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Yoga and the Breath: Antidotes for A Stressful Life

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

Stress is unavoidable. Although we often equate stress as negative and undesirable, the pressures that we encounter as we tackle life’s challenges and face our edge are often the impetus for growth and change. But too much stress can leave our nervous system out of balance and our body depleted. Luckily, the breath techniques of yoga provide the key to unlocking this vicious cycle and restoring tranquility.

The extent to which we experience pressure packed situations as stressful often depends on how our minds and bodies respond to the situation. The mind part of the equation may seem intuitive. If you perceive an event to be stressful you will likely experience it as such.

But the mind influences the body and vice versa, in large part via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In understanding and harnessing the power of the ANS, we can gain mastery over stress. Yogic breathing practices (pranayama) can help.

Stress and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is composed of two main branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is like the body’s gas pedal. When it is activated heart rate and respiration increase, and the body is primed for action. The SNS instantaneously bursts into action the moment that you perceive danger.

The SNS is involved in an intricate dance with the limbic system – the region of the brain that is primarily responsible for emotion and the instantaneous response to danger. The limbic system includes the amygdala, hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and other vital structures.

In instances of imminent risk the limbic system signals to the SNS to fight, avoid or evade threat. In response the SNS kicks into high gear, releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline to increase heart rate and respiration, and to prepare you for action.

If you’ve ever had a near miss while driving your car you know exactly how this feels. Chances are you slammed on your brakes and possibly turned the steering wheel before you even registered a threat. At that point your heart is racing, your breathing is ragged, and you may even have sweat running down your back. In an instant your body feels as though it has run a 100-meter dash.

The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is the body’s break pedal. It is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. When activated, the PNS releases acetylcholine and other neurotransmitters that signal the heart and respiratory system to slow down, and the skeletal muscles to relax.

The ANS and limbic system operate in a continuous feedback loop, each informing the other of what the body needs. But these systems do not work in isolation – they are strongly influenced by the brain’s executive function.

Executive Function: The Mental Saboteur

Executive function is an overarching term used to describe the cognitive or mental processes that the brain uses to organize and manage input. These processes include organizing information, planning, attention, memory, problem solving, verbal reasoning, task switching, and other mental operations.

Executive function occurs primarily in the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobes of the brain. Structures in the executive function and limbic systems are highly interconnected, with each sending millions of signals back and forth in response to the constant bombardment of stimuli and information that we receive on an ongoing basis.

What is remarkable about the executive functioning system is that it can literally sabotage our nervous system. It can generate thoughts and memories that evoke feelings of fear, terror, and anxiety all on its own. The autonomic nervous system cannot discriminate between what is “real” and what is imagined. It responds to self-created, mental events just as if they were real, initiating a cascade of signals that trigger the fight, flight or freeze response. This means that we can trick our nervous system into believing that we are experiencing a traumatic event just by thinking about it.

If you imagine something that you’re afraid of long enough, chances are you will notice that your heart and breathing rate have increased, and you will feel uncomfortable physical sensations. Those with high levels of anxiety or panic repeat these fearful scenarios over and over again, signaling to their brains and bodies that threat is continuous. The result is physical and mental exhaustion.

How Yoga Can Help

Fortunately, a number of yogic breathing practices (pranayama) can quell a hypervigilant nervous system.

In a landmark article published in 2010 in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a group of researchers from Boston reported that yoga practice may help to reduce anxiety, and improve mood. In a subsequent study published in 2012 in Medical Hypotheses, this team also found that yoga may be effective in treating stress-related conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease. 


In a recent interview in Psychology Today, Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, and the study's lead author noted, "This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders."

Using the Power of Yoga to Relieve Stress

The breath is an indicator of physical and emotional duress. Under stress, respiration becomes rapid, shallow and isolated in the upper chest. Shallow or rapid breathing reaffirms to the ANS that the body is in danger, leading to SNS activation (fight, flight or freeze). Conversely, slow, deep, diaphragmatic breath tells the ANS that the system is safe to relax and repair, leading to PNS activation (rest and digest).

We can elicit parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activation by deepening and slowing down the breath. First find a relaxed position and focus on inhaling as slowly and deeply as you are able.

Once you can do that comfortably, begin to focus on exhaling as slowly as you can. This can be done incrementally, with each exhale becoming a little bit longer than the last. This may not be easy at first, but over time and with practice you will discover that breathing slowly and deeply, and lengthening the exhale become easier and more comfortable.   

There are a number of excellent resources that offer breathing exercises and examples. The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions by Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg is an excellent resource for beginners.

Breathing exercises are an excellent and effective antidote for stress, not to mention that they are free, and accessible to you at any time. It’s worth the investment to learn how to take stress into your own hands, and to master it. Your health depends on it.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

 

 

 

From Wheelchair to Walking: For This Teen, Yoga Therapy Brought a Miracle

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT -

Fourteen year-old “Mary” had been debilitated by chronic pain for years. Despite two surgeries to treat gastro-esophageal reflex disease (GERD), she suffered from incapacitating abdominal and chest pain, vomiting, depression, anxiety, sleep and eating problems, and weight loss.

By the time she met Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D. of the UCLA Pediatric Pain Program (PPP), she was unable to sleep, attend school, or socialize with her friends, and was confined to a wheelchair. Traditional medical treatments, including surgery, anti-depressive medications, and psychotherapy were ineffective in treating her fear of eating, vomiting and pain.

After meeting Mary and learning of her complex medical history, Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer prescribed Iyengar yoga as complementary therapy. Mary was asked to attend 2, one-hour yoga classes per week. The Pediatric Pain Program at UCLA offers Iyengar yoga practices specifically targeted to the individual’s health concerns. The program described for Mary included yoga postures to develop strength, improve mood and ease symptoms of abdominal pain.

“Mary was very thin, weak and withdrawn when I met her,” says Beth Sternlieb, a yoga instructor with the UCLA Pediatric Pain clinic. “She had been through so much that she had lost faith in her body.”

Sternlieb initially selected upright, seated, restorative postures to elongate Mary’s throat and abdomen, and allow her to relax. Chairs, bolsters and other props permitted her to hold restorative, back bending poses for 5-10 minutes each.

Mary took to the practice readily. “She learned to distinguish between pain that indicated something is wrong and pain that comes from healthy movement as a result of breaking up of scar tissue, weakness, and restricted movement,” says Sternlieb. “The support of props allowed her to be less vigilant about protecting her throat.”

After receiving her own props, Mary regularly practiced restorative poses at home and became very committed to her practice. In the course of several months she moved from a wheelchair to one-legged poses and advanced forearm balances thanks to Sternlieb’s systematic, incremental approach to building strength and confidence.

For Mary, the results were nothing short of miraculous. By the midpoint of her treatment she experienced less abdominal pain and was able to eat more and gain weight. She no longer required a wheelchair and became physically stronger, trying increasingly more demanding poses. She became more empowered and willing to face her fears.

Four months after beginning treatment Mary’s eating patterns had returned to normal and she had reached normal body weight. She was sleeping well, her mood had improved, and her abdominal and esophageal pain had disappeared. Within a year she was symptom-free, and had returned to school and an active social life.

Mary’s improvement was so dramatic that researchers at UCLA decided to publish a paper about her case in the journal Alternative Therapies.     

“A lot of people don’t realize that they will be able to do yoga,” says Subhadra Evans, PhD, lead author in a case study paper. “Self efficacy and self confidence really opens” as a function of yoga practice. This was definitely the case for Mary.

“It was remarkable to have the opportunity to do something like this,” notes Sternlieb. “It was like watering a flower, she became perkier and perkier… The body has a remarkable capacity to heal. You have to meet the person where they’re at. If you meet them [there] a lot of change becomes possible.”

UCLA’s Pediatric Pain Program is an exceptional example of integrative medicine at its finest. Their mission is to develop new models of health care that integrate a diverse array of complementary healing arts and sciences such as acupuncture, yoga therapy, and art therapy, and to train professionals to use these modalities. Their family-focused model empowers children and their families to select tailored treatment approaches that meet their individual needs.

The program includes research on the effects of yoga therapy for children with rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other chronic pain conditions. The sky is the limit according to Dr. Evans, who hopes to receive additional funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue to better understand how yoga works, for whom and how much is needed to have an effect.

This is truly a brave new world for modern health care, and Mary and children like her are at the forefront of a yoga therapy revolution.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

 

 

 

 

Kids Get Stressed Too: How Yoga, Meditation and Relaxation Skills Can Help

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

Kids get stressed too. This is particularly true for inner city youth who face poverty, family and neighborhood violence, and drug abuse on a daily basis. The Transformative Life Skills (TLS) program, offered via the non-profit Niroga Institute, was designed to help.

The TLS program uses yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation to help disadvantaged youths to reduce their stress and increase their resiliency. The program involves 18-weeks of instruction, typically in the classroom. To date it has been offered in inner city schools and juvenile detention facilities.

There is growing evidence that this approach works according to researchers at the Prevention Research Center at Penn State, and the Niroga Institute. Preliminary studies have found that students enrolled in the program show “lower levels of perceived stress and greater levels of self control, school engagement, emotional awareness, distress tolerance, and an altered attitude towards violence.”

You don’t have to be a certified yoga teacher or even a yoga practitioner to learn TLS. It is available to anyone who has an interest in helping children and adolescents to succeed.  

Headed by B.K Bose, PhD and Executive Director of the Niroga Institute, trainings are offered several times a year, and are typically conducted in 2, 3-hour modules according to organizers at Niroga. The first module emphasizes personal focus, and the second examines the application of TLS for clients, students or staff. CEUs are also available for educators and mental health professionals.

Trainings receive high praise according to Niroga’s website. “This was the absolutely best session I’ve ever attended. I was able to learn techniques to help the students as well as myself,” cites one attendee.  “Thank you! This work is inspiring, hopeful, and revolutionary,” states an attendee from Alameda County Health Services.

All you need to do is look in your own home or community, and there is a good chance that you will discover children, adolescents, and even adults who could benefit from the life skills that are part of the TLS program. Programs like this and many others that build on the rich traditions of yoga are being found to have great physical and psychological health benefits.

More information can be found on the Niroga Institute website.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing Easily: Keeping the Breathing Muscles Strong Takes Practice Too

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT

We take the ability to breathe freely and fully for granted. However, like other muscles in the body, the respiratory muscles become weak and less efficient with age, if they are not sufficiently exercised. This is particularly true for the muscles responsible for inhalation, i.e. the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles.

Imagine having to continuously struggle to catch your breath! This is the reality for millions of people with dyspnea, or shortness of breath. More than one in four Americans (27%) experience dyspnea brought on either because of lack of exercise, the effects of aging, an underlying medical condition or a combination of these. Breathing is a continuous struggle for people with shortness of breath, drastically undermining their quality of life every moment of the day.

It’s a sobering thought, but we are all at risk for developing dyspnea as we get older. As we age, we begin to lose muscle mass at an increasing pace. Add to that inactivity brought about by fatigue, lack of exercise, illness, injury, and a sedentary lifestyle, and for many Americans, the upshot is that the respiratory muscles become progressively weaker. As breathing becomes a struggle, elderly adults are more likely to restrict their activity. This often begins a vicious circle, in which breathlessness leads to more inactivity, and inactivity results in further reduced respiratory capacity.

Fortunately, this process be halted, and breathing can be retrained to some extent, according to research charting the benefits of respiratory muscle training for elderly too weak to engage in traditional cardiovascular exercise.

Now, a new study indicates that yoga breathing exercises may prove to be particularly helpful. The study, which appeared in the July 2013 issue of The Journal of Geriatric Therapy, looked at the differences in respiratory muscle strength and endurance for elderly adults, who participated in either traditional inspiratory therapy, yogic breathing exercises, or no treatment.

The study included 81 residents (90% women) of an elderly care facility with a mean age of 85 years. The residents were randomly assigned to receive 6 weeks of either inspiratory muscle training or yoga breathing 5 days per week, or no treatment. To be included in the study, participants had to be unable to independently walk more than 30 feet at the beginning of the study.

A total of 71 participants completed the study. At the end of the six-week study period, those in the yoga breathing group demonstrated significant improvements in all measures of respiratory muscle strength and endurance (inspiratory, expiratory, and maximum voluntary ventilation). More significantly, the people in the group that received yoga breathing training also exhibited greater improvement in respiratory muscle strength and endurance than those in the traditional inspiratory muscle training as well as in the no-training groups. In other words, yoga breathing, or pranayama, may be more effective in restoring better breathing in frail, older adults, and yoga breathing exercises may well offer an effective alternative to more expensive inhibitory muscle training in elderly adults, the authors concluded.

Since dyspnea is often related to other medical conditions, as well as anxiety and depression, the results could have significant implications for the long-term quality of life of an aging population. Previous studies suggest that a regular yoga practice can effectively reduce the symptoms of a number of chronic conditions in addition to increasing positive mood and decreasing anxiety.

Yoga breathing techniques may be able to improve quality of life on many fronts. Compared to many traditional therapies for respiratory conditions, yogic breathing can be done anywhere and does not require expensive equipment. This treatment approach may be of particular benefit for the millions of older adults globally who have little or no access to traditional forms of health care.

The breath is the heart of yoga. It governs prana or “life force,” and has significant bearing on the physical and emotional quality of our lives. The ancient masters believed that regular pranayama practice increases resiliency and longevity. This study suggests that they may be right.

For yoga practitioners, the study is also a reminder of the importance to keep up with simple pranayama techniques, like Uyaji breathing and full 3-part breath to keep the diaphragm and intercostal muscles strong and prevent the age-related reduction of breathing capacity that many people fall prey to as they get older. For another great simple Pranayama technique with wonderful stress-reducing benefits, also see this article by Dr. Timothy McCall on Bhramari Pranayama, the Bee Breath.

 

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

 

 

 

Vary Up Your Yoga! Surya Namaskar B for More Aerobic Challenge

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Surya Namaskar B is most typically used as part of the Ashtanga Yoga warm-up sequence of standing yoga postures. It can provide a great additional aerobic challenge, particularly when done briskly. 
 
Warm up with 5 to 10 sets of Surya Namaskar A and follow with 5 to 10 sets of Surya Namaskar B. If you are short on time, this can also be a great standalone practice to recharge and reenergize your system.
 
Here's a lovely demonstration by yoga teacher Ellen Huang. If you need to build up strength or get tired, skip the jump backs and bring the knees on the floor in Chatturanga. Enjoy!

 

 

Embracing Death – Lessons in Grief, Gratitude and Grace

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B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500

Nothing prepares you to watch your best friend die.

While we may be able to embrace the idea of impermanence on the mat, off the mat we run headlong into the brick wall of loss and grief.

Most days I make the trek from my house down the hill to see my dear friend, Gordon. Gordon is in his late 60’s, and has been the consummate health and fitness buff for decades.

Eighteen months ago he practiced Bikram yoga 7 days a week, rode his fixed gear bike up the steep hills to our neighborhood, and wind surfed and mountain biked like a madman. Now he spends his days propped in a chair, gasping into an oxygen mask, waiting to die.

Gordon has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This progressive neurodegenerative disorder destroys the motor neurons, and renders the muscles that they innervate paralyzed. After witnessing its progression, it is fair to say that ALS is an insidious, pernicious blight. Most days it feels as though the forces of darkness conspired to create the most heinous, degenerative crime against the human form – and they succeeded. 

My friend’s symptoms began as weakness in his right hand, difficulty lifting his right ankle and toes (also known as foot drop), and a barely noticeable change in his speech. Now his muscular frame has atrophied nearly beyond recognition, and he has lost almost one third of his body weight. 

He can no longer speak, and his lungs are rapidly shutting down. Yet, he is still alert and present in spite of the fact that his body is failing him. 
I can’t help but reflect on life while witnessing the ravages of death. Gordon’s journey is a poignant reminder of the frailty and impermanence of these bodies that house our inner light. I am reminded of the lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” That is also how the light gets out.

In spite of his ravaged form, there are windows when his eyes twinkle and he smiles that remind me of the years of laughter and tears that we’ve shared. The physical is transient, but the spirit is enduring. What matters isn’t how we look, but the quality of our relationships.

As I watch Gordon move beyond his physical body I am reminded of how attached our culture is to appearance and form. We see the physical as the manifestation of the person, and not the other way around. Even on the yoga mat, we attend to form as if the posture is what defines the practice, often to the neglect of appreciating the union of breath and movement.

We focus on the physical outcome, less often attending to the spaces in between.

When nailing a pose becomes the litmus test of our experience, we become entrapped in striving for perfection. We lose sense of the reality that, like life, each breath and posture have a beginning and an end. Birth and death dance with each other over, and over again.

Instead of death being the natural outcome of birth, we struggle and suffer, clinging to the illusion of an image that never changes. But change is inevitable. That could never be more poignant lesson for me as I’ve watched my friend’s body tangle into an incoherent mass of muscle and bone.

As I make my way down his driveway each day, I never know what the visit will bring. Last week his chest began to heave continuously in an effort to breathe. This week his hands have morphed into clawed fists, making it nearly impossible for him to write on his lap sized white board or send text messages. Those have been his only means of communication for months.

Even in silence, we find ways to relate. His twisted frame cannot obscure the light within him.

Swami Satchidananda, yogi and sage, eloquently addressed the issue of clinging to life in his interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (II.9).

“What is it that dies? A log of wood dies to become a few planks. The planks die to become a chair. The chair dies to become a piece of firewood, and the firewood dies to become ash. You give different names to the different shapes the wood takes, but the basic substance is there always. If we could always remember this, we would never worry about the loss of anything. We never lose anything; we never gain anything. By such discrimination we put an end to unhappiness.”

While we may be able to embrace the idea of impermanence on the mat, off the mat we run headlong into the brick wall of loss and grief. The collision is inevitable when we lose a friend, loved one, relationship, or cherished animal companion.

I’ve been grieving Gordon’s impermanence for months. I miss the sound of his voice, and the assurance of knowing that he’d rush over with his toolbox when the plumbing backed up or a door wouldn’t close. I’m grateful for the good times, and I miss them.

As Anthony Hopkins eloquently remarks in the movie Shadowlands, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

My grief is the echo of the laughter that preceded it.

Just as the cracks are what allow the light to enter and to leave, loss and grief make way for gratitude and grace. We are called upon to embrace each breath, posture, and relationship wholeheartedly, and to surrender to its ending.

We are reminded of the gratitude that comes with the joy of connection, and the grace required to let go. It is in that letting go that we make space to give birth to something new.

In these final days of Gordon’s life I am reminded to peek through the windows of his physical form to catch his brilliant spirit very much alive and ready to move on. Those beams of light are the essence of my dear friend, laughing, joking, and riding his bike like a 10 year-old without a care in the world.

That is how I choose to remember him. Today his body is a cage. Soon he will be set free.

Originally published on Elephant Journal

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

 

 

The Six Basic Types of Exercise - How Does Yoga Measure Up?

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In the same way as we can't just eat one kind of food, we can't stick to 'just' one form of exercise. In this article, Jon Barron of The Baseline of Health Foundations explains why you need to commit to multiple forms of exercise. Running or going to the gym every day and working out with weights every day won't cut it. You need it all: cardio/aerobic exercise, strength training, weight-bearing exercise, stretching, breathing, and balance. Also read our comments on how yoga measures up, and how you can vary up your practice to get the full complement of exercise.

by Jon Barron or staff member at The Baseline of Health Foundation

Many people take up exercise to lose weight, but the importance of exercise goes far beyond obesity. Exercise impacts almost every aspect of health. It can help you live longer, reduce the risk of heart disease, lower high blood pressure and high cholesterol; reduce the risk of diabetes and of many cancers, including colon and breast cancer, reduce depression and anxiety, and enhance overall well-being and energy. To get these benefits, you need to make sure you get all the basic forms of exercise regularly. Let's take a look at each of these and what you can do to make sure your exercise regimen gives you the full benefits.

Cardio/Aerobic/Interval training
By definition, cardio/aerobic exercise is brisk physical activity that requires the heart and lungs to work harder to meet the body's increased oxygen demand. Aerobic exercise promotes the circulation of oxygen through the blood. The key part of the definition here is the word oxygen. The defining aspect of aerobic exercise is that it is of sufficient intensity to force the heart and lungs to work harder, and yet of low enough intensity to facilitate adequate oxygen transfer to the muscle cells so that no buildup of lactic acid is observed. Another way of looking at aerobic exercise is that it involves repetitive movement of large muscle groups (such as your arms, legs, and hips) with all of the needed energy supplied by the oxygen you breathe. When you're aerobically fit, your body takes in and utilizes oxygen more efficiently to sustain the repetitive muscle movement. Benefits include:

  • Improved heart and lung function
  • Lower heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased blood supply to muscles and improved ability to use oxygen
  • Increased HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol)
  • Decreased triglycerides
  • Reduced body fat and improved weight control
  • Improved glucose tolerance and reduced insulin resistance
  • Enhanced immune function, which means
  • Increased resistance to viral and bacterial infection
  • Increased resistance to cancer
  • Lowered blood sugar levels and reduced risk of diabetes
  • Longer life expectancy

There is a world of aerobic exercise to choose from. Choose one or two that you enjoy and can easily pursue. There's running, jogging, and fast walking. Biking (either road or mountain), and swimming are also good. If you belong to a gym or have home equipment, there are treadmills, elliptical trainers, spin cycles, and rebounders with more being invented and marketed all the time. Just pick one or two that you like, can do easily, and are willing to do.

Editor's Note: How Does Yoga Measure Up? Different yoga styles differ widely in how much aerobic exercise you get. A gentle yoga practice, and even a moderate practice, will not offer any of the benefits of aerobic challenges. On the other hand, more rigorous forms of Vinyasa yoga, Power Yoga as well as Ashtanga Yoga can offer plenty of aerobic activity, particularly when done at a fairly brisk pace. To vary up your yoga practice to get more aerobic exercise, include 5 to 10 sets each of Surya Namaskar A and Surya Namaskar B. You will be huffing and puffing in no time!

Strength Training
Strength training involves the use of weights or some other form of resistance to build muscle and increase strength. Its benefits include:

  • Increased muscle strength
  • Increased tendon and ligament strength
  • Reduced body fat and increased muscle mass
  • Better balance
  • Lower blood cholesterol
  • Improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity

Contrary to popular opinion, strength training is not just for young people. Studies have shown that people in their 70's and 80's can experience strength gains of as much as 180% in just a few weeks!

What kinds of strength training options are available? Again, as with aerobics, there is a world of choices. There are free weights, stacked weight machines, and Nautilus circuits at the gym. There's resistance training as found in Soloflex and Bowflex machines and push/pull resistance as found in the Delta Trimax machine. Then there's Pilates equipment and the Total Gym that use your own body weight as resistance. Any and all can work. Choose one that works for you and that you can do easily and are willing to do regularly.

It's worth noting that weight training is the ultimate way to burn calories fast. A pound of muscle burns up to nine times the calories of a pound of fat. In other words, strength training increases your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn while sleeping or sitting. The trick is that muscle is active tissue. That is, it requires a lot of energy just to maintain itself. In fact, every pound of new muscle you add to your body will burn about 60 calories per day. Adding just 10 pounds of muscle to your body, will burn off 62 pounds of fat over the next year even while you are sleeping! And it will continue to do so the next year…and the next.

Editor’s Note: How Does Yoga Measure Up?—Strength training is most commonly done using external weights. But in many yoga postures, particularly standing postures, you can get similar benefits, using the weight of the body to build increased muscle, tendon and ligament strength, and enhance postural support.

Please note, however, that if you simply come into a yoga posture and hold it for a while, the main strength training your muscles will receive is isometric training. This mainly strengthens the muscle at the specific joint angle at which the isometric challenge occurs, but it may not strengthen the muscle throughout its full range of motion. To optimize strength training, add a Vinyasa component to your practice, and/or practice coming in and out of standing yoga postures several times, to challenge the muscles through their full range of motion.

Weight Bearing Exercise
Weight bearing exercise is actually a subset of certain aerobic and strength training exercises. It is exercise in which you force your body to support weight (your own included) while exercising. Studies have shown that weight bearing exercise can help slow down the rate of bone loss and osteoporosis, and therefore reduce fractures. How does it do this? First, weight-bearing exercise directly stimulates bone formation. Then, it strengthens muscles that in turn pull and tug on bones. This pulling action actually causes the bones to become denser and stronger. Weight-bearing activities at any age benefit bone health. Studies have shown that even people in their 90's can increase bone mass with weight bearing exercise.

The best weight bearing exercises are: weight-lifting, jogging, hiking with a back pack, stair-climbing, step aerobics, racquet sports, and other activities that require your muscles to work against gravity. Swimming and simple walking don't do the trick. One exceptionally useful form of weight bearing exercise is rebounding. The act of rebounding makes use of g-forces, just like astronauts training in a centrifuge. Rebounding can actually achieve momentary g-forces of 3.5, which means that the bones of a 150 lb person will momentarily have to bear 525 lbs. of weight on each bounce. That's a lot of weight bearing.

Note: the benefits of weight-bearing exercise are site-specific. This means that you strengthen only the bones used directly in the exercise. In other words, it's a good idea to participate in a variety of weight-bearing exercises. To maintain the bone-building benefits, the exercise needs to be continued on a regular basis.

Editor's Note: How Does Yoga Measure Up? Standing yoga postures offer plenty of weight-bearing challenge, and early research indicates that the weight-bearing challenge of yoga might even be sufficient to counteract the bone loss of osteoporosis. Dr. Loren Fishman, a frequent presenter at YogaUOnline.com, is doing pioneering research in the effects of yoga for osteoporosis with very promising preliminary results.

Stretching
Stretching is the step child of exercise, with more lip service paid to it than actual practice. Stretching though is crucial to good health. The usual benefits cited include:

  • Reduced muscle tension Injury prevention
  • Increased range of movement in the joints
  • Enhanced muscular coordination
  • Increased circulation of the blood to various parts of the body
  • Increased energy levels (resulting from increased circulation)

Think for a moment of the opposite of stretching tightness and restriction. By definition, you are talking about constriction in muscles and soft tissue. Tightness and constriction mean reduced blood flow to that muscle and soft tissue, a reduced supply of nutrients to the area of tension, and reduced removal of metabolic waste from those areas. Areas that are tense and constricted, then, are breeding grounds for illness and organ dysfunction. Now tie in the whole concept of traditional Chinese medicine which says that all disease results from restrictions in the flow of energy in the body and the resulting energy imbalances that creates, and you can see that stretching is not just an issue of feeling good; it is essential for maintaining optimum health.

How Does Yoga Measure Up? According to Barron, yoga is probably the best stretching exercise there is, be sure to include long holdings in seated postures to increase flexibility. On days you don't practice yoga, do 5-10 minutes of simple stretching after your daily exercise routine as part of your cool down time.

Resistance Breathing
Proper breathing is topic worthy of its own newsletter, but for now, let's just focus on the advantages of resistance breathing. The concept is simple: putting a device in your mouth that restricts (in a controlled manner) your inhalations and exhalations, which forces your lungs to work harder. This, in turn, strengthens the muscles that makes your lungs work and increases their capacity. There are a number of such devices widely available on the internet and in health magazines. They tend to run $20-40. The investment is well worth it since this type of exercise can significantly improve the strength of your respiratory muscles and increase your lung capacity.

How much of a benefit are we talking about? Studies have shown that these devices can increase breathing endurance by close to 300%. Considering how fundamental oxygen is to health, it's not hard to see the short and long-term health and performance advantages of doing so.

Editor's Note: How Does Yoga Measure Up? Can you say Uyaji breathing? A.k.a. Ocean Sounding Breath, Uyaji pranayama offers natural, comfortable resistance breathing with an added calming and meditative quality. Many types of Pranayama also improve the strength of the respiratory muscles and increase lung capacity.

Balance
One other key aspect of exercise is balance. Why? Because like all other physical abilities, it diminishes with age unless we consciously exercise it. Is that a bad thing? Only if you fall down and break your hip or wrist. Here's a simple balance exercise you can do daily. It takes just a couple of minutes and will produce quick improvement.

Stand while holding for support, with one hand, the back edge of a chair set beside you. Bend the leg nearest to the chair at the knee 90 degrees so that your knees are still together and the foot of the bent leg is projected out behind you.
Get used to balancing on the one leg while holding the chair.
Then turn to the other side and do the other leg.

Once you can comfortably balance like this:

  • Try taking your hand off the chair and balancing on the one leg without support from the chair.
  • As you get more comfortable doing this, try to stop using your arms for balance and pull your hands in, palms together in front of your chest, like in a Far East prayer position.
  • This will force the act of balance to the muscles of one leg.

Once you can comfortably balance like this, try closing your eyes and holding the pose for 30 seconds.

How Does Yoga Measure Up? If you really want to improve your balance, many yoga poses are specifically designed as balance poses, utilizing arms, legs, hips the entire body, in fact. For best restuls, be sure to include at least 2-3 balancing yoga postures each time you practice.

Bottom line: Exercise fundamentally changes every system and function in your body. If you don't move you die. Keep at it, and have fun.

Material originally published at www.jonbarron.org. Copyright © 1999-2011. Baseline of Health® Foundation
Used by permission of the Baseline of Health® Foundation.
All rights reserved worldwide.

More than a Short-Lived Fizz? Fizzy Yoga Targets Common Boomer Issues

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT - 

Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall may have just unleashed the next fitness craze: Physiyoga (or Fizzy Yoga, as Cattrall prefers to call it). A blend of yoga and physical therapy, Physiyoga is a core-centered workout, which combines the wisdom of yoga with physical therapy and Pilates to stretch muscles that are tight, and strengthen those that are weak.

Physiyoga classes are customized, and include movement, meditative breathing, and hands on instruction. This merger of yoga and physical therapy goes one step beyond traditional yoga classes and may be the ideal solution for fitness buffs dealing with repetitive strain issues as well as boomers facing movement limitations and age-related wear-and-tear issues.

For Cattrall, who was rehabilitating a chronic knee injury, Physiyoga proved the ideal solution. In a recent article in The Times 
of London, Cattrall credits Physiyoga with “saving” her life. Once a cardio buff, Cattrall found that her intense workouts were undermining the overall strength and fitness that she was trying to maintain. That led her to Diana Zotos, a trained physical therapist and yoga instructor.

The emphasis on body awareness, core and overall muscle strength, and flexibility appears to be key to injury prevention. “You learn to take ownership of your body,” says Zotos in an interview with New York Daily News
.  “The practice can be ‘insightful’ by teaching clients how they became injured in the first place, and how to prevent additional injuries.”

Physiyoga won’t be appearing at your local health club any time soon. It is delivered by licensed Physical Therapists who are specialists with extensive training and knowledge in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of physical dysfunctions, diseases, injuries and imbalances. It differs from traditional physical therapy because it uses the holistic approaches of yoga therapy, and a model of empowerment that encourages clients to be actively involved in creating and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Instead of passively going to a professional and receiving a prescription of exercises, Physiyoga clients collaborate with their therapists to develop tailored practices that serve their unique goals.

Another huge benefit of a yoga-informed approach to rehabilitation comes in the form of mind-body awareness. Yoga teaches us to tune into our bodies, and to respond to physical and emotional cues. Cattrall is an excellent example of someone who has learned to harness her physical energy wisely, and to take control of her wellbeing.

Like other forms of yoga therapy, Physiyoga is poised to make an important contribution to rehabilitative medicine in the years to come. It may well be part of a growing trend towards more in-depth, informed yoga therapy that helps people deal with or prevent structural imbalances that can otherwise lead to chronic pain issues.  Unlike traditional yoga teaching, Physiyoga offers more in-depth instruction tailored to each individual student and his or her specific structural limitations. And unlike traditional physical therapy, Physiyoga provides a holistic option to getting well—and staying there.
 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

Strength Lessons in Yoga from a Circus Trainer

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Kino MacGregor

By Kino MacGregor  

My biggest lesson in yoga and perhaps in life has been strength. I was not naturally strong when I started but after 14 years of practice I started to feel stronger. I thought I could do a handstand with good balance and good alignment. I'm at the end of the Fourth Series of Ashtanga yoga and a few postures ahead is a one arm handstand. Rather than just try it on my own I decided to ask the only people I have ever seen truly master this truly awesome movement: a circus trained hand balance performer.

After two weeks of coordinating times and dates my trainer, Ricardo, arrived to my house at 1:45 p.m. Just looking at how he held his body and posture made me feel like I was backstage at the cirque du Soliel. His deltoids were the size of my thighs and his body seemed solid and at the time insanely limber. As a yoga teacher I get a sense of people's physical capacity just from standing near them. Clearly Ricardo was a master of the body and physical form. Without much fanfare we walked into my yoga room and he asked me what I wanted to work on. When I said a one arm handstand he smirked and said, "I can see just from looking at you that you're not strong enough." I thought, here we go again. As I looked at my a teacher's photo on my home altar I could hear his words, "Kino, you have to be stronger" in my head. At that moment I decided to treat Ricardo like my yoga guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and I just surrendered.

Next Ricardo said, "Show me your handstand." While I did what I thought was a pretty good handstand he systematically picked apart my alignment and lack of strength. My wrists were weak, my shoulders collapsed, my elbows bending, my body disconnected, my abdominals sagging and my ego breaking. I am familiar with being broken down to build back up again from my yoga practice but this was fast and furious and left me breathless, as though 14 years of work amounted to a pile of mush. My circus trainer, lacking the compassionate voice of a yoga teacher, just said get up and started me on a series of brutally intense strength building, alignment focused exercises to train my body. I was upside down in a half handstand counting seconds out loud, pressing up into handstand unsuccessfully with straight elbows, extending my shoulders and trying my absolute best. When my shoulders collapsed, Ricardo tapped my shoulders saying, "no, no, no, why are you quitting." When I was lowering down from handstand and hit the floor with a bump, he said, "do it again, this time don't collapse." When my elbows bent he yelled at me, "you have to let go of your old pattern, it does you no good, do exactly what I tell you to repattern what works." When my muscles nearly gave out and I said with all sincerity that I was trying my best, he said simply, "don't try, do." When I failed to execute his instructs properly and said I was sorry he said, "sorry does nothing for me." The whole while I thought, this is yoga. This is exactly the life lesson that I am working on now.

Yoga is about finding your limit and using it as a mirror. I quit, I collapse, I give up and through the practice I have seen my pattern. I do it emotionally when things get difficult. When the world just seems too much bear I crawl into a cave inside myself and break apart. I have spent days, months and sometimes years digging myself out of my own emotional black hole. The lesson I am learning now is to never quit, never give up, no matter what happens or how intense the situation is. The strength I need is the strength to find meaning in suffering, the strength to become the hero of my own life story and the strength to see hope out of the ashes of disillusionment. I need the strength and determination to never waver no matter how arduous the journey may be. It is the power of Ashtanga Yoga and it is also my own true power.

Originally published on Huffington Post


Kino MacGregor is an international yoga teacher, author of two books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, co-founder of Miami Life Center, and founder of Miami Yoga Magazine. She is one of a select group of people to receive the Certification to teach Ashtanga Yoga by its founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India and practices through the Fourth Series of Ashtanga Yoga. For more information, visit her webpage www.kinoyoga.com/


Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Therapy in Practice

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By Rob Schware

This is an interview with David Emerson, who was a social worker for 10 years before going to graduate school to become a therapist -- a talk-based psychotherapist. Well, he just didn't click with that modality. He became a certified yoga teacher in 1999. After connecting with Bessel van der Kolk in 2001-02, they started the Trauma Center Yoga Program together soon thereafter. With Elizabeth Hopper, David is co-author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

The primary motivation was the fact that our country was ramping up for two wars, and there is a wet shelter (a homeless shelter where people are not turned away if they are actively using drugs and alcohol) around the corner from my house filled mostly with Vietnam vets. I knew we'd be seeing the younger vets in there soon enough. As we started the Trauma Center Yoga Program and as things evolved, we started working mostly with survivors of chronic, complex, intra-familial abuse and neglect, and this is where the potential benefits of Trauma-Sensitive Yoga really started to reveal themselves. Now I work mostly with teens who have had a great deal of trauma exposure. I also have a veterans group and we continue to meet sporadically after nine years.

Is there a standout moment from your work at the Trauma Center?

When Senator Kennedy mentioned our yoga program during his comments for the Trauma Center's 25th anniversary I felt like yoga had arrived as a serious, viable treatment. One of two other incredibly meaningful moments was our team receiving the first grant ever given by the National Institutes of Health to study yoga and trauma; the other was completing the first -- and to date only -- randomized controlled PTSD trial using yoga as the therapeutic intervention. Finally, any day on which someone I am working with notices a body feeling and makes a choice about what to do with it, is a standout day.

What did you know about the population you are working with before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I knew trauma was complex, but I didn't really understand how complex. I have been very lucky to have had several adult students over the years who have been willing to articulate for me what it's like to have a body after suffering through tremendous trauma. I have learned everything I know from them.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

We do no physical assists and the teacher does not move around the room. To fully explain these teaching points would take up too much space here but they are the result of our understanding of the impacts of trauma that include: 1. disscociation (when people "check out" or have fragmented experiences that from time to time do not include you); 2. the internal interpretation of external stimuli (like touch); and 3. the feeling of safety in relationships.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

The biggest challenge for me has been something that is very specific to the kind of chronic, interpersonal trauma that we are working with. Because the trauma took place within the context of a relationship, and the student and I are now entering into a relationship (even more pointed, a relationship with power dynamics, teacher-student), there are times when I have been the source of a trigger for someone. It could be the way I dress, the way I move, a facial expression or a tone of voice -- anything. Sometimes when this happens people become very angry with you, or scared of you, and this has been the most difficult thing for me to experience. The best way we have found as a team to deal with these experiences is to talk with each other. We are a team of yoga teachers and clinicians and we all support each other.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the populations you work with?

Please don't go it alone. Get involved with some kind of treatment center where you can interact with therapists, and they with you. If you do yoga with traumatized people it is automatically a clinical issue. Please respect that, and do your due diligence in terms of learning about trauma and its impact on the entire organism.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

I would like to see more science, more data, and more randomized controlled studies. In my opinion we owe it to our clients/students and to our future funders (tax payers and private citizens) to prove what works, and to recognize what doesn't. We need to enter into the empirical domain, as difficult and as challenging as that is for yoga teachers like me!

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

First, in terms of my definition of yoga, there have been very real changes as a result of my work with traumatized people. For one thing, the whole process has become much simpler. I feel like I used to put a lot more effort into practicing yoga than I do now. In my personal practice I find that I am less inclined to interpret my body experience and more comfortable just trusting the experience itself. I find that I make less effort to do yoga for someone else, some external approval, and am more interested in practicing yoga for the pure joy of reminding myself that I am here, that I have a body, that I exist.

On the question of service my response is that service, to me, is not a side project. It is a fully-integrated, professional endeavor. Yoga teachers should be paid a reasonable wage if they are offering trauma survivors, for example, a high quality treatment with proven outcomes. People are suffering tremendously, and they need others to devote themselves to their care and unless one is independently wealthy (and more power to you if you are!), one needs to make a living. Service and making a living do not have to be mutually exclusive.

What other organizations do you admire?

There are many, but 3 that I am particularly fond of are:
thereandback-again.org
mandalahouse.org
greentreeyoga.org

Originally published on Huffington Post and Give Back Yoga Foundation

Rob Schware is the Executive Director of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, President of the Yoga Service Council, and Seva Advisor to Hanuman Festival. He has been married to Alice Trembour for 28 years, which, like yoga, is in and of itself a regular commitment to a practice. They have three children.

You can follow The Give Back Yoga Foundation for news, updates, and fun on Twitter at @givebackyoga. www.givebackyoga.org

 

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