Yoga is the new ...
Yoga has claimed for many years that it is everything to everybody.
Vague, god-complexed, and inaccurate – but she sure does invite us in for tea & cookies. So since she’s inviting – I’ve got a l’il book summary.
William Broad is one of the few authors that can delve into scientific yoga research, framed with an experiential knowledge of practice. Let’s get real with The Science of Yoga and uncover what changes are actually physiologically & chemically going down in the body. It’s part 2/2. First off, I explained why we need science in yoga. Part one here.
To whet your buds, here are a few scientific discoveries to munch on with your tea:
Aging & all that jazz:
Telomeres are the little bits at the end of each chromosome that protect them. Telomeres naturally shorten each time a cell divides.
As we all know you can only cut the pie so many times before eventually there’s none left.
So as we age (cells divide all day every day until we die), our telomeres shorten. The shorter they are, the less capable our cells are of repairing, replicating, and recovering.
Telomere length therefore is an indicator of our cellular age & risk of cells going awry.
Enter the magical check of nature. There IS a little enzyme – telomerase – that adds length to these telomeres at a natural healthy pace, to ensure our DNA ages with us rather than faster than us. Why do our cells age faster than us (ie; shortened telomere length)? Science-based answers tell us:
- Imbalanced Diet
- Chronic Psychological Stress
- Lack of Movement
Lucky for you, Yoga initiated at any time in life increases telomere length, by increasing telomerase, unequivocally.
And in addition a yoga practice assists with the stress and movement pieces that are underlying this accelerated aging process.
If that’s not enough – Yoga has been shown again and again to improve cardiovascular disease risk factors like:
- Blood Pressure
- Blood Sugar
As well as increasing antioxidants in the blood.
Considering the improvement in all these markers, in over 70 clinical studies individuals who practice yoga have fewer hospital visits, decreased need for medications, & fewer scary coronary events.
It is a safe and cost effective intervention for the major cause of morbidity & mortality in our society.
The Fit Bit:
In terms of getting our heart rates pumping (something that’s important to our health – to put it through its paces), even a vigorous yoga practice fails in comparison.
(On observation, a strong ashtanga series 1 only raised the HR to 95 bpm on average). You might get ripped, but you might not be able to run very fast – in fact a dedicated and exclusive Hatha yoga practice can decrease your V02max(capacity for aerobic work).
Initially, the fitness benefits are abound but once you are a seasoned yogi, there is no practice that can challenge your system the way a sprint can. But hey, that’s ok. You would probably do well with more than just one interest in your life.
It is great for endurance, strength, flexibility, & balance, but you may need to play tag with your friends every now and then too.
The Happy Place:
The not-yet-science truth about yoga is that the body practice influences the headspace. They are tethered to one another and the gateway to bliss is through the body. We come to stretch and we stay for the soul.
Much of the reason this practice has persisted despite fads and miracle cures is because breath is guided throughout the calisthenics of it all. So to clarify all the mumbo jumbo about breath in the yoga world, I’m going to get technical about our gas exchange.
The breath work yogis do is a manipulation of CARBON DIOXIDE (CO2), because we cannot consciously shift (thankfully) the Oxygen saturation in our blood.
Our blood is generally (when healthy) at least 97% saturated with oxygen. Breathing doesn’t change that. Muscle use, Heart Rate & Metabolism, Illness, & Iron/Blood Loss do that for us.
What breathing DOES do, is alter our nervous system through our pacing of fresh air intake. So, let’s talk about Fresh Air. It’s made of Oxygen. Nitrogen. Carbon Dioxide. The air has LESS carbon dioxide than our lungs. When we take in fresh air in a regular breath, we don’t notice that difference because we generally only exchange about 10% of gases on a regular breath. When we take in lots of breath, we sure do notice.
Relax. It’s all a spectrum.
Fast inhales & exhales (aka hyperventilation):
Increased fresh air intake plummets the lungs normalCO2 concentration. Nature likes steadiness in the lungs, so to compensate the blood pulls CO2 out of blood & body and into lungs. This is called respiratory alkalosis – Lowered CO2 in the lungs causes heightened nerve excitability, increased SNS (Fight/Flight), and vasoconstriction in brain.
- Kapalabhati & Bhastrika are not about increased oxygen – rather decreased carbon dioxide. This breath style actually constricts brain vessels and supplies less oxygen to the brain (~50%). Lightheadedness & exhilaration ensue. You can feel great, but not necessarily brilliant.This seems to be mitigated with experience and pacing.
Slow inhales & in particular, exhales (aka hypoventilation):
Increased time on exhale increases lung CO2 concentrations, which the blood balances by drawing CO2 from the lungs into the blood & body. As blood levels of CO2 increase, nerve excitability decreases, the PSNS (Rest/Digest) turns on and the brain vasodilates.
Ujjayi & Dirga are not about increased oxygen – they are all about cutting lung ventilation. Slow the breath by half, and it will double CO2 levels in the blood. This creates calm alertness & raw awareness. Quietude. Many mantras do the same gas exchange pattern.
These shifts undeniably affect anxiety & depression by a manipulating the nervous system through a simple daily habit of changing the pace of breath. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
The Sad Place:
There is a sad place called beauty parlour syndrome. And not because it tells women to behave and look pretty, but because of the angle of the neck in the hair-chair while being shampoo-d, for extended periods of time (like 5 minutes). It is also called Vertebro-Basilar Insufficiency (VBI).
What does that even mean? Less blood going up the back of the neck into the brain. A VBI can be mild or severe. Most of the time just leaves us a little light-headed and feeling fine, but given the right circumstances it can result in a stroke. Read: Don’t freak out every time you get your hair cut but what this speaks to is:
The potential for harm in the schools of yoga that teach extreme flexion and extension of the neck as “correct”.
Where this shows up? Cobra, Wheel, Camel, Fish… really any pose where the eyes look to the forehead the chin tends to habitually follow. Obviously this doesn’t mean that looking up at the sky is causing strokes; There are some yoga poses where extended neck feels wonderfully releasing but there is a difference between carefully managed and supported neck movement vs. repetitive movements under the guidance of people who are uneducated in early symptom recognition.
Nowadays, most teachers are aware that a neutral neck is ideal through most of these postures – but there is still a lack of understanding of vessel/bone/muscle dynamics and some schools wouldn’t be able to catch a VBI if it fell in front of them.
This is a problem.
Training to swing masses of peoples’ necks around a room without appropriate anatomical training is problematic – it doesn’t matter how enlightened you are, if you are placed in a society as a guide for physical movement, you need to know the problems associated with those movements. Learning to teach dynamic movement therapy is very different than learning to teach subtle energy flows & mantra. It all needs dedicated and serious training.
Broad sums this up beautifully with:
“When the difficulty or extreme flexibility of an asana is considered ‘advanced’ & anatomical stability is a secondary detail, yoga is harmful.”
Remember all that heavy breathing talk at the beginning? Well it has another purpose and it’s going to make your pleasure experience even better.
First off, let’s clarify that Testosterone is not a “Male Hormone”.
It is a hormone produced by the adrenals, the ovaries & the testes. It strengthens attention to a task, memory function and the visualization of spatial tasks. When testosterone is balanced, mood & a sense of well being are balanced as well. The mind is clear and sharp when testosterone is flowing. Males make more than females, but female bodies are more sensitive to the amount they have. Even Steven? Even better. In addition during ovulation females experience increased desire, eroticism, intimacy daring and sexual gratification. In short, we get busy when testosterone is around.
The age-old postures of cobra, twists, and inversions have been shown to raise Testosterone anywhere from 15% to 55%*
Basically – if you move, stretch and breathe into the areas that make stuff, they make more stuff.
*Vegetarian diets in themselves lower testosterone production which is accounted for in testing – as some yogis choose vegetarianism.
Remember when I said that fast breathing decreased oxygen flow to the brain? Well that might be part of the answer to increased arousal. In fast-breath types, the brain cortex (our intellectual space) slows flow, and the inner regions (the emotional/sensing space) maintain flow.
The inner region and specifically the limbic system and amygdala, turn on – these areas have the highest density of receptors for sex hormones.
When the amygdala is stimulated in isolation it results in erection, ejaculation, ovulation, and rhythmic movements of the pelvis.
Even without a yoga practice, recent studies show that mild hyperventilation increases arousal when coupled with eroticism.
The heavy breathing of sex is helped when it is also faster breathing.
Also in these fast-breathing cycles, the brain’s electrical activity achieves states as if experiencing climax. The natural movements during these breath types create a heighten sense of touch.
Brahmacharya is a whole lot easier when you can orgasm in your brain.
Possibly, as Broad puts it:
“Deep relaxation … could represent a calm stage on the road to a remarkable kind of continuous arousal…”
I think that’s a lovely way to sum up this wonderful writing by Broad. That this practice yokes together seemingly separate states, in body, mind and breath. A remarkable kind of continuous arousal – this has been a true for me. I believe that once you feel it, you sense that if that kind of balance can happen in your brain, it can happen anywhere in life.
My one recommendation through all my years of physical and pineal play – is to watch that you don’t fall for chasing the dragon.
Pleasure is an addictive substance. Be careful with it. Because searching for solace can come at a cost.