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.
sirsasana_33821659772_o
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:

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.