by DeLora Frederickson EPCRYT500, TIYT
Lately the term trauma has been showing up in relation to yoga across the country. The question is why? What do the two have to do with one another? Many of us have turned to yoga at times of turmoil or transition in our own lives. When things aren’t going well we discover our practice helps us find a semblance of balance.
The thing is if you have been traumatized at any time in your life, yoga and the conditions in which it is taught can stir up fears, anxiety, or withdrawal instead of that sense of inner peace and balance we search for.
Trauma Informed Yoga is a yoga therapy approach to sharing the practice with those who've been traumatized. Yoga Therapy is when yoga is utilized to work on a specific condition either in a class or private session. It might be more familiar to hear about yoga therapy as an approach to helping with low back pain or other physical ailments, but it is used across the world to help people heal their emotional wounds as well.
Being a trauma-informed or -sensitive teacher means you approach your classes from a different perspective. You hold space for those who have a more difficult time being in the world as it is. How you set your room up, the music you choose, the postures you teach, and so much more are of utmost importance in Trauma Informed Yoga. Languaging becomes even more particular when working with individuals attendting these classes. And hands-on assists create another layer of concern for people who have lived through trauma. In most cases, when offering trauma sensitive students, hands on assists are very rarely given.
Creating a safe space is essential for those who are more sensitive to environmental and social factors.
As teachers we have to RE-view our teaching techniques and the purposes of our classes. As students searching for safe yoga classes we have to find teachers who are aware of our needs and who will be sensitive to them.
This is a big new step for the yoga community. Are we willing to make space for each other so we can provide opportunities for EVERYONE to benefit from the teachings of yoga? Are we willing to look at ourselves and the way we move through the world so we can become more accessible for people affected by trauma. I think the time has come!
To find a trauma informed yoga class near you or find training Sundara Yoga Therapy in Austin, TX is a wonderful resource to start with! Other resources include:
Trauma Informed Yoga Therapy Private Sessions
Alyson Simms is offering an online Trauma Informed Series for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Overcome Anxiety Clinic
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu - May All Beings Happy and Free from Suffering
May My Words and Actions Lead to The Release of Suffering and the Creation of Happiness for All Beings
By DeLora Frederickson, ECPRYT500
Therapeutic Pre/Postnatal Yoga
Studies rank pregnancy at number twelve on the list of life's most stressful events. There are so many things to worry about and so many unknowns, with plenty of fodder for the gristmill of the chattering mind. The body responds with tension, stiffness, and rigidity. Financial worries, health concerns, fetal development, maintaining friendships, and working right up until birth all add up to stressed out mommies. None of these qualities create ease with birth.
Cortisol levels always rise with stress, but cortisol in addition to the naturally occurring hormonal shifts during pregnancy can create an overwhelming flood of emotions. This rise has been associated with negative neonatal and obstetric outcomes. Prolonged high stress hormone levels increase the likelihood of miscarriage as well as the birth of premature and underweight babies. After birth, babies born to women with prolonged severe stress are more likely to experience developmental delays, emotional difficulties, and metabolic diseases later in life.
These staggering statements bring us to the practice of relaxation for pregnancy and the birthing time. The cultural norms by which we are surrounded promote achieving more, pressing harder, and doing the most. This is why it is especially important to seek out opportunities to rest, let go, and find ease in the body, breath and mind during pregnancy.
The benefits of prenatal relaxation include lower heart rate and blood pressure along with a lower incidence of gestational hypertension. Also included are shorter labors and fewer deliveries involving instruments (forceps or vacuum). Another large motivator to find ways to relax during the perinatal time is reduced pain during labor. Relaxation practices can also reduce the possibility for caesarean birth and postpartum complications. With integrated relaxation practices the outcomes improve overall for babies and mommas.
Finding a daily practice to support release of stress, fear, tension, gripping, and stiffness is the key to avoiding these unwanted outcomes. The daily practices below empower women, teaching techniques of ease or sukha during the birthing time. They help women let go of life’s fears and anxieties. Start now to weave relaxation into the fabric of your new life as a Mother.
Suggested Practice: Yoga Nidra
Known as yogic sleep, Yoga Nidra creates a deep relaxation found through a guided visualization. Lying in a supported reclining posture with an eye pillow and a blanket covering the body, momma listens to yoga nidra daily to train the body, breath, and mind to slow down and relax.
Suggested Practice: Constructive Rest
Lay on your back with your hips lifted with a folded blanket and your calves resting on another blanket on the seat of a chair. The arms lay out to the side palms up. Hips are lifted enough to get the back lifted off the floor to prevent pressure on the vena cava. Use an eye pillow and cover yourself with yet another blanket for warmth and comfort. Let your breath be long and slow. Practice for at least 5 minutes.
Suggested Practice: Curling
Lay on your side with your knees bent up toward your chest (as comfortably as possible), and with the head supported.
Gently rock side to side while “sssshhhhhhhh”-ing softly for at least three minutes.
By DeLora Frederickson, ECPRYT500
Therapeutic Pre/Postnatal Yoga
Many women find themselves faced with a level of anxiety they are unfamiliar with during their 10 months of pregnancy. With the sands shifting under their feet the sense of apprehension grows. How will I know what to do? Will the baby be healthy? How will I cope with the pain? Will my partner be able to deal with me and my mood swings? The mind can turn quickly and frenetically at times. In our culture these days, women are independent, self confident, and successful at their careers. With these two circumstances colliding, mothers come to their mats for solace. Asana is one crucial component of meeting the physical challenges of pregnancy and is the most familiar in studio prenatal yoga classes.
A more veiled practice is that of mantra, which is the use of sound to create inner peace, tranquility, and to activate the intrinsic power women have within. Mantra is not often included in public classes because of the mysterious quality it carries with its unknown language and unknown meanings. However, cultures all over the world use sound with birth. From the deep guttural organic utterances of a woman passing through the depths of her birthing time to the first sounds from baby after birth, sound is an integral part of this passage. Increasing your level of energy, calming the vrittis, and building confidence can be of great importance in prenatal yoga. Delving into the art of the sacred utterance brings one to their true self – beyond the worries.
Mantra with the Breath
Throughout the day many anxious thoughts move through the mind taking the self-esteem down with a vengeance. Life goes on, there is no time to sit and meditate. In a sense one could call this a moving meditation.
With the inhale say to yourself Sat (Truth) and on the exhale say to yourself Nam (Name or Identity). With every breath – Truth is My Identity. Bringing your self into the moment, being present. Sat Nam.
Another challenge of pregnancy takes place in the brain. Researchers at England’s Hammersmith Hospital have found brains of healthy pregnant women shrink by up to six percent. This means the capacity for logical thinking is altered. Women find themselves in unfamiliar territory. This can be confusing and disempowering.
Creating Healing Space
Find a quiet beautiful space and lie in a reclined position. Surrounding yourself with a circle of supporters and friends chanting:
Ra Ma Da Saa
Saa Say So Hung
Sun, Moon, Earth, Impersonal Infinity
Totality of Infinity, Personal Sense of Merger & Identity, The Infinite
Due to the nature of birth many women are washed over by the unknown. They develop deep-seated fears that perseverate, fears that go round and round and are difficult to stop. The use of mantra can balance the fluctuations of the mind to offer less stress. Less stress means baby develops in a ‘cleaner’ environment – one comprised of more oxytocin and less cortisol.
Creating Inner Peace
Find a quiet space where you will be uninterrupted and come to a comfortable seat. Focus your mind with a few minutes of conscious breathing. When you are ready begin.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti
Om is considered to be the primeval sound, the sound of the universe, the sound from which all other sounds are formed.
Shanti is peace.
On this journey into the Laborynth of birth mantra can be an untapped resource for many women. Harmonizing with the Universe, vibrating with the Cosmos, becoming attuned in a deep visceral way can lead to a sense of calmness, a relief of tension, easier sleep, and a healthier happier baby.
By DeLora Frederickson, ECPRYT500
The inner exploration of Motherhood is an adventure requiring strength, willingness, and curiosity. For eons we as women have turned to our tribe, our kula during these times. Community is an essential element in prenatal yoga, women supporting women. All over, women are gathering in prenatal yoga classes to build kulas, to stir the energies in our bodies, and to ease our birthing experience.
Prenatal yoga cultivates sukha (sweetness) in the birth experience. It gives women an avenue, a pathway if you will, during this rite of passage. Now we can appreciate the shining jewels found in the practice of prenatal yoga.
In our culture, we like to believe we are in control. Pregnancy can show us, sometimes for the first time in our lives, we are not in control of our physicality. This inner confrontation, along with hormonal changes, can create anxiety and depression both pre and postpartum. The emotional rollercoaster of Motherhood necessitates a tool kit!
This is the time for the many exquisite practices prenatal yoga offers for Mothers. From taming anxiety to preparing the body, yoga is a good friend the entire journey. The first place we begin is the breath. Breathing is such an impactful practice because you always have your breath with you. You can use focused breathing anytime and anywhere!
Suggested Practice: Pranic Connection with Baby
Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Bring one hand to your chest and one to your belly. Breathe in and lift your chest. Breathe out and hug your baby up and in gently. Do this for 4 breaths. Now breathe in. Breathe out through puckered lips and you hug your baby up and in gently. Do this for 4 breaths. Now as you inhale open both arms out to the side. As you exhale wrap your arms around your shoulders. Do this for 4 breaths. Bring your hands to your thighs. Breathe freely in and out of your nose. Do this for 4 breaths. Slowly open your eyes. Pay exquisite attention to yourself and what you are sensing in this moment: connected to yourself and your baby.
Pranayama or focused breathing, leads movement through the world, through asana practice, through birth, and through life as a Mother. Invite the breath in. Polish yourself from the inside out. Massage your baby and your spine with your breath. Make space for your baby in your life through your breath.
Suggested Practice: Opening & Allowing
With strong sensations during your birthing time find your breath. Inhale. Relax the lips together and flutter the breath out over the lips as horses do. The lips and cervix as well as the hips and jaw are energetically connected in the body. Relax the jaw and lips – relax the hips and cervix through the breath. Let your exhale be long and relaxed. Inhale. Flutter the lips as you exhale. Do 4-6 rounds anytime you want to relax and soften.
With the essential shifts occurring in the self, the antepartum time can be accompanied by fear, insecurity, anxiety, and depression. Always there, focused breathing is a proven way to find relief during pregnancy. In an anxious state we are in our sympathetic nervous system. This system sends messages to the brain, which then informs the endocrine system we are in a state of fight & flight. This in turn cues the release of chemical compounds known as stress hormones to rush through your body and your baby’s developing body.
Your breath is also affected by the sympathetic nervous system, it often stops or becomes very shallow. To return to your parasympathetic nervous system – where you rest, recover, and digest – turn to your breath.
Suggested Practice: Constructive Rest
Lie on your side with knees drawn toward the chest. Support your head and belly. Begin softly ‘ssssshhhhh-ing’. Inhaling slow and easily. Exhaling slow and easily. After 4 breaths begin to gently rock back and forth side to side. Eyes closed. 6 more long slow breaths with a ‘sssshhhh’. Then breathe in and out of your nose freely for 6 breaths. Press your self up to seated. Take 4 long slow breaths here and pay exquisite attention to yourself and your baby.
With lives being so full and busy we must schedule our breathing breaks. Set an alarm on your phone, put it on your schedule, make a breathing date with a friend. Become more and more aware of the immense benefits of focused breathing during the development of your baby.
You are the perfect Mother for this baby. Savor this time you have during pregnancy. Cultivate sukha. Remember your breath.
This moment in your life…pause, breathe in and know there are 2 hearts beating within you. Cherish this moment.
By DeLora Frederickson, ECPRYT500
Therapeutic Pre/postnatal Yoga
by Cody Drasser
What is the price of mixing yoga with retail product endorsements? It easily can be a loss of freedom through diminishing your conscious choices.
However, unlike simply ignoring an annoying TV commercial, you may be caught in a biologically primed state through your yoga practice to not only be receptive to the message but to neurally file it as all-important info to guide behavior just like your basic survival instincts do. I’ll explain the process below.
I’m inspired to write about this after hearing attendees describe a session at a recent Yoga Journal conference. A celebrity yoga teacher who was part of a panel session peppered blatant script-like product endorsements whenever she spoke.
Before hearing about the Yoga Journal live-in-person ads, I had been thinking about how modern yoga culture is becoming its own entangled web of conditioning. But now the topic seems more potent to write about because, as I see it, we’re talking about ethics of taking advantage of how your nervous system continually reorganizes itself.
Layers of Conditioning
You’re probably familiar with the story of Pavlov’s dog. It’s even a line in a Rolling Stones song! “When you call my name, I salivate just like Pavlov’s dog.”
Q: What does a slobbery Russian dog have to do with the ethics of modern yoga marketing?
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who was studying digestion in the 1890’s. He would present dogs with meat and induce them to salivate; he collected saliva samples and analyzed digestive enzymes. He certainly wasn’t originally interested in how behaviors get conditioned, but his attention turned that way when he was perplexed how his dogs were releasing what he called “psychic secretions”. They were salivating before the meat was given to them. How were their salivary glands active too early? The dogs had learned what environmental events predicted the delivery of food and they were doing what was adaptive: getting the digestive machinery ready! They were simply acting on instinct.
Instincts are hard-wired, unlearned behavioral tendencies. All mammals have them – they give increases the chance of survival and reproduction. The nervous system is primed to use them as building blocks for learned behaviors through a process called classical conditioning, which can sometimes be a very powerful form of learning (creating an intense behavioral response that may prove very difficult to unlearn).
Classical conditioning involves pairing together a once neutral stimulus in the environment with an instinctual behavior. Pavlov’s work many years ago is the foundation of what we know about conditioning. By pairing an arbitrary (unconditioned) stimulus, such as a bell, with the delivery of the dog’s food, he showed that the unconditioned stimulus could then trigger a similar conditioned response. The bell acted as a predictor of the food and triggered salivation.
The link between an unconditioned stimulus and an unconditioned response is reflexive. It happens automatically; it is unlearned, native to how the nervous system organically works. It is represented in the green rectangle in the diagram. There are many different instances of classically conditioned behavior that you do or see in other every day.
Pavlov began experimenting with just how arbitrary the links could become between multiple conditioned stimuli and still be able to trigger a conditioned response. So he paired a light coming on with the sound of the bell and the dog salivated. Then he would pair something else with the light, etc.
And that chain brings us back to the Yoga Journal conference…
Unlayering through Yoga
When a newbie practices yoga for the first time, she taps into what’s shown in the diagram’s green rectangle. The effects of the breath and postures while moving mindfully and directing attention inward to one’s sensations is a potent event. They are an unconditioned response. By the end of that first practice, she has changed her physiology. Her stress is lower and her parasympathetic nervous system is signaling to her brain and other organs that she is safe.
Survival instincts engaged, her sensory systems scan the environment for what must be associated with this newfound sense of safety and restoration. The yoga teacher, the studio, the music that was playing, the Ganesh statue, the smell of the mat (even if it’s not pleasant) is predictive. Her nervous system stamps a new association in place through classical conditioning. She has experienced instinctual safety in her body. On an unconscious level, her body is then driven to find more of those things that produce safety and restoration. So just like Pavlov with the bell + light example, the stage is set to pair yoga + that favorite teacher + her product endorsements.
Getting Realistic about the Web of Associations
Kim Kardashian is a businesswoman. She sometimes gets paid ridiculous amounts to just tweet a product name. That tweet is tapping into the ‘Marketing Strategy’ that is illustrated in the diagram – associating a product with a celebrity. That layering of unconditioned and conditioned stimuli is the very reason that sex sells, a veritable chapter of the marketing playbook. The imagery used in marketing is to make you feel good.
And yoga tends to make people feel good.
Anyone who exploits his or her status as a yoga teacher to sell you anything walks a dubious line. Pairing a product with yoga – like a vodka print ad with a beautiful person seated in lotus position – is piggy-backing onto the inherent wisdom by which yoga physiologically reprograms your nervous system in order to program your purchases. This is abuse when it comes from a so-called spiritual teacher.
It’s impossible to live in the absence of an associative web. Our nervous systems build these connections for us all the time. But at the very least we can be a little more conscious of our web’s design, especially where it means being protective in allowing one’s hard-wired instincts to be piggy-backed into commercial exploitation. For a yoga teacher to exploit the physiology of your body to make you a sale is – without grey area, without rationalization – simply unethical.
Your yoga practice is meant to be about surrender – to still the patterning of consciousness, and to reveal, question, and unprogram the conditioning that culture has heaped upon us. Surrender is power, not retail priming.
I’ll cut to the chase and answer the question right away: I don’t know. But I’m hopeful.
Like many other researchers who were originally in other fields, I traded to Team Yoga a few years ago. Although I have only been tracking the yoga research field closely for about seven years, it has been the time of greatest change in the field.
Starting in 2008, I was completely enamored of going to conferences with other yoga researchers. My first yoga therapy conference blew me away. Strangely, one of the most vibrant memories from it was the animated Q&A minutes that were peppered in between presentations.
Instead of the typical questioning about methodological minutia or future directions, those minutes on the audience microphone were sparking hot debates. People were raising their voices – yep, here, at a yoga therapy conference! One by one, the subsequent presentations became a few minutes later, getting off schedule because the back-and-forth chatter would not stop. The chatter boiled down to this: should yoga research be done at all?
The field is growing in numbers, prestige, and credibility. Young researchers are cutting their dissertation teeth on yoga topics and setting themselves up for careers in this field. All of this is amazing.
But the momentum can lead to the adoption of methods, agendas, and philosophical baggage that makes yoga research a part of the biomedical research paradigm in a way that changes what is studied and sidelines some questions not to be answered at all because they don’t fit the random control trial mold.
So let’s also be clear about what this momentum is and is not. It is the adoption of yoga as a topic into a western paradigm of research. Overall, the momentum is a positive, to be sure, but it does not necessarily translate into the application of that knowledge. At least not yet. We need creative programming in health care settings and community service to cross that bridge.
The increased rate of publishing also does not draw in more funding dollars. There is still very sparse funding out there for any form of mind-body research, relatively speaking. Mind-body research goes against the current paradigm in health-related research of get some data, develop a drug or program to sell, and collect ROI.
Pitfalls in Popularity
There are some potential pitfalls to this exponential growth to yoga research. Just like with the surge in popularity of many different American yoga brands and yogilebrity teachers, when a field becomes saturated, then the players have to do something to make themselves stand out. Sometimes doing something different is truly innovation. Other times, it is noise. Sometimes, it is not really something different; it is instead a false partitioning into categories.
The very nature of science is to engage in that last tendency: to carve things up in clean, discrete categories, even though we know that nature is not compartmentalized that way. The joke among scientists is that as you continue along, you know more and more about less and less. This is because you specialize into your niche to differentiate (and therefore fund) yourself.
Is this going to play out in yoga research? If so, what will it look like? Competing camps of researchers, like in other areas of science? My yoga is THE form of yoga to practice to heal ___ [fill in your own blank]. My yoga is better than your yoga, p < .05. We will have entered the realm of statistical generalities and have moved farther away from yoga as individualized medicine.
Back to Basics
I included this Active Life DC figure in the introduction of an article called Yoga at the Intersection of Research and Service. Part 1: Experimental Foundations that I recently wrote for the Journal of Yoga Service, an article that is part of a much larger current writing project. Drafting this article helped me get clear on what I, as an enthusiastically unapologetic nerd when it comes to experimental design and measurement, have to offer the field of yoga research. For me, the next step is a return to basics and coming up with more basic recipes. It’s all about building a solid foundation of experimental design and statistics for mind-body researchers. Based on the feedback I’ve been getting now for seven years, it’s needed. Somehow my fate will be wrapped up in the phrase “ measuring the immeasurable.”As the face of commercial yoga has transformed, so too yoga research is becoming commonplace enough to do both great things and mediocre things. We have to make sure the foundation is solid.
If I sound ambivalent, it is only because I am.
Yoga research: We’re on our way! We just don’t know where quite yet.
Don’t miss this July workshop opportunity!
Building Resilience: Yoga for the Nervous System
July 27, 1-5pm
Join neuroscientist Dr. Stephanie Shorter for a Saturday afternoon workshop exploring how practicing yoga = flexible neurons = flexible behavior. Learn how cortical neural networks and peripheral nerves are tuned by mindful movement and the breath. $50. Location: AOMA, 4701 West Gate Blvd. Classroom E2.
When was the last time you did some good old-fashioned yogic spelunking? I’m talking about digging in and going on an inward journey. I’m talking about seeking out new sensations in the dark, unexplored spaces of your muscles, fascia and bones. Oh, and your mind too!
If you’re new to this kind of trekking, here’s what you need to bring: Slow movement, unrestrained breath and focused attention. You’re going to use these tools to track down sensation. Your practice will become less about the external physical form (what the postures look like objectively from the outside) and more about your subjective internal landscape.
The number and magnitude of sensations that can be felt as you flow through yoga postures depend upon the speed and mindfulness of the movement. Vigorous and fast movement can hide the underlying sensations. Like a blur, they come and go too quickly to really take them in individually. That’s why a slow practice can be the juiciest. Slow movement lets you really be there for the sensations as they arise. Slowing down equates to feeling more. The more you can feel, the more transformative your practice can become.
When moving quickly, the brain is either wrapped up in the motor control needed to produce the choreography or is on autopilot, distracted with making the grocery list or deciding what color to paint the bathroom or any number of one-way conversations. Either way, movement keeper-upper or checked out, the brain is producing movements without much connection to those movements (this is where the risk of injury increases). The body is invested in the movements, but the brain is not. You’re not fully there to receive detailed feedback in the form of increasingly subtle sensations. You produce (movements) but you don’t receive (sensations).
Yoga teachers talk about exploring the edge in a posture while sensory neuroscientists talk about thresholds, and they might just be talking about exactly the same thing. A threshold can reflect the discrimination of two different sensations – sweeter than, colder than, bigger than, more vertical, more blue, more melodious. That tiny range where we tip from one perception to the other is a just noticeable difference (jnd).
Slowing the pace of our movements and repeating postures gives opportunities to find these jnd’s. Positioning the self right at the jnd is the edge to explore, not going to the edge of pain. After all, what is pain? It’s a sharp signal that something is going wrong.
Do you think it is more skillful to listen to subtle signals from your body or have it SCREAM at you?
Fast movement requires faster, shallower breathing and, for this reason, I personally have become less interested in fast-moving vinyasa classes. As my lung capacity has expanded, the pace of flying through Plank-Chaturanga-Up Dog-Down Dog feels rushed.
If I follow my own breath, timing my movements to the depth and pace of my inhales and exhales, then I’m much slower than the rest of the class. I’ll fall out of sync with what the teacher is leading, which is OK, but it took me some time to learn to be confident with being the oddball in class. Being at the Kripalu Center for a couple of years helped me with that. At Kripalu, indulging in different postures, self-pacing, luxurious exhales … and, yes, occasional strange sounds… are all the norm. When I left Kripalu and went to public yoga classes again, I had forgotten that not everyone is weird and noisy!
So if you’re waiting for permission to set your own pace and seriously exhale like there’s no tomorrow, then wait no longer. Permission granted.
Go to the back row of your next class. Pay attention internally. Get weird and dive in. Your practice is yours. It’s all about what’s happening on the inside not the pretty choreography on the outside. Go ahead, jnd it up!
Genetic Expression Changes Immediately After Yoga Practice
Article Review by Dr. Stephanie Shorter
Qu S, Olafsrud SM, Meza-Zepeda LA, Saatcioglu F (2013). Rapid Gene Expression Changes in Peripheral Blood Lymphocytes upon Practice of a Comprehensive Yoga Program. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61910. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061910
Last week, a group of Norwegian bioscience researchers published a new paper that points to a molecular basis for the immediate feel-good effects of practicing yoga. Qu et al. (2013) studied how gene expression quickly changes in lymphoctyes (immune system cells) in the circulating bloodstream of yoga practitioners.
Genetic data from 10 healthy men (ages 18-50) was analyzed for this study, which was part of a weeklong yoga retreat in Germany. The yoga (experimental) intervention involved a morning practice of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) on two consecutive days. The standardized practice sessions were termed a ‘complete yoga practice’ as they involved gentle yoga asanas, pranayama and Sudarshan Yoga breathing (a rhythmic breathing technique) and ended with meditation. Participants were all regular SKY practitioners with 1.5 to 5 years of experience. The control condition in this study involved two parts: walking outside in nature (to emulate the physical exercise component of yoga) and listening to calming music (to tap into the relaxation response).
SKY is a heavily breath-based intervention and it is claimed to eliminate stress and negative emotions while boosting energy and focus. Using a SKY protocol, several past studies have showed both physical and benefits – from improving antioxidation in cells, to decreasing acidity of the blood, to relieving depression and anxiety. (Patricia Gerbarg and Richard Brown are experts in the latter and their work, which ranges from PTSD and natural disasters field to clinical techniques is highly recommended for further reading.)
Heatmaps of differentially expressed genes for the yoga condition (upper panel) and the control condition (lower panel). Each row represents a different gene and the color expresses the change in its expression. Each column represents one participant in one condition (see paper for more detail). A red square indicates up-regulation and a green square indicates down-regulation. The Venn diagram shows the number of unique and overlapping genes implicated in the two conditions.
Qu et al. took blood samples from the male participants before and after each condition. Yoga sessions were on the first two days and the walking/relaxation control sessions were held at the same time and place on the third and fourth days of the retreat. Immune cells (peripheral blood mononuclear cells) were extracted from each blood sample. Earlier research has established long-term gene expression changes in SKY, Qigong and meditation practitioners. However, it remains to be seen how quickly gene expression can change after a mind-body practice session. This study is the first to take blood samples daily after practice and look for how soon the genetic change starts to occur.
Results: Gene Expression Changes in Just Two Hours
Measurable differences started occurring in the genes of immune cells within just one session (i.e., two hours of yoga practice). There were three times the number of differentially expressed genes following the yoga sessions as compared to the control condition; the SKY condition induced a change in 111 genes, whereas the control condition saw a modification in 38 genes. Of these genes, 14 were similarly affected in both the yoga and control conditions. The yoga condition equally up-regulated and down-regulated genes. For the control condition, on the other hand, it was significantly more likely that genes were down-regulated. Up-regulation and down-regulation are processes in which the gene expression and its related cascade of protein synthesis events are either enhanced or turned off. In a nutshell, the results show that yoga turns on protein synthesis more than walking and relaxation.
Questions for the Future
It is a bit of a leap at this point to jump from these gene expression results to better function of the immune function. That is, we know that the genes are starting to change, but it is an unknown when cell morphology and physiology follows suit and the timeline to when there is a measureable difference in immunity. Seeing a change in a gene does not mean an instantaneous change in function. A very common duration for many yoga studies is 8 weeks, so we know that some functional changes happen in less than 8 weeks. Daily monitoring in a future study will be needed to show the average minimal amount of practicing yoga that, much like crossing a threshold, is sufficient to start changing gene expression in novices who are just getting exposed to yoga.
A methodological limitation, which the authors also mention, is that the two conditions should have been randomized across the participants. The yoga sessions (Y) happened for two days and then the walking/relaxation control sessions (C) happened for the next two days. This must have been done for practical reasons within the retreat. However, it is bad form in terms of experimental design. Ideally, a few participants (and more participants added if we’re really making a wish list here!) would have been randomized to every possible order: YYCC, CCYY, YCYC, YCCY, CYCY, and CYYC. This counterbalancing would help us rule out potential confounds.
As is, the set order of YYCC for all participants begs the question of whether there was a carryover effect that went into the third (or even fourth) day and leaves the possibility open for conditioned relaxation responses being learned from the yoga days and extending into the control days. This would be a form of classical conditioning (yes, just like Pavlov’s salivating dogs). The potency of conditioning physiology to a specific room is not to be taken lightly. (In fact, drug overdoses tend to occur in novel environments for this very reason because the body does not have the external cues that usually trigger a compensatory response before the drug enters the body; the same dose that is OK at home may prove fatal in a strange place.) A space where ones regularly practices yoga begins to take on healing properties by simply being in the room, even when not practicing. This can be useful for a practitioner, but it makes clean measurement much trickier for a yoga researcher.
In the final sentence, the authors raise the interesting idea of using this kind of genetic platform to conduct comparative studies of different types of yoga practice. We have many different labels for many different styles of Hatha Yoga. Gene and protein expression would be the ultimate way to test if there are truly differences in the benefits of practicing each style.
The biology of mind-body medicine is really still a wide-open pasture and we’re still just skirting the fence. Even with its limitations, this study makes an exciting step in moving us closer to understanding the cellular biology of yoga.
Yoga Therapy: Nyaya Yoga: Think Like a 21st Century Yogi
"The true Self is the mind behind the mind, the eye behind the eye, the speech behind speech, and the prana behind prana." ~ Upanishads
Nyaya Yoga is a dialogue of science and spirituality that will help you learn to think behind the thoughts. It’s Yoga Therapy for the mind. No mat required.
Self-inquiry is not a matter of using ordinary thinking, logic or strategy. It is not about silencing our thoughts. It does not depend on some kind of esoteric intuition.
The deepest level of self-inquiry is finding the thinker behind the thoughts. Deep self-inquiry is the most fundamental form of knowledge that we have. It is not led astray by all the glitter of the senses and fluctuations of the mind. It ushers us into right action beyond everyday conditioning, engaging us to see that spirituality is right there in front of us in the everyday details.
In Vedic philosophy, the Law of Karma and the cycle of rebirth are the engines that drive the mind. Karma is the principle behind all of our actions, choices, suffering and joy. Karmas are produced by the strongly entrenched conditioned inclinations, habits and tendencies of the mind (Samskaras) that ultimately direct the course of our lives.
In Nyaya Yoga, we use the ancient Vedic science of Jyotish (Vedic Astrology) to reveal your karmic blueprint. A kind of personality profile, this blueprint is the most valuable tool you can have to evolve and move gracefully into what the future holds for you. Although it is usually not taught in the west, Jyotish has been employed by Yogis for thousands of years in India to skillfully be with our current reality – that is, to be with our patterns of karma unfolding.
Modern neuroscience also recognizes that the brain has predetermined physiological processes that drive our personalities, making our thoughts and actions play out in predictable and often recurring ways. Neural network simulations demonstrate that our brains are wired to generate self-reinforcing patterns of activity, like being caught in a loop. The more we think or act in a certain way, the more likely we are to continue those habits in the future. What Yogis called Samskaras, computational neuroscientists call attractor dynamics; this topic is covered in an earlier blog below.
Nyaya Yoga trainings offer a unique way of viewing mind, consciousness and behavior through complimentary filters – Neuroscience, Hatha Yoga, Ayurvedic Psychology and Jyotish. Such a systematic approach to Yogic science has had little exposure in the west due to the misconception that Eastern philosophy should only be approached from the heart. While there has been immense innovation and diligent commitment to the physical (Hatha) and heart-centered (Bhakti) aspects of Yoga in the west, the mind has not received enough attention.
With Nyaya Yoga – a union of ancient wisdom and modern science – we dive into Yogic mental training (Jnana). Clarity in thought will move us towards spiritual evolution and true emotional freedom.
We hope to see you at our Austin training weekend, March 22-24!
When You Do Yoga, Every Cell Does Too!
Practicing yoga changes us and others see those changes. But there are also changes happening on a level that is not so obvious to the eye.
Our cells change too. Yogic breathing can make our cells less susceptible to oxidation and free radical damage. Slow and deep breathing decreases the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the lungs. As the body clears carbon dioxide, the pH of the blood increases: the blood is less acidic and more richly oxygenated. This change promotes wellness because we know that high blood acidity levels are associated with metabolic disorders, fatigue and many different disease states. Cell by cell, we are healthier.
Healthier cells organize themselves into smarter, more balanced and resilient systems – systems that are less susceptible to breakdown, inflammation and disease. It turns out that a regular yoga practice can reduce inflammation throughout the body and help tune the immune system.
A recent pair of preliminary studies does an elegant job of showing how a regular yoga practice can reduce inflammation in the body. Psychoneuroimmunologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues study regular yoga practitioners and novices. In 2010, this research group published a study that focused on stress, inflammation and yoga. The key finding was that women who were novices to practicing yoga were less resilient to stress as measured by two different inflammatory markers that circulate in the blood. When compared to women who were regular yoga practitioners (more than one class per week for at least two years), novices were less resilient to stress as their interleukin 6 (IL-6) levels were 41% higher and their high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) levels were 4.75 times more likely to be elevated. IL-6 is an intercellular signaling molecule that stimulates a defensive immune response and hsCRP is an inflammation-related protein that is associated with increased risk of heart and arterial disease.
In a new study, the Kiecolt-Glaser group continues to dig deeper into how yoga can affect inflammatory responses at the cellular level. Now they are showing how the levels of proinflammatory and anti-inflammatory protein molecules shift as you continue practicing yoga over time. As before, some female study participants (50 in total) were novices and others had practiced yoga regularly for at least two years. The women in the two groups were well matched on many other variables except for their experience with yoga. Blood samples were drawn at three times and the concentration of two adipocytokines (inflammatory modulators that are secreted from body fat tissue) was analyzed. Adiponectin plays an anti-inflammatory role and showed a 28% increase in experts as compared to novices; while this change is in the positive, wellness-producing direction, it was not strong enough to reach statistical significance. The drop in the proinflammatory adipocytokine called leptin, however, was significant. The bodies of yoga experts were producing 36% less leptin, which is in good agreement with the 2010 results on IL-6.
To summarize, the proinflammatory cells were decreasing while the anti-inflammatory cells were increasing, though not as much. In other words, the body was less on the offense and a little bit less on the defense. This pattern makes sense as there needs to be ready defense mechanisms against external agents that would prompt inflammation and immune reactivity.
As Above, So Below
So we see mirrored for cells some of the very same changes that we see yoga producing on the psychological, behavioral and social levels. Practicing yoga makes us less toxic, less reactive, less inflamed, and more receptive to what comes our way without putting up a wall of automatic defenses. All are reasons that can inspire us to return to our mats, knowing that the benefits of each practice accumulate over time, giving us a transformation revolution, cell by cell.
Take care of your cells, your systems, your mind, and your relationships. Simply, do yoga.