Why To Do Yoga Today: Some Relief For Arthritis Sufferers

Santa Catalina School/Flickr

Santa Catalina School/Flickr

A relative in her 90s recently mentioned she does “floor yoga” at the local YMCA. When I asked what that was, she replied: “We stay on the floor and don’t stand up.” Hey, whatever works.

Yoga is inescapable: A 2012 estimate puts the number of people who practice yoga in the U.S. at 1 in 10 adults or about 20 million people. But these are mostly fit women in snug, stylish pants. What about people who have a lot more trouble moving?

A recent report by researchers at Johns Hopkins found that yoga may benefit the not-so-fit as well: a randomized trial of 75 adults (mostly white, educated women) afflicted with two common forms of arthritis found yoga can be both safe and effective for improving pain, energy, mood and for carrying out daily activities. This is not trivial. While exercise has been found to greatly improve some of the symptoms on arthritis, the leading cause of disability affecting 1 in 5 adults, many sufferers aren’t exercising. From the study, published in the Journal of Rheumatology: “…despite the well-known benefits of physical activity, up to 44% of people with arthritis report no leisure time physical activity and 76% are inadequately active.”

Researchers report improvements after just 8 weeks. From the news release:

Compared with the control group, those doing yoga reported a 20% improvement in pain, energy levels, mood and physical function, including their ability to complete physical tasks at work and home. Walking speed also improved to a smaller extent, though there was little difference between the groups in tests of balance and upper body strength. Improvements in those who completed yoga was still apparent nine months later.

There here is one big caveat: 24% of participants dropped out of yoga, but, as the researchers note, “persistence was still higher than in many exercise programs, with most attending the majority of classes.”

I asked study author Dr. Susan Bartlett, an associate professor in the department of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and McGill University Health Centre, what she would tell patients with arthritis who are currently sedentary about how to approach yoga. Here’s what she wrote:

I would tell them that physical activity is important for everyone, but especially important for people with arthritis, who tend to be less active than the average American.

Often people with arthritis worry that they will aggravate their joints and be in worse pain as a result of being active.  While it is true that certain types of activity (anything percussive like jogging, tennis, skiing) are probably not advisable, keeping muscles moving and joints limber is very important. We’re learning how dangerous under-activity can be (emerging evidence suggests that a sedentary lifestyle is as problematic to health as smoking).

Results of our study suggest that yoga appears to be a safe and effective option for adults who wish to become more active. Further, many people who don’t enjoy traditional activity find that they really enjoy yoga. Yoga is a mind body activity, and while almost all forms of physical activity are associated with both mental and physical health benefits, yoga in particular helps with stress reduction, mood, learning to listen to and respect what your body is capable of doing today. Continue reading

Why To Do Yoga Today: For Older Women, Less Leakage

Chaturanga, or the low yoga pushup. (Kennguru via Wikimedia Commons)

Chaturanga, or the low yoga pushup. (Kennguru via Wikimedia Commons)

In yoga circles, the pelvic floor is the new core.

Let me explain: I’ve been doing yoga steadily for the past 10 years and recently I’ve noticed a shift in focus. There’s less emphasis on pure “core” work — that is, basically, abdominal toning — and more talk about the pelvic floor, specifically, strengthening this deeper internal region of the body. If you don’t get what I’m talking about, just imagine 90 minutes of kegels.

So it comes as no big surprise that a new report suggests targeted yoga can help women over 40 who suffer from urinary incontinence, which can arise from stretched, weakened or too-tight pelvic floor muscles due to childbirth, aging or other reasons.

The yoga study, by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco offers a possible path to alleviate the symptoms of urinary incontinence, notably, accidental pee leakage, without surgery, with has been associated with all kinds of problems.

From the UCSF news release:

In a study scheduled to be published on April 25, 2014 in Female Pelvic Medicine & Reconstructive Surgery, the official journal of the American Urogynecologic Society, UCSF researchers discovered that a yoga training program, designed to improve pelvic health, can help women gain more control over their urination and avoid accidental urine leakage.

“Yoga is often directed at mindful awareness, increasing relaxation, and relieving anxiety and stress,” said first author Alison Huang, MD, assistant professor in the UCSF School of Medicine. “For these reasons, yoga has been directed at a variety of other conditions – metabolic syndrome or pain syndromes – but there’s also a reason to think that it could help for incontinence as well.”

Huang and her colleagues recruited 20 women from the Bay Area who were 40 years and older and who suffered from urinary incontinence on a daily basis. Half were randomly assigned to take part in a six-week yoga therapy program and the other half were not. The women who took part in the yoga program experienced an overall 70 percent improvement – or reduction – in the frequency of their urine leakage compared to the baseline. The control group – or the group that did not start yoga therapy – only had 13 percent improvement. Continue reading

School Kids’ Yoga Class Is Not Religion, Judge Rules

Here’s a deep legal query: if school kids are instructed to do “criss-cross applesauce” — the seated, cross-legged position known to pretty much every six-year-old in America — can that possibly be construed as religious teaching?

Apparently not, said a California judge Monday, ruling that yoga instruction for children in an Encinitas public school does not constitute religious instruction. Plaintiffs, who objected to the school-based practice for their two children on religious grounds, had opted out of the program, a kid-friendly class in which some of the most pervasive yoga lingo, like Namaste, had already been excised.



Reuters reports:

[Judge John Meyer] also said the Encinitas Unified School District had developed its own version of yoga that was not religious but distinct and separate from Ashtanga yoga.

“A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga does advance or promote religion,” he said…

The plaintiffs objected to eight-limbed tree posters with Sanskrit characters that they said were derived from Hindu beliefs, as well as to the use of the Namaste greeting in class and several yoga poses said to represent worship of Hindu deities.

But by the start of the 2012-2013 school year, the Sanskrit and Namaste had been eliminated from the program, and poses had been renamed with “kid-friendly” descriptions, poses now called gorilla, turtle, peacock, big toe, telephone and other terms, according to testimony. The lotus pose, for example, is called criss cross apple sauce in Encinitas schools.

With childhood obesity a nation-wide emergency and with kids bouncing out of their seats due to cuts in recess programs and lack of physical activity during the school day, Continue reading

Don’t Miss: Cognoscenti On Flatulent Vegans In Yoga Class

It's not your imagination: yoga is everywhere. ( AmandaD_TX/flickr)

( AmandaD_TX/flickr)

Goodness knows why farting is so funny, but let’s just take our laughs where we can get them on this torporous day.

Sure, file it under “First World Problems.” But then just sit back and enjoy the latest gem in author Steve Almond’s advice column, Heavy Meddle, on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog. The questioner asks:

Dear Steve,

I love taking yoga classes, but hate when I end up positioned behind a farting vegan. Nothing personal against vegans — it’s just that they typically eat a lot of beans.

Is there any way to tell who the farters are at first glance? If not, is it mean to move your mat after someone farts on your head during a vinyasa sequence?

Steve consults his yogini wife, but so far I’d say the best answer comes from a commenter:

The fix for the yoga class is obvious. Arrive early enough to position yourself in the front row. If there is no one in front of you, it solves the problem.

Read the full post here.

More Americans (20 Million) Are Practicing Yoga, Survey Finds

It’s not your imagination: yoga is everywhere. ( AmandaD_TX/flickr)

You didn’t need a study for this: Just look around at all those toned, mellow women (and a few men) toting rubber mats under their arms, coconut water at the ready. As a friend said to me recently: “I think I’m the only woman in Cambridge NOT doing yoga.” She may be right.

And here are the numbers to prove it. The latest 2012 Yoga in America Market Study (conducted for Yoga Journal by Sports Marketing Surveys USA) found that 20.4 million Americans are practicing yoga, that’s up 29 percent from 2008 when the study reported 15.8 million practicing yogis. And all those down dogs can be pricey. The survey found that “practitioners spend $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media. The previous estimate from the 2008 study was $5.7 billion.” Beyond the current yoga enthusiasts, there are more waiting in the wings: “Of current non-practitioners, 44.4 percent of Americans call themselves “aspirational yogis”—people who are interested in trying yoga,” the survey found.

Here are some more findings, from the Yoga Journal press release:

Gender: 82.2 percent are women; 17.8 percent are men.

Age: The majority of today’s yoga practitioners (62.8 percent) fall within the age range of 18-44.

Length of practice: 38.4 percent have practiced yoga for one year or less; 28.9 percent have practiced for one to three years; 32.7 percent have practiced for three years or longer. Continue reading

Your Brain On Yoga: Practice May Be Effective Treatment For Stress Disorders, Study Finds

(Synergy by Jasmine/Flickr)

We’ve already detailed a number of studies that show how yoga can help combat various ills, among them post-traumatic stressand mood disorders.

Last month we wrote about medical students practicing yoga while learning about a range of related research, including new studies by Chris Streeter, an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. Her work suggests that yoga may improve levels of a key neurotransmitter in the brain involved in mood and anxiety.

Well here’s Streeter’s latest article on yoga’s impact on the brain; it suggests that practicing yoga may “help in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease.”

Here’s the news release:

An article by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), New York Medical College (NYMC), and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (CCPS) reviews evidence that yoga may be effective in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease. Their theory, which currently appears online in Medical Hypotheses, could be used to develop specific mind-body practices for the prevention and treatment of these conditions in conjunction with standard treatments. Continue reading

Sex Scandal At The Yoga Studio

Continuing his reporting on the dark-side-of-yoga beat, William Broad of The New York Times broke this news yesterday: there are sex scandals in yoga too.

Broad, the author of a recent, much-hyped piece on how yoga can wreck your body comes back with another sordid story on the downside of all those down dogs, including a short history of yoga (how it started as a way to pleasure your body) and the science behind that pleasure (the postures and breathing can boost hormones and other brain chemicals to increase sexual arousal) and concludes that, well, it’s not surprising that sex and yoga are often deeply connected. My personal favorite: The concept of “thinking off.”

Here’s how Broad explains it:

…over the decades, many have discovered from personal experience that the practice can fan the sexual flames. Pelvic regions can feel more sensitive and orgasms more intense.

Science has begun to clarify the inner mechanisms. In Russia and India, scientists have measured sharp rises in testosterone — a main hormone of sexual arousal in both men and women. Czech scientists working with electroencephalographs have shown how poses can result in bursts of brainwaves indistinguishable from those of lovers. Continue reading

Downward-Facing Docs: Med Students Study Yoga To Help Patients, Selves

BU med students attend yoga class as part of their professional and personal training.

Ben Tannenbaum, a wiry first-year medical student, is under pressure.

His typical day involves about five hours of lectures and test prep — physiology, genetics and histology on a recent weekday; a mad dash off to a clinic to practice as a doctor learning physical exams and basic medical history-taking; and then, after getting home around 8:30 pm, a few more hours of work reviewing the day’s material before it all starts again the next morning.

“And that isn’t including elective courses, student organizations, research, volunteer work, or extracurricular activities that almost everyone is trying to find time for as well,” says Tannenbaum, a-24-year-old student at Boston University School of Medicine.

But on Tuesday night, the perpetual motion of Tannenbaum’s life stopped. He entered a packed classroom, rolled out his blue yoga mat and plopped down on the floor. Alongside 25 other barefoot medical students, Tannenbaum listened to a half-hour talk on “the relaxation response” and how the technique — a simple type of meditation that reduces the activity of the autonomic nervous system — can alleviate stress-related maladies, from migraines to depression.

Then everyone took a deep breath and stretched into downward-facing dog. The yoga part of the medical school’s weekly yoga course had begun.

As everyone knows, medical students are a singularly stressed-out lot. “More than 20 percent end up with depression, more than half suffer from burnout, and in any given year, as many as 11 percent contemplate suicide,” Dr. Pauline Chen writes in a New York Times report on the “toxic” nature of the medical education process.

So it makes sense to offer these overwhelmed kids de-stressors like yoga and meditation. But here, at the BU medical school’s first-ever yoga elective the aim is even broader: The faculty and instructors who launched the class hope these future doctors will be able to exploit their knowledge of yoga and its research-based benefits to someday help patients and to feel as comfortable prescribing yoga as they do Prozac. Continue reading

The Backlash: NYT On Yoga As A Body-Wrecker

Yoga: Panacea or Saboteur?

The backlash was inevitable.

With yoga studios sprouting up on nearly every urban corner and with practically every adult practicing some form of yoga or another (I’m one of them), the scary, anti-yoga stories were bound to emerge.

Here’s the latest: a massive piece in The New York Times Magazine called: “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by science reporter William Broad, who has written a book on the topic.

The article’s nut graph goes like this:

According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary Continue reading

Good News For Yoga, And For Your Back Pain

Yoga, as well as intense, regular stretching eases back pain, researchers report

I’ve done some kind of exercise all my life: running, dancing, tennis, aerobics, swimming.

But yoga is different. After about 8 years doing “hot” yoga in Cambridge, I no longer consider it exercise. It’s more like a total-body-mental-health-anti-aging-pain-elimination practice that I suspect I’ll do for the rest of my life. It’s not as cheap as jogging, true, but unlike other forms of exercise, I don’t really have to be “up” for yoga: I can do it when I’m tired, annoyed or feeling chubby.

So I always get a zing of pleasure when mainstream medicine acknowledges the benefits of yoga. Here’s the latest, from The New York Times: a study found that weekly 75-minute yoga classes, or a regular practice of intense stretching (sounds kind of like yoga, no?) can help relieve chronic low-back pain:

The study is the largest and most thorough to date to look at whether yoga has an effect on chronic low back pain, a problem that affects millions and has no surefire long-term remedy. Continue reading