How Does Yoga Work?


A big question. I can’t pretend to even touch the surface of this huge topic in a simple and quick blog post. Likely I will write more about it in future. However, I do think I’d like to advance a few ideas.

Probably everyone with an interest in yoga has asked themselves what makes yoga effective, and recently, a variety of people from outside the traditional yoga circles, especially medical and psychological researchers, have been trying to discern the mechanisms involved. In the last few years there has been a big move toward evidence-based practice when it comes to health and wellness and that generally is a good thing in my opinion. But there are some drawbacks to trying to extract the potent pieces from a larger system and still have the same effects.

One of the strongest theories on how yoga works is that it increases vagal tone. Vagal tone basically is a fancy word for the part of the nervous system that is involved in the relaxation response or its parasympathetic branch, measurable by markers such as heart rate variability. When vagal tone is high, digestion improves, hearts function optimally, and moods stabilize. Studies with specific populations such as people who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and epilepsy have provided support for the theory that yoga has a beneficial effect on vagal tone. See this link if you are interested: But significant questions remain – for instance, in the studies, what practices (specific postures, breath work, chant, etc.) were included in the yoga, did respondents have to practice regularly, what bearing did the healing relationship amongst teacher and the students have on the results? And if the relationships in a yoga class accounted for a sizeable part of the benefit, does that mean we should give up yoga classes and just hang around in pubs with other people?  Add to that the sizeable problem that improved vagal tone cannot be the only main benefit of yoga because it does not fully explain improved bone mass, balance, and attention, amongst other things.

pose9Some yoga poses known to evoke the relaxation response are not accessible to all students. Take shoulderstand, for instance. Shoulderstand is known in yoga circles as “full-body pose” or Sarvangasana in Sanskrit and also is often called the “mother” or “queen” of asana. B.K.S. Iyengar, the late yoga master known best for his meticulous attention to alignment and use of props, wrote in Light on Yoga, “The importance of Sarvangasana cannot be over-emphasized. It is one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages. . . . It is a panacea for most common ailments . . . glands . . . blood flow . . . body gravity . . . soothing effect of the pose on the nerves,” and so on. I think I would add that the attention to detail, cultivating the courage to invert, perseverance to perfect a position, challenge to knowing where the body is in space also count as mechanisms or benefits to working with a pose like shoulderstand.

Lately, though, shoulderstand has come under much scrutiny for the potential danger it can pose to the cervical spine and associated structures in susceptible individuals. Some would say we should just not bother practicing it. I tend to argue that while we should not blindly practice some rigid version of the pose in a ritualistic fashion as is the case in some schools of yoga, we also should not just abandon it without considering what we might be sacrificing in the process. There are a variety of ways it can be practiced and obtain most of the benefits. But we can lose some of the advantages, too. If we decide to practice a variation on shoulderstand, we should know how we will replace the effects displaced by the change with some other yogic practice.

Last week in a retreat I attended, I heard a complementary health provider and occasional practitioner of yoga state that, in the interest of safety, if yoga teachers wanted to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (Iyengar’s soothing effect of the pose on the nerves and probably the vagal tone stimulation about which I was writing at the beginning of this post), we should avoid questionable or controversial yoga poses such as shoulderstand and simply have our students lay on their backs with an eye pillow over their closed eyelids. I had to work hard at not being insulted or appearing incredulous. Like an eye pillow would be enough, if mobilizing the relaxation response could be that simple! We know that inability to relax is one of the biggest scourges of human life. For a significant proportion of the general population, laying still with no distractions is nigh impossible (perhaps more impossible than doing shoulderstand!). And to add to the difficulty of such a flippant “solution”, another retreatant with a professional understanding of disorders of the eye cautioned against having much of the weight of an eye pillow on the eyeballs. Her reasoning might be different, but this article sheds some light on some of the issues with using an eyebag:

Reductionism such as implying that a simple remedy taken from the mainstream could substitute for a “problematic” yoga pose or even yoga practice generally seems to be a simplistic attempt at avoiding the real issue at hand – that we do not fully know how yoga gets the results. As a dear teacher I know says, “It’s not that simple!” The larger practice of yoga includes a whole set of attitudes and philosophies such as those described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We are called to practice with zeal (tapas, abhaysa) and detachment (vairagya) while also avoiding harmful (ahimsa), ego-building (asmita) activity in order to build desirable qualities such as discernment or discrimination (viveka).

Personally, I have found that the real benefits of yoga come when I faithfully, compassionately and mindfully return to my yoga mat day after day with curiousity about what I will find out, relinquishing any need to experience specific results. Perhaps this type of mechanism cannot be quantified.

HAPPY belated THANKSGIVING! (and a story about laundry)

bales of hayWe live in a culture and age that is, by most people’s standards, privileged.  We really do have so much for which to be grateful. It’s overwhelming, almost.

And yet, Thanksgiving, like other festivals or holidays, can evoke conflicting emotions in us. Finding gratitude in one’s heart can be difficult when you are having a particularly hard time, or if previous years’ Thanksgivings have been trying, Or when others seem to have, be, or do so much in relation to us.  Or when we feel compelled to do things we’d rather not do.

It is possible to turn our challenges around, though. Let me tell you a story.

In my life, Saturday was yoga-blanket-washing day.  Forty-five cotton blankets take quite awhile to wash and dry, even at a commercial laundrybasketlaundromat where there are jumbo machines.  A few years ago I blew out my home dryer in the process of washing about ten blankets, so I started to go to the laundromat instead.

I was feeling a little sorry for myself having to do this on a holiday weekend.  And it was hard work.  The dryers only run for four minutes at a time and I had about ten of them going, so I constantly was plugging quarters for about two hours.  Maneuvering, folding, and repacking them into one of three hockey bags was hot and cardiovascularly effective – my heart rate was in the 140 – 150 range a good part of the time.

At first the laundromat was empty.  But over the course of the afternoon many people came and went.  Some didn’t have their own machines.  Others’ home machines had broken down.  A couple of people came in to wash big comforters and sleeping bags.

The open door to the corridor to the bathroom had a sign indicating that the bathroom was closed due to people making a mess and drinking alcohol in there.  I found the toilet open and usable, but the fact that people spend their leisure time doing laundry and, at the same time, drinking or getting sick or vandalizing the bathroom, evoked a huge sense of compassion in me.  We all are human and that scenario could play out in the lives of any of us.

I also felt a surge of gratitude come over me.  First, how fortunate I am to have home laundry facilities, something I largely take for granted. Secondly, grateful that I have yoga blankets to offer students for their use when they practice yoga with me, and that I could afford to buy them.  Thirdly, that people want to spend time learning about yoga from me. Fourthly, that my life circumstances lead me to pursue yoga as a practice and a vocation and fifthly, that my family wholeheartedly supports me in the endeavor.  Additionally, that I made a seemingly mundane and yet profound connection with others in that laundromat.  And finally, that someone chooses to run a laundromat; certainly not a sexy or hugely lucrative endeavor.  I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift.
There are more weighty and appealing gratitude stories out (Maeve Binchy novels and Chicken Soup for the Soul books come to mind), but I wanted to share a surprising challenge-turned-gratitude event from my humble day.  When did you feel thankful today?  Was it a surprise to you?

My Passion -Helping People Using Private Yoga Therapy

I’ve been practicing yoga, sometimes more fervently than others, for 35 years, and teaching it for over fifteen of those years.  In 2008, I came to the realization that my true passion lay in using yoga therapeutically, that is to apply the teachings and practices of yoga when working with individual clients to empower them to progress toward improved health and well-being.  I investigated various ways to learn more and develop competency.  I embarked on two different and fairly major complementary trainings and by 2010, both were complete.  Nevertheless,  I find myself continuously seeking out more knowledge and opportunities to practice and I rather doubt that my lifelong learning will cease soon, if ever.

Yoga therapy is not something that just happens by chance, although one can receive helpful and sometimes unexpected benefits by practicing yoga in a general way. One of my teachers, Richard Miller, specifically includes in his definition of yoga therapy that there is an objective of achieving a specific goal, and that the steps to get there are intelligently conceived. Much of what is offered by yoga practitioners, studios and even self-styled “yoga therapists” out there falls more in the “chance” and “general” categories.

Nor does a group yoga class that is directed toward a specific problem, life stage, body type, or disease process necessarily qualify as therapy.  For example, while a person with a problematic back may experience relief from a yoga class specifically offered to address back pain, that yoga is only therapy (according to Educational Standards of the International Association of Yoga Therapists or IAYT) if the participants in the class have been separately assessed and the class’ offerings are specifically customized to the individuals within it.  In other words, it is the individual who is receiving the yoga therapy, not the disease condition being treated.

Further, while the assessment and resulting treatment program can be informed by other methodologies, to qualify as yoga therapy it must be based on the philosophy and body of knowledge of yoga.  Hence, sets of physiotherapy or fitness exercises that resemble yoga on one hand, or psychotherapeutic counseling on the other, do not constitute yoga therapy if they do not view the various aspects of the human individual and his or her circumstances from the viewpoint of yogic teaching and practices.

Yoga has some interesting ways to look at life and illness and wellness of which not everyone is aware.  Some helpful yogic models are the chakra system, the sheaths or bodies known as pancha maya koshas, and the tri-doshas or elemental makeup, for instance.  All three of these systems look at more than just the physical, just the mental, just the emotional.  They make sense of the person’s current functioning in a wholistic way, using ideas that come from the vast and ancient tradition of yoga. Most yoga therapy makes use of these or other yogic perspectives on health and disease.

While most people can envision a certain yoga pose that might mitigate a certain condition or a type of breath that could help with stress, each person’s situation and constitution is different and even those remedies aren’t going to be the best choice in every case.  Additionally, the yogic toolbox extends far beyond than the old standards of posture and breath from hatha yoga with which most people are familiar.  According to Richard Miller, the practices and teachings of yoga from which yoga therapists can choose include but are not limited to the components of Ashtanga Yoga (from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) which include the educational teachings of yama and niyama (guidelines for living with self and others), asana (intelligently applied postures), pranayama (control of energy using breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the consciousness from external senses), dharana, dhyana, and samadhi (three stages of concentration). Also included are the application of meditation, textual study, spiritual or psychological counseling, chanting, imagery, prayer, and ritual to meet the needs of the individual. The whole field of ayurvedic (Traditional Indian) medicine also informs yoga therapy.

More and more, yoga therapy is receiving attention from the academic and scientific communities and more yoga therapy is becoming evidence-based.  That is a good thing.  Yet I am happy to know that it is balanced with the acknowledgement of the therapeutic relationship and the presence and intuition and art implicit in the yoga therapy practitioner.

What excites me perhaps most about yoga therapy is that it can improve almost anyone’s life.  It is capable of addressing equally the complex needs of highly-driven athletes and bedridden invalids, happy people and sad people, the disenfranchised, destitute and compromised as well as the privileged and rich. Some yoga therapists specialize more with a certain population or type of issue.  However, overall, it is part of yoga therapist’s skill set to determine how best to work with individuals to unearth the ways in which they are suffering, explore how their constitution and life circumstances are involved, and together develop and enact a yoga-based plan for moving forward in a way that will help them to GROW through life joyfully.

Interested readers can see the IAYT’s Educational Standards for a comprehensive picture of the skills one can expect in a competent yoga therapist.

Each week I see a handful of people for individual yoga therapy.  My special interest is in using yoga to manage energy, mood, and chronic pain, heal from trauma, and find hope in otherwise discouraging circumstances. I also offer individual yoga sessions to improve physical functioning in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, or simply to just play!  If you are interested in exploring any of these for yourself, please contact me.