Category Archives for Science

Why You Shouldn’t Let the NY Times Wreck Your Yoga

Grossly simplified, William Broad of the New York Times, who last year made the charge that yoga could cause paralysis and death, is now blaming the practice for an increase in hip-replacements in not-so-old women.

So, William Broad is again being lambasted in
yoga circles – nice thoughtful posts too – for shoddy reporting, imprecise language and poor analysis of causal relationships, and
everyone is wondering where he takes yoga that they tell him to “push
through the pain.” Honestly, if your instructor uses that phrase, you might want to consider pushing open the door instead.

That said, I wonder if instructors say the opposite often enough. One
of my teachers always said “pain is nature’s way of telling you that you
are out of alignment with her.” Are students hearing that message enough? Adult beginners may not have a lot of experience discerning the difference between sensation and pain and students with a background in sports or dance might actually have a lot of experience ignoring pain.

New, unusual postures, stretching and hard working muscles often send us strong messages and it’s up to us to figure out if the activity is therapeutic and we should work through sensation or harmful and we should head the warning that is pain. 

In my prenatal class, I often talk
about being present with and breathing through intense sensation. But if what you are feeling in a posture in my class is pain, please stop and tell me
so we can address that or find an alternative for you.

For beginners, part of our message as yoga instructors must be to listen to your body and not try to duplicate anyone else’s pose. Naturally a beginner looks around at the rest of a class for cues on what shape to create with his or her body, but just because the person next to you can comfortably do a posture that doesn’t mean your discomfort should be ignored. A good instructor can look at your pose and make suggestions, so let your instructor know if something doesn’t feel right.

I particularly like Leslie Kaminoff’s take on the original article Broad used to launch his book. I particularly like Kaminoff’s explanation that you cannot take the asana out of the body. To paraphrase: there is no such thing as a down dog pose without the yogi in the posture, with all of that person’s physical uniqueness, and, therefore, every down dog is different.

Here’s a link to the Ashtanga Yoga New York post Kaminoff references in the video.

How Yoga Transforms Your Body; How Yoga Transforms Lives

yoga infographic

The above infographic by Huffington Post is a beautiful illustration of the benefits of yoga – from one class to a practice of years.

After Class:

  • Improved Brain Function.
  • Lower Stress Levels.
  • Alter Gene Expression.
  • Increased Flexibility.

After A Few Months:

  • Lower Blood Pressure.
  • Improved Lung Capacity
  • Improved Sexual Function.
  • Reduced Chronic Neck Pain.
  • Anxiety Relief.
  • Relief from Chronic Back Pain.
  • Steady Blood Sugar Levels in People With Diabetes.
  • Improved Sense of Balance.

After Years:

  • Stronger Bones.
  • Healthy Weight.
  • Lower Risk of Heart Disease.

See the article for citations and details on benefits.

As fantastic as those transformations are, they are hollow statistics in comparison to the real stories featured in Urban Yogi’s: Stories of Transforming Lives.  The below trailer for the series has been circulating on Facebook thanks to UpWorthy among others.

Warning: Their stories are captivating; You may find yourself watching more than one episode.

Why Practice Yoga in The Morning?

photo by flickr user ncindc / cc 2.0
photo by flickr user ncindc / cc 2.0

Liz Wolgemuth of U.S. News and World Reports pretty much summed it up for me with: “When you put off exercise until your workday is finished, the abundance of scheduling conflicts that arise can be positively mind-boggling.”

If you have children and yoga practice with them around tends to look something like the image below, early morning quiet provides a welcome respite.

Kindredforest-yoga-warrior3Photo by Ashley Brennan at Kindred Forest Yoga

But even if you don’t have kids, the beauty of early morning can be the lack of distractions. I never get phone calls before 7 am. While there may be emails sitting in my inbox, very few senders are up to read a 5 am reply. In fact, very little can’t wait until 7 or 7:30 am when the rest of the household starts to rise.

Health Benefits of Early Morning Yoga

The Ayurvedics have long believed that early rising and a morning routine of cleansing, asana, breathwork, and meditation leads to physical and psychological health. Western science is also beginning to find measurable physiological benefits to exercise early in the day:

  • A Belgian study that found intense exercise before breakfast could counteract the effects of a truly horrible diet.
  • Studies have also shown that morning exercise may improve night-time sleep.
  • Movement in the morning breaks up adhesions that develop between muscles overnight. Gil Hedley explains how a regular routine of movement and stretching can prevent buildup of mobility limiting fibers he calls “the fuzz” in the video below (warning: graphic content).
  • Although athletic performance is generally better in the afternoon and evening, studies have shown morning exercisers tend to be more consistent overall than their afternoon-workout loving friends. For lifelong health, consistency is key.

Still daunting? Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has some great tips for becoming an early riser.

Finding the Optimal Early Morning Yoga Practice

My morning yoga practice is about movement and breath. Dramatic pretzel-like asana is not required to reap the benefits of a morning practice. Like many yogis, I find I’m stiffer in the morning than I am later in the day, so I don’t tend to use my morning practice to work on poses requiring lots of flexibility. Once I’m warmed up though, I actually find I’m steadier and balancing poses come more easily than they do in the evening.

While some yogis like them, I don’t have a set routine. However, I tend toward variations of sun salutations – lunges, standing poses, gentle backbends and forward bends. Need some ideas for getting started? Here’s my go-to warm up.

Jen’s Morning Yoga Warm-Up

Morning Yoga Sequence - Washington, DC
Balasana – Child’s PoseFocus: (hips, centering breath)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup - Washington DC<>Early Morning Yoga Warmup - Washington DC Chakra Vrkrasana – Cat-Cow (spine, hips, shoulders)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup - Washington DC Pavritta Balasana – Twisted Child’s Pose, or Thread the Needle (shoulders, spine)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup - Washington DC Adho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog Pose (hamstrings, calves, ankles, shoulders)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DC<>Plank-plAdho Mukha Svanasana – Downward Facing Dog to Palakasana – Plank (moving with the breath, hug heels & hands to the midline to engage the core)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DC<>Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DCLunge to Pasrvottanasana – Pyramid Pose (moving with with the breath, no need to fully straighten front leg)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DCPrasarita Padottanasana – Wide Leg Forward Bend (Step back into dog, forward to forward fold, or pivot into wide-angle forward bend in between sides)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DCTwisted lunge to Quad Stretch (hips, quads, hip, flexors, shoulders) for Quad Stretch (drop back knee to floor, reach for foot; optional front hand to knee)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DC Prasarita Padottanasana – Wide Leg Forward Bend (Dog, forward fold, or wide-angle forward bend in between sides)
Early Morning Yoga Warmup Sequence - Washington DCUttanasana – Standing Forward Bend (hamstrings, calves, low back; bend knees to keep curve in low back)


Follow a warm-up with a few sun salutations and you are off to a great start. For more ideas, check out Yoga Journal’s Rise and Shine sequence

Yoga IN School?

Growth of yoga for children being offered in school has paralleled the explosive growth of yoga for adults being practiced in studios, gyms, and community centers around the country.


Benefits of Yoga for Children

Even elementary school kids deal with a lot of stress these days. As I let my 3rd-5th grade after-school yoga class into the room this past Wednesday, one of my students had near-panic written on her face. Before she even walked through the door, she asked if she could do her homework instead of participating. "I'll never get it all done tonight," she pleaded. I cocked my head to one side and looked at her. "Yeah, you're right. I need the yoga," she said and headed for a mat.

The highly controversial book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards by the New York Times' William Broad summarizes the studies on benefits of the practice for adults. A similar book on studies about the benefits to kids would be mighty thin. Parents and teachers who witnessed those benefits will tell you that yoga is great for kids.

Preliminary research on child-specific benefits include reduced problem behavior, test anxiety, and anger and increased feelings of well-being, self-regulation, and focus. The video below discusses the results of a pilot study with 4th and 5th graders in Baltimore.

What is a School Yoga Class Like?

Yoga classes offered in studios may be structured very much the same as a class offered in a school, but they are often very different.  Michelle Kelsey Mitchell from Yokid wrote a very nice blog post on the subject after hosting a writer from the Chicago Tribune at one of their classes. Yoga classes in schools tend to be noisier and more chaotic and the environment often isn't ideal, but the objective and results are very much the same:

"Studio: students who achieve a quieter mind, enjoy relaxation and appreciate the time “away” from their busy and stressful lives. Students who get that much closer to their True Self…….      School:  the exact same thing."

What Do Kids Do in Yoga in School?

While many of the poses will look familiar to adult yogis, there's much more emphasis on games and social interaction in a kids class.


We always do a physical warm up to get the body moving and calm the mind. Then we might play a game, act out a story, or do partner exercises. Toward the end of class, we'll wind down with some more poses and do a final relaxation or guided meditation.

In that 3rd-5th grade class I mentioned above, we focused on stories this past week. After we warmed up, I told The Magic Pear Tree from Sydney Solis's Storytime Yoga. We identified the characters and actions and assigned yoga poses to the story and then we acted them out.

After that story example, I passed out yoga pose cards and the students worked in small groups to write their own story. We could have done this exercise for much longer than the time availabe. It was quite the hit last week.

In other classes, we'll get silly and try to pass a hula hoop around the group while everyone holds hands, pass a balloon using only their feet, or blow cotton balls across the floor.

I love the photo of the girl "meditating" in this post because I recognize the attitude and it could easily be one of my kids. Upper elementary school kids are starting to put up emotional walls as they near adolescence. Approval from peers becomes more and more important. When everything is working in yoga class, they get to let their guard down a bit and just be.