Can yoga combat chronic kidney disease?

The two major causes of chronic kidney disease (CKD) are diabetes and hypertension.  Speaking on the latter, the connection between physical yoga and reductions in blood pressure are well-established.  However, evidence to suggest that these practices change the course of active CKD has been lacking.  Researchers led by R. K. Pandey carried out a randomized controlled trial to see if yoga could benefit this patient population.  Their work was subsequently published in the first quarterly installment of the International Journal of Yoga for 2017.  Let me provide you with a brief summary of their methods and results.

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image cited: http://www.deaconess.com/DeaconessClinic/Services/Nephrology.aspx

Fifty-four end stage CKD patients were assigned to either the test (N = 28) or control (N = 26) group.  The test group was offered ‘strict’ instruction for 5 days per week on postures (15-20 min), breathing (10-15 min), and guided relaxation (20 min) plus conventional therapy.  The control group was offered conventional therapy.  After 6 months, serum chemistry, blood pressure and quality of life metrics were compared for statistical variations.

Among those who received yoga therapy, the investigators saw significant improvements in these three criteria.  Critical to the hypothesis at hand, the average participant experienced a 15-point (mg/dL) decrease in blood urea nitrogen as well as a 1.0-point decrease in serum creatinine.  Although CKD has a reputation for being incurable, it appears that a structured yoga routine can improve an array of kidney specific markers.  I would be curious to see whether these benefits persist over the course of a full year or more.

Study Citation:

Pandey RK, Arya TV, Kumar A, Yadav A. Effects of 6 months yoga program on renal functions and quality of life in patients suffering from chronic kidney disease. Int J Yoga, 2017 Jan-Apr; 10(1):3-8.

Yoga for landscapers

These days, it seems like ​everyone is getting on the bandwagon of branding their creative yoga-based fitness ideas.  Amy Weintraub’s Yoga for Depression is a best selling book, Rodney Yee’s Yoga for Abs was a popular workout video, and most recently, Yoga for Yankees has become viral internet spoof.  In light of my new job, I’ve decided to create my own little fad.  So far, I have discovered that a few postures have been saving my overall posture, let me share which ones.

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‘Goddess’ of the leaf rake?

Just as each posture has its array of benefits on the mat, I’ve found incredible transfer value on the job site.  Planting my feet sideways allows me to efficiently rake debris between my legs and onto a tarp (featured above).  Stability in prasarita virabhadrasana had helped me to become strong at this task.

For anyone whose ever worked at gardening, they will attest that weeding is a constant battle.  Being able to maintain a comfortable yet versatile position is key here.  I’ve found no better foundation than the low squat i.e. ardha malasana.  I am able to get low, dig, pitch and move, all while retaining the same strong energetic base.

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‘Warrior’ of the iron rake?

The landscapers job is not complete until the ground is soft and level.  Flattening a bed is easiest when the strength one’s arms and legs are applied evenly.  I find that the base of virabhadrasana b (featured above) is great for keeping my back and shoulders strong while my larger muscles are recruited to pull against the earth.

Landscaping can be tiring and tedious work.  Yet, when power positions are applied, tasks including debris removal, weeding, and leveling beds become more enjoyable.  Each day, I discover broad intersections between my life on the mat and my livelihood in the yard.  Renowned Ashtangi David Swenson was particularly fond of the famous Zen proverb below.  As I gear up for my third week on the job, I have also discovered exciting new ways to appreciate its core meaning.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”

-Zen Proverb

Dance of the winds

There are four basic directions of movement in samastitihi.  One can fold backwards, downwards, or extend from one side to the other.  This reflects a confluence of two pivots.  By analogy, the interplay between our personal and professional development is similar.  Ensuring the non-entanglement of these two sets of responsibilities takes daily effort.  Today, I taught my last yoga class of the spring season at Yoga Vermont; I will not be formally instructing classes during the summer.

Although ‘this’ dance of winds has impacted my choices, I assure you that my career as a yoga instructor is by no means over.  I will remain a regular blogger, daily practitioner, as well as a guide to the travelers who walk the yoga path.  In the words of my music idol Zach Deputy, “Because when I leaving it’s never ever forever, forever I’ll be here with you my friend.”  I look forward to staying in touch and I wish all my students and readership a bright and accomplished summer.

The four expressions of Matthew Sweeney’s ‘Dance of Winds’

A weekend ‘Inipi’ sweat lodge retreat

All life is dynamic.  Just as a flowing wood grain seamlessly merges with a knotty spiral, likewise, even the densest aspects of our realities actually move when observed up close.  Transformation, this awareness that we are all ‘becoming,’ is really a lesson best learned outdoors.  Last weekend, I made an intention to commune with nature by partaking in a half-day sweat lodge ceremony.  And afterwards, I walked away with a sense of wonder and a new family of friends to share these joys with.  All the while, brother Laro was the expert guide, leading six of us in the traditions of the Lakota nation.  I would like to share my Inipi experience with you.

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Care to take a seat inside?

Thoughtful preparation

Inipi means ‘to live again’ and its first stage is actually the creation of the lodge itself.  We harvested six arching saplings, in order to create the essential dome structure, complete with cross-thatching and complex ‘fractal’ branch patterns.  Laro calls the saplings mitakuye oyasin meaning ‘all my relations’ or ‘sisters’ for short.  The Lakota people do not consider themselves greater than the flora and fauna of the land.  Truly, we all exist in nature as equals.  The stones of the earth are honored too.  When collected for the purpose of heating the lodge, they are adorned with names such as ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather.’  This custom signifies our deepest respects to the ancient peoples of Inyan Oyate.  Once the fire pit was created and the lodge covered with blankets, we heated the beloved stones in our campfire.  All of a sudden, Laro beckoned us to enter.

The ceremony

Once inside, the formal ceremony begins with a dedication to the spirits of the ‘sisters,’ ‘grandmothers,’ ‘grandfathers’ and our earth ‘mother’ herself.  Hot stones are added to the fire pit (courtesy of our fire tender “Chris”).  We humbly pray to the spirits for their guidance here and abroad.  Everyone is invited to participate or pass in silence as water, tobacco, and sage are sprinkled on top of the glowing stones.  Over the course of five rounds, the progressive heat combined with the pitch blackness of the interior of lodge, become conducive for allowing specific spirits to influence our experience.  In the words of Laro, “The spirits are always speaking, in lodge we listen.” After the dedication rounds draw to a close, heightened states of awareness may be realized.

Journeying

As we sleep, we dream in distinct cycles.  Similarly to dreaming, during each round is a cycle in which preconceived notions of time, space and even temperature progressively drop off.  Our experience becomes a playful metaphor in light of the totem animals which we honor.  During the third round we pay tribute to the spell dragonfly spirit Tusweca.  Arising from the waters of the southern direction, her essence is invoked by the tradition of storytelling.  She is symbolic of our Truth, that which does not lie to ourselves again and again.  Laro leads the service with the time-honored tale about the white buffalo calf woman who brought the first pipe to the people.  Vocal harmonies arise and fall spontaneously; collectively we become attuned Laro’s message.  Around the circle, each participant then offers a personalized story, which connects each of us to the ebb and flow of Tusweca’s flight.

As heat builds, our journey continues on the wings of the eagle spirit Wanbli to the west.  Hot stones are added then we each take a sip of spring water to initiate our sweating.  Water and herbs hiss and crackle when sprinkled on the top.  Spontaneity takes hold, and we are cast into a new round of intensely rhythmic chanting.  Each participant uses a rattle to keep a steady beat amid our vocalization.  After our song draws to a close, we thank the thunder beings by saying ‘pilyamayelo’ as we carefully pass the rattle to the left.  Our friend takes it using their sense of hearing, touch or both.  A new round of chanting begins as a new expression of the eagle’s flight draws our attention upward.  Our collective consciousness reaches its zenith.  We each delight and comfort one another as many experience a shift in perception.  Just as Wanbli who soars high above the trees sees a world of details down below, we too experience the expansiveness of the here-and-now.

The fifth and last round is dedicated to the spirit Tatanka meaning the buffalo.  It is the hottest of all rounds and also, probably the most contemplative too.  The activity we collectively practice is deep medication.  Our experiences probably become more individual at this stage.  For me, the wisdom of water and sky spirits is offset by a newfound appreciation of ‘mother’ earth.  With the Tatanka, I feel as if all three elemental forces are beginning to merge together.  The earth pushes back on me as I lay on my side in complete darkness.  Stampedes of heat radiated off of the glowing stones, now numbering thirty-four in total.  In the intense silence, I become acutely aware of time and space spanning in all directions.  Soon, these notions are replaced by a soft acceptance of the qualities which underlie the journey at hand.  Then, much the way it began, the Inipi ends with a special set of prayers and dedications.

Afterwards

Laro likes to say, “There is no time in here.”  When my sense of purposefulness was restored, I slowly crawled on my hands and knees, out of the lodge, and into the greater world.  I marveled, then I became dizzy, as I tried to stand, Laro said, “Stay low.”  I continued to crawl like a new born babe towards my water bottle.  Taking a sip, then I imbibed, but much too fast.  I felt the coolness dissipate around my stomach as steam raised off my arms in tendril formations.  I decided to sip more slowly now to avoid pain.  Gazing at my companions, they looked just like me, I felt this way then, as I still do now.  According to Laro, “Inipi is an opportunity to be receptive to nature’s own wisdom.”  Three days later, the great transformation is a renewed sense of ‘togetherness,’ which I continue embody wherever I go.

Pilyamayelo,

(Thank you for reading)

Bryan

Links to Laro’s books, films and teachings:

Enjoying Hanumanasana

It is one of the most iconic poses in the whole yoga canon and somehow still frightens more than a few ardent practitioners.  For me, I’ve been taking the slow and thorough approach to Hanumanasana; it has still been a decade in the making.  Being very new to the full expression, I would mostly like to properly document this exciting moment while my impressions are fresh.  According to legend, the monkey god Hanuman has the unique ability to jump great distances.  His power was tested when he practically flew thousands of miles from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas in order to retrieve Sita (a magic healing herb).  If it weren’t for Hanuman’s miraculous feat, the gods may have lost the great battle of the Ramayana.  In this way, the lunging split was named Hanumanasana to commemorate the epic leap.

hanumanflying

The pose itself feels like it is teetering between two separate continents.  On one side, I am balanced on my thigh and on the other my hamstring holds the weight.  This is a unique experience for me, and it taken a fair amount of concentration not to fall from one side to the other.  Once I develop adiquet stability here, the next step is to square-off through the hips.  This motion seems to stretch the groin muscles in a most fascinating and bizarre way.  According to Moola Bandha – The Master Key, Hanumanasana can be used to explore one’s own pelvic floor region.  I cannot validate that statement for my own body at this particular moment.  In short, I’m still waiting for my perineum to afford me a sturdier base here (see below).

Finding a way to be confident in what would otherwise be a wobbly pose has also proven to be its own adventure. Hanumanasana reminds me of that time when my brother took me out surfing near Santa Cruz years ago.  There’s a time when you just have to stand up and hang-ten.  In practice, that’s ‘that’ moment when I take me hands off the mat and simply let me legs slide further apart on their own.  It is through this purely kinetic shift that one finds extra stability while lengthening out.  To accentuate the feeling, I prefer to take my hands over my head similar to Virabhadrasana A.  This daring mudra gives me that quintessential flying sensation.  This way, I also feel a visceral connection to that classic story told in the Ramayana.

How does yoga effect your brainwaves?

Yoga practices have long been associated with improvements in mental function.  The ways in which the brain actually responds to postures, breathing and meditation, are slowly being discovered.  In 2014, researchers at the University of Illinois sought to compile primary scientific literature aimed at elucidating the underlying mechanisms.  A year later, their review was published in the journal: Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.  Now, I wish to do my part by summarizing the key findings therein, which include waveform, psychological and physiological results.

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Image cited: http://eegmeditation.eu/en/eeg-guided-meditation/eeg-and-meditation-yoga

There are five types of waves which brain experts like to study using an electroencephalogram (EEG).  The list below highlights a few differences:

  • Delta Waves:     0.5-3.9 Hz  |  Deep Sleep
  • Theta Waves:     4-7 Hz       |  Effortlessness of Action
  • Alpha Waves:     8-13 Hz     |  Relaxation
  • Beta Waves:       12-39 Hz    |  Memory / Learning
  • Gamma Waves: 40-100 Hz |  Concentration / Attention

All yoga activities strengthen one or more of these wave forms.  What is interesting is that certain activities target precise frequencies.  These effects also appears to differ depending on whether the practitioner was a beginner, intermediate, or highly experienced at yoga.  The authors pose a few interesting theories:

  1. Physical yoga has been shown to increase in both alpha and beta waves.  Afterwards, the beta and theta waves were most pronounced.
  2. Breath retention techniques are highly associated with gamma waves, yet these brainwaves essentially disappeared after practice or were replaced by beta waves.
  3. Alternate nostril breathing was strongly associated with beta wave propagation.
  4. Kriya yoga practitioners demonstrate a gradual increase in alpha and theta wave amplitudes over a 30 day period. These changes were most apparent in the parietal lobe (governs sensation and movement).
  5. Meditation substantially increases in both alpha and beta waves.

The psychological and physiological finding of the report were also convincing.  Participants who preformed left nostril breathing had significant improvements on spacial awareness exercises.  By contrast, right nostril and alternate nostril participants showed improvements primarily in language tasks.  Measurable differences in brain anatomy were also reported among asana and pranayama practitioners.  PET scan imaging shown that Iyengar practitioners have increase blood flow to the pre-frontal context while decreased flow to the amygdala.  The overall effect would be one of increased mental clarity with decreases in fear-based impulses.  Those who preformed pranayama saw increases in hippocampus and insular cortex densities.  These areas are responsible for our working memory and awareness, respectively.  As the data mounts, yoga therapists will be able to customize uniquely tailored practice routines like never before!

 

For more information, please see:

Desai R, Tailor A, and Bhatt T. Effects of yoga on brain waves and structural activation: A review. Complement Ther Clin Pract, 2015 May; 21(2):112-8.

EEG and Meditation/Yoga. KalpaTaru. Available from: http://eegmeditation.eu/en/eeg-guided-meditation/eeg-and-meditation-yoga

Headstand tips and tricks

In the article Controversy in the kingdom of asana, I briefly describe how headstands are being phased out of standard vinyasa routines.  In a nutshell, I believe that the approach of modifying these postures is better than pretending sirsasana never existed in the yoga pantheon.  That said, only a qualified instructor can personally advise you.  I’d like to offer some practical tips, in hopes that it will help elevate the dialogue between you and your teacher.

A brief cautionary word:

First, talk to your doctor if you currently or previously experienced any of the following health conditions before attempting a headstand.

  • Glaucoma or retinal problems
  • Uncontrolled hypertension
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Pregnancy
  • A neck injury or related pain

Generally, dolphin’s pose is great substitute if you have health concerns.

Ready? Let’s prepare:

  1. Find your crown.  You can use the distance between your chin and nose as a relative measure.  Simply count three measure lengths up from the tip of the nose.  For most people, the eyebrow center, ‘unicorn horn’, and finally the apex of the head can be found this way.
  2. Prepare your arms.  Form an equilateral triangle with your two elbows and palms as vertices.  This can be accomplished by taking your elbows with your palms, before planting these, then form a basket for your head by interlacing your fingers.
  3. Set up on the back third of your mat.  Place your head in your palms, plant your crown on the mat, then grip the base of your neck.  Walk your feet towards your elbows with your toes pointed.  Your back will inevitably be slanted toward the front of the mat before your feet lift off the ground.  Make sure to apply adequate downward force through your elbows.
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Headstand with bent knees

Preparing for the lift:

  1. If you are accustomed to a keeping your legs strait upon lift off, when the weight in your feet becomes negligible, simply engage your low abdominal muscles to finish.
  2. Otherwise, bend your legs slightly in order to march your feet all the way to your elbows.  Upon lift off, your posture should appear similar to mine featured above.
  3. Try to resist the urge to straiten your legs.  Simply correct your torso by pivoting at the hips as featured below.  Not only does this approach offer better control, it also improves our core strength.
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Headstand with a vertical back and bent legs

Ideas for further refinement:

  • Practice leg lifts or chair lifts to strengthen your core muscles.  These activities will help you engage your transverse abdominal muscles, in doing so, isolating the muscles beneath your core will become more and more manageable.
  • Be aware that your elbows may spread outwards when you lift up.  This effectively destabilizes the strong equilateral base you sought to establish in the first place.  If you are sweaty, make sure to practice setting up your base on a towel or yoga floor mat.  Also, don’t be afraid to lower out of headstand if you become unstable.
  • If you suddenly lose balance, the ability to fall correctly out of headstand can minimize harm to yourself or your neighbors.  I’ll give you a few pointers:
    • When I am falling backwards, I will tuck my neck and take the fall on my shoulder blades.
    • When I am falling to either side, I will bend from the hips then try to lower down on that side in slow motion.
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Final expression of headstand. Thank you Kala!

Your headstand will become more steadier and more enjoyable with daily practice.  Good luck and make sure to keep your yoga teacher informed about your goals and progress.  He or she will be able to offer the best personalized help possible.

Feel free to share any of your headstand questions in the comment section below: