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Science playing catch up to Yoga


imagesIn 2004 I went to India to learn to become a Yoga teacher.  It was a transforming experience.  Since then I have been fascinated by the benefits of a regular practice.  In 2006 I started investigating the research about Yoga .  This led me to take a Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology.

In this blog I take four basic ideas from the eight limbs of Yoga and highlight some of the amazing research which supports many aspects of the practice of Yoga.


How you stand and move changes the way your brain works 


The exercise
Try this – hold your arms above your head for just 2 minutes
Do it again after you have read the research and feel empowered. Imagine the positive benefits of an hour or so of Yoga !
The evidence base
In a 2010 study researchers Dana Carny and Amy Cuddy asked people to take on “power poses”. These were various postures reflecting confidence, such as placing their hands on their hips. The research team measured testosterone and cortisol levels (stress hormones) before and after the test. A second group was asked to hold “weak” positions (for example crossing their legs or arms or making themselves as small as possible) . The power or weak postures were hold for just 2 minutes by each group.

Analysis of the results showed an increase in testosterone of 20% for the power group and a 10% decrease in the weak group. The power group showed a 25% reduction in the stress hormone level cortisol whilst the weak group had a 15% increase. The people in the power group also demonstrated behavioural changes. They felt more confident and relaxed and more willing to be adventurous.

In a follow up piece of research one group was asked to hold their hands in the air for just 2 minutes and a second group told to hold weak positions. They were then given mock job interviews which were recorded. The study was obviously a double blind study, which means the people conducting the interviews had no information on what the participants were asked to do before the interviews.

The group holding the power postures were seen as more confident, passionate, enthusiastic, authentic , captivating and comfortable. And more employable.
And all this happened in 2 minutes. Can you imagine the positive effect of practicing physical yoga for an hour has on us?

Why is attention so important – Dharana

The exercise
Close your eyes and pick your favourite workout activity for 2 minutes – swimming, sun salutations, weight lifting etc
As you visualise this activity focus on the particular muscle group that you are using. If you are imagining swimming focus on just one muscle group – for example your chest

Do it again after reading the research and know that energy and nutrients are flowing to that area!

swim2The evidence base
A study by Erin M. Shackell and Lionel G. Standing at Bishop’s University reveals you may be able to make gains in strength and fitness without lifting a finger!
That study measured the strength gains in three different groups of people. The first group did nothing outside their usual routine. The second group was put through two weeks of highly focused strength training for one specific muscle, three times a week. The third group listened to audio CDs that guided them to imagine themselves going through the same workout as the exercising group, three times a week.
The control group, who didn’t do anything, saw no gains in strength. The exercise group, who trained three times a week, saw a 28% gain in strength. No big surprises there. But, the group who did not exercise, but rather thought about exercising experienced nearly the same gains in strength as the exercise group (24%). Yes, you read that right!
The group that visualized exercised got nearly the same benefit, in terms of strength-gains, as the group that actually worked-out.
A Harvard study reported in February 2007 on the impact of your thoughts on calories burned.
In that study, the housekeeping staff in a major hotel were told that what they did on a daily basis qualified as the amount of exercise needed to be fit and healthy. They made no changes in behaviour, just kept on doing their job. Same as always.
Four weeks later, those housekeepers had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, body-fat percentage, waist-hip ratio and BMI. A similar group of housekeepers who had not been led to believe their job qualified as exercise saw none of these changes.

Every thought counts – your thoughts change your body

The exercise
Spend 5 minutes doing breathing exercises
Now read the research and repeat. Empty your head of thoughts and fill your body with energy
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
your thoughts become your words, 
your words become your actions, 
your actions become your habits, 
your habits become your values, 
your values become your destiny.”
The evidence base
Most people know about “fight or flight” and how the body has a physiological reaction to a perceived threat. Whether it’s a physical or a psychological threat the outcomes to the body and mind are similar – we get braced for a fight or energise our muscles to run. So whether it’s a caveman running from a sabre toothed tiger or your boss yelling at you the physical effects are similar in the short term:
• your digestion system shuts down – absorbing nutrients takes energy and the body needs the energy for a fight – hence constipation, IBS etc
• your muscles tense ready for a fight – you are braced, your body becomes brittle and armoured – neck pain, lower back pain
• your heart rate rises to pump blood to the major organs of movement – heart rate increases
• hormones secreted constrict blood vessels to enable blood to be pumped to the major muscle groups quickly – blood pressure rises and your face gets red
• the muscles of fight/flight are prioritised – there is a dramatic reduction in flow to non essential areas – like the skin, kidneys and re productive areas – so you wont look good and your bits and pieces wont work so well
• your pupils dilate in order to pick up more information from our surroundings -you look a bit unhinged
• proteins, carbohydrates and fat are stored in your body and during fight flight are mobilised and dumped into the bloodstream to provide energy for the major muscles of movement. They circulate in the bloodstream as amino acids, glucose and fatty acids and can adhere to the constricted blood vessel walls -increasing your chances of heart disease or stroke.
• amino acids are not great sources of energy so during fight/flight the protein in muscles is dumped into the blood stream and then converted by the liver into glucose – this increases diabetes risk and makes it hard for the mega stressed to grow lean muscle mass
• when the fight flight emergency ends the amino acids, glucose and fatty acids are re absorbed, often in fat store deposits – this requires a huge amount of energy to convert from one form of storage – hence we get tired easily and store fat deposits

As part of your ethical code – be kind

At the start of the 8 limbs of Yoga we are recommended to be kind to all sentient beings and avoid violence of thought, word and action (Ahimsa)

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The exercise
Close your eyes and picture a loved one. As you breathe out imagine breathing loving, kind energy to that person. Spend 10 minutes doing a Metta Bhavana Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM)

Read through the research and repeat the exercise. As you do so you now know you are changing the way your brain is wired. You are wiring it for kindness, love and compassion
The evidence base
Neuroscientific meditation researcher Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin became interested in just that question. He has extensively studied the effect of meditation, including LKM, on the brain. He had a simple question. Would LKM change the brain? To investigate the exact implication of this practice on the brain he invited two groups of subjects into his lab: those who had at least 10,000 hours of LKM under their meditative belt and those who were interested, but new to meditation. He invited both these groups into the fMRI scanner to see how LKM would impact the brain.

The results were clear. The practice of LKM changed several important brain regions: both the insula and the temporal parietal junction (TPJ) lit up as a result of LKM. The insula is the part of the brain responsible for our ability to empathize with others, and to make oneself aware of emotional and physical present-moment experiences. While both groups saw an increase in insula activity, the group with 10,000 hours of experience showed significantly more activation than the other group. This group was experiencing higher levels of compassion than the non-practicing group.

A similar finding appeared for the TPJ. The TPJ, like the insula, is also related to our ability to process empathy and our ability to attune to the emotional states of others. Again, compared to short-term meditators, those with a long-term meditation practice showed significant activation of this brain region.

Other activities where you give unconditional love, such as random acts of kindness, have been shown to change the way our neurons connect to one another and strengthen existing positive pathways. Research from Positive Psychology indicates the greatest factor in developing personal happiness is having strong, loving relationships

Coming soon – Our Positive Psychology course for Yoga teacherswww.breathe-australia.com