Pranayama shown to decrease markers of inflammation

Yogic breathing techniques collectively known as pranayama have been used to promote health and well-being for centuries.  Applying these practices to actually treat disease is a relatively modern idea, yet it is gaining traction among gurus.  As a noteworthy example, the late B K S Iyengar produced an instructional video titled Yoga for Asthma.  Scientists too are beginning to gather evidence to help these time-honored techniques achieve medical acceptance.  Of particular interest to me, a small trial published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine offers insight into possible mechanisms.

Pranayama-Benefits
image cited: http://healthresearchfunding.org/kpalbhati-pranayama-benefits/

The study synopsis is as follows: 20 participants were randomized into two groups either receiving instruction in a yogic breathing technique or placebo, which was defined as a concentration based mental exercise.  Those in the test group were instructed to chant mantra verses for 10 minutes, then preform 10 minutes of breathing exercises according to the guidance of a yoga expert.  At 5-minute intervals after the completion of the exercises, saliva samples were drawn and inflammatory molecules therein were measured.  The treatment and control groups were then compared head-to-head.  After 20 minutes, the markers which achieved statistically significant decreases include, IL-1B IL-8, and MCP-1; IL-1RA, IL-6, IL-10, IL-17, IP-10, MIP-1b, and TNF-α did not appear to differ between the groups.  Based on these outcomes, scientists can better determine which form of inflammation is most apt to respond to pranayama therapy.

The study at hand makes no claims to offer definitive advice for the development of an alternative treatment program.  Indeed, there are several limitations:

  1. The long term effect of pranayama therapy was not explored.  Traditionally, success at yoga could take weeks, months, or years depending on circumstances and efforts of the practitioners.
  2. There is an important confounding variable which hasn’t been accounted for.  The participants could be responding to the guiding influence of the yoga instructor, not the yoga techniques in their own right.
  3. The sample size of the study was low, and furthermore, documented baseline characteristics were scant.  These shortcoming could have been improved if the investigators employed a cross-over study design.
  4. Quality-of-life and disease state progression findings cannot be inferred from the biomarker data.  We still don’t know how useful a pranayama practice might be compared to other available treatment options.

Despite these limitation, I am still quite optimistic for the about the anti-inflammatory properties of yogic breathing.  Furthermore, the ability for investigators to measure biomolecules via the non-invasive saliva test will influence future yoga research.  Although expert opinion may still be the best guide to judge the medicinal value of pranayama for the time being, the study at hand is a bold step forward.

Reference:

Twal WO, Wahlquist AE, and Balasubramanian S. Yogic breathing when compared to attention control reduces the levels of pro-inflammatory biomarkers in saliva. BMC Complement Altern Med, 2016 Aug; 16 (294): 1-10.

Available From:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4991069/pdf/12906_2016_Article_1286.pdf

 

A traveling song for the wandering yogi

Ever since publishing my first blog post, Departing on my daily practice, I’ve been working to convey the various aspects of my practice that would otherwise go unnoticed.  Today, I reverse the discussion.  Why you ask?  Because the ability to practice without expectation (i.e. ‘unnoticed’) is a wonderful starting point for developing a personalized yoga practice.  This time around, I draw inspiration from the acclaimed fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings.

the_argonath___lord_of_the_rings_tcg_by_jcbarquet-d84gqh8
image cited: http://jcbarquet.deviantart.com/art/The-Argonath-Lord-of-the-Rings-TCG-491228684

An appreciation of the journey has been a recurring theme of my life as a yoga practitioner, and to a lesser extent as a blogger.  In J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, our protagonist Frodo departs the Shire after midnight with his two traveling companions, making haste under the cover of darkness.  We find the same thing in life.  The urgency to make a meaningful change would sputter if one draws too much attention to oneself.  After all, the alchemy of transforming doubt into resolve is not akin to Gandalf’s magic but rather a Hobbit’s playful stealth.

So often, our quest is not our own choosing.  Let me share with you a traveling song from Middle Earth to convey this experience:

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow if I can,

Pursuing it with weary feet.

Until it joins some larger way,

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

Pippin says that Frodo’s rhyme “Does not sound altogether encouraging” (p.72).  I’m fascinated by his exact impression.  After all, it is not easy to cast aside the comforts of Hobbiton in exchange for the trepidation of a journey into uncharted territories.  And yet, our ability to exert free will amid the Ringwraiths of our own lives requires this much of us.  One needs to be willing to let go of the old ways in order to forge a new path.

The Meaning of AUM

According to the late Sanskrit scholar Eknath Easwaran, the Mandukya Upanishad “Captures the essentials of mystical insight.”  It is the tiniest of the Upanishads and also the one in which the metaphor of AUM is revealed.  I’ll present for you the first stanza and then offer my reflection on the remaining eleven.  

“AUM stands for the Supreme Reality.

It is a symbol of what was, what is,

And what will be. AUM represents also

What lies beyond past, present and Future” (1).

flashy_aum
image cited: http://www.kiwiburn.com/event/aum-a-new-direction-in-light-and-sound

I clearly recall taking a workshop with Dharma Mittra, in which he urged his students to draw attention to each of the three syllables featured in the A-U-M.  His teaching clearly maps to the modes of consciousness explored in the remaining verses.  To paraphrase, ‘A’ represents wakefulness, ‘U’ – dreamlike reflection, and ‘M’ – meditative stillness.  Today, I am musing about the origin of the whole universe.  I’ve heard more than one Vedic expert claim AUM to be the subtle sound of the big bang.  This wisdom nicely coincides with the Mandukya Upanishad upon reading its last stanza.

“The mantrum AUM stands for the supreme state

Of turiya, without parts, beyond birth

And Death, symbol of everlasting joy.

Those who know AUM as the Self become the Self;

Truly they become the Self” (12).

sparkling-blue-universe_131922
image cited: http://ancientexplorers.com/blog/discovery-of-the-largest-structure-in-the-universe/

We know that the Self and the universe and not separate.  Einstein proved this, and much more, when he formulated his theory of General Relativity.  If space and time are indeed curved, perhaps too, the past, present and future coincide at its edges.  In this way, AUM represents not only the union of the Self and Atman, as written, but also a semblance of our personal life cycle with that of the greater universe.

Grateful for Chrissy

Today, I took an Ashtanga Vinyasa class with the incredible Chrissy LeFavour at her Grateful Yoga studio in Montpelier, VT.  A transcript of our conversation appears below:

chrissy_and_me
Chrissy and I performing Visvamitrasana at Grateful Yoga

 

Bryan: How did you get into yoga? What is your story?

Chrissy: My story around yoga started with Pilates.  I got into Pilates in high school because I had a lot of spasms in my lower back.  It was really the only way I could exercise and feel comfortable in my spine.  But there were many more studios around the world dedicated to teaching yoga compared to Pilates.  I started dropping into classes in the Caribbean, in places like St. John, as well as studios in Europe.  After graduating college, I wanted to do something other than waiting tables, so I took out a student loan to participate in yoga teacher training at Yoga Vermont.  And that pretty much takes me to the end of my story.  I fell in love with Ashtanga and our mutual teacher, Kathy McNames.  The rest is history.

Bryan: Do you recall the moment you first met Kathy? Is there a clear memory associated with your first encounter?

Chrissy: The day I met Kathy was the Saturday she was doing the handstand workshop.  I actually have the notes from that first session.  I still enjoy reading Kathy’s class quotes.  Ever since, I recall feeling so sure that this was exactly what I really wanted to be doing.

Bryan: It’s funny how my first clear recollection of Kathy also involved a handstand workshop. She’s one of a kind.

Chrissy: I totally agree.  I love her!

Bryan: I love how she brings everyone in class closer together. The guru is a recurring character in many enchanting tales. What are your favorite inspirational books?

Chrissy: Lately, I’ve been reading poetry in savasana.  Today I read Hafez.  I especially enjoy reading Rumi and Pablo Neruda.  At the end of class, I will sometimes recite passages from the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras.  I really like the book written by Iyengar’s daughter called Gem, which is a book about yoga for women, it’s one of my new favorites.  I also enjoy the Yoga Makaranda and the Yoga Mala, probably because they are written by Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois.  Those are the two which I revisit again and again.

Bryan: Those last two books you mentioned are really meaningful to me too. I truly enjoy the twentieth century yoga classics. I know that you enjoy hosting yoga trips to the Caribbean, can you tell me a little bit about what’s happening in the near future?

Chrissy: I’m currently working to run a teacher training trip to an eco-friendly hotel in the Dominican Republic.  I started learning more about the people there.  The culture of the north coast is incredible and the people there are some of the most physically active people you’ll ever meet.  They use their bodies every day for horseback riding, hiking and kite surfing.  And they are also really interested in yoga. So the more I talk to the people, the more I revisit the country.  I’ve really fallen in love with them.  My personal goal is to teach yoga classes in Spanish.

Bryan: Wow, I love that idea too. I’m one of these uni-lingual people. Learning a second language would open up worlds for me.

Chrissy: Yes, so we are currently excited to be hosting a trip in April and then another one in November.  I’ve been watching yoga videos of teachers speaking in Spanish and teaching in Spanish.  When I make an effort to use the vocab at the market, even if it does not sound perfect, I get a lot of respect for trying.

Bryan: That reminds of how Kathy always likes to say, “You can’t do it wrong, you can only do it again.”

Chrissy: Exactly, I’ve learned that you have to be unafraid to fail in order to eventually succeed.  In that way, it’s exactly like yoga. Also, if you look at the formulas in the Romance language structure, the skills towards progressing in a language like Spanish really builds on itself.  It reminds me of how advanced series builds on intermediate series and intermediate series builds on a strong primary series foundation.  It takes a lot of work too.

Bryan: While we are on the topic of language and yoga, I’m wondering, what does your life philosophy entail? What does philosophy mean to you?

Chrissy: Those are really deep questions.  I think of myself first and foremost as a yoga student, and teacher / business owner secondly.  That’s because, in my view, simplicity is the most fundamental philosophy.  Through simplicity, I also find myself returning to love.  Love is the purest of all emotions. And the more I simplify my life, the easier it is to love the people we share the universe with.

A brief reflection on a backache

Over the past week, my yoga practice hasn’t been what it used to be like.  I have been experiencing a recurring strain of the upper back.  The pain itself is located between my left shoulder blade and spine.  Upon treating it with a menthol-camphor cream and practicing minimally for a couple days, the pain lessens, then becomes undetectable.  I feel compelled to report a few surprising observations in order to document my approach to recovery.

Rhomboidei
Rhomboid muscle group (shown in red) connects the thoracic vertebrae to the scapula.  Image cited: Häggström, Mikael (2014).

After browsing through Yoga Anatomy by Lesley Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, I self-diagnosed my condition as a sprain of the rhomboid muscle group.  Secondary to the backache, my ability to recruit the muscles of the hips and abdomen was also impaired.  The only plausible explanation for this outcome was that the spine serves to mediate the forces between the upper and lower torso.  The maxim, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” accurately conveys how a release of tension in one location can cause weakness in a distant site.  Although Issac Newton did not openly muse about uddiyana bandha, his insight is super applicable to core stability.  Evidently, in addition to preforming isolated movements, muscle strength is required to reconcile forces which would otherwise compromise our musculature.

Ilio-Psoas
The major psoas connects the lumbar vertebrae to the femur. Image cited: Hudson, Laura (2014).

There are several major muscles groups which are intimately connected to stability of the upper back, one of which is the psoas and another is the rectus abdominis (i.e. the abs).  Both are attached to the axial skeleton, and therefore it does not surprise me that any attempt to perform a bow pose or abdominal lift would be hindered by a sudden loss of rhomboid tone.  This recent adverse event has impressed upon me that, if I’d like to maximize my time spent on the mat, then I need to avoid re-injuring my left rhomboid.  Right now, I am in the process of easing myself back on track to practice 90 minutes of Ashtanga Vinyasa.  The experience continues to teach me the importance of careful observation.

The Fascinating Life of Nain Singh

Nain Singh was an infamous pundit (i.e. explorer) who made three grand expeditions to Tibet between 1865 and 1876.  The Royal Geographical Society took a keen interest in the Singh family as Great Britain sought to map the forbidden region.  Having grown up in the Johar valley in northern India, Nain was well acclimated to the weather, cultures and languages of its mountainous enclaves.  He would prove to be the ideal agent for these covert operations.  Disguised as a traditional hiking monk, he became the first non-native person to extensively chart the high plateau, all while retaining his clandestine identity.  I would like to reflect on Singh’s accomplishments and legacy.

NainSingh_photo
Photo of Nain Singh taken in 1876 for the Royal Geographical Society
Nain is considered to be the most notorious of the Singh pundits for several astonishing reasons.  Foremost, the intricate details of his character disguise and surveying techniques could only be compared to a modern day spy.  His begging bowl was really a scientific device, which when filled with mercury and then placed underneath a calibrated capillary tube could measure terrain elevations.  Singh artfully concealed the makeshift glass barometer in his hollowed-out monastic walking staff for good reason.  Any person caught entering Tibet with these sorts of contraband items would be punished, and moreover, the act of conspiring with a European nation was an unspeakable offense.  Although Singh probably did not realize it in 1865, cartography would become his family’s brand of espionage.

Nain Singh was neither the first nor last undercover agent to travel to the Tibetan plateau.  The medieval history of South Asia is teeming with stories of yogin spies.   It is said that these elusive warriors were hired for their ability to collect and run military intelligence.  On one occasion, a single yogi was responsible for reporting the location of foreign invaders in time for a Bhutanese patrol to mount a successful counter offensive.  In the case of Singh, he perfectly fit the profile of the feared yogi.  He was trained in using a sham 100-bead mala, not as a prayer counter, but as a pace counter.  Furthermore, Singh kept a collection records carefully concealed within a modified Tibetan prayer wheel.  If thoroughly inspected, it would be easy to detect the sacrilege in his guise.  And with each expedition, his chance of capture seemed ever more likely.

Singh’s third and final expedition would prove to be his most perilous.  Commissioned to trek from Leh to Peking, his secret identity was discovered by guardsmen inhabiting western Tibet.  Although he was later deemed a pacifist, then released, suspicions about his whereabouts did spread.  By the time he arrived in Lhasa, he came to understand that he was a wanted man.  After abandoning his traveling companions, Singh decided to trick his pursuers by rerouting his expedition through the wilderness.  Instead of arranging to board a Chinese caravan reportedly stationed at village along the Tsangpo river, he decided to take his chances through the treacherous corridors of the eastern Himalayas on foot to Assam (see map below).  Singh’s legendary trek covered 1,405 miles of which 1,200 were previously uncharted.

nainmap
Map depicts Nain Singh’s final journey. Image published in The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia by Derek Waller
Nain Singh was celebrated upon making his miraculous return to British India.  The crown granted him the authority to rule two villages for his services.  Based on his strong affiliation with the imperialist superpower of the day, one may anticipate Singh’s legacy to be controversial at best.  However, I tend to conclude that today’s Indians see him as an enigmatic hero.  His ability to persuade the ruling elite of the day that the peoples of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal were nationally distinct from their neighbors to the south is worthy of praise.  In 2004, as a statement of appreciation, the Indian government issued Singh’s portrait on the national stamp.  Given our present-day fascination with spy fiction, I predict that pundits like Nain Singh will attract additional notoriety for decades to come.

For more information, please see the following resources:

Waller, Derek. “The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia.” University Press of Kentucky. 2004, Nov 17.

“Nain singh’s last exploration.” PBS Online. Available from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/tibet/ascend/singh.html

Our 72 thousand stringed instrument

“Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.” Those were the keynote words of the late Ravi Shankar back in 1971 when he addressed an applauding audience at the Concert for Bangladesh.  For those unfamiliar with the event, it was curated by George Harrison as a means for providing immediate humanitarian relief to the people of a new nation whom were embroiled in a geopolitical crisis.  Legendary in its effectiveness, it would become the model for future benefit concerts worldwide.  The physical practices of yoga have left a similar legacy, in so far as its beginning stages were nothing short of revolutionary, and yet the best is still yet to come.

Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar playing his sitar in the 1960’s

According to Indian folklore, every body contains roughly 72,000 energetic channels (nadis).  Yoga postures themselves merely provides the most basic groundwork towards reaching our inner potentials.  Being an amateur guitarist, I liken my yoga practice to the act of preparing, tuning, and playing a 72,000 stringed musical instrument.  I’d like to unpack this analogy step-by-step as I explain some to the stages of the Ashtanga Yoga method.

1. Thoughtful preparation with asana:

Our awareness of our subtle body can be accomplished by practicing postures (asana).  It just so happens that a consistent routine helps us make sense of our innate energetic connections (i.e. the strings).  Our central nervous system is continuous yet contains several nodes corresponding to the chakras.  These chakras have on them what are sometimes called petals which are represented by our (autonomic) neural networks.  The vibrations of these petals can be felt as we move from pose to pose with purpose and intent.  An experience of bouyancy typically follows an asana practice as the static noise of the chakra centers begin to clear.  This essentially explains why yoga feels so good.  This is wonderful news, because with so many nadis to strengthen and purify, if the process did not feel great, then very few people would continue to put in the effort!

2. Tuning in with pranayama:

It is not enough to attach strings to a musical instrument then expect it to play properly.  The ability to tune the nervous system, too, can be accomplished.  My preferred method is pranayama. Sometimes called the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, pranayama is a set of breathing techniques which dampen and resonate each aspects of our nervous system in several fascinating ways.  I find that the breath retention exercises which I practice feel similar to act of plucking harmonic pitches on my guitar.  There is a gentle hum which can both be heard and felt throughout the entire neck of the instrument.  A skillful musician can use specific harmonic intervals to tune the entire guitar; the only thing one needs in addition is a good tuning fork.  A guru is somewhat analogous to both the music teacher and the reference pitch.  I recommend inspired yoga practitioners to seek out a qualified teacher in order to learn these valuable pranayama techniques from the source.

harmonicsdiagram
Harmonic intervals along a guitar fret board

3. Exploring dhyana for everyone:

Ashtanga students start with postures, continue with breath work, and only then explore direct meditation (dhyana) techniques.  This formula helps ensure that we feel relaxed yet focused enough to benefit optimally.  Music can be a mindful art too, with distinct practices preparing us to play enjoyably for one another.  I find musicians like Ravi Shankar so inspirational, because with relaxed yet focused effort, these individuals play intimately for their accompanying musicians as well as each and every person in the audience.  We all share the joys of beautiful music together.  Step-by-step, I am beginning to realize that dhyana is so very similar.