vedic mythology Surya was worshipped as the Lord of the Heavens, pictured crossing the sky in his fiery chariot, drawn by seven horses.  The seven horses actually represent the seven rays or emanations of the supreme consciousness, which manifest as the seven planes of existence, bhu (earthly, material), bhuvar (intermediate, astral), suwar (subtle, heavenly), mahar (the abode of the devas), janah (the abode of divine souls who have transcended ego), tapah (the abode of enlightened siddhas) and satyam (the ultimate truth of reality). Surya symbolizes the supreme consciousness itself, in control of all these different planes of manifestation.

4. Om Bhanave Namaha
(Salutations to the one who illumines)
Ashwa Sanchalanasana: Low lunge, back knee rests on mat. fingertips to the floor
The sun is the physical representation of the guru or teacher, who removes the darkness of our delusions, just as the darkness of the night is removed with every dawn. In this position, we turn our face towards this illumination and pray for an end to the dark night of ignorance.

5. Om Khagaya Namaha
(Salutations to the one who moves through the sky)
Plank pose: shoulders over wrists, arms and legs straight, body in one line.
It is the sun's daily movement through the sky which is the basis of our measurement of time, from the earliest use of a sun dial to the sophisticated devices used today. In this posture, we offer obeisance to the one by whom time is measured, and pray for progress in life.

6. Om Pushne Namaha
(Salutations to the giver of strength and nourishment )
Ashtanga Namaskar: knees, chest, chin, hands and balls of feet touch the floor, buttocks raised.
The sun is the source of all strength, nourishing us with energy, light and life. We offer respects in ashtanga namaskara by touching all the eight corners of our body to the ground. In essence we are offering our whole being in the hope that the sun may bestow mental, physical and spiritual strength and nourishment upon us.

7. Om Hiranya Garbhaya Namaha
(Salutations to the golden cosmic self)
Bujangasana: Cobra pose--palms down, under shoulders, chest and torso raised, with elbows bent.
Hiranya Garbha is also known as the golden egg, resplendent as the sun, in which Brahma was born as the manifestation of Self-existence. Hiranya Garbha is the seed of causality, thus the whole universe is contained within Hiranya Garbha in the potential state prior to manifestation. In the same way, all life is potential in the sun, which represents the great cosmic principle. We offer respects to the sun in this position, praying for the awakening of creativity.

8. Om Marichaye Namaha
(Salutations to the rays of the sun)
Adho Mukha Svanasana: Downward-facing dog. Inverted V, hips high, hands and feet flat.
Maricha is one of Brahma's sons, just as the rays of light are produced from the sun, but his name also means mirage. For our whole life, we seek after a true meaning or purpose, like the thirsty man seeks after water in a desert, but is fooled by mirages dancing on the horizon produced by the sun's rays. In this position, we pray for true illumination and discrimination in order to be able to distinguish between the real and the unreal.

9. Om Adityaya Namaha
(Salutations to the son of Aditi)
Ashwa Sanchalanasana: Low lunge (whichever leg stepped back now comes forward).
Aditi is one of the many names given to the cosmic mother, Mahashakti. She is the mother of all the gods, boundless and inexhaustible, the creative power from which all divisions of power proceed. The sun is one of her children, or manifestations. In this position, we salute Aditi, the infinite cosmic mother.

10. Om Savitre Namaha
(Salutations to the stimulating power of the sun)
Uttanasana: Standing forward bend, hands to the floor
Savitre is known as the stimulator, the arouser, and is often associated with Surya.  Savitre is said to represent the sun before rising, stimulating and arousing us into waking activity, and Surya is said to represent the sun after sunrise, when activity begins. Therefore, in this position, we salute Savitre to obtain the vivifying power of the sun.

11. Om Arkaya Namaha
(Salutations to the one who is fit to be praised)
Hasta Uttanasana: hands raised to the sky, slightly bending backwards 
Arka means energy. The sun is the source of most of the energy in the world we know. In this position, we are offering respects to this source of life and energy.

12. Om Bhaskaraya Namaha
(Salutations to the one who leads to enlightenment)
Pranamasana: standing with palms joined at the heart center
In this final salutation we offer respects to the sun as a symbol of the great revealer of all transcendental and spiritual truths. It lights up the pathway leading to our ultimate goal of liberation. In this position, we pray that this pathway may be revealed to us.

Finally, we can end our practice in Savasana, noticing the enlivening effects of Surya Namaskar. 

Listen and practice along with this 16 minute recording:

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Meet You in Downward Dog!

In a Bikram Yoga class, you will never do it; in a power vinyasa class, you will do it what feels like a thousand times. It is an integral part of the sun salutation.
You may love it or despise it, but Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog Pose,  has many benefits, including these:

                Elongates and releases tension from your spine
                Stretches your hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands
                Strengthens your arms, shoulders, and back
                Improves digestion: Although downward-facing dog is not a full bend or fold, the pose does allow for slight abdominal compression by drawing the navel into the spine. The pose compresses the organs like the kidneys, liver and the spleen, aiding in digestion.
                Relieves back pain, headaches, insomnia and fatique
                Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause
                Downward-Facing Dog is a mild inversion that calms the nervous system and helps relieve stress
                According to BKS Iyengar, a mere minute in this pose will “bring back lost energy for runners after a hard race.”
                Strengthens Bones: If you’re new to yoga, even holding downward dog for a few seconds can cause the muscles in your upper half to tremble. This is good—shaking means the muscles in the arms and shoulders are being challenged as they support more of your body weight. Not only do poses like downward dog promote upper body strength; they also strengthen bone density and help prevent osteoporosis.
                Relieves Back Pain: As you strengthen the core muscles (muscles in the torso, consisting of the abdominals and lower and outer back muscles) with downward dog, don’t overlook the stretching, aligning, and loosening benefits of this pose on your spine, shoulders, and back.  For instance, in downward dog, the shoulders melt down the back, the upper back fans out, and the spine is properly aligned to promote flexible and ease tension.
                Strengthens abdominal muscles: Envision turning downward-facing dog right side up into boat pose. Just as you would with boat pose, engaging the belly in downward-facing dog strengthens and abdominal muscles that support the spine.
                improves circulation: Many tend to forget that downward-facing dog is an inversion! As the hips lift and the head drops below the heart, the pull of gravity is reversed and fresh blood flows, aiding in circulation.

Ideally, when the body is properly aligned, Downward Facing Dog is a resting pose. Have you ever wondered why your instructor leads you to take and hold downward dog between yoga sequences? This is because in addition to promoting a good stretch to the entire body, downward dog also allows you to take pause or inventory between postures, as a means to mind-body connection.

In a perfect world, here is what downward dog looks like when the body is properly aligned.

However many bodies cannot get fully comfortable in Adho Mukha Svanasana, due to tight hamstrings, injuries of the wrists or shoulders, or even one’s own unique skeletal structure (some folks will never get their heels to reach the floor due to the shape of their bones in the ankle!). So, here are some useful modifications that you may find helpful:

                Ease pressure on your wrists by placing a wedge under your palms or performing the pose on your elbows.
                Elevate hands on blocks or on the seat of a chair to release and open your shoulders.

                Bend knees slightly to flatten lower back.

Check out this helpful slide show on ways to make downward dog feel better!

Finally, here's a helpful instructional video from Yoga Journal's website that takes you through the pose, step by step:

Whether it's in a hot yoga flow or a traditional Surya Namaskar sequence,  Adho Mukha Svanasana is a home base of sorts, a place where we pause together in class and center for a few quiet breaths. As they say in some yoga circles "I'll meet you in Downward Dog!"

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Leap of Faith

There's a challenging yoga pose where one does a split, with one leg straight forward and the other extending straight behind. Arms are reaching skyward, and the chest and heart are open in a gesture of unwavering YES; it is as if one is leaping forward with trememdous power and courage. This posture is Hanumanasana, the pose of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. 

In the great Indian epic known as the Ramayana, the story is told of how Hanuman became a devoted servant to Lord Rama. When Rama's wife, Sita, was abducted by an evil king and held captive on the island of Lanka, Hanuman, focusing his will and dedication to serve his Lord, taps into an inner power that allows him to grow to many times his normal size and leap across the ocean in a single bound. With his tail lit on fire, he destroys the demon's kingdom by setting it ablaze, and in the end Sita is rescued and returned to her husband.

In that giant leap Hanuman embodied his love for Rama. His intense devotion allowed him to do the impossible, and this is the lesson of Hanuman: Power comes from devotion.
That mighty leap is memorialized in the pose Hanumanasana. This pose asks you not merely to stretch your legs but also to bring true devotion into your practice. 
You could interpret the story of Hanuman, then, as a parable of what happens when you recognize the divine nature of life, offer yourself in service to it, and allow it to transform you in ways you never thought possible, so that you are even more capable of serving your highest ideals. And when you approach the pose with such inspiration, you’re likely to enjoy your journey, no matter how “far” you go in the pose.

Hanuman Jayanti is the Hindu festival honoring the birthday of  Hanuman. It is celebrated in the spring,  
on the full moon of the Vedic month of Chaitra. So perhaps, during this full moon,  you'll be inspired to try the pose (or a more accessible, modified version, such as Ardha Hanumanasana) in your practice this month!

Ardha Hanumanasana

After you are very comfortable with Arda Hanumanasana (Ardha means half), and only if your body is open to going further, you can try entering into the full split. Use blocks aligned under each shoulder, so you are fully supported. This is a very intense stretch for the hamstrings! 

If your sit bones don't release all the way to the floor, make sure you place a block, bolster, or rolled blanket underneath you. 

That will give you the support you need to lift your torso upright and extend your arms to the sky.

When I was in India in January of 2015, I visited the place where Hanuman was believed to have been born. This spot, now a temple, sits high upon a mountaintop, only accessible by a half-hour climb up winding steps. The words to the Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven" ran through my head as I panted my way up to the proverbial mountain peak, my skin glistening with sweat in the hot sun. Little brown monkeys flitted about, and I imagined Hanuman's army of helpers (kind of like Santa's elves) making the temple ready for my arrival.

Entering the temple, I was met by a Pujari (priest) who pressed his thumb into my forehead, leaving a red smudge of ceremonial kum kum paste. Extending my right hand, I was given a few drops of holy water to sprinkle on my head, and finally given two little sugar candies as prasad (sweets that have been blessed).

Suspending my rational mind, which entertains all the questions of whether there could really have been a part-monkey-part-human being, how anybody knows when or where he was born, etc,, I simply allowed my heart to open to the qualities that Hanuman embodies--courage, strength, playfulness, and unwavering devotion to God. These are the qualities that I can embrace, no matter whether or not he was actually "real." I've heard it said that truth is greater than fact. The  Truth is that we all have the ability to be like Hanuman, focusing our lives on loving service to the Beloved,  and drawing upon our inner strength and  taking a leap of faith to do what we know is right.

Hanuman's Birthplace Temple

                             Chanting the Hanuman Chaleesa, a hymn honoring the monkey god



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