Become Smarter in 20 Minutes

uttanasana

*Disclaimer* You won’t become a rocket scientist or be able to cure cancer, but you might just become smarter with just 20 minutes of hatha yoga practice.

Neha Goethe studied the effects of yoga on cognitive function in adults for her PhD. In a paper published by the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Goethe and colleagues studied 30 young female undergrads who had never practised yoga or other mind-body exercises.

All of the participants were put into the 3 test conditions on 3 different days – 20 minutes of yoga, jogging or running at 60% to 70% of the maximum heart rate, or being at rest. They were not to have done any physical exercise on the test days.

On the days that the participants did yoga, their cognitive tests did better in terms of speed and accuracy. Possible reasons that Sarang and Telles explored included yoga practice helps to reduce anxiety – this in turn increases cognitive performance.

The following yoga postures were practised for this study:

  1. Standing forward bend – Uttanasana – 1 minute
  2. Tree pose –  Vrikshasana – 1 minute
  3. Triangle pose – Trikoasana  – 2 minutes
  4. Reverse triangle pose – Parivrtta trikoasana – 2 minutes
  5. Downward facing dog – Adho mukha shvanasana  – 2 minutes
  6. Easy camel pose – Ustrasana – 2 minutes
  7. Hare pose – Shashankasana – 2 minutes
  8. Sun salutation – Surya Namaskaar – 4 minutes
  9. Deep breathing in lotus pose – Padmasana pranayama – 4 minutes

Personal opinion, the poses are great for balancing and strength. These activate mental processes for proprioception or the knowledge of where your body parts are. You must be thinking… Of course I know where my parts are. My newbie students who are trying the Camel pose for the first time struggle to find their ankles. Its not easy when you are a newbie to yoga.

Most researchers found that vigorous exercise leads to better cognitive function, due to cardiovascular effects and the release of endorphins that enables relaxation. However, I personally find that yoga requires a larger amount of body control. When your mind has to act to tell your body what to do, the neurological synapsing (or links) are strengthened. Bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence is recognised as one of the multiple intelligences. Even if you can’t get academic smarts, you sure can start to get more kinaesthetically intelligent.

Try this 20 minute workout now.

Reference

Gothe N, Pontefex MB, Hillman C, McAuley E. The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function. Journal of Physical Activity & Health. 2013 May;10(4):488-95

Sarang SP, Telles S. Immediate effect of two Yoga-based relaxation techniques on performance in a letter-cancellation task. Percept Mot Skills. 2007;105:379-385.

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Lower Back Care Using Yoga

Downward Dog Pose

Many curious beginners are intimidated by the acrobatic, gravity-defying poses splashed across magazine covers and Facebook pages and rightfully question whether yoga is safe for them. The answer, as with many of life’s great questions, is… sort of. Advanced yoga asanas, especially when performed solely for the purposes of physical fitness involve a great deal of strain on joints, tendons and ligaments which can lead to injury as in any other sport.

In my last article , I introduced some recent studies that suggest that yoga can be helpful in the management of lower back pain. So far so good, but which specific asanas can be beneficial to the back-pain sufferer? And more importantly, can certain asanas actually be dangerous for some people?

Dr. Sinaki, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic, U.S.A. describes how spinal flexion exercises (ie. forward bends) has been associated in rare cases with compression fractures of the vertebrae in patients with osteopenia (low bone density not severe enough to be considered osteoporosis). He singles out Halasana, or Plow Pose, as one asana which may put undue strain on the upper back in patients with osteopenia.

Beware when you are doing this posture

Beware when you are doing this posture

So how can you tell if your body is ready for a particular asana? Remember that the very definition of the word ‘asana’ is ‘stable posture.’ The true benefits of any asana only become apparent when you are able to steadily and comfortably hold the posture while remaining in touch with your body. If your body is telling you that it cannot take the strain, it is probably right.

Which brings us back to our original question: what yoga asanas can be useful in relieving back pain? In her 2009 study comparing an Iyengar yoga program to standard treatment for sufferers of low back pain, Dr. Kimberley Williams of West Virginia University consulted with two senior teachers to design a gentle twice-weekly Iyengar yoga regimen  suitable for beginners. The sequence of postures can be found via the following links:

http://links.lww.com/BRS/A385

http://links.lww.com/BRS/A386

http://links.lww.com/BRS/A387

So remember, yoga can indeed be the key to a healthier, happier back… as long you don’t overdo it!

Michael Cheung, M.D.

References

Sinaki, M. Yoga spinal flexion positions and vertebral compression fracture in osteopenia or osteoporosis of spine: case series. Pain Pract. 2013 Jan;13(1):68-75.

Williams, K. et al. Evaluation of the effectiveness and efficacy of Iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain. Spine. 2009 Sep 1;34(19):2066-76

Photo Credits

Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

yogamama.co.uk

Yoga, The Haze and Asthma

Image

It’s the time of the year again in Singapore when the haze is in town, no thanks to Indonesian farmers who burn their forests to clear land. Short of making both political and apolitical jabs, I decided that there is something better to do – help my asthmatic friends out there get some relief.

There are always costly ways to alleviate your asthma through corticosteroid therapy – it is financially and physically expensive to do so. You will grow reliant on it and sad to say these meds may be bringing you closer to your death.

Indians have been using yoga as a cost-efficient and complementary approach to inhalant steroids. Some studies displayed that effects such as decreased amount of medication dosage and asthmatic attacks becoming less frequent.

An extensive review, by Sharma, Haider and Bose in 2012 published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, dug through 15 international studies held in US, UK, Australia, India and even Ethopia.

These studies used a variety of yogic methods including pranayama (breathing exercises) and low impact asanas (yoga postures). The more recent studies have shown that participants with mild to moderate asthma had significant improvement with more air passing through their airways. The diagnostic test for lung function, Forced Expiratory Volume (FEV) was shown to have improved as well.

Well, how much yoga should you do?

I personally like the method devised by Sodhi, Singh and Dandona from Christian Medical College of Ludhiana, India. Their statistical test seemed the most rigorous of the lot, with a statistical significance set below 1%.  They also had a big sample size of 120 participants and with a wide age group of participants from 17 to 50.

They recommended a course of pranayama, kapalabhati and ujjayi over a period of 8 weeks, where 45 minute weekly sessions are held with a trained instructor and the participant practises the exercises twice daily for 45 minutes.

For now, yoga is still thought to be a complementary relief next to corticosteroids. So don’t drop your inhaler just yet. It is also a great indoor exercise till the skies are clear for us to get out there to romp around. So till then, why not sign up for a yoga class?

Reference

 Manoj Sharma, Taj Haider and Partha P. Bose. Yoga as an Alternative and Complementary Treatment for Asthma : A Systematic Review.Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine 2012 17: 212 originally published online 18 July 2012

Sodhi C, Singh S, Dandona PK. A study of the effect of yoga training on pulmonary functions in patients with bronchial asthma. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 2009;53:169-174.

12 Minutes to Sleep for Insomniacs

sleep

Insomnia is usually caused by inappropriate arousal – it could be the coffee that you had, it could also be your work or literally anything can cause you to be staying up.

I talked about how to calm down in 6 seconds using yogic breathing last time around. In 660 seconds, you can have your sleep.

I suffered from insomnia while I was living in Perth, Australia. It was winter, most people sleep through it. But there I was unable to sleep. There was the cold and general stress to deal with.

A new Bikram Yoga studio opened up near my home. I thought to myself, I can get fit and warm at the same time. It was a great idea! So I took up my first hot yoga session there.
It was HOT. Very hot. I rested in “child’s pose” for most of the 90 minute class. But that night, I slept like never before. And it continued through winter, every time after a Bikram class. I was finally a happy camper. It wasn’t the heat, because I had been through Cambodian summers of 45 degree Celsius.

It was the yoga.

Yoga helps to decrease arousal level. Most people can’t get to sleep because there is just something that has to keep running in their heads.

Well, what do you do?
Khalsa, who is a Kundalini yogi and assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School, ran a study with 20 chronic insomniacs. Over a course of 8 weeks daily, the participants meditated on their breathing using the ratio inhale: hold: exhale 4: 16: 2 seconds. They sat, while ensuring they had a straight but relaxed spine.

For the first 3 minutes, they were to focus on long and slow abdominal breathing. In the following 3 minutes, their arms were extended vertically outwards at around 60 degrees, with their palms facing up. The palms are pushed together at the sternum level for the next 3 minutes. In the final 3 minutes, the palms are rested in the lap, and the right palm rested over the left palm while thumbs are touching.

In Khalsa’s study, participants got to sleep more easily, better and longer! They were lying in bed for a much lesser time.

Karen Then from Bikram Yoga Victoria Park recommends these poses from the Bikram sequence to help you get to sleep:

1) Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose
2) Wind Removing Pose
3) Half Tortoise
4) Half Spinal Twist
5) Savasana

Give it a go and let us know if you are sleeping better!

Reference
Treatment of Chronic Insomnia with Yoga: A Preliminary Study with Sleep–Wake Diaries. Khalsa, Sat Bir S. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vol. 29, No. 4, December 2004 ( C _ 2004)

6 Seconds to Calming Down using Yoga

Photo by: José Antonio Morcillo Valenciano from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by: José Antonio Morcillo Valenciano from Flickr Creative Commons

Pranayama* or the control of breath is one of the most important aspects of yoga. We all require air to help us metabolize. A human can go without food for 7 days, but not one can go without it for minutes. Yet many of us take breathing for granted. It is natural to us and does not require any active control.

The control of our breath helps us to regulate things like parasympathetic nervous system, which acts to reduce our “fight or flight” mechanisms such as our heart rate, blood pressure and even anxiety levels. We can also use our breath to balance ourselves physically at the asanas (postures), calm ourselves down mentally and emotionally regulate.

Hence at the commencement of your yoga journey, your teacher will start with slow abdominal breathing. When you use your abdominals to breath, you are pulling your diaphragm down. The diaphragm is a thin muscle layer that separates the lungs from the digestive organs. By pulling your diaphragm down, your lungs have more space to expand. And by having a larger lung capacity, more air goes into your lungs.

The average person takes 12 breaths per minute. However, respiratory research has shown that slow breathing (approximately 5 to 6 breathes) has tremendous benefits.

Why?

When breathing slowly, there is a larger volume of air that is taken in by the body. It stretches receptors in the vagus nerve that leads to the brain, which in turn lowers the blood pressure.

How slowly should you inhale and exhale to enjoy the maximum benefit from slow breathing?

There are many schools of thought in this. I belong to the Sivananda training, where the inhalation to retention to exhalation ratio is 1: 4 : 2 (measured in seconds).

However, scientists led by Heather Mason from Roehampon University (UK) recommend equal rates of inhalation to exhalation to improve oxygenation of blood for yoga newbies; with a minimum of 5 seconds to enjoy maximum stimulation of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system to help in reducing the heart rate and blood pressure – great for calming.

In my next article, I will explore how yoga alleviates insomnia, which many people suffer from. Meanwhile, enjoy a newer calmer you.

Reference:

Cardiovascular and Respiratory Effect of Yogic Slow Breathing in the Yoga Beginner: What is the Best Approach by Heather Mason, Matteo Vandoni, Giacomo deBarbieri, Erwan Condrons, Veena Ugargol and Luciano Bernardi. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Volume 2013, Article ID 743504. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/743504

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Yoga and Back Pain

Is Yoga good for the lower back?

Is Yoga good for the lower back?

As a physician, chronic back pain is one of the most common complaints I hear from my patients, and also one of the hardest to treat. Western medicine is often ineffective in managing this type of pain.

In its latest guidelines on the management of low back pain , the American College of Physicians recommends that “clinicians should consider the addition of nonpharmacologic therapy with proven benefits […]; for chronic or subacute low back pain, intensive interdisciplinary rehabilitation, exercise therapy, acupuncture, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, yoga, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or progressive relaxation.”

But what is the evidence that yoga can be effective in relieving back pain?

First of all, it is important to realize that back pain is often a symptom of something more serious.  Thus, anyone experiencing unexplained weight loss, fever, urinary retention, incontinence, as well as pain, weakness or numbness in the legs should consult with a physician to rule out a serious medical condition.

The best evidence that yoga can be used as part of a management strategy for low back pain comes from a recent review by Holger Cramer et al which appeared in the Clinical Journal of Pain in May 2013. By combining the results of eight studies on the effects of yoga on chronic back pain, the authors conclude that there is “strong evidence for short-term and moderate evidence for long-term reduction of low back pain and back-specific disability after yoga interventions.”

An earlier 2005 study by Karen Sherman compared a 12-week program of hatha yoga to a program of aerobic strengthening exercises and found that the yoga group scored slightly better on a pain and disability questionnaire at the end of the program compared to the exercise group.

There is a growing belief that emotional, psychological and social factors may be important in the experience of pain, and yoga, which originated as a holistic series of both mental and physical practices may hold an advantage over other forms of exercise in these areas.

Evidence that yoga may provide relief for chronic back pain is growing. As with anything, though, it is important to find a qualified teacher who can guide you through the process safely.

In the group’s next article, we will share with you what are some postures that are recommended and not recommended.

Dr. Michael Cheung, MD

References

  1. Chou R, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of low back pain: a joint clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society. Ann Intern Med. 2007;147(7):478-91.

Connected to the Universe with Yoga

Yoga for the World

Yoga has become an internationally recognized word. Perhaps it is known just as a word, YOGA, or perhaps it is known as physical stretching, or contortion, or spirituality, or meditation, or maybe even a cult, but none the less, it is known. Over the past 20 years, there has been a huge emergence of yoga and everything related to it. From studios, to pants, to retreats, to DVD’s and everything in between, if it is synonymous with yoga, it has been packaged and sold. Medically yoga has been studied and tested, and in most cases, it turns out that it does have many health benefits. It is important to us, especially in the western world, that medically and scientifically we can back things up. So, we’ve all bought into it, or know someone who has, but where is it all going? 

I am writing this from my hotel in Vietnam. Being from Canada, Vietnam has always seemed very far away, culturally rich and just plain different. I have been travelling for the past five months through India and South East Asia, this journey has opened my awareness in so many facets. Mainly, how similar the world is becoming. How people are dressing, how buildings and bridges are being designed, food, diet, education and thinking, it all is becoming shockingly familiar. Could the entire world be merging into one uniculture? Witnessing the way it is all going, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say this is a possibility.  Because a significant part of my travels has been yoga related, I think about the subject a lot. I attempt to inspire and share what I know but most of all, I put it into practise in my own life. Understanding and feeling the stillness within is the key to universal oneness. If this means nothing to you, then let’s just say that doing yoga has helped me become a better person. It has made me become more understanding and compassionate towards other people (even those who I have perceived as hurtful to me), more aware of nature and my impact on it, and viewing all living species as a gift that needs to be respected. I know that I am not the only person thinking this way. I know there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individuals who think and feel the same as me.  So why then is there so much destruction, greed, class disparity, hatred, world segregation, discrimination (to name a few) in the world? With the globe becoming smaller and smaller and thoughts, aspirations, and actions all pointing in similar directions internationally, where is all this yoga? Do you see it? We have studied the brain and the physical body down to the smallest molecule. Medically we have made astonishing leaps in curing and preventing, but yet, we know so little about the mind. How can such an intellectually advanced species who each individually breathes every 2-3 seconds consciously poison the very air we need to survive? How can we all aspire to the same dream for our children yet kill those who cross an invisible line. Universally we are not conscious, we do not see everyone as one, we do not act as though the entire world is connected, we do not see the ripple affect of our little irresponsibilities. Or do we?  Is there something shifting today? Is all this talk of yoga helping, is it making a small but life-changing impact for us all? Is it possible that by you sitting still, focusing on your breath, feeling your heart beat and plugging-in to YOU can impact the universal consciousness? The world as we know it?

I am going to take a leap and say YES, absolutely. It all starts within, within you, no one else. It is true that more and more of us cannot live with being stressed and unhappy and we are tired of waiting for the miracle cure. We have tried it all, medically proven or hope driven, and it hasn’t worked. But what does work is yoga. The western medical system has not tapped into the subtle workings of the mind. It has not proven scientifically that by being individually conscious, we can change the world. But do we really need scientific backing? If you experience a dynamic and positive shift in your life and see other peoples lives around you become better because of this shift, does it matter? And are we even capable of examining such a subtle form of mind? Is it possible for someone who has no internal connection to study this on some who does?  I hope that the medical system can some day back up my words, but in the meantime it doesn’t matter. I know that the actions that I take in my life impact you ultimately. They impact the greater consciousness, in Canada and India and Vietnam, all around the world. I know that by me becoming a more conscious consumer, eating less meat or no meat, using less plastic, living off-the-grid, and so on, I am helping you. I know this because of yoga, so we can thank yoga for changing the world, one person at a time.  Andrea Clark, RYT 500 www.nectaryoga.ca