Yoga is a Science

Bandhayoga danurasana depection

Yoga is old. Really old, probably 3,500 years old. It supposedly started with people trying to sit for long periods of time and realizing that in order to do that, they needed to take care of their bodies. This really only could start happening once civilization and agriculture were established; a hunter gatherer would be forced to spend the majority of their time on survival rather than meditation. This is really the beginning of philosophy; people begin to think about how their minds process the environment. When Patanjali, a collection of ancient scholars, begins to teach the Ayurvedic system, yoga practice, prana-yama exercises, as well as the Sutras and the remaining Astanga limbs of Yamas, Niyamas, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Then in about 400 BC a man named Panini came along and writing systems for Sanskrit were born into India, where the oral traditions were written in Devangari. This was about 2500 years ago and they were probably practicing asana before that.

Now fast forward to today and what modern yoga is. It is a workout, but people don’t necessarily consider their anatomical functionality when working out. Its pretty important to realize that yoga will definitely have effects on your nervous system and the alignment of your muscles because the body works with gravity to align your skeletal and muscular structure in yoga to optimally work and function with gravity. This promotes healthier cardio-vascular function, can increase coordination, proprioceptive awareness (body and limb positions), and contributes to healthy and restorative sleep cycles.

Really, yoga is about increasing the efficiency of your nervous system and cardiovascular efficiency. Inversions are extremely healthy because they reverse blood-flow and wash the brain and spine with cerebral-spinal fluid ensuring a healthy flow in the central nervous system. It also aligns joints, muscles, and nerves to ensure that the nerves take an efficient path to and through the muscles. Poses like Trikonasana (triangle) and Parsvakonasana (side-angle) help to ensure that the Sciatic nerve passes efficiently through the pyriformis. Small alterations in the poses can make huge differences for blood and nerve flow into the legs and really are key to readjusting your body to allow for optimal functioning.

This is why it’s really important to take your own practice seriously, at least occasionally. Learning is what yoga is all about and having the mind of a beginner (one where you look for possibilities rather than revisit what you know) is extremely important for the poses, especially when you are getting into the details. Anatomical knowledge is a definite must once you get to certain levels of poses, especially back bends, inversions, and sitting folding poses. Things like dorsal flexing the ankle, directing dristhi to the tip of the nose, and tucking the chin can make huge differences in the effects and performance of the breath in asana.

The science of yoga is finding happiness, when everything is said and done. You want to find ways to use your body that are sustainable and contribute your well-being, which is not merely physical. People often seem most interesting the physical effects of asana, but the mental effects are so much more important because truly being happy will radiate into your entire life and make people see your differently. Being physically fit and thin is a nice side-effect of the practice, but I think that in the end, the true goal is happiness. That is why there is so much philosophy involved with the practice. So in the end, do the things that make you happy and use yoga as a tool to help you detach from them, to see how they truly affect your life. For with detachment comes perspective and perspective leads to awareness. In a way, yoga is really a science of detachment, allowing you to see you for who and what you really are and your body for what a gift it truly is.

Yoga and Drugs (Part 3: anxiety)

anxiety physiology

Anxiety is something that yoga vigorously attacks. Anxiety is essentially a lack of presence and ability to act in the present moment due to the consequences of the past or expectations for the future. Yoga has been clinically proven to reduce anxiety and seems to be more effective than meditation in the scientific literature, but long-term studies are still needed for determining obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety attacks. I know people with PTSD that practice and they say yoga is life-changing for them. Long term clinical trials with strict controls are needed to really see the positive effects and long-term benefits of yoga on these symptoms.

Yoga forces concentration upon the present moment; it is nigh impossible to do handstands, arm balances, and back-bends without complete focus. Especially when you are pushing the limits of your own body, you need to give it the complete attention it deserves. Yoga trains the brain to ignore “what-if” situations, giving your mind the capacity to be completely present inside of your body. “What if my foot cramps?”, “What if my leg hurts?”. These no longer become possible because you are reacting to the feeling in your foot and leg rather than predicting an outcome.

But it’s not your fault that you are anxious. American society feeds on it, telling you about the things that you need to prepare for and all of the bad things that could happen to you and have happened to others. The news is an amazingly good example. They literally go around finding things to make you startled and uneasy so that you listen to their advice and keep watching. Commercials are another good one. They tell us what we need these things and that if we don’t have them, our lives will not be complete, happy, or fulfilling. American culture also tells us that we should be busy on our cell phones so that we look important, which leads to an inability to focus on what is actually happening in our lives. All of these sources lead us further away from the truth that is inside.

Really, peace and contentment is something that you cultivate and grow. The more time you spend being present, discerning feelings as they pass, and bringing yourself to a place of gratitude, the more ability you will have to over-rule anxiety. Being grateful that you are alive can help alleviate the anxiety over work, take time to consider the circumstances of your life and how lucky you are. It doesn’t come naturally and consumerism fights your ability to be content with what is.

It comes back to the dopamine, serotonin, and over-exciting the central nervous system. Anxiety is almost 100% created by a perception, but is accompanied by physical symptoms like muscular tension (which yoga definitely helps), problems with concentration (which yoga definitely helps), and fatigue/restlessness (which yoga definitely helps). People with symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder claim that yoga helps, though long terms studies have yet to be done on reducing obsession. One of the most debilitating symptoms of anxiety disorder is fear of death, which is one of the most important parts of yoga. In yoga, Shivasana, or final corpse pose is a meditation upon death and liberates the mind and soul into the present.

All of this comes back to yoga as a treatment option for anxiety, possibly more effective than any other for its symptoms. Being content with the present is about breathing and finding beauty in the small things around you, not buying cars and houses or throwing huge parties and getting wasted. Anxiety is fought by sitting still for a few minutes in the morning, taking a walk in the afternoon, and regular yoga practice will be sure to expedite anything you are already doing.  The bliss of not worrying about anything comes from breaking away from the things that you think you need, and detaching from them. This is how the detachment taught in yoga is the ultimate freedom, especially from things such as anxiety.

This concludes the three-part section on psychiatric drugs and the clinically proven effects of yoga on DSM spectrum disorders of anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity.

Here are some resources for you to reference
Yoga health benefits:

Yoga for Anxiety:

Yoga and Drugs (part 2: hyperactivity and bipolarity)

Novartis Ritalin Packaging

Let’s shift our attention from mood disorders and the general neurological benefits of yoga into a more granular subject matter: hyperactive and bipolar personality types and some of the more granular benefits of yoga for these personality types. We’ll dig into hyperactive personalities and anxiety and then talk about how yoga alleviates symptoms. Really this builds on the previous discussion because we are no longer acknowledging these mental states as problems, or as curable with medication.

This is a far more personal subject matter for me; not that I haven’t experienced depression, but I was diagnosed with ADD when I was 6 and took medicine for about 16 years. I was very disruptive when I was younger, although I did not have any problems with finishing my work or keeping up with the class. I was distracting other people because I would get bored in the classroom and teachers really have a hard time dealing with this type of situation. When one child finishes and the rest are still working, because they have to split their attention. Plus, I loved making jokes and laughing really loud when I was younger, super disruptive. So they sent me to a neurologist and got tested and came away with a positive diagnosis for ADD and a prescription for Ritalin.

It is important to understand what ADD actually is; most people think there is something wrong. But the truth is that the only way to measure and diagnose ADD is in a personality test that rates the symptoms on a spectrum. The three symptoms that they look for are: hyperactivity/impulsivity, inattentiveness, and a combination of the two. The descriptions of the symptoms are something like this: “easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli and frequently interrupts ongoing tasks”, “frequent shifts from one completed activity to another”, “failure to complete tasks such as homework or chores”, “procrastination”, “disorganized work habits”, or my personal favorite, “not following details or rules of activities in social situations”. See WebMD for more symptoms.

When a child is diagnosed with ADD, this is what they are being told, “You do not conform to the standards of our educational system and you are disruptive and unproductive. You do not fit the mold of a modern worker in our society so we are going to medicate you with stimulants so that your symptoms and behaviors are more consistent with our other workers.” This is the message we are sending that child, now the next question is, why do we want everyone to conform to a standardized way of doing things?

The truth is that we do not want these children to conform. In fact, these are likely some of the most creative, smart, rebellious, and sensitive people in our culture. Rebels change the world through their vision which requires non-comformity, something that we are actively diminishing in our youth so we can “standardize” the school system. These children are gifted and the reality is that the teacher’s attention is not enough for the child to learn at the speed that a child with ADD learns. These kids are smart, they just need a little extra attention and guidance; people diagnosed with ADD have many leadership qualities that stem from their conformity and ability to perceive things that other people do not notice.

Bipolarity and ADD are actually very interrelated; you will see a lot of overlap of symptoms between the two diagnoses, but bipolar disorder tends to be more severe because of increased societal consequences and the tendency to have “episodes”. They are both largely affected by dopamine, though it is speculated that Serotonin might be more involved with bipolar disorder due to the shifts of mood. So is schizophrenia, though Schizophrenia can have very extreme social consequences. So this pleasure/reward system is really what keeps us in balance and able to react in our waking consciousness.

This is where yoga comes in. Remember how everyone says that your brain is a muscle? By detaching from the senses, and eventually from the internal dialogue of the mind (this takes time), we allow for the system to optimize itself. My hypothesis is that with yoga and mediation, children can learn how to regulate themselves instead of regulating the drugs that are moving through their system. When we practice yoga, we are allowing the dopamine system to calm down, to reset without stimuli, something that may never happen for younger children who are bombarded with TV. Medication is not the cure for the problems in our educational system.

So reviewing just a bit, yoga is a practice that can really assist with ADD like symptoms, bipolar symptoms, probably even Schizophrenic symptoms, because of its effect on dopamine and serotonin. Yoga is balancing and replenishing for anyone, but for me, it completely replaces any medicine I have ever taken. It is a natural way to become more conscious of how we act, the stimuli that affect us, and really to reveal the tendencies of your unconscious mind.

Next, we will get into anxiety. If you have taken stimulants for tests, quizzes, etc, would love to hear what your experience with the drugs have been, positive or negative. Stay tuned for more….

The Pseudoscience of Yoga

The science of yoga is in a sorry state. Yes, yoga was invented as a science, to observe the body and provide for its optimal functioning. All of the stretches, breathing exercises, and meditations were created to oil the cogs of our extraordinarily complex body and mind. I constantly see opinion and guess taken as fact and conclusion. Partial truths and rumors spread like wildfire in the community.

I think a lot of the blame of sorry state of today’s science is due to corporate influence and consumerism. People are willing to do anything to make a few bucks, especially in the United States. This means misleading people and using gurus as idols to be worshipped. I honestly had a lot of hesitation about coming into the industry because it is so fueled by emotions, sexuality, and bullshit (excuse my language, but it’s really the best word to describe many of the ideas floating around yoga nowadays).

Here are a few examples: John Friend was involved in substance abuse and sexual misconduct towards women, Bikram claims to be a god and is a multi-billionaire who holds yoga “competitions”, even K Patthabi Jois was accused of sexual harassment towards the women he taught. It seems like large amounts of teachers are involved in sex scandals one way or another or proceed to be worshipped as gods amongst their following. Apparently, Jois often injured students with his adjustments. Knowledge and true wisdom seem to be scarce in a practice that was the epitome of science in ancient times; sexual misconduct and falsities are everywhere.

Of course not every teacher is this way, and for every amoral teacher, there is one giving their to helping the people they serve. But I think there is a lot of work to do. Honor, discipline, self-control, and continence are rarely talked about in yoga, yet they are of the utmost importance to any yogi. These are qualities that lead to true detachment and moksha, or liberation from the sufferings of the world. Discipline, in particular, is completely lacking; everyone wants to “do what feels good” and no attention is payed to having a moral code of ethics.

I am thinking about going back to school for a medical, neurological, anatomical, or nutritional degree, but I’m not even sure that a school would be able to help me with what I want to learn. Observation is what used to fuel science, but now it is more about computational modeling and getting money for grants. The most important data collection occurs outside of computers and pre-defined models. This combined with the corruption in the yoga community has led to a wealth of crap being spread as fact. I want to help put yoga back into a state of revered science, but consumerism and greed are powerful obstacles to overcome. I guess we shall have to wait and see how the future unfolds…


“The goal is ne…

“The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice”

Yogis who practice with enthusiasm, self-honesty, and high levels of energy are close to reaching Samadhi, or the supremely blissful state of existence. But sometimes, even the most intense and powerful of aspirants may become mild or average, slow and moderate in his practice.

This is part of the Sutras where Patanjali talks about the different categories of practitioners and their path on the yoga journey to enlightenment. I interpret this as attempting to give continued inspiration to people who take their practice seriously, and gives understanding that even the most powerful and steadfast of yogis will experience some turbulence on the journey. Bad days happen. Consistency is key with yoga, so detaching from the performance of a practice is key, especially for the impassioned yogi.


You don’t own anything

I just keep coming back to this, the idea that you don’t really own things in this world. I mean, you can have a car, or a house, but in the end you won’t have it anymore. And whether you had a big house, or a little house won’t really matter.

“The things that you own end up owning you.” – Fight Club

Material possessions are far less valuable than time or love or relationships, and to a certain extent you only need so much. Maslow, a 19th century psychologist, created a hierarchy of needs, and I think the second level of safety would be the level where material possessions are most important. Too much of it can take away from self-actualization, the highest point on the pyramid.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Self-actualization could also be considered enlightenment, self-knowledge such as the Buddha describes. Getting there requires a great deal of balance in life that is hardly obtained from obsession with material possessions. Sometimes having less can lead to more happiness. And often, people are wealthy for a reason. But the key is to detach from wealth altogether. Neither path is better nor worse, but each is beautiful in its own merits. Appreciate where you are and what life offers you.