Yoga News

Yoga is America’s New Favorite Complementary Therapy, A New Survey Finds

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 - 

Americans are turning to complementary health approaches more than ever before to reduce pain, improve health and wellbeing, and relieve the side effects of standard medicine. And, yoga is one of the most popular and fastest growing alternative therapies among people of all ages, according to a new, 10-year National Health Interview Survey.

The health survey was administered to more than 88,000 adults over age 18 at three time points (2002, 2007 and 2012). At each interval, participants were asked about their use of a number of alternative health approaches including acupuncture, Ayurveda, biofeedback, chelation therapy, chiropractic care, energy healing therapy, hypnosis, massage, naturopathy, non-vitamin/non-mineral dietary supplements, homeopathic treatments, diet-based therapies, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.

The report of the survey results, published in National Health Statistics Reports, revealed a number of interesting trends.

  1. Non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements were the most frequently used complementary approach in each of the three survey administrations (18.9% of American adults in 2002, and 17.7% in both 2007 and 2012).
  2. Deep breathing exercises were next in popularity, although their use appeared to be declining by 2012 (11.6% in 2002, and 12.7% in 2007 and 10.9% in 2012). Breath exercises were considered either as a stand-alone practice or a strategy used in yoga, tai chi, qi gong, biofeedback, hypnosis, meditation and progressive relaxation.
  3.  There was a growing trend towards more Americans taking up yoga, tai chi, and qi gong at each survey point. Notably, yoga use had increased the most dramatically over 10 years (5.1% of American adults in 2002, and 6.1% in 2007, and 9.5% in 2012). Meditation was also consistently among the top 5 most commonly used approaches, however unlike yoga, its popularity has declined slightly in recent years according to the survey (7.6% in 2002, and 9.4% in 2007, and 8.0% in 2012).
  4. The use of homeopathic treatments, acupuncture and naturopathy as well as chiropractic and osteopathic care are also on the rise for the most part.

Who is Practicing Yoga?

Historically, educated, white women represent the largest demographic of yoga practitioners in the United States, but this is changing. Yoga practice has rapidly become increasingly popular among 18-44 year olds (from 6.3% in 2002 to 11.2% in 2012). In fact, the increase in the number of American adults in this age group between 2007 and 2012 is more than double what is was between 2002 and 2007 – strong evidence of yoga’s increasing popularity among young-to-middle-aged adults.

More older adults are also practicing yoga now than a decade ago (5.2% in 2002 to 7.2% in 2012 among 45-64 year olds and 1.3% in 2002 to 3.3% in 2012 among those 65 and over). Similar to the 18-44 year olds, this increase was most pronounced between 2007 and 2012, pointing to a growing trend among older adults to adopt a yoga practice.

Yogis and yoginis are also becoming more ethnically diverse. The use of yoga among Hispanic adults and non-Hispanic black adults nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012 (5.1% and 5.6% in 2012 respectively). This is consistent with the trend among white adults, whose reported use rose from 5.8% in 2007 to 11.2% in 2012. This represents not only a marked increase in the number of adults practicing yoga, but also a greater diversity in age and ethnicity among yoga practitioners.

Although the use of most forms of complementary therapies is on the rise, the growing movement for American adults to take up yoga is noteworthy. More American health practitioners are recognizing the enormous benefits of regular yoga practice for stress reduction, not to mention managing the symptoms of pain and other medical illnesses and recommending yoga to their patients. While the yoga research is still relatively nascent, evidence of yoga’s beneficial effects on most major systems (circulatory, nervous, endocrine) and overall general health continues to grow.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and 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://isaeaorg.wix.com/isaea and http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

Teaching Yoga: Learning to Listen to the Body and Mind

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Taking the time to respond to the truths of our bodies and minds in our yoga practice allows us to discover what is uniquely best for each of us, and integrate this wisdom into future practice, writes blogger and yoga teacher Kathryn Borland in this article. This type of patient and continued processing is what has allowed yogis and yoginis to develop and pass on the yoga tradition to millions worldwide. It all begins with taking time to process and respond to change, she suggests, rather than moving swiftly from yoga pose to yoga pose.

By Kathryn Boland - 

As an undergraduate tutor in academic writing, there was one concept that particularly resonated with me – giving writers “wait time” to think and respond. This goes hand in hand with asking open-ended, yet clear and direct questions. Those queries can lead writers to their own insights much more effectively than simply giving answers or closed instructions. As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” These principles are also very applicable when teaching yoga.

In the six years that I have served as a tutor, I noticed that asking questions and giving writers time to mindfully respond results in more productive and nuanced sessions. Though awkward pauses and what can feel like obstacles are sometimes difficult, the hard work of taking the time to reach a self-generated answer helps students to achieve learning that will last. The same process can be very useful for yoga students.

Creating Space in Yoga Practice

As a yoga instructor and practitioner, I believe the way in which we approach challenges and develop new learning in our practice and teaching can be incredibly beneficial. I love offering yoga students hands-on assists (when and where they are appropriate) that require the experience of working with tactile feedback. That work can develop student’s bodily memories of moving from alignment or positioning that at first feels comfortable (but may not be healthiest) to one that allows them to safely experience a pose’s potential benefit.

With time and repetition the new physical patterning may become the norm. The result - incredible holistic growth, multiplied with every posture or movement flow in which one undergoes this process.

I am currently honing my physical cueing skills to help set my yoga students on the path of that kind of growth. Sometimes I have to take a breath and remember to allow students time to physically respond to my cueing, that giving of “wait time” an essential part of this approach. Bodies need time to process and respond.

Using Questions to Create Space

Another option is to give yoga students a chance to self-correct through mindful questioning. This can be helpful in situations where touch is not allowed or where it is contraindicated for physical or psychological reasons. Such questioning can be a helpful alternative to point-blank instruction.

Imagine a yoga student with feet significantly farther apart than hip distance, for instance. An instructor could say, “Move your feet hip width apart.”  The student could respond by making the proper adjustment, and the instructor might feel pleased at helping the student achieve healthier alignment. The student may not understand the reason for the change, or feel self-conscious, however. In this case the student may not adopt a corrected stance when engaging in the posture in the future.

Another approach might be to ask the student, “How does the posture feel on your hips and knees?” She might say it feels just fine, which may very well be true. There is now at least space for considering other options rather than being instructed to take them, as in the prior approach. In that same line of questioning the yoga teacher might help the student move his feet to hip distance apart and ask, “How does that feel now?” This might be followed by an explanation of how the new positioning may transfer energy from the core and spine through to the knees to avoid straining the knees through faulty alignment.

In this scenario the yoga practitioner engages his mind while experiencing different physical sensations, and may be more likely to attempt this modified stance in the future. He may not have been able to answer the instructor’s questions right away because he had yet to have the experience of adjusting himself into the new postural alignment. Giving “wait time” allows the student and instructor to be present during that experience of physical and mental exploration.

Keeping an open line of questioning also allows for the positive instructional responses in cases when the conventional form of the posture is not ideal for an individual’s unique anatomy and/or capabilities. Although it may be difficult to give students this degree of individualized instruction in large classes, it is something for us instructors to strive for.

Exploring Space in Our Own Yoga Practice

As yoga students and teachers we can explore this process whether in studio classes or at home. The main idea is to bring a questioning and discerning attitude to our mats, so that we can experiment with different approaches. For instance, when comfortably in a favorite posture, a modification that you read about might come to mind – perhaps a way to open up space for the breath in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), or a new form of a balancing posture. Why not try it and see what happens?

To allow the body and mind to understand and respond to the new approach, take the necessary time to allow yourself and others time to explore making changes. Then act upon those responses, such as in maintaining the change or going back to the preliminary state (such as positioning or formation of a posture).

Taking that time to respond to the truths of our bodies and minds allows us to discover what is uniquely best for each of us, and integrate this wisdom into future practice. This type of patient and continued processing is what has allowed yogis and yoginis to develop and pass on the yoga tradition to millions worldwide. It all begins with taking time to process and respond to change. 
 

Kathryn Boland is a third-year Master’s degree student in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA), and an E-RYT 500. She is originally from Rhode Island and attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in dance (where she first encountered yoga). She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans, all demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

   

Linking Emotion to Physical Sensation: Lessons from Yoga and Research

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 - 

We all know that we experience emotions not only in our minds, but also in our bodies. In fact, according to a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), different emotional states are experienced in particular regions in the body.

Just as interesting, these somatic experiences may also influence the way we experience emotion. Yoga may be a key practice that enables us to more fully understand this mind-body connection.

The study was conducted by researchers in Finland, who decided to explore whether discrete emotional states might be associated with distinctive patterns of bodily sensations.  Researchers presented 302 adult participants (261 female, mean age 27 years) with either emotional or neutral words. They then asked them to digitally paint where they felt physical sensation on anatomically neutral human silhouettes using a computerized mouse after each word.

Emotional words were either “basic” (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise), or “nonbasic” (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame or envy), or neutral. Images digitally painted on body silhouettes were stored and compared to identify patterns that might be unique to each emotion.

In the second phase of the study, a different sample of 72 participants (mean age 39, 53 female) were asked to look at averaged composites of the silhouette drawings or “heat maps” created from the sample of 302 participants and match each heat map with the emotion word that best described the image.  Researchers then compared these classifications with the initial stimulus words to determine how accurately people matched emotion words with body maps.

When comparing the basic emotions (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise) and the neutral state against other emotions, participants had an average accuracy of 72%. When discriminating one emotion from another based on these emotion maps participants’ average accuracy dropped to 38%. While that may sound low, that was 24% higher than their ability to detect these emotions by chance.

These accuracy rates were fairly consistent for the “nonbasic” emotions (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame or envy: 72% and 36% respectively) as well as all 13 emotions when considered together (72% and 24% respectively). This suggests that people in this sample were reasonably accurate in their assessment of which body maps corresponded to a particular emotion.

This study is particularly noteworthy because the researchers used native Finnish and Swedish (European) as well as Taiwanese (Asian) participants to make certain that the body mapping for particular emotions was not culturally specific. They found no differences by language or ethnic group, leading the authors to conclude that our mapping of emotions onto bodily sensations is culturally universal.

Where Do We Feel Emotional Sensations?

Another interesting aspect of this study is that the patterns of sensation reported by participants were consistent with our existing understanding of how emotions affect us physiologically.

For example, most basic emotions like anger, fear, happiness and sadness were mapped as being felt in the upper chest area. These are likely to correspond to increases in heart and breathing rates that we often notice when experiencing intense primary emotions. Sensations in the upper body and arms were most pronounced for feelings of happiness and anger, whereas less activation in this area was associated with sadness. This makes sense in light of recent research that demonstrates a direct relationship between slumped posture and feeling sad or fearful versus upright posture, which was related to strength, joy and enthusiasm respectively.

The body maps also consistently included sensation in the head, which may represent changes in our facial muscles and jaw as well as the expression of how we process emotional events in our minds as well as our bodies.

It is important to note that participants’ tendency to map emotions onto particular body regions may be a function of language-based stereotypes that we use to describe emotional experience. For example, the expression having butterflies in our stomach may influence the way that we physiologically perceive anxiety or stress because we have an expectation of having a fluttery stomach when we feel those emotions. While this is possible, participants were asked to illustrate their immediate experience on body maps “online” (while experiencing the emotions and sensations), which lessened the probability that they were relying on linguistic stereotypes when mapping their experience.

The researchers suggest that this study may “support models assuming that somatosensation and embodiment “play critical roles in emotional processing.”  They further note that “unraveling the subjective bodily sensations associated with human emotions may help us to better understand mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, which are accompanied by altered emotional processing, autonomic nervous system activity and somatosensation. “

Does Yoga Make Us More Attuned to our Bodies?

This body mapping study is especially interesting when we consider a recent theory that suggests that yoga activates our brains and bodies in a reciprocal exchange of information while we practice. When we feel stress it often includes cognitive and emotional experiences such as a negative evaluation of the situation, emotional reactivity, and rumination. This is often accompanied by physical sensations such as muscle tension, pain and even inflammation. So the body maps and the emotions that they were linked with may represent the ways in which we experience this mind-body connection.

Yoga teaches us mind-body awareness, and gives us the ability to consciously modulate our stress response through the breath, movement and intention. By linking the mind and body through practice we become aware of physical sensations and use them to interpret our mental states. This awareness allows us to downshift the stress response, and to create space in our interactions with others.

It would be fascinating to see future studies that compared the body mapping accuracy of yoga practitioners versus non-practitioners to test the hypothesis that yoga practice enhances this mind-body connection.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and 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://isaeaorg.wix.com/isaea and http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

Check Out Our New YouTube Yoga Channel

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YogaUOnline on YouTube

If the thought of listening to interviews with your favorite yoga teacher or watching videos with yoga practices and yoga teaching tips appeals to you, be sure to subscribe to our new YouTube channel! This little baby is barely a month old, but already it’s making some great strides, if we may say so.  :-)

 Especially be sure to check out our Open Source interview in which Judith Hanson Lasater is interviewed by Lizzie Lasater. Wonder about the name similarity? Yes, indeed, this is Judith’s adult daughter, now living in Europe, who is interviewing Judith about how a home practice develops and changes over the decades.

 In addition to being a great designer, Lizzie is now a yoga teacher in her own right, and the interview offers wonderful depth and unique insights into what has kept one of yoga’s great teachers inspired, engaged and progressing in her practice over more than four decades.

 Also check out our Youtube interview with Kaoverii Weber on Natural Detox with Yoga, as well as our interview with Ana Forrest on yoga and embodiment.

 But this is just the beginning! Over the next few weeks and months, we will begin to upload yoga practice video tutorials and quick tips to keep you inspired and progressing in your practice. These are Sneak Peaks for our upcoming yoga practice channel with all the leading yoga teachers you know and love, and a few more that you will LOVE getting to know.

Be sure to subscribe to the channel so you have easy access and will be informed as soon as new videos are uploaded to the channel.  It’s easy, just hit the Subscribe button under any one of the videos in the channel.

 

 

 

From Stress Relief to Spirituality: Why We Practice Yoga

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 - 

We all know that physical activity is one of the most important things we can do for our health. Research suggests that regular exercise reduces for the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and stroke, and that active people live longer than those who are inactive.

Knowing the importance of physical activity is one thing. Engaging in regular physical activity is another. Consequently researchers are continuously interested in finding out what motivates people to start and—more importantly—continue a regular exercise routine.

A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology takes a closer look at this question. Researchers examined why people begin a yoga practice and why they continue. Interestingly, the authors suggest, while people may start yoga for primarily external, physical reasons (like the desire to be more fit), people’s motivation often shifts toward intrinsic or spiritually-based reasons over time.

For the study, the researchers conducted a national online survey of over 500 yoga students and teachers and asked them their motivation for adopting and maintaining their yoga practice. The sample of 360 yoga students and 156 part- and full-time yoga teachers in this self-selected sample were primarily white, well educated women between 18 and 85 years of age.

Participants were asked to identify the type of yoga practice that they preferred, as well as number of minutes per week and number of years of practice. Then were then asked, “What was the primary reason you first started practicing yoga?”

Respondents were asked to choose only one of a number of options for adopting a yoga practice (relaxation, stress relief, pain relief, weight control, flexibility, spirituality, depression/anxiety relief, deal with physical health issues, get into shape, get exercise and “other”).  After identifying a primary reason they were then permitted to go back and provide alternate explanations for taking up yoga.

Participants were then asked, “Have your reasons for continuing yoga changed/did you discover new reasons since you first started practicing yoga” yes or no?  Similar to the first question, students and teachers were than allowed to provide additional alternate reasons for continuing their practice.

Why students practice yoga

Responses from yoga students and teachers were considered separately. Students practiced an average of 245 minutes (SD = 178 minutes) per week in a yoga studio and 85 minutes (SD = 82 minutes) at home. They had practiced 8 years 5 months on average (SD = 7.67 years). Most endorsed practicing Power yoga/Power Vinyasa (32.1%), Iyengar yoga (22.1%) and Hatha yoga (17.8%).

The top 3 reasons why students reported beginning a yoga practice were to get exercise (19.4%), gain flexibility (16.7%) and stress relief (14.4%). Other primary factors included getting in shape and relaxation.

Well over half of all students (61.3%) endorsed changing their motivation for practicing yoga. The top 3 revised motivations for practice included spirituality (58.1%), relaxation (53.9%) and stress relief (52.5%). When examining the relationship between length of time practiced and motivation for change, researchers discovered that experienced students were more likely to discover new reasons for continuing their practice than those with fewer years of practice.

Why teachers practice yoga

Teachers practiced an average of 374 minutes (SD = 192 minutes) per week in a yoga studio and 168 minutes (SD = 164 minutes) at home. They had practiced 13 years 2 months on average (SD = 9.26 years). Most endorsed practicing Power yoga/Power Vinyasa (41.0%), Hatha yoga (18.8%) and Vinyasa/Ashtanga yoga (16.7%).

The top 3 reasons why teachers reported beginning a yoga practice were to get exercise (21.2%), relieve stress (19.1%) and “other” (16.0%), which included curiosity and to meet new people. Among teachers, (85.5%) indicated that their motivation for practicing yoga had changed. Spirituality (50.4%), “other” (20.3%) and stress relief (12.8%) were among the top 3 reasons. For teachers, “other” included community, fun, self-knowledge and mindfulness. Similar to students, more experienced teachers were more likely to discover new motivation for continuing their practice.

Both students and teachers appeared to move from primarily physical rationale for taking up yoga to more psychological or spiritual motivation. In all, stress management, flexibility, spirituality and physical fitness were most frequently endorsed as reasons for participating in long-term practice. The authors suggest that this represents a shift from extrinsic, or externally based to intrinsic, or internally based motives. More research will be needed to examine that proposition.

Whether new to yoga or a long-term enthusiast, this study suggests that students and teachers alike see stress relief, flexibility, relaxation and spiritual growth as key motivating factors for adopting and continuing a yoga practice. Perhaps that rings true for you, or perhaps you are drawn to the mat for other reasons. Either way, the benefits of yoga are clear to those who practice.

 

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.

Yoga Posture Clinic: Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose (Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana)

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Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana

By Meagan McCrary -

Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose (Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana) is one of those poses that reveals itself over time, unfolding as the body lengthens and opens with the breath, but it can be a bit sticky at first.

To begin with, the pose is a hamstring stretch, groin and hip opener, as well as a shoulder opener; however, it’s the sides of the bodies that often feel it the most. Shortened from long hours of sitting, our side bodies can be surprisingly tight and restricting, especially for the breath.

Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose can be felt from your hip through your armpit, stretching all those little intercostal muscles between the ribs—allowing for fuller expansion of the lungs and chest. Opening and lengthening the side bodies in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana will give you a greater sense of ease and freedom in your body.

Getting Into Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana

  1. Begin seated in Baddha Konasana with the bottoms of your feet together and knees open to the sides.
  2. Extend your right leg out to the side and pull your left heel closer to your groin, opening the left knee further back. Place your hands on either side of your hips and press down, lengthening the spine up as you firm both thighbones down.
  3. Inhale, lift and turn your torso to the left; exhale and side bend to the right, placing the back of your right hand to the floor inside your right leg, palm facing up. Next, inhale and extend your left arm out, palm facing up; exhale and lean back as you reach the arm over your ear toward the right foot.
  4. Firm down through your left thighbone as you pull your left shoulder blade back, revolving your torso open toward the ceiling as you lean to the right.
  5. Continue extending your right arm along the floor inside your right leg, lengthening your right waist and rib cage alongside your right inner thigh. Rotate the upper arm bone out, turning the palm up, and hold onto the arch of your right foot with your right hand.
  6. Reach your top arm up and over, clasping the outside of the right foot with your left hand. Inhale and press your elbows apart as you lengthen both sides of your body; exhale and pull your top arm and shoulder blade back as you revolve your torso toward the ceiling and gaze up.
  7. Press down through both thighs to keep a nice lift of the spine as you breath your left side body open. When you’re ready to release, inhale, press down into your thighs and reach your left arm back up, bringing you upright.  

Common Misalignments

The most common misalignment of any seated postures is rocking back on the siting bones, tilting the pelvis and rounding the low back—making it nearly impossible to extend the spine.

It’s important that you’re sitting upright on both sitting bones with your low back lifting in and up, and that the kneecap and big toe of your extended leg pointing straight up. If your hamstrings, hips or low back feel tight, sit on a firmly folded blanket, turning your inner thighs down.  

When you side-bend to the right, your left sitting bone will get light. Press down through your inner left thigh, anchoring your left sit bone as you lean back and over. Continue to press your right thigh down as well, lengthening your right inner thigh toward your right inner knee.

Keeping the top arm and chest revolving open can be tough in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. I often have my students start with the top hand holding the base of the skull, where the neck and head meet, asking them to lean back into their hand as they side bend to keep the chest open.

Variations and Entry Strategies

Like many yoga poses, there are few different ways to approach Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. For example, some methods start with the extended leg bent holding onto the foot with both hands as you press the leg straight and revolve the torso.

Another common way to get deeper into Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose is to take your bottom hand to the opposite knee, pulling and twisting your torso as you lean in the opposite direction.

Or you could turn your bent knee up, placing your foot flat on the floor and holding onto the ankle with the bottom hand. It’s fun to play with different variations and ways of finding freedom this pose.

In the full expression of Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, the sides of the body are parallel, the top arm is behind the top ear, the torso is revolving and the back of the head comes to rest on the knee.

 

Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (500 ERYT) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings atwww.MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook.

What Makes a Good Yoga Study? Some of the Basics

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E RYT-500 - 

People often ask me what makes a good yoga study. The short answer is, it’s complicated. If good yoga research were simple, we’d all be doing it. Here are the fundamentals that all yoga teachers, students and yoga therapists should know.

The Golden Rule – Correlation Does Not Imply Causation

There is one golden rule in research, and that includes yoga studies: Correlation does not imply causation. No matter how much we would like to think that the programs we develop cause someone or something to change, we can’t make that assumption even in the most carefully controlled of studies.

Why? Because humans are complex. We simply can’t statistically rule out the myriad contextual, biologic, psychosocial and other factors that may explain the effects we detect. That’s not to say that you should curb your enthusiasm. It’s a suggestion to take research results for what they are - data from one study at one point in time. And don’t assume that one thing ‘caused’ another, even if it looks to be the case. Period.

In addition to the Golden Rule, there are a number of fundamental terms and concepts that are important to understand, particularly in regards to the basic research design of studies and what that implies about the conclusions we can draw.

Research Designs: The Basic Blueprint of Data Collection

A research design is essentially a systematic blueprint that guides the collection and analysis of data. There are two primary types of designs – descriptive and experimental. Descriptive research focuses on how something works, whereas experimental research emphasizes what works.

Descriptive Research Designs. Descriptive research includes ethnographic studies and case examples among others. Studies often focus on understanding how a particular program is implemented and how participants perceive their experiences and outcomes. These studies typically make use of qualitative information, such as journal entries, written responses, interviews and focus groups.

There are also quantitative descriptive studies. These often use numeric data to examine the number and type of people who participated in a program. Data may be used to loosely interpret whether an individual’s initial scores differ from his or her final scores after an intervention.  

Descriptive research is often used when researchers are studying a new program and its benefits and are less concerned with statistical results. Experimental studies, on the other hand, systematically test the relationship between a specific program or programs and a predetermined set of outcomes.

Experimental Research Designs I: Randomized Controlled Trials

Experimental studies are used to systematically test the effects of a particular program. The “gold standard” of experimental designs is the randomized controlled trial (RCT). Using this approach participants have an equal likelihood of being randomly assigned to either a treatment group or a control group.

Treatment and control group participants are matched on a number of dimensions (e.g. age, sex, health status, years of practice) to make sure that the groups are relatively equivalent to each other. The purpose of random assignment is to attempt to control for extraneous factors, or covariates (e.g. age, sex, health status) that may unduly bias the results of a study.

Most experimental studies divide participants into two or more groups. The treatment group (often called the experimental group) refers to the collection of participants who receive the primary intervention (i.e. yoga program). Studies may have one or more of these groups, depending on the research objectives, however yoga researchers are typically interested in comparing a particular yoga program to a “no yoga” control condition.

The control group refers to those who are not invited to participate in the active condition under investigation (e.g. yoga program) as part of a study. While many assume that control groups are passive and do not receive any type of intervention, this is often not the case. Many studies use “active” controls.

A good example is a study comparing a yoga group to both an exercise condition and to a no treatment condition. In this case the yoga group receives the treatment, the exercise group is an active control group that receives an exercise intervention, and the no treatment group receives no special instruction. Both the exercise and no treatment groups are considered control groups in this case. The use of an exercise group as a control allows researchers to assess whether differences between groups are related to exercise in and of itself, or the act of practicing yoga.

Randomized studies can use either a ‘blind’ or ‘double blind’ approach. In double blind studies, neither researchers nor participants know which condition (group) a participant has been assigned to. As you can imagine, it is particularly difficult to conduct double blind yoga research, as those engaged in practices that resemble yoga are likely to assume that they have been assigned to a yoga condition. It is much easier for an experimenter to have no idea as to group assignment, unless the experimenter is both the yoga instructor and the researcher examining the data. This is not an ideal situation, and should be avoided when at all possible.

Experimental Research Designs II: Quasi-Experimental Designs

Quasi-experimental designs are similar to randomized controlled trials in that numeric (quantitative) differences between intervention and control groups are emphasized. Unlike RCTs however, these studies often use “convenience samples” or volunteers. In this approach, experimental groups often receive the yoga program as part of the formal study, and controls are placed on a waitlist and offered the program shortly after the formal research is completed.

Participants in these studies are not randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group. This means that the two groups may differ greatly on one or more key dimensions (e.g. age, sex, prior yoga experience, health status), which may significantly impact group differences and statistical outcomes. It is critical to examine whether the treatment and control groups differ at baseline when interpreting the results of these studies.

Studies of Studies: Meta-analyses and Systematic Reviews

Meta-analyses and systematic reviews are also considered to be research studies. These approaches systematically examine the existing research to ascertain the overall impact of published or reported interventions for a particular outcome (e.g. osteoarthritis). Such analyses of the literature help to identify what may work for individuals with a particular condition, and also evaluate the overall impact and quality of a body of research with the intention of making broad assumptions and recommendations.

At present there are a number of critical issues that make meta-analyses and systematic reviews of yoga research particularly difficult. These include a lack of consistency among yoga programs and their approaches, high variability in program duration and length, inconsistency of measurement strategies, and weak research designs (e.g. non-randomized samples), among others.

Testing Study Hypotheses: Statistical Analysis of the Data Collected

Good experimental studies are organized around a priori hypotheses. These hypotheses delineate the direction of specific outcomes that are anticipated as a function of participating in an intervention. The strategies for measuring these outcomes are also determined prior to the onset of research.

For example, a study may be designed to test the effects of a yoga program on stress. Researchers hypothesize that yoga group participants will exhibit lower levels of stress after completing an 8-week yoga program compared to a matched (age and sex) control group of sedentary participants. They measure all participants before and after the 8-week program on a number of conventional measures of stress including blood pressure, salivary cortisol, and participant’s self-reported stress ratings. They then compare the yoga and control group pre- and post-intervention data to test for differences.

These data are quantitative, meaning that numeric values are used to represent participant stress. The values are statistically analyzed based on the study’s a priori hypotheses. In very simplistic terms, these analyses test to see whether the yoga and control group values before and after the 8-week yoga program are statistically different at a level above chance. This means that differences between the two groups may be related to participation in the yoga program and not just an artifact of random variation.

Other Key Research Terms You Should Know

There are a number of other key terms that are typically used in research studies. It is important to understand what they mean so that you can use them properly.

Independent variable – An independent variable refers to what is manipulated. It is often considered the factor that will be associated with change. For example, in yoga research, the independent variable is often the yoga program, which “manipulates” participants to behave differently than usual.

Dependent variable – Dependent variables refer to the specific outcomes of interest in a study. These typically consist of outcomes related to the independent variable. For example, in a study of the effects of yoga for high blood pressure, the independent variable is the yoga program and the dependent variable might be systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels.

Most studies include multiple dependent variables. For example, we might hypothesize that 5 minutes of deep breathing a day (independent variable) would be associated with decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and subjective ratings of stress (3 dependent variables). Note that this assumes a linkage, not causality.

Validity and Reliability

Validity and reliability are the cornerstones of scientific research. Validity refers to whether or not something is factually sound. There are many different types of validity (internal, external, criterion, discriminant, convergent, predictive, concurrent, test-retest, and others), many of which relate to the statistical properties of the measures used and their relationships.

Validity: There are 3 types of validity that are conceptually critical for yoga research whether the studies are quantitative or qualitative (descriptive) in nature.

Internal validity refers to the integrity of a scientific study. To have strong internal validity in yoga research we need to be able to assume that the effects of a program are attributable to the program itself and not other factors or causes.

External validity refers to whether or not the results of a particular study can be generalized to other situations and sample of people. Even though a single study may demonstrate the benefits of a yoga program, those benefits may be an artifact of the sample, teacher or situation. It is essential that programs and their effects be replicated with different populations and by other researchers in order to establish the program’s external validity.

Ecological validity refers to the extent to which an intervention or program and its results can be applied in real-world settings. In the case of yoga research, some programs are delivered in laboratories, intensive retreats, or other contexts that are not representative of the places where most people are exposed to yoga. In these cases, it is essential that these programs be effectively delivered and successful in settings that are accessible to the population for which they are designed.

Reliability refers to whether or not the results of a study can be replicated. This means that a program is delivered in exactly the same way, using the identical measures and research design, and that the statistical results are identical (or very similar to) the original study. Programs and results with poor reliability often suffer from poor internal, external and ecological validity.

These are just a few of the key terms and ideas that we should be mindful of when evaluating and participating in research. In this emerging field it is essential that we form multidisciplinary alliances between researchers and yoga teachers and therapists so that we can share our knowledge in the service of creating a strong evidence base for the use of yoga as therapy.

Although yoga research has grown exponentially in recent years, we are only now beginning to see studies that consistently make use of rigorous research designs and methods. Part of this is due to the fact that yoga research has historically been poorly funded, which makes sophisticated designs and methods very difficult to execute.

It is essential that the field continues to address these issues and others including participant attrition, the consistency of approach, measures, and methods, and more precise description of the yoga technologies used. Even though the field of yoga research has a long way to go, the future is promising. 

 

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.

Yoga Alliance Makes Significant Updates to Distance and Continuing Ed Standards

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Yoga Alliance recently made some significant updates to its continuing education standards for yoga teachers, which became effective January 1, 2015.  While the changes may appear small on the surface, they are likely to have a considerable positive impact on the development of yoga as a profession going forward.

Most significantly, Yoga Alliance updated the standards for non-contact hours for long distance ed to be on par with that of the distance ed standards for allied health professions, such as physical therapists, nurses, and doctors.

As of January 1, long distance education hours (non-contact hours) now count at a 1:1 ratio. This has been the ratio for long distance standards for other professions for quite some time now, but until this change, long distance ed for yoga teachers was counted on a 5:1 ratio, which meant that to get one distance ed credit from distance learning, 5 hours of distance ed study was necessary.

In other words, with the new system, now for every hour of distance ed you take, be it online or similar, you get a full hour of credit towards the continuing education Yoga Alliance requires yoga teachers to take—up to a total of 20 non-contact hours. (All teachers are required to take 30 hours of continuing education, but a full 20 hours of those can be non-contact hours in the form of distance ed.)

“Self-directed study can be effective for professional maintenance learning,“ Yoga Alliance wrote in an announcement of the changes.  “We believe that all yoga teachers, no matter their experience or knowledge level, stand to benefit from continual learning and from studying with teachers with extensive experience.”

The second part of the changes was a significant upgrade in the experience required for a teacher to be considered a valid Continuing Education Provider by Yoga Alliance. As of January, only yoga teachers with an active registration with Yoga Alliance at the E-RYT level are qualified to offer continuing education for yoga teachers.

This is an upgrade from previous standards, in which RYT500 yoga teachers qualified to be a Continuing Education Provider. It’s not impossible for a yoga teacher with the RYT 500 designation or for other faculty to qualify as a CE Provider, but they have to meet additional criteria. This means that they have to have “a relevant degree or certification, or substantial education in an area of expertise that is related to one of the Yoga Alliance® Educational Categories.” The CE Provider must also have substantial teaching experience (500+ hours) and/or the equivalent of two years of relevant experience in that area.

In addition, the requirements for Other Faculty (non-Registered Yoga Teacher [RYT®] trainers) for Registered Yoga Schools (RYS®s) were also updated and required to meet the same criteria.

Also, going forward, Continuing Education reporting is required for all RYT®s and E-RYT®s, regardless of experience. Previously, E-RYT 500s with more than 5,000 hours of teaching experience were exempt from reporting their Continuing Education.

So what does it all mean? Well, on the one hand, the bar has been raised for what it takes to be qualified to offer Continuing Ed credits, which means the quality of continuing ed programs for yoga teachers will likely go up as well. At the same time, because distance ed and online learning now qualifies on a 1:1 ratio, so you get a full hour of credit for every online hour of study, high quality distance learning offering continuing education for yoga teacher is made more attractive and accessible.

Going forward, this is great news for YogaU subscribers, because most all of the teachers at YogaUOnline meet the requirements to be a Continuing Education Provider.  In short, going forward, for each online course you take with YogaUOnline, around 2.5 hours can be counted as continuing ed.

Be sure to look to our online courses with leading national yoga teachers for an easy way to enhance your yoga teaching skills, while meeting the CE requirements for your yoga teaching registration with Yoga Alliance. And, if you haven’t checked out our Unlimited Access program for the upcoming semester, be sure to do so here. It gives you an easy and affordable way to accumulate the full 20 hours of non-contact continuing ed hours you need to stay registered as a yoga teacher.

Yoga May Lower Risk of Metabolic Syndrome, Study Finds

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If you suffer from a combination of high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist and high cholesterol levels, chances are you suffer from metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is increasingly common, with some 50 million Americans suffering from the condition, according to the American Heart Association. While one of the above issues in and of itself may not be a problem, when these issues occur together as a cluster, it greatly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Can yoga help prevent metabolic syndrome? A new exploratory study indicates so: People who practiced yoga regularly, the study found, were more metabolically healthy than non-yogis, and regularly practicing yoga could help protect against the effects of metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is extremely common in Western society. Genetics, lifestyle, and environment all play a role, which means that addressing the problem is not as simple as hopping on a treadmill or choosing a salad over red meat. Most physicians agree, however, that losing abdominal fat (even as little as 10 or 15 pounds) and making healthy lifestyle changes, are the most effective ways of reversing metabolic syndrome.

For many people, “lifestyle changes” mean diet and aerobic exercise, like walking or jogging. And while this is a crucial part of managing metabolic syndrome, it neglects a crucial (and under-researched) aspect of the disease: its connection to stress. Stress doesn’t just make you feel bad; it has demonstrable physical effects on your body, including on your metabolic processes. The physical effects of stress can increase your metabolic rate or exacerbate any metabolic problems you already have. Prolonged stress is connected to the development of metabolic syndrome and the risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and even some kinds of cancer.

Since yoga has been known to reduce stress, of particular interest is whether yoga practice will have an impact on metabolic syndrome. In the study, researchers in India compared the metabolic health of long-term yoga practitioners to that of non-practitioners as well as to people diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. The study included 46 subjects: 16 people who regularly practiced yoga for 90 minutes daily, 15 people who did not practice yoga but also did not have metabolic syndrome, and 15 people with metabolic syndrome.

The subjects were led through a series of activities designed to either induce stress or promote relaxation. For example, to induce stress, participants were asked to participate in a mental arithmetic test. To promote relaxation, the subjects were guided through light meditation and yogic breathing.

After each experiment, the subjects were given a variety of tests to gauge their stress level and metabolic health. In addition to their weight, their blood pressure was measured, as well as their rate of oxygen consumption. Oxygen consumption is a good indicator of metabolic health because it tends to be lower in people who are fit and healthy and higher in people with the pathologies that make up metabolic syndrome, like hypertension and diabetes.

Results showed that the yoga group had a lower rate of oxygen consumption than either the non-yogis or the people with metabolic syndrome; an indicator of greater metabolic and overall health. The researchers also found that the yoga group displayed greater variability in oxygen consumption across activities. People in the yoga group were able to breathe more deeply (and thus more effectively) during periods of exertion, and they were also to recover more quickly.

The study provides some preliminary evidence that yoga may increase metabolic resilience and may lower the risk of metabolic syndrome. The researchers emphasized, however, that more research into the possibilities of yoga treatments for managing, preventing, or reversing metabolic syndrome is needed. 

When Stretching Hurts: The Science of Connective Tissue

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By Meagan McCrary - 

Whether you’re a yogi, runner, body builder, corporate CEO or aging baby boomer, there’s growing evidence that stretching offers numerous benefits for optimal health and performance. Regularly stretching increases and maintains a healthy range of motion, it improves posture and eases pain,  boosts circulation and calms the nervous system. As we age we lose elasticity in the body, making stretching even more important for our health, wellness and quality of life.

While it’s no secret that stretching is good for us, the perils of stretching haven’t been widely talked about until recently. Overstretching can lead to strains, hypermobility and instability that can wreak havoc on the body. As medical research into the connective tissue grows, we are becoming increasingly clear about the role micro injuries in the connective tissue play in the development of chronic pain.

What is connective tissue?
Connective tissue, or fascia, is essentially the fabric of fibrous tissue that holds our structure together. It connects muscles to bones and bones to bones (tendons and ligaments are both considered fascia), suspends organs in their proper places, cushions vertebrae, and wraps the brain and spinal cord. In fact, fascia is everywhere, encasing the internal body like a honeycomb. It’s all connected.

The body was once studied in parts, but now science is  beginning to look at and understand the multi-dimensional properties and role of connective tissue as an entire system rather than individual parts.

For example, we now know that muscles don’t truly begin and end at their individual origin and insertion points; rather the layers of connective tissue surrounding and penetrating the muscle fibers blend into the next, creating a giant web of fascia. Therefore, what happens in one area of the body affects another, seemingly separate, part of the body.

When the body is injured in a certain area, it tends to compensate by using other muscles and tendons in an unnatural way. As a result, seemingly unrelated problems begin to surface in other areas of the body due to these unaddressed compensatory patterns.  Compensation can lead to, for example, pain in the right shoulder which is related to an old hamstring injury that the person has long recovered from. This is known as the domino effect.

What does all of this have to do with stretching?
Fascia comprises up to 30 percent of a muscle’s total mass. When we stretch, we also elongate the associated connective tissue. With too much stretching, fascia tissues loaded with collagen and elastin molecules can become overstretched, and as a result, become inflamed, lose their ability to recoil and eventually degenerate.

One thing to be careful of when stretching is hyperextension — extension beyond the normal healthy limits of a joint. When you hyperextend your knee, for example, the ligaments that serve to stabilize the knee joint become overstretched. Once elongated, ligaments, a form of fascia that lack elasticity, never return to their proper state. Over time, the knee joint becomes weak and unstable, often leading to pain and even injury. The same is true for all of the joints in the body.

Along with creating instability, the muscle itself becomes vulnerable when tissue, which contains nerves and blood vessels that help supply the muscle with nutrients, is chronically overstretched. Over time, muscles along with tendons and ligaments, can develop painful micro-tears.

What to do?
For starters, don’t stretch passively — actively engage the muscles you’re seeking to stretch. Muscle engagement creates integration and prevents hyperextension, helping to keep muscle fibers, tendons and ligaments safely intact and the joints stable. Stretching with muscle integration is not only an issue of safety, but also efficiency. While it may seem counterintuitive, stretching with engagement will actually allow you to move more deeply into a pose.

Experience it for yourself. Next time you stretch, notice the difference you feel when, for example, the leg is active, toes spread and foot flexed as opposed to when all the muscles are relaxed. And for those of us who are already experiencing discomfort from overstretching it’s time to hit the weights. Strength training is essential to recover, tone and restore the necessary muscles and create more stability in the body.

 


Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (500 ERYT) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook. 

 

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