What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility

Aside

What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility

In recent years, biomedical research has begun to investigate and appreciate what yogis have known for centuries: Stretching keeps us limber, youthful, and healthy.

Source: Fernando Pagés Ruiz • Yoga Journal Issue 209

If you’re already practicing yoga, you don’t need exercise scientists and physiologists to convince you of the benefits of stretching. Instead, you’d probably like them to tell you if there’s anything in their flexibility research that can help you go deeper in your asanas. For example, when you fold into a forward bend and are brought up short by the tightness in the back of your legs, can science tell you what’s going on? And can that knowledge help you go deeper?

The answer to both questions is “Yes.” A knowledge of physiology can help you visualize the inner workings of your body and focus on the specific mechanisms that help you stretch. You can optimize your efforts if you know whether the tightness in your legs is due to poor skeletal alignment, stiff connective tissues, or nerve reflexes designed to keep you from hurting yourself. And if you know whether any uncomfortable sensations you feel are warnings that you’re about to do damage, or whether they’re just notices that you’re entering exciting new territory, you can make an intelligent choice between pushing on or backing off—and avoid injuries.

In addition, new scientific research may even have the potential to extend the wisdom of yoga. If we understand more clearly the complex physiology involved in yogic practices, we may be able refine our techniques for opening our bodies.
Why Stretch?

Of course, yoga does far more than keep us limber. It releases tensions from our bodies and minds, allowing us to drop more deeply into meditation. In yoga, “flexibility” is an attitude that invests and transforms the mind as well as the body.

But in Western, physiological terms, “flexibility” is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It’s an ability we’re born with, but that most of us lose. “Our lives are restricted and sedentary,” explains Dr. Thomas Green, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, “so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range.”

Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we got the daily exercise we needed to keep our bodies flexible and healthy. But modern, sedentary life is not the only culprit that constricts muscles and joints. Even if you’re active, your body will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Your muscle fibers have begun to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cellular structure.

Remember the cheesy ’70s sci-fi flick in which Raquel Welch and her miniaturized submarine crew get injected into someone’s bloodstream? To really grasp how Western physiology can benefit asana practice, we need to go on our own internal odyssey, diving deep into the body to examine how muscles work.

Muscles are organs—biological units built from various specialized tissues that are integrated to perform a single function. (Physiologists divide muscles into three types: the smooth muscles of the viscera; the specialized cardiac muscles of the heart; and the striated muscles of the skeleton—but in this article we’ll focus only on skeletal muscles, those familiar pulleys that move the bony levers of our bodies.)

The specific function of muscles, of course, is movement which is produced by muscle fibers, bundles of specialized cells that change shape by contracting or relaxing. Muscle groups operate in concert, alternately contracting and stretching in precise, coordinated sequences to produce the wide range of movements of which our bodies are capable.

In skeletal movements, the working muscles—the ones that contract to move your bones—are called the “agonists.” The opposing groups of muscles—the ones that must release and elongate to allow movement—are called the “antagonists.” Almost every movement of the skeleton involves the coordinated action of agonist and antagonist muscle groups: They’re the yang and yin of our movement anatomy.

But although stretching—the lengthening of antagonist muscles—is half the equation in skeletal movement, most exercise physiologists believe that increasing the elasticity of healthy muscle fiber is not an important factor in improving flexibility. According to Michael Alter, author of Science of Flexibility (Human Kinetics, 1998), current research demonstrates that individual muscle fibers can be stretched to approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing. This extendibility enables muscles to move through a wide range of motion, sufficient for most stretches—even the most difficult asanas.

If your muscle fibers don’t limit your ability to stretch, what does? There are two major schools of scientific thought on what actually most limits flexibility and what should be done to improve it. The first school focuses not on stretching muscle fiber itself but on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs; the second addresses the “stretch reflex” and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Yoga works on both. That’s why it’s such an effective method for increasing flexibility.
Your Internal Knitting

Connective tissues include a variety of cell groups that specialize in binding our anatomy into a cohesive whole. It is the most abundant tissue in the body, forming an intricate mesh that connects all our body parts and compartmentalizes them into discrete bundles of anatomical structure—bones, muscles, organs, etc. Almost every yoga asana exercises and improves the cellular quality of this varied and vital tissue, which transmits movement and provides our muscles with lubricants and healing agents. But in the study of flexibility we are concerned with only three types of connective tissue: tendons, ligaments, and muscle fascia. Let’s explore each of them briefly.

Tendons transmit force by connecting bones to muscle. They are relatively stiff. If they weren’t, fine motor coordination like playing piano or performing eye surgery would be impossible. While tendons have enormous tensile strength, they have very little tolerance to stretching. Beyond a 4 percent stretch, tendons can tear or lengthen beyond their ability to recoil, leaving us with lax and less responsive muscle-to-bone connections.

Ligaments can safely stretch a bit more than tendons—but not much. Ligaments bind bone to bone inside joint capsules. They play a useful role in limiting flexibility, and it is generally recommended that you avoid stretching them. Stretching ligaments can destabilize joints, compromising their efficiency and increasing your likelihood of injury. That’s why you should flex your knees slightly—rather than hyperextending them—in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), releasing tension on posterior knee ligaments (and also on the ligaments of the lower spine).

Muscle fascia is the third connective tissue that affects flexibility, and by far the most important. Fascia makes up as much as 30 percent of a muscle’s total mass, and, according to studies cited in Science of Flexibility, it accounts for approximately 41 percent of a muscle’s total resistance to movement. Fascia is the stuff that separates individual muscle fibers and bundles them into working units, providing structure and transmitting force.

Many of the benefits derived from stretching—joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation, and enhanced mobility—are related to the healthy stimulation of fascia. Of all the structural components of your body which limit your flexibility, it is the only one that you can stretch safely. Anatomist David Coulter, author of Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, reflects this in his description of the asanas as “a careful tending to your internal knitting.”

Now let’s apply this physiology lesson to a basic but very powerful posture: Paschimottanasana. We’ll begin with the anatomy of the asana.

The name of this pose combines three words: “Paschima,” the Sanskrit word for “west”; “uttana,” which means “intense stretch”; and “asana,” or “posture.” Since yogis traditionally practiced facing east toward the sun, “west” refers to the entire back of the human body.

This seated forward bend stretches a muscle chain that begins at the Achilles tendon, extends up the back of the legs and pelvis, then continues up along the spine to end at the base of your head. According to yoga lore, this asana rejuvenates the vertebral column and tones the internal organs, massaging the heart, kidneys, and abdomen.

Imagine you’re lying on your back in yoga class, getting ready to fold up and over into Paschimottanasana. Your arms are relatively relaxed, palms on your thighs. Your head is resting comfortably on the floor; your cervical spine is soft, but awake. The instructor asks you to lift your trunk slowly, reaching out through your tailbone and up through the crown of your head, being careful not to overarch and strain your lower back as you move up and forward. She suggests that you picture an imaginary string attached to your chest, gently pulling you out and up—opening anahata chakra, the heart center—as you rotate through the hips into a seated position.

The image your teacher is using is not just poetic, it’s also anatomically accurate. The primary muscles at work during this first phase of a forward bend are the rectus abdominis that run along the front of your trunk. Attached to your ribs just below your heart and anchored to your pubic bone, these muscles are the anatomical string that literally pulls you forward from the heart chakra.

The secondary muscles working to pull your torso up run through your pelvis and along the front of your legs: the psoas, linking torso and legs, the quadriceps on the front of your thighs, and the muscles adjacent to your shin bones.

In Paschimottanasana, the muscles running from heart to toe along the front of your body are the agonists. They’re the muscles that contract to pull you forward. Along the back of your torso and legs are the opposing, or complementary, groups of muscles, which must elongate and release before you can move forward.

By now, you’ve stretched forward and settled into the pose completely, backing off slightly from your maximum stretch and breathing deeply and steadily. Your mind focuses on the subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) messages from your body. You feel a pleasant pull along the full length of your hamstrings. Your pelvis is tilted forward, your spinal column is lengthening, and you perceive a gentle increase in the spaces between each of your vertebrae.

Your instructor is quiet now, not pushing you to stretch further but allowing you to go deeper into the posture at your own pace. You’re getting to know the posture and getting comfortable with it. Perhaps you even feel like a timelessly serene statue as you hold Paschimottanasana for several minutes.

In this kind of practice, you’re maintaining the posture long enough to affect the plastic quality of your connective tissues. Prolonged stretches like this can produce healthful, permanent changes in the quality of the fascia that binds your muscles. Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and certified Iyengar instructor, uses prolonged asanas with patients at her clinic in Portland, Oregon. “If they hold the poses for shorter periods, people get a nice sense of release,” Gudmestad explains, “but they aren’t necessarily going to get the structural changes that add up to a permanent increase in flexibility.”

According to Gudmestad, stretches should be held 90 to 120 seconds to change the “ground substance” of connective tissue. Ground substance is the nonfibrous, gel-like binding agent in which fibrous connective tissues like collagen and elastin are embedded. Ground substance stabilizes and lubricates connective tissue. And it is commonly believed that restrictions in this substance can limit flexibility, especially as we age.

By combining precise postural alignment with the use of props, Gudmestad positions her patients to relax into asanas so they can remain long enough to make lasting change. “We make sure people aren’t in pain,” Gudmestad says, “so they can breathe and hold a stretch longer.”
Reciprocal Inhibition

Along with stretching connective tissue, much of the work we do in yoga aims to enlist the neurological mechanisms that allow our muscles to release and extend. One such mechanism is “reciprocal inhibition.” Whenever one set of muscles (the agonists) contracts, this built-in feature of the autonomic nervous system causes the opposing muscles (the antagonists) to release. Yogis have been using this mechanism for millennia to facilitate stretching.

To experience reciprocal inhibition firsthand, sit down in front of a table and gently press the edge of your hand, karate-chop style, onto the tabletop. If you touch the back of your upper arm—your triceps muscle—you’ll notice that it’s firmly engaged. If you touch the opposing muscles, the biceps (the big muscles on the front of your upper arm), they should feel relaxed.

In Paschimottanasana the same mechanism is at play. Your hamstrings are released when you engage their opposing muscle group, the quadriceps.

David Sheer, an orthopedic manual therapist in Nashville, Tennessee, uses the principle of reciprocal inhibition to help patients safely improve their range of motion. If you went to Sheer to improve your hamstring flexibility, he would work the quadriceps, developing strength in the front thigh to help relax the hamstrings. Then, when the hamstrings have achieved their maximum range for the day, Sheer would strengthen them with weight-bearing, isometric, or isotonic exercises.

At the Yoga Room of Nashville, Betty Larson, a certified Iyengar instructor, uses the principles of reciprocal inhibition to help yoga students release their hamstrings in Paschimottanasana.

“I remind my students to contract their quads,” says Larson, “lifting up the entire length of the front of the leg, so the back of the leg is loosened.” Larson also includes backbends in her classes to strengthen her students’ hamstrings and backs. She feels it’s extremely important to develop strength in the muscles you are stretching. Like many teachers, Larson is using ancient yogic techniques that apply physiological principles only recently understood by modern science.

According to Sheer, she’s doing the right thing. He claims the best type of flexibility combines improved range of motion with improved strength. “It’s useful flexibility,” says Sheer. “If you only increase your passive flexibility without developing the strength to control it, you make yourself more vulnerable to a serious joint injury.”

Let’s return to your Paschimottanasana. Imagine that this time, as you pivot from your pelvis and reach your trunk forward, your hamstrings are unusually tight. You can’t seem to move as deeply into the pose as you would like, and the harder you try, the tighter your hamstrings feel. Then your instructor reminds you to continue breathing and relax every muscle that’s not actively engaged in sustaining the pose.

You give up trying to match your personal best. You relax into the posture, without judgment, and slowly your hamstrings begin to release.

Why are you able to gradually bring your head toward your shins once you stop straining? According to science—and many ancient yogis—what was limiting your flexibility most wasn’t your body, it was your mind—or, at least, your nervous system.
The Stretch Reflex

According to physiologists who view the nervous system as the major obstacle to increased flexibility, the key to overcoming one’s limitations lies in another built-in feature of our neurology: the stretch reflex. Scientists who study flexibility think that the small, progressive steps that allow us to go a little deeper during the course of one session—and that dramatically improve our flexibility over a life of yoga practice—are in large part the result of retraining this reflex.

To get an understanding of the stretch reflex, picture yourself walking in a winter landscape. Suddenly you step on a patch of ice, and your feet start to splay apart. Immediately your muscles fire into action, tensing to draw your legs back together and regain control. What just happened in your nerves and muscles?

Every muscle fiber has a network of sensors called muscle spindles. They run perpendicular to the muscle fibers, sensing how far and fast the fibers are elongating. As muscle fibers extend, stress on these muscle spindles increases.

When this stress comes too fast, or goes too far, muscle spindles fire an urgent neurological “SOS,” activating a reflex loop that triggers an immediate, protective contraction.

That’s what happens when the doctor thumps with a small rubber mallet on the tendon just below your kneecap, stretching your quadriceps abruptly. This rapid stretch stimulates the muscle spindles in your quadriceps, signaling the spinal cord. An instant later the neurological loop ends with a brief contraction of your quadriceps, producing the well known “knee jerk reaction.”

That’s how the stretch reflex protects your muscles. And that’s why most experts caution against bouncing while stretching. Bouncing in and out of a stretch causes the rapid stimulation of muscle spindles that triggers reflexive tightening, and can increase your chances of injury.

Slow, static stretching also triggers the stretch reflex, but not as abruptly. When you fold forward into Paschimottanasana, the muscle spindles in your hamstrings begin to call for resistance, producing tension in the very muscles you’re trying to extend. That’s why improving flexibility through static stretching takes a long time. The improvement comes through slow conditioning of your muscle spindles, training them to tolerate more tension before applying the neuro-brakes.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation…What?

Among the recent developments in Western flexibility training are neurological techniques that retrain the stretch reflex, promoting quick, dramatic gains in flexibility. One of these techniques is called—take a deep breath—proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. (Fortunately, it’s usually just called PNF).

To apply PNF principles to Paschimottanasana, try this: While bending forward, just short of your maximum stretch, engage your hamstrings in an isometric contraction—as if you were trying to draw your heels down through the floor—lasting approximately five to 10 seconds. Then release this action, and see if you can move a little deeper into the forward bend.

The PNF method manipulates the stretch reflex by having you contract a muscle while it’s at near-maximum length. When you engage your hamstrings, you actually ease the pressure on your muscle spindles, and they send signals that it’s safe for the muscle to release further. In a seeming paradox, contracting the muscle actually allows it to lengthen. If you engage and then release your muscle fibers in this way, you will probably discover more comfort in a stretch that was near your maximum just seconds before. Now you’re ready to open a little more, taking advantage of a momentary lull in neural activity, deepening the stretch. Your nervous system adjusts, affording you greater range of motion.

“PNF is as close as we’ve come to scientific stretching,” physical therapist Michael Leslie says. Leslie uses combinations of modified PNF techniques to help members of the San Francisco Ballet improve their flexibility. “In my experience it can take weeks of static training to achieve the gains possible in one session of PNF,” Leslie says.

As of yet, yoga has not focused systematically on PNF-type techniques. But vinyasa practices that emphasize careful sequencing of asanas and/or repetition of asanas—moving in and out of the same posture several times—tend to promote neurological conditioning.

Gray Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute and one of the most highly respected teachers in the Viniyoga lineage of T.K.V. Desikachar, likens Viniyoga to PNF. “Alternating between contracting and stretching is what changes the muscle,” Kraftsow says. “Muscles relax and stretch further after contracting.”
Prana & Flexibility

Kraftsow also emphasizes the importance of the breath in any kind of neurological work, pointing out that breathing is a link between our consciousness and our autonomic nervous system. “It’s this quality of breathing,” Kraftsow says, “that qualifies it as a primary tool in any science of self development.”

Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb in a yogi’s path toward samadhi. One of the most important yogic practices, it helps the yogi gain control over the movement of prana (life energy) throughout the body. But whether viewed through esoteric yoga physiology or the scientific physiology of the West, the connection between relaxation, stretching, and breathing is well established. Physiologists describe this mechanical and neurological correlation of movement and breath as an instance of synkinesis, the involuntary movement of one part of the body that occurs with the movement of another part.

While you are holding Paschimottanasana, breathing deeply and steadily, you may notice an ebb and flow to your stretching that mirrors the tide of your breath. As you inhale, your muscles tighten slightly, reducing the stretch. As you exhale, slowly and completely, your abdomen moves back toward your spine, the muscles in your lower back seem to grow longer, and you can drop your chest toward your thighs.

It’s obvious that exhalation deflates the lungs and lifts your diaphragm into the chest, thereby creating space in the abdominal cavity and making it easier to bend the lumbar spine forward. (Inhalation does the opposite, filling the abdominal cavity like an inflating balloon, making it difficult to fold your spine forward completely.) But you may not realize that exhalation also actually relaxes the muscles of your back and tilts your pelvis forward.

In Paschimottanasana, the musculature of the lower back is in passive tension. According to research cited in Science of Flexibility, every inhalation is accompanied by an active contraction of the lower back—a contraction in direct opposition to the desired forward bend. Then exhalation releases the lower back muscles, facilitating the stretch. If you place your palms on your back, just above the hips, and breathe deeply, you can feel the erector spinae on either side of your spinal column engage as you inhale and release as you exhale. If you pay close attention, you’ll also notice that each inhalation engages the muscles around the coccyx, at the very tip of your spine, drawing the pelvis back slightly. Each exhalation relaxes these muscles and frees your pelvis, allowing it to rotate around the hip joints.

As your lungs empty and the diaphragm lifts into your chest, your back muscles release and you are able to fold into your ultimate stretch. Once there, you may experience a pleasant, seemingly eternal moment of inner peace, the pacifying of the nervous system traditionally considered one of the benefits of forward bends.

At this point, you may feel especially in touch with the spiritual element of yoga. But Western science also offers a material explanation for this experience. According to Alter’s Science of Flexibility, during an exhalation the diaphragm pushes up against the heart, slowing down the heart rate. Blood pressure decreases, as does stress on the rib cage, abdominal walls, and intercostal muscles. Relaxation ensues, and your tolerance to stretching is enhanced—as well as your sense of well-being.
Short Cuts to Flexibility?

But not every moment in yoga is peaceful. At the extreme end of hatha yoga achievement, practitioners can experience breakthroughs that may involve a degree of pain, fear, and risk. (After all, hatha does mean “forceful.”) You may have seen the photograph in Light on Yoga of B.K.S. Iyengar poised in Mayurasana (Peacock Pose) on the back of a student in Paschimottanasana, forcing her to fold more deeply. Or perhaps you’ve watched a teacher stand on the thighs of a student in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Such methods might appear dangerous or even cruel to an outsider, but in the hands of an experienced instructor they can be remarkably effective—and they bear a striking resemblance to cutting-edge techniques in Western flexibility training that focus on reconditioning neurological mechanisms.

As I researched this article, a friend told me about a time he accidentally engaged one of these mechanisms and experienced a surprising breakthrough after years of trying to master Hanumanasana (a pose better known in the West as “the splits”). One day, as my friend attempted the posture—left leg forward and right leg back, hands lightly supporting him on the floor—he stretched his legs farther apart than usual, allowing almost the full weight of his torso to rest down through his hips. Suddenly he felt an intense warmth in his pelvic region and a rapid, unexpected release that brought both his sitting bones to the floor. My friend had triggered a physiological reaction rarely encountered while stretching, a neurological “circuit breaker” that opposes and overrides the stretch reflex. While the stretch reflex tenses muscle tissue, this other reflex—technically, it’s known as the “inverse myotatic (stretch) reflex”—completely releases muscular tension to protect the tendons.

How does it work? At the ends of every muscle, where fascia and tendons interweave, there are sensory bodies that monitor load. These are the Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). They react when either a muscular contraction or a stretch places too much stress on a tendon.

The huge, state-sponsored sports apparatus of the former Soviet Union developed a neurological flexibility training method based largely on manipulating this GTO reflex. “You already have all the muscle length you need,” argues Russian flexibility expert Pavel Tsatsouline, “enough for full splits and most of the difficult asanas. But controlling flexibility requires control of an autonomic function.” Tsatsouline makes the point by lifting his leg up on a chair back. “If you can do this,” he says, “you’ve already got enough stretch to do the splits.” According to Tsatsouline, it’s not muscle or connective tissue that’s stopping you. “Great flexibility,” asserts Tsatsouline, “can be achieved by flicking a few switches in your spinal cord.”

But exploiting the GTO mechanism to enhance flexibility entails certain risks, because muscles must be fully extended and under extreme tension to trigger a GTO reflex. Implementing enhanced methods of flexibility training—like the Russian system or advanced yoga techniques—requires an experienced teacher who can make sure your skeleton is correctly aligned and that your body is strong enough to handle the stresses involved. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to get hurt.

If used correctly, though, these methods can be extremely effective. Tsatsouline claims he can teach even stiff middle-aged men, with no prior flexibility training, how to do the splits in about six months.
Applied Physiology

By now you may be asking yourself, “What do these Western stretching techniques have to do with yoga?”

On the one hand, of course, stretching is an important component of building the yoga-deha, the yogic body that allows the practitioner to channel ever more prana. That’s one reason why the major hatha yoga schools base their practice on the classic asanas, a series of postures that illustrate and encourage the ideal range of human movement.

But any good teacher will also tell you that yoga isn’t just about stretching. “Yoga is a discipline that teaches us new ways of experiencing the world,” Judith Lasater, Ph.D. and physical therapist, explains, “so that we can give up the attachments to our suffering.” According to Lasater, there are only two asanas: conscious or unconscious. In other words, what distinguishes a particular position as an asana is our focus, not simply the outer conformation of the body.

It’s certainly possible to get so caught up in pursuit of physical perfection that we lose sight of the “goal” of asana practice—the state of samadhi. At the same time, though, exploring the limits of the body’s flexibility can be a perfect vehicle for developing the one-pointed concentration needed for the “inner limbs” of classical yoga.

And there is certainly nothing inherently contradictory about using the analytical insights of Western science to inform and enhance the empirical insights of millennia of asana practice. In fact, yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, perhaps the most influential figure in the Western assimilation of hatha yoga, has always encouraged scientific inquiry, advocating the application of strict physiological principles to the cultivation of a refined asana practice.

Some yogis are already embracing this synthesis enthusiastically. At the Meridian Stretching Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Bob Cooley is developing and testing a computer program that can diagnose flexibility deficiencies and prescribe asanas. New clients at Cooley’s stretching center are asked to assume 16 different yoga postures as Cooley records specific anatomical landmarks on their bodies with a digitizing wand, similar to the ones used in computer-aided drafting. These body-point readings are computed to make comparisons between the client and models of both maximum and average human flexibility. The computer program generates a report that benchmarks and guides the client’s progress, spelling out any areas needing improvement and recommending specific asanas.

Cooley uses an amalgamation of what he sees as the best points of Eastern and Western knowledge, combining the classic yoga asana with techniques similar to PNF. (An eclectic experimenter, Cooley incorporates Western psychotherapeutic insights, the Enneagram, and Chinese meridian theory in his approach to yoga.).

If you’re a yoga purist, you may not like the idea of a yoga potpourri that mixes new-fangled scientific insights with time-honed yoga practices. But “new and improved” has always been one of America’s national mantras, and blending the best from Eastern experience-based wisdom and Western analytical science may be a principal contribution our country makes to the evolution of yoga.
Resources

Anatomy of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain (Eastland Press, 1993).

Yoga Poses for Better Sleep

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Yoga poses for better sleep

Struggling for a few hours of sleep every night? You should give yoga a shot.

Restorative yoga is regarded as one of the best cures for insomnia as it helps relax your mind and body to induce better sleep. Moreover, the deep breathing techniques and gentle stretching helps better regulate your body’s systems. This improves the supply of oxygen and blood to your brain. However, be sure to consult your physician prior to adopting any yoga session for insomnia in case the root cause of your sleep-related problem is deeper than mere stress or anxiety. So, here they are – 7 yoga postures to help you sleep better.

Corpse body or savasana: This may look simple but Savasana is a very important yoga posture to attain total body and mind calmness. All you need to do is lie flat on your back on a yoga mat. Allow your hands and feet to splay outwards with your palms facing up. With your eyes closed, allow your mind to drift from the top of your head to the tip of your feet. As you do this, allow each part of your body to relax completely while you focus on that part. This technique can be performed during any part of the day for around 5-6 minutes per session.

Adho mukha svanasana: This technique is popularly known as the downward facing dog. Place your palms and knees on the yoga mat with your knees aligned directly under your hips and your hands a little ahead of your shoulders. This posture should be such that your toes are facing upwards. Now, exhale and slightly lift your pelvis away from the floor. Do not allow your head to dangle freely and hold it firmly in between your arms. Maintain this posture for minute or two and then relax. Repeat this for a total of 5-6 times per session.

Uttanasana or standing forward bend: This posture is very useful for soothing the mind and promoting stress relief. Besides this, it also facilitates an intense extension in your spine and legs by releasing the hamstrings. To do this posture, stand in front of your bed with your hands on your hip. Inhale deeply and while exhaling, slowly bend your body from your hips until your head rests on the bed. If you face any kind of stiffness initially, use some pillows on your bed. Take a deep breath again and lift your kneecaps up. Maintain this posture for as long as possible. However, ensure that you do not over arch and strain your back.

Viparita karani: This posture is alternately known as Legs-up-the-wall pose. With your back on the yoga mat, gradually extend your legs up the wall. Keep your arms on the floor with your palms facing upwards. Close your eyes and then gently stretch your heels by extending it towards the ceiling. Ensure that you take long and steady breaths while performing this technique.

Sarvangasana or shoulderstand: This posture should be done only after a person has achieved a certain amount of flexibility. Any kind of uncomfortable sensation and you should immediately skip this step. To do this posture, inhale and then with a moderate sudden movement, lift your legs up in the air. Use your hands to stabilize your hips as you perform this. In case you find this difficult, you can even use the walls for extra support. You can also start initially with a half shoulder stand of about 45 degrees and then proceed to the full posture.

Pranayama: Usually this is done in a sitting posture and involves steady-controlled breathing. However, you may also start with a lying posture as this will enable you to really feel your breath moving through your body due to the floor contact. The sitting posture is done in a comfortable, cross-legged position. Start the natural inhalation-exhalation process and try not to engage your mind in different thoughts. Always keep in mind to inhale only though your nose without involving your mouth. On inhalation, fill your belly with air and then gradually exhale using your nose. Repeat the process for around 5-6 breaths and then relax.

Ahimsa: The Art of Non-Harming

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Ahimsa: The Art of Non-Harming
by: Artemisia Shine ♥ October 6, 2011

“Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.”
~Mahatma Gandhi

The Yamas and the Niyamas comprise two of the eight limbs of Classical Yoga as first written around 200CE by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Yama is the Sanskrit word for “abstinence” and the five Yamas are a set of external disciplines we can apply in our lives to help align more harmoniously with the Universe. Niyama translates as “observance” and the five Niyamas are a set of internal observances that help us align more fully with our highest Self.

The first Yama is Ahimsa.  Himsa translates as “harm” or “to cause pain.” The “a” set before “himsa” changes the word to mean not-to cause harm or pain.  Ahimsa is the practice of non-harming – with our thoughts, words, actions, attitudes and beliefs.  Are there relationships in your life that may need further practice of ahimsa?  Do the choices you make come from a place of not causing harm? Are your thoughts about yourself injurious? Do you walk lightly on the earth?

The beautiful thing about the practice of yoga is that it is a practice. We all make mistakes and act in ways that fall outside of our ideals. Perfection is not required. At any moment we can initiate practice and apply the principle of ahimsa in our lives. We can deepen our yoga practice with each breath, continuously over time.

Ahimsa begins inside. What do you say to yourself when you look in the mirror? When we look around the class and compare ourselves to others, thinking things like “I should be more flexible! Why can’t my down-dog look like her down dog?!” we are really practicing self-rejection rather than yoga. When you’re on the mat, internalize ahimsa and honor and appreciate yourself just for showing up!  As we nurture a love relationship with ourselves we can more easily shine love on those around us. As we exercise this yama with our partners, children, and roommates, we reduce violence in our communities. Ahimsa goes beyond simply being kind to our neighbors and includes not causing pain in the natural world and avoiding harm to the planet.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Ahimsa is an attribute of the brave. Cowardice and ahimsa don’t go together any more than water and fire. “ For this month, lets courageously set an intention to live in ahimsa and more purposefully cultivate compassion in our lives. When you encounter violent thoughts about yourself or others, take a deep breath and say “Ahimsa” silently (or aloud) and allow this principle to subtly reset your brain.  Choose a relationship where unresolved injury has occurred and lovingly address your part.  Apply ahimsa daily with what you choose to consume and how you treat the natural and material world. The seeds of himsa can sprout and establish roots in our hearts, choking out light in our inner landscape and lessening peace in our relationships. Collectively, let’s be an agent for health and healing. Let’s cultivate wildflowers of ahimsa, tending amity with all life and the universe at large.

– Artemisia Shine

She Let Go

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She Let Go

by: Rev. Safire Rose Agape International Spiritual Center

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go. She let go of fear. She let go of the judgments. She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head. She let go of the committee of indecision within her. She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go. She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go. She let go of all the memories that held her back. She let go of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward. She let go of the planning and all the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go. There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. a light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.

Yoga Effective in Treating Psychiatric Disorders

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photo source: healthquestions.net

Yoga Effective in Treating Psychiatric Disorders

September 20, 2011

Many see yoga as a fad or simply a health enhancer. But a number of scientific studies have found it effective as a therapy in treating mental and psychiatric disorders.

“Some believe that yoga should be used only for prevention and health promotion and not as a therapy for illnesses,” said B.N. Gangadhar, who heads the psychiatry department at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore.

“The reality is that it is being increasingly used as a method for treating various disorders, either alone or as in addition to other therapies, including psychiatric ones,” Gangadhar, also director, Advanced Centre for Yoga at NIMHANS, told IANS.

A study co-authored by Gangadhar and three associates examined the effect of yoga as a therapy supplementing medical treatment of schizophrenia, a severe mental condition, which registers failure rates as high as 50 to 60 percent. The condition is ranked as the ninth leading cause of mental disability worldwide.

Roughly half of 61 schizophrenia patients were randomly assigned to yoga therapy and the other half to physical exercise for four months. Ten from each group had dropped out during the therapy.

The yoga therapy group showed significantly greater improvement in mental or behavioural disorders than those in the physical exercise group. The yoga group also performed better in social and occupational functioning.

Some of the symptoms of schizophrenia are hallucinations (hearing voices), delusions (often bizarre) and disorganized thinking and speech, which render the patient’s life chaotic and distressful.

Another study led by Gangadhar found that Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) significantly lowered stress by bringing down high plasma cortisol levels among patients, which indicate stress or illness.

SKY is a method of breath control pioneered by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation.

Similarly, M. Javanbakht, a psychiatrist at Iran’s Islamic Azad University, and others found yoga eased mental conditions such as depression and anxiety in women.

Participants in Iran were assigned to two groups: one that went through two yoga sessions of 90 minutes each every week for two months and another which did not do any yoga. Women in the yoga group registered a significant decrease in anxiety and depression levels.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), which includes yoga, is now being increasingly used for easing anxiety, stress and depression. Some studies suggest that the percentage of patients availing themselves of CAM could be as high as 60 percent, said Gangadhar.

“A functional brain imaging study at NIMHANS demonstrated that chanting of Aum deactivated certain brain areas bearing on our emotions, particular anger and fear, (and producing a calming effect),” said psychiatry associate professor Shivarama Varambally.

“This indicates that Aum chanting may help in emotional control and reduce negative emotions,” Varambally added.

Johns Hopkins University’s Arthritis Centre reports that scientific studies on the effect of yoga on rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are “promising,” with results showing “some improvement in joint health, physical functioning, and mental/ emotional well-being”.

The centre suggests that such studies show yoga is a “safe and effective” way to increase muscle strength and improve flexibility, areas of core interests to arthritis sufferers. Besides, yoga can increase mental energy and help a patient develop positive feelings and help keep negative feelings in check.

Yoga, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘yoke,’ is designed to integrate one’s body, mind and soul so that the entire system functions harmoniously.

“Many might argue that such a time-tested practice does not require any proof, but contemporary medicine can accept yoga only after thorough validation through scientific tests,” Gangadhar concluded.

Self-Realization Fellowship Marks 150th Anniversary of Kriya Yoga

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Self-Realization Fellowship Marks 150th Anniversary of Kriya Yoga

September 20, 2011

Source: Lauren Landress, Susan Derby • PR Web

This month, the non-profit spiritual organization founded by Paramahansa Yogananda celebrates the revival of an ancient, soul-awakening technique of yoga meditation.

The Kriya Yogi follows a sure, definite method of leading not only his mind but his life force through the spinal channel to unite them with the soul. In the highest ecstasy he then unites his soul with Spirit.

← Paramahansa Yogananda, 1926

Los Angeles, CA (PRWEB) September 20, 2011

This fall, Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), the society founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi), marks the 150th anniversary of the revival of Kriya Yoga in the modern world.

The supreme expression of the science of yoga meditation, Kriya Yoga includes techniques of pranayama (life-force control), whose correct practice reinforces and revitalizes subtle currents of life energy in the body, eventually leading to inner stillness and superconscious perception of Spirit.

Exactly 150 years ago, in the autumn of 1861, a significant turning point in the spread of India’s yoga teachings occurred. It was then that the sacred science of Kriya Yoga was resurrected after centuries of near-dormancy, and made accessible to all earnest seekers –– sparking a spiritual renaissance that today shows no signs of waning.

In his book, The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita (Self-Realization Fellowship, 2007), Yogananda says, “The path of Kriya Yoga is distinctive and scientific because it teaches the exact method of withdrawing the mind from the senses by switching off the life force from the five sense-telephones. Only when this interiorization is accomplished can the meditator enter the inner temple of God-communion. In other words, the Kriya Yogi follows a sure, definite method of leading not only his mind but his life force through the spinal channel to unite them with the soul. In the highest ecstasy he then unites his soul with Spirit.”

This ancient practice was lost for centuries in the dark ages and taught only to ascetics. But in a remote cave in the Himalayan Mountains in the autumn of 1861, the great yogi householder Lahiri Mahasaya experienced his first encounter with his guru, Mahavatar Babaji, and received Kriya Yoga from him. It was at this seminal meeting –– immortalized in the pages of Sri Yogananda’s spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi –– that Babaji instructed Lahiri Mahasaya to teach Kriya openly, for the first time, to all earnest seekers. He later requested Lahiri Mahasaya’s disciple, Swami Sri Yukteswar, to train Yogananda and send him to the West to give this soul-revealing technique to the world.

Thus the seed was planted for Sri Yogananda’s mission in the West and the establishment in 1920 of his society, SRF, to spread the teaching of Kriya Yoga and its techniques of meditation. And, with the release of Sri Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, in the latter part of his life, knowledge of and interest in Kriya Yoga began to sweep the West. Hundreds of thousands of students of Yogananda’s SRF Lessons have received instruction in Kriya Yoga since he first brought this sacred science to the West more than 90 years ago.

This month, SRF is marking the 150th anniversary of Kriya Yoga’s revival in a number of ways, including a lecture on the topic on Sunday, September 25 at the regularly scheduled Sunday service at SRF temples and centers worldwide. In addition, the latest issue of Self-Realization magazine has been devoted to the topic of Kriya Yoga.

About Self-Realization Fellowship

Paramahansa Yogananda, known as the “father of Yoga in the West,” founded Self-Realization Fellowship, a worldwide spiritual organization established to disseminate his yoga meditation teachings, in 1920. Headquartered in Los Angeles since 1925, SRF also publishes the complete works of Sri Yogananda, and his monastic disciples. Interest in Sri Yogananda’s teachings has grown steadily over the years, with readers of his numerous books and writings on yoga meditation and the spiritual wisdom of the East now numbering in the millions. Today, SRF has more than 600 temples, retreats, and meditation centers in over 60 countries.

In Brooklyn, Using Yoga To Help Locked Up Youth Escape A Life Of Crime

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In Brooklyn, Using Yoga To Help Locked Up Youth Escape A Life Of Crime

By Luis Lema • LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch
September 14, 2011

Brooklyn’s Brownsville, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York, is also home to one of the city’s three juvenile detention centers. There, a social worker and a choreographer are using yoga and meditation to help rehabilitate the center’s troubled youth.

Participants in NYC's Lineage ProjectParticipants in NYC’s Lineage Project

By Luis Lema
LE TEMPS/Worldcrunch

BROOKLYN – Welcome to Brownsville in Brooklyn, one of the poorest districts in the Big Apple. It’s also one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods: this is the place where, almost traditionally, the first murder of the New Year is committed, every Jan. 1 at around 2 a.m. Dozens of murders follow, while nearly everywhere else in New York City, crime rates are dropping.

Brownsville is also home to Crossroads, one of New York City’s three juvenile detention centers. For Beth Navon, the “white lady” who works with the facility’s detainees through a yoga and meditation program called the Lineage Project, the location makes sense. Many of the 200 teenagers permanently incarcerated in Crossroads hail from the area, as do a lot of the guards keeping watch over them.

Technically speaking, Crossroads isn’t a prison, since it doesn’t house convicts. The detainees are instead youths awaiting trial. But it certainly looks like a prison: windowless walls, barbed wire, watchtowers, highly secure doors and security checks that are so strict that visitors would never be able to smuggle in even a pen or a notebook.

Like other detention facilities in the state, it also has a reputation for violence. The state of New York has come under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of abuse and the death of one teenage inmate. Critics say the state’s penal system routinely tramples on detainees fundamental human rights. Which is where Beth Navon comes in. The Lineage Project, she acknowledges, was chosen over many others to try to humanize a system that had clearly proven to be a failure.

Beth works with Jeremy. Together they walk through the last security gate towards the girls’ block, where 20 cells surround a common room, several tables and chairs, a TV set and an old video game console. The young girls, dressed in white T-shirts and blue uniforms, are all aged between 13 and 15. Some of them look twice their age, with their arm and neck tattoos and their overly unbuttoned outfits. Others look half their age and seem to be under the control of the tattooed group. All of them are black or latino.

Jeremy is a choreographer. She is seven months pregnant and the guards have allowed her, for this one time, to bring a bottle of water to help her fight the stifling heat. Like Beth, Jeremy loves meditation and yoga. For many years, both women have been trying to reach out to the children at Crossroads. Careful not to offer unrealistic illusions, the women try nevertheless to establish links between the world of these juvenile inmates and the daily world outside the detention center.

Today’s lesson will last an hour – and will end when the guards come in to clear the room. The exercises function as a rehabilitation program. It is in fact the only rehabilitation program available to the Crossroads detainees. For the girls, this funny lesson is not only an unusual way of changing their daily routines, but also an opportunity to show who is the roughest and toughest.

“What happens in your body when you’re feeling angry?” Jeremy asks them. From experience, the girls know the answer well: tightening muscles, heightened breathing, sped up heart beat. “Well, let’s try to feel differently,” Jeremy suggests. She wants the girls to be self-aware, to forget about their hostile and stressful environment and to relax physically. The teenagers try the lotus position. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and then begin to laugh when asked to move their pelvis back and forth for a yoga exercise.

Later, when they are alone in their cells, will these young girls close their eyes and try to forget their living conditions by focusing on their inner selves?

The Lineage Project’s files are full of promising stories about young people – even if difficulties still lie ahead for them right now. Meditation and yoga have proved useful and brought about spectacular changes in adult prisons. Programs have even been introduced for death row prisoners. Backers of the approach say that through mediation, prisoners can free their minds and thus in some sense transcend their physical incarceration. Yet the people running the Lineage Project are actually struggling to drop the “meditation” label. Apparently it scares off potential donors, even if Jeremy the choreographer and Beth the social worker are hardly new age guru types.

During the hour-long exercise sessions, the young girls have learned to open up their hearts as if they have known Beth and Jeremy their whole lives. The lessons offer a real contrast to the cold interactions they normally experience at Crossroads. “Here, people treat us like animals,” Samantha says, sounding very upset. “No one can get out; we even need permission to go to the bathroom.”

Before beginning a session in the boys’ block, Beth Navon enjoys a quiet 20-minute break. “People will cross to the other side of the street on passing these teenagers when they get out of here,” she reflects. Even more discouraging is the fact that many will end up back at Crossroads – sometimes just a few weeks after their release. “We’ll see those same faces again,” she says, “because some of them will have committed other offences.”

In the common room, the boys are as tired and badly-behaved as the girls before them. But for a while, at least, the normal tensions of life at Crossroads dissipate. At the end of the lesson, guards search the boys from head to foot. All of the anger and pent-up violence returns. The inmates seem ready to explode.

But the lesson has triggered something for Sergio, the most rebellious boy in the group. Focusing on meditation and internal energy, he is reminded of a Mexican god with universal strength and the power to launch fireballs. Without realizing it, Sergio is referring to Tezcatlipoca, the most terrifying of the Aztec gods. God of the night sky, Tezcatlipoca tempted men in order to lead them to their own destruction. But he could also absolve them of any wrong-doing and sometimes help them change their own fates.

Read the original article in French

Photo – Lineage Project

All rights reserved ©Worldcrunch – in partnership with Le Temps

Focusing on A.D.D

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Focusing on A.D.D.

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz • Yoga Journal
September 7, 2011

Adults and children living with Attention Deficit Disorder know the daily struggles of hyperactivity, social isolation, and drug side effects. But yoga may help control these symptoms as well as reduce long-term dependency on medication.

When 8-year-old Clayton Petersen began taking yoga, he had a hard time staying focused. He would assume a posture and then get distracted. His teacher, Kathleen Randolph, had to recapture his attention about once every minute, guiding him back to the center of the room and then into the next asana. She recalls these first lessons, staged within the confines of her small basement studio, were “like being inside a pinball machine.” Clayton bounced from wall to wall, scattering his considerable energies throughout the studio in a way any parent of a hyperactive child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) would immediately recognize.

The clinical label ADD describes one of the most commonly diagnosed behavioral impairments of childhood, affecting an estimated 3 to 9 percent of the school-age population and 2 percent of adults. While most outgrow their hyperactivity in adolescence, about two-thirds carry other symptoms like distractibility into adulthood.

ADD’s core symptoms include inattention, difficulty following directions, poor control over impulses, excessive motor activity in many but not all cases, and difficulty conforming to social norms. But low intelligence is not among these, despite the fact that ADD can hamper learning. On the contrary, a great majority of those diagnosed enjoy above-average intelligence. Bonnie Cramond, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Georgia, authored a provocative paper comparing the symptoms of ADD with creativity. She found that children diagnosed with ADD share traits with such innovators as Robert Frost, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Leonardo DaVinci.

Since the 1940s, psychiatrists have used various labels to describe children who seem inordinately hyperactive, inattentive, and impulsive. These labels have included “minimal brain dysfunction,” “hyperkinetic reaction of childhood,” and, since the 1970s, “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD). But it turns out that certain children are inattentive and easily distracted without being hyperactive. These quiet, spaced-out kids don’t disrupt class and often go unnoticed.Today the simpler label Attention Deficit Disorder has gained favor to acknowledge attention deficits that come with or without hyperactivity.

For decades, doctors blamed ADD on bad parenting, character weakness, refined sugar, and a host of other causes. Recent research, however, using sophisticated brain-scanning technology suggests a subtle neurological impairment. Studies report that several brain regions in ADD appear underdeveloped, most notably the right prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with inhibition. It turns out that inhibition acts as a precursor to concentration.

One’s ability to concentrate emerges from restraining mental distractions in a process neurologists call “neural inhibition”—a description that squares with Patanjali’s definition of concentration as “quieting the mind of its compulsions.” Here’s how it works: As you read this sentence, your brain intensifies the neural circuits related to language by suppressing competing stimuli like ambient sounds, peripheral vision, and extraneous thoughts. The contrast created between the circuits highlighted and those inhibited allows you to focus your concentration. In the ADD brain, the inhibiting portion of the system malfunctions. ADD brains get flooded with competing stimuli and lack the means to sort them out; each internal voice shouts as loudly as the others.

Looking for a New Drug

Understanding what causes ADD is child’s play compared with knowing how to treat it. There is no cure, so learning how to control the condition is the focus of treatment. And when it comes to ADD treatment, medication has long been accepted as the best medicine.

Stimulant drug use for hyperactivity dates to 1937, when Charles Bradley, M.D., discovered the therapeutic effects of the amphetamine Benzedrine on behaviorally disturbed children. In 1948, Dexedrine was introduced and shown to be just as effective, without such high dosages. This was followed by Ritalin in 1954. Ritalin had fewer side effects and, since it’s not an amphetamine, less potential for abuse. It soon became the best-known and most prescribed psychoactive drug for ADD children—as well as the most scrutinized: By now hundreds of studies have backed its safety and effectiveness.

But nowadays, Ritalin has taken a back seat to generic versions of methylphenidate—Ritalin’s active ingredient—and ADDerall. A “cocktail” drug of amphetamines, ADDerall offers greater dosage flexibility, works more gradually and on a broad spectrum of symptoms, and eliminates the peaks and valleys of methylphenidate.

Still, these drugs are what continue to make ADD treatment controversial. The greatest fallouts with any stimulant medication are lifelong dependency and possible side effects from such long-term use. General use of ADD drugs can trigger some immediate reactions, such as loss of appetite, insomnia, weight loss, delayed puberty, irritability, and the unmasking of latent tics.

Yet these symptoms are said to be manageable with dosage modifications or by discontinuing the use of medication. And although several studies have shown most side effects are mild and short-term, many researchers add that there are insufficient long-term studies to confirm the safety of these drugs over an extended period.

Then there is the ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of ADD medication beyond a certain time frame. Enid Haller, Ph.D., a specialist in ADD and director of Behavioral Arts in New York City, considers psychopharmaceuticals a short-term intervention at best. “These drugs stop working after six months to a year, and you have to switch medications or change the dosage,” she says. “Unless the individual with ADD learns to compensate for their deficiencies and exploit their mental strengths, medication alone won’t help in the long term.”

Today, more health-care professionals recommend a multidisciplinary, multimodal approach to the treatment of ADD, which includes medication but also therapy and dietary changes as well as a host of mind-body approaches, such as biofeedback, neurofeedback, and yoga. These treatments work to help ADD sufferers learn how to control their symptoms and relieve both emotional and physical stress. But as is the case with most complementary treatments, lack of scientific evidence keeps them from being more accepted and widely used. They tend to get stuck in a gray area: Either they have strong testimonials but no clinical trials to support them, or they have encouraging preliminary research to back their claims but no follow-up studies.

Take EEG neurofeedback and EMG biofeedback, for example. EEG (electroencephalography) represents a computerized training that teaches children how to recognize and control their brain waves. Researchers have observed that those with ADD have higher rates of theta waves (associated with low stimulation, dreaming, and inattentiveness) and lower rates of beta waves (associated with concentration and attention). A computer game controlled by the production of beta waves teaches children the “feel” of a beta wave state until they can eventually reproduce it at will.

In one controlled open trial led by Michael Linden, Ph.D., in 1996, children with ADD showed a 9-point IQ increase over a 40-week period using EEG. EEG appears to work best for inattentive ADD children, but it involves undergoing many sessions and can be expensive, at a cost of about $50 per session. However, on the plus side, there are no adverse physical or psychological side effects.

EMG (electromyography) works similarly to EEG, except it trains deep muscle relaxation instead of brain waves. When muscles relax to a desired degree, a computer generates a tone. By learning to control this tone, subjects can learn deep relaxation. This treatment is not as popular as EEG, but substantial scientific literature supports its effectiveness. It also represents an important therapy because it works with the most troublesome group of ADD sufferers, hyperactive boys. A study published in Biofeedback and Self-Regulation (1984; 9:353–64) found junior high hyperactive boys attained significantly higher reading and language performance after just six 25-minute EMG-assisted relaxation sessions.

Another study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (1982; 38:92–100), which focused on hyperactive boys aged 6 to 12, found significant improvement in behavior observations, parent ratings, and psychological tests after 10 relaxation training sessions. But this data also revealed something interesting: The effect of EMG biofeedback closely resembles the type of neural relaxation work that occurs in yoga. Why is this important? Some experts now believe a combination of physical and mental discipline may be the best approach in treating ADD safely and effectively for the long term.

According to John Ratey, M.D., coauthor of Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood (Simon & Schuster, 1995), exercise that integrates both the body and mind engages the attention system more readily than meditation alone. “[Many studies have shown that] the greatest yield of nerve growth factors happens when the body engages in complex movement patterns,” says Ratey.

The Yoga Connection

It’s important to realize, though, that while yoga may help those with ADD, it is not a miracle worker. It requires time and discipline—concepts that can be difficult for those with ADD to master. In many cases, it takes a year or more for the effects of yoga to make any difference, while medication works in minutes. But the benefits of medication wear off along with the prescription. The effects of yoga—which include suppleness, poise, and better concentration—are much longer lasting: They develop gradually through a type of learning that transforms the entire person. There is no learning or transformation involved in taking a pill.

Mary Alice Askew can relate to this. She learned she had ADD in high school, and like many girls, her symptoms did not include hyperactivity, which made the diagnosis less obvious but no less debilitating. A bright, capable student, her grades and social relations did not match her potential. Though she studied diligently enough to get straight A’s, she instead got C’s and D’s. During class, Askew reeled between two extremes, either “spaced-out or hyperfocused, with no happy medium,” she says.

With her attention system out of control, the transitions from one class to the next were especially hard. Unable to switch activities without getting “mentally disorganized,” she felt inadequate and confused. She knew she could perform as well as her peers, but something got in her way.

To determine what, her parents arranged for a battery of psychological tests that led to the diagnosis of ADD. Treatment began immediately, with stimulants for mental clarity and behavioral training to help her get organized. Her symptoms and grades improved, and she went on to college.

Askew thought she would remain dependent on psychopharmaceuticals for life, but a sudden twist of fate brought her to yoga—a breakthrough that redefined her personal therapy and eventually her career. She discovered yoga in her early 20s, after a car accident left her body wracked in pain. Her physical therapist recommended yoga as part of a comprehensive pain management program. She began to study with her physical therapist and also began to practice at home for up to 90 minutes every day.

The asanas helped reduce her pain and yielded a surprising side effect: Her symptoms of ADD improved too. “I noticed that standing postures put me into the perfect mental state for listening and learning,” she says. So Askew began standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the back of the classroom. “It gave me something to do with my energy, besides fidgeting,” says Askew. “It helped me stay in the academic moment.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in counseling, Askew began treating students with ADD at a public school in North Carolina. She taught them yoga and meditation to prepare for exams. Today, Askew works as a hypnotherapist and incorporates yoga into her work at Haller’s Behavioral Arts and Research Clinic in New York City. She says yoga provides several benefits for those with ADD:

  • SELF-AWARENESS. People with ADD lack it, notoriously underreporting their own symptoms. The ADD brain, struggling with an overload of sensory stimuli, lacks the mental space for introspection. By emphasizing physiological self-perception, yoga strengthens self-awareness, which can represent the first step in self-healing. “I used to feel hyper-aware of everything but myself,” says Askew. “But yoga helped me get comfortable within my own skin.”
  • STRUCTURE. Many with ADD leave considerable creative potential unfulfilled because they can’t seem to organize their creative energies. Therefore, positive, life-enhancing routines that establish order can be a very important part of ADD management. Systematic patterns of movement help organize the brain. A highly systematized approach, like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, for example, provides consistent, reliable patterning along with the progressive challenges that ADD people require to sustain long-term interest in an activity.
  • COORDINATION & PHYSICAL FITNESS. Children with ADD frequently miss out on physical education—not because of physiological limitations but because their inability to “play by the rules” makes them anathema to coaches and unpopular with their peers. Consequently, ADD kids don’t develop the same level of physical coordination as other children. Therapists often recommend martial arts for their ADD patients because it offers a disciplined, athletic outlet without the pressures of a team sport.
    Yoga, though, goes one step further, providing physical fitness without competition. The relative safety of yoga allowed Askew to explore her body and gain a sense of physical self-confidence, thus shedding the feeling of awkwardness she’d suffered most of her life. “Having my posture in alignment makes it easier to move in a fluid way, shifting attention without stress,” she says.
One Child’s Class

It takes a special yoga teacher to work with ADD kids. “The teacher must have access to a variety of specialized techniques for dealing with anger, distractibility, and impulsivity, as well as a solid foundation in yoga,” says Sonia Sumar, author of Yoga for the Special Child (Special Yoga Publications, 1998). Sumar trains and certifies yoga teachers, like Randolph, to work with developmentally challenged children. Randolph combines Sumar’s special education approach with 30 years of hatha yoga practice in her classes with Clayton.

She works patiently, often one-on-one for several months, before integrating a child with ADD into a group setting, which includes two or three kids at the most. “These kids can be very intense,” says Randolph. “A yoga teacher who works with children with ADD must develop patience, boundless energy, and a keen focus herself. These children need someone who can think faster and more creatively than they do; otherwise, they soon get bored.”

Every Thursday, Clayton steps into Randolph’s studio at The Yoga Center in Reno, Nevada. “Sometimes it’s a struggle to get him there,” says his mother, Nancy Petersen, “but in the end, he’s always glad he went.” Children with ADD struggle with transitions, so Randolph enlists a brief ritual, including candles and incense, to help Clayton shift into yoga mode. The structure of Clayton’s classes generally follows the same basic pattern every week, with a few alternating poses chosen for variety.

ADD children do best in a well-organized environment, as their internal sense of structure lacks coherence. The Yoga Center has a sunny room with large windows and mirrored walls, but Clayton’s classes take place in Randolph’s basement studio, where the ivory-yellow paint and sienna carpet keep distractions to a minimum. Since the ADD brain functions too slowly while processing sensory information, concentration comes more easily when the stimulation level remains low.

To encourage body awareness, Randolph begins by asking Clayton how tight his body feels and how much warm-up he needs. Depending on the answer, Randolph begins with Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation) in either a 12- or 28-posture sequence. This cycle challenges Clayton’s ability to focus and helps increase his attention span. Learning a complex series like Sun Salutation “recruits a lot of nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex,” says Ratey. “The brain is like a muscle: When you strain it, you strengthen it.” But purely intellectual endeavors, like learning multiplication tables, don’t promote what Ratey jokingly calls “neurological Miracle-Gro” to the extent that complex movement patterns do.

Following Sun Salutation, Randolph leads Clayton through a succession of forward bends, lateral bends, triangle poses, and backbends. In addition to their psychological benefits, these yoga poses help children with ADD learn to coordinate their bodies in space, which is important since they tend to have higher injury rates than their peers. Similar to the work of a physical therapist, carefully performed asanas engage alignment, balance, and coordination to train a child’s sensory-motor system. Balancing poses like Vrksasana (Tree Pose) are Clayton’s favorites, and he frequently practices them outside of class. Says Randolph, “Kids gravitate toward play that involves balance,” such as skateboards, pogo sticks, swings, merry-go-rounds, and tumbling, because it excites what physiologists call the vestibular system. The inner ear’s vestibular system allows you to judge your position in space and informs the brain to keep you upright.

But beyond its role in physiological equilibrium, researchers are discovering that the vestibular system plays a vital role in behavioral and cognitive stability. “There’s a fundamental kind of coordination that patterns behavior so it makes sense and flows together, which is believed to be deficient in those with ADD,” says Eugene Arnold, M.Ed., M.D., an ADHD specialist at Ohio State University and formerly with the National Institute of Mental Health.

To this end, Randolph employs asanas like Tolasana (Scales Pose) and an exercise she’s dubbed Roll Asana, in which the student rocks back and forth on the floor like a teeter-totter. Each new position in yoga provides a different plane of stimulation for the neurological circuits of the vestibular system. Inverted positions, such as Sirsasana (Headstand) and Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) are especially beneficial because they also calm the nervous system and help curb hyperactivity while training the attention system. Near the end of class, Randolph guides Clayton through a series of relaxation poses to calm his breath, quiet his mind, and prepare for meditation. Meditation lasts approximately one minute—which can seem like a lifetime for ADD children.

After four months of yoga, Clayton can finally complete a half-hour yoga session, flowing from one posture to the next with minimum interruption. Though Clayton’s significant progress in yoga has not yet translated into better concentration at school, it’s difficult to imagine that the focus he has developed in yoga would be confined to the sticky mat. On at least one occasion, Clayton says he used techniques learned in meditation to train his attention during a mathematics exam. On another, his mother spotted him practicing Bakasana (Crane Pose) in the outfield during Little League—although, unfortunately, he wasn’t paying much attention to the game.

His yoga teacher accepts this gradual pace as a fact of life. “Quieting the mind is a long haul for any of us,” says Randolph. “It can be an epic journey for those with ADD, but they need it most.” Talking with Clayton about his yoga practice, one gets the sense that he’s found something important and personal at which he can excel—a refuge for his spirit and a tool for establishing harmony between his body and mind.

After several years of yoga, Askew knows it takes that kind of full-time commitment to manage the symptoms of ADD. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes yoga has helped Askew cope with her condition. It gives her confidence to know she can gain mental clarity on her own—without a pill. “Yoga,” says Askew, “involves learning how to manage attention and learning how to move fluidly from focusing on the details to the big picture.”

Contributing Editor Fernando Pagés Ruiz wrote “What Is Consciousness?” in the September/October 2001 issue of Yoga Journal. He lives and writes in Lincoln, Nebraska, and can be reached at Fpages@neb.rr.com.

Stretch Your Way Through the Back-to-School Transition

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Stretch Your Way Through the Back-to-School Transition

September 6, 2011

Source: Karen Fabian • Beacon Hill Patch

Credit Karen Fabian

It’s that time of year again: back to school.

When I was young, yoga wasn’t part of my life at all, nor was it provided in my elementary or high school. Now it’s offered at many schools so children have a chance to try this wonderful practice to help them build physical strength, increase their ability to focus and manage the torrent of emotions that are part of their daily life.

Yoga, mindfulness and meditation too, can all be useful tools for helping children and parents manage the transition to back to school. The practice of yoga is about more than the poses, it’s also a practice that teaches discipline, developing good habits, taking deep breathing breaks, practicing gratitude and honoring and respecting yourself. My experience in providing these tips comes from my work with children and all the interactions I have with the extraordinary parents I meet every day:

Create a routine that includes yoga: Give your kids a tool they can access anywhere and anytime and offer an activity that you can do together. Buy your child their own yoga mat and if you have never tried yoga, guess what — now’s the perfect time. Pick up a children’s book on yoga or flashcards (“My Daddy is a Pretzel” is a great book by Baron Baptiste as are “Yoga Pretzel Yoga Cards” by Tara Guber- both available on Amazon). Make it an after-school activity for the two of you or a pre-dinner thing. Even 15 minutes can help you bond and share.

Help your kids understand the benefits of yoga and how yoga can help them with school:When I teach children yoga, I usually start with a question, “Does anyone know what yoga is?” or “When I say the word ‘yoga’ what do you think of?” Kids usually respond with, “stretching” or “relaxing” or “getting stronger.” They know the value, now it’s up to you to help them see how the benefits they get from yoga can help them in school. I try to bring into classes comments about how we can get stressed when doing homework or our backs can hurt from carrying heavy books and yoga can help us relax when we’re stressed or get stronger so we can carry heavy loads.

Think your kids are too young to meditate? Think again. Call it “meditation,” call it “visualization,” call it “sitting still.” It’s just a way of describing being still, breathing and acknowledging how you feel. Of course, this is harder for children the younger they are, but there’s a way you can encourage even children as young as 3 and 4 to be still. At the end of class, I ask even young children to lie flat and think of their favorite color and without speaking it, see if they can “see” it in their minds’ eye. When we’re done, I ask them to come up to seated and tell me what they saw. As children get older you can do some breathing exercises with them and get their feedback when they’re done as to how it felt in their body. In my work with student athletes, I ask them to visualize performing well as a way to “see” their success on the water, track or field. Meditation is a great way to build a habit of stillness and sensation for children and in a world where they are over-stimulated much of their day, this can be a tremendous relief. These times of stillness can help kids begin to process any feelings of anxiety they may feel around school, peer pressure or school performance.

Encourage expression and communication: Practicing yoga with a young child is more about expression and less about proper alignment. As kids get into the teen years and older and in my work with student athletes, I’m a bit more focused on alignment but in general, yoga is an expression of creativity and flow. It’s always interesting in family yoga classes when parents spend a lot of time correcting their young child in the pose. At a young age, we’re really just focusing more on the “doing” not the “execution.” And with children, yoga is a perfect lead in to having kids journal, or write down their feelings. Buy your child a nice notebook and pen and encourage them to do a little writing after they practice. If it’s a young child, ask them if they can draw a picture of their favorite pose. Anything that helps them express themselves is wonderful and will give them an outlet for their feelings about school, friends and grades.

When we build the practice of yoga into our children’s lives, we’re teaching them how to create a healthy habit, how to live in a way that makes health a priority and how to have discipline. These are all traits that will improve their school performance as well as build a solid foundation of health in their lives.