Sunday, January 19, 2020

8 Health Benefits Of Yoga That Can Change Your Life

We often hear about the wonders of yoga.  But with how much people rave about it, its benefits can seem exaggerated. Is it worth it? Are there really that many good results?
Surprisingly, even the most extreme accounts of yoga-based success aren’t too far fetched. In fact, this discipline promises countless different positive results. Even if you don’t receive all of them, you’re likely to benefit in several ways. This usefulness is due in part to the fact that it is an excellent form of physical activity, but also for its specific style of exercise.

So, what can you expect from practicing yoga?

HERE ARE 8 HEALTH BENEFITS OF YOGA THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE

1.    MIGRAINES

Every year, approximately 1 in 7 people in the United States will experience migraines. Though science classifies these headaches, they are much more severe and usually require medication-based treatment.
According to recent research, yoga can lead to reduced frequencies, intensities, and even pain levels of headaches and migraines. This relief may be because yoga can stimulate the vagus nerve in the body. And that links back to migraine reduction.
A 2007 study entitled “Effectiveness of yoga therapy in the treatment of migraine without aura: a randomized controlled trial” saw 72 migraine patients split up into self-care and yoga therapy groups. After three months, those who did yoga experienced significant reductions in the severity of their migraines.
This study found that among 60 migraine patients, those who did yoga experienced less frequent and intense migraines than those who went through conventional care.

2.    CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH

If your heart isn’t healthy, the chances are that the rest of your body isn’t healthy, either. The heart’s condition is crucial to your overall wellbeing. As such, a benefit for your cardiovascular system can easily be a benefit for your entire body.
Yoga has a positive effect on blood pressure and heart health, reducing cardiovascular disease risk. Research findings include:
One study from 2003 entitled “Effect of yoga on the cardiovascular system in subjects above 40 years” found that those aged 40 and over who continually and consistently practiced yoga for five years had a more positive pulse rate and blood pressure.
A 2009 study entitled “Beneficial effects of yoga lifestyle on reversibility of ischaemic heart disease: caring heart project of International Board of Yoga” indicated that among 113 heart disease patients, those who made lifestyle changes involving a healthier diet and one year of yoga experienced decrease by 26% of their body’s bad cholesterol content. 47% of the participants who did yoga also had their heart disease stop progressing.
Yoga can minimize stress, and according to a 2014 study called “Stress and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” stress reduction and management can significantly reduce heart disease risk.

3.    CHRONIC PAIN

Millions of people all around the globe deal with chronic pain, whether idiopathic or as a symptom of a disorder or disease like arthritis. Though there is a lot more research that needs to be done before any definitive conclusions regarding this problem can be done, a decent number of studies show that yoga can aid pain symptoms.
One study from 1998 called “Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome: a randomized trial” had 42 carpal tunnel syndrome patients split into two groups. One group received wrist splints, and the other did yoga. After eight weeks, they found that yogis had lower pain levels and increased wrist function.
A more modern study from 2005 entitled “Iyengar yoga for treating symptoms of osteoarthritis of the knees: a pilot study” showed that yoga could have positive effects on knee function. The practice successfully decreased levels of pain and widened physical motion in osteoarthritis patients.

4.    BALANCE AND FLEXIBILITY

If you’ve ever tried yoga, you’ll know that it requires a significant amount of flexibility and balance. As such, it’s not difficult to imagine that if you perform poses that focus on these areas, you may be able to increase your balance and flexibility – and science supports this. Here are some research findings.
A study from 2014 called “Flexibility of the elderly after a one-year practice of yoga and calisthenics”involved 66 elderly individuals. They were split into groups and told to either practice calisthenics or yoga. A year later, the group that did yoga was a whopping four times more flexible than the other group.
In 2016, a study with the title “Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes” was released. It revealed that after ten weeks of practice, a significant improvement in balance and flexibility could be seen among 26 male athletes of college-age.
There was also a 2013 study entitled “A 12-week Iyengar yoga program improved balance and mobility in older community-dwelling people: a pilot randomized controlled trial”. This study found that older adults could experience bolstered mobility and balance if they performed this exercise.

5.    DEPRESSION

Yoga can reduce cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that, when produced in excess, can limit the production of the positive hormone serotonin. This is likely why yoga connects with the reduction of depressive symptoms.
Plenty of studies suggest that yoga boosts positive thinking and reduces the severity of depression. Those who practice it have often been found to have lower cortisol levels as well as lower adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) levels. ACTH is a type of hormone that is typically responsible for cortisol production and release.
It is worth noting that yoga alone may not be able to treat severe depression adequately. It is, however, recommended alongside other forms of depressive disorder treatment, such as therapy or medication.
On that note, if a calmer activity isn’t your thing, plenty of physical activity and exercise options aid depressive symptoms. However, this particular practice has the most research put into it. Therefore, this might be the most reliable option.

6.    ANXIETY

Many people who practice this ancient exer ise likely associate it with serenity or peacefulness. Though it seems like a bit of a cliché, there’s a lot of truth to that. In fact, there are plenty of individuals who use yoga as a tool for managing anxiety, with excellent results for positive thinking.
Research seems to agree, too. A study published in 2009 with the name “Effects of yoga on depression and anxiety of women” revealed that women who practice yoga classes two times every week wind up experiencing decreased anxiety. (However, this study was tiny with just 34 participants.)
But it’s not just “ordinary” anxiety that yoga may help. Trauma-based anxiety from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can also be aided by yoga. According to 2014’s study “Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial,” more than half of women with PTSD who do yoga once a week wind up no longer meeting the minimum criteria for PTSD at all.

7.    INFLAMMATION

Inflammation is a complex subject. On the one hand, it triggers to help heal the body. On the other, chronic inflammation in excess is likely to lead to a wide range of conditions, including:
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Bowel disease
Doctors use inflammatory markers of all kinds to detect excess inflammation. And, they use the indicators to conduct research linking inflammation to practicing this exercise.
One study conducted in 2015 and called “Effect of Yoga Practice on Levels of Inflammatory Markers After Moderate and Strenuous Exercise” took 218 individuals and split them into groups. One group did not do yoga, while the other group consisted of regular yoga practitioners.
After performing strenuous and moderate physical activity, designed to put the body under stress, those who did yoga often had fewer inflammatory markers. However, this may be due to their overall fitness level.
Scientists published another study in 2014 on breast cancer survivors. Titled “Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial,” it revealed that these cancer survivors would experience fewer inflammatory markers after practicing yoga for 12 weeks.

8.    SLEEP QUALITY

Many, many things result when you have a poor quality of sleep. Indeed, the condition can affect your entire body and increase the risks of:
However, studies indicate that this exercise may be capable of improving sleep and treating insomnia.
In 2014, the study “Effects of Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation on cardiorespiratory performance, psychologic profile, and melatonin secretion” was published. It showed that yoga could boost the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Do note, though, that more research is needed before this is definitively confirmed.
A 2005 study entitled “Influence of Yoga and Ayurveda on self-rated sleep in a geriatric population” took 69 participants of senior age and divided them into three groups. One group received an herbal infusion, another practiced yoga, and the final was a control group. Those doing yoga were able to sleep faster and longer, allowing for a more well-rested feeling come morning.
Patients with lymphoma are less likely to experience disturbances while they sleep. Additionally, they may also have longer and more positive sleep overall. This is according to the 2004 study “Psychological adjustment and sleep quality in a randomized trial of the effects of a Tibetan yoga intervention in patients with lymphoma.”
Of course, it is worth noting that many kinds of exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly as you are burning calories during the day as you go. As such, if you are dealing with insomnia and don’t want to do yoga, and kind of physical activity will likely help you to some degree.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON ADOPTING YOGA INTO YOUR LIFE

Yoga is an excellent form of exercise. It is gentle yet challenging and promises plenty of benefits, with many personal accounts of positive results from around the world. Although many people make fun of it, its ability to bolster health makes it a worthy endeavor. If you’ve never tried it, why not give it a go? You never know – it might just change your life!

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Sunday, January 12, 2020

How to find your Flow – and why it’s important



Athletes, artists, actors, writers and musicians know what Flow means. In a state of Flow, time seems to stand still as they execute that effortless move. ‘Become’ a character in a play. Express themselves in words, music or artistic medium.  The results are always transcending and awe-inspiring. Rippling outwards to touch the rest of us with wonder and excitement. 
But I’m not a musician, artist or athlete,” I hear you say. Can ordinary folks like you and me experience Flow? Absolutely. In fact, finding one’s flow, greatly increases our happiness and life satisfaction – not to mention our mental and physical health. 
You see, the science of positive psychology and human flourishing is also backed by the study of 80 and 90 year olds in Okinawa, Japan – one of the leading Blue Zone’ places in the world. These elderly folks were already living ‘in Flow’ long before science caught up with them.
Flow and ‘Ikigai’
To them, Flow is another word for ‘Ikigai’ – a Japanese word which translates roughly to – a reason for being, encompassing joy. A sense of purpose and meaning. A feeling of well-being derived from the realization of hopes and expectations.
As living embodiments of Flow and Ikigai, these elderly folks find meaning and purpose by tending to their small farms and daily chores, becoming active members of their community, exercising, catching up with friends and loved ones daily, eating in moderation, going to bed early, singing, playing musical instruments and dancing. 
Most of us have lost touch with this simple and uncomplicated way of living, in our pursuit of happiness through external rewards like money, possessions, power and position. But when you feel depressed, anxious, burnt-out, frustrated, defeated, lost, alone and stressed out, chances are you’ve moved far away from the source of your well-being – your Flow and Ikigai. You don’t have to move to Okinawa to find your Flow. You need to look within and ask yourselves these crucial questions:
Why am I here?
Our schools train us to become good students, but they don’t train us to understand our deepest needs and motivations. As a result, most of us fail to define our ‘Why’ and end up living lives that we did not choose. We don’t know who we areOn the other hand, knowing your ‘Why’ means having a deep sense of conviction, passion and purpose about your reason for being. According to author and speaker Simon Sinek, it’s like having an internal compass that directs your path, sustains you and gives you a mission throughout your lifetime. 
What keeps me focused and engaged?
One clue to finding your ‘Why’ is to know what makes you feel glad to be alive. Are you exercising your skills and talents to make a difference? Any kind of activity counts. It could be helping out at an animal shelter, cooking, writing, managing a project, raising funds, public speaking or whatever. The activities that you love and are naturally good at, are keys to finding your Flow. Incorporate them into your daily, weekly or monthly routines. Or start a business and new career that puts you in Flow every day. 

Who do I love to be with?

Studies have found that true happiness is not found in the possessions we own and the money we make. What matters is the strength of our relationships with our loved ones, friends and community. Social isolation and loneliness are the top predictors of depression, addiction and suicide. Flow happens when we take the time to laugh, play and enjoy meaningful conversations and activities with our friends, pets and loved ones. If this is missing in your life because of work and other commitments, seek help. Redress the imbalance before it’s too late.

When do I Pause?

How comfortable are you about stillness and doing nothing? In our success-at all-costs driven lives, it’s important to hit your ‘Pause’ button. A ‘Pause’ means taking a few moments to drop your to-do lists in order to appreciate the present and express gratitude. The Okinawans do this by spending time outdoors enjoying Nature. I do this by talking long walks. During your ‘pause,’ listen to music that inspires you, meditate, pray or just relax with deep breathing and yoga. Purposely spending time each day to be still (with no distractions) actually prepares you for Flow. 
Flow ultimately, comes from the inside. It’s a potential that all of us are born with, but few ever take the trouble to find. It means following the song in your heart and living with purpose and intention – without measuring yourself against others or feeling pressured to meet their standards. 
Interested to know how you can Flow?
 Author: Elsa Lim
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Sunday, January 5, 2020

3 Ways Exercise Reconfigures The Brain To Help You Find Joy & Purpose

According to prolific author and lecturer at Stanford University Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., mindful movement can quite literally reconfigure the brain. She sits down with me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast to discuss her new book, The Joy of Movement, and explains how movement can change the neurochemistry of our brains.
Most of us recall that familiar rush of endorphins when thinking about the relationship between working out and happiness. But, says McGonigal, there are plenty of other ways movement can create true joy and reduce pain. While that endorphin rush certainly helps, it's not the only response our brains have toward mindful exercise. 

Here are three ways exercise can create joy, according to McGonigal. With her advice, you'll be inspired to get up and get moving, stat. 

1. Movement fosters a connection to others.
McGonigal acknowledges that, yes, working out causes an increase in endorphins. But, she says, there's also an increase in endocannabinoids, dopamine, and oxytocin, which are neurochemical hormones that make it easier to bond with other people. 
"Movement makes you more willing to trust and cooperate with others," McGonigal states. 
It also creates what she calls "collective joy," which is a type of joy that primes you to connect with others. According to McGonigal, when you move with others, it creates a euphoric sense that you are quite literally connected to those people. 
"It's a whole trick of the brain," she says. "If we are moving together at the same time, my brain starts to perceive me not as separate from you but almost like a superorganism that you and I are both a part of." 

2. Movement can help you define yourself. 
Another reason movement creates joy, McGonigal says, is because it allows you to shape your identity. Depending on the type of exercise, be it yoga or CrossFit, you'll be able to access different parts of yourself that can help you discover who you'd like to become. 
She offers a few examples: "If you go to a place like CrossFit, you are demonstrating your strength. Your brain is understanding that movement not by saying you did something strong but you are strong. You are powerful." 
On the other hand, if you're partial to a kickboxing class (like McGonigal herself), you might associate that movement with courage and resilience. "When I'm kickboxing, I sense bravery in my body, that fighting spirit," she says. 
No matter which type of movement you prefer, McGonigal believes you'll be able to access different versions of yourself that activate those positive affirmations. Through movement, you'll have a better understanding of your identity and overall energy.  


3. Movement helps you create meaning & purpose.
Along with helping you shape your identity, movement has intrinsic meaning. Purpose, as we are all familiar with here at mbg, is paramount in terms of happiness. Having purpose is beneficial for our mental and physical health, and McGonigal says that we subconsciously make meaning out of movement all the time. 
"Human beings are meaning-making machines," she states. That said, we constantly are trying to make meaning out of the activities we do, sometimes without even knowing it. 
That's why movement can have such a significant impact on our purpose, as the mind can naturally make meaning out of the action. Even something as simple as an afternoon stroll can be profound in terms of purpose.
McGonigal agrees: "Walking is powerful because it's a full-body experience, and it's a metaphor. You are literally moving forward, and you're on a path."
Overall, the true joy of movement is much more than a rush of endorphins we experience after a long run or hot yoga session. Even when you might not know it, exercising creates neurological responses that benefit so many aspects of our health. And, according to McGonigal, these mental health benefits may even outweigh the cardiovascular, heart-healthy effects of movement. 
"Movement is more than something you have to squeeze in because it will help prevent a heart attack 20 years from now," she quips. If that doesn't get you up and moving, I don't know what will. 


Author: Jason Wachob

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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

What Every Yogi Needs to Know About Flexibility

While yoga isn’t actually about becoming more flexible, having a good understanding of what flexibility is, and why it’s important, can help you take your yoga practice to the next level.


If you're already practicing yoga, you don't need exercise scientists and physiologists to convince you of the benefits of stretching. Instead, you'd probably like them to tell you if there's anything in their flexibility research that can help you go deeper in your asanas. For example, when you fold into a forward bend and are brought up short by the tightness in the back of your legs, can science tell you what's going on? And can that knowledge help you go deeper?
The answer to both questions is "Yes." A knowledge of physiology can help you visualize the inner workings of your body and focus on the specific mechanisms that help you stretch. You can optimize your efforts if you know whether the tightness in your legs is due to poor skeletal alignment, stiff connective tissues, or nerve reflexes designed to keep you from hurting yourself. And if you know whether any uncomfortable sensations you feel are warnings that you're about to do damage, or whether they're just notices that you're entering exciting new territory, you can make an intelligent choice between pushing on or backing off—and avoid injuries.
In addition, new scientific research may even have the potential to extend the wisdom of yoga. If we understand more clearly the complex physiology involved in yogic practices, we may be able refine our techniques for opening our bodies.

Understanding Flexibility

Of course, yoga does far more than keep us limber. It releases tensions from our bodies and minds, allowing us to drop more deeply into meditation. In yoga, "flexibility" is an attitude that invests and transforms the mind as well as the body.
But in Western, physiological terms, "flexibility" is just the ability to move muscles and joints through their complete range. It's an ability we're born with, but that most of us lose. "Our lives are restricted and sedentary," explains Dr. Thomas Green, a chiropractor in Lincoln, Nebraska, "so our bodies get lazy, muscles atrophy, and our joints settle into a limited range."
Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we got the daily exercise we needed to keep our bodies flexible and healthy. But modern, sedentary life is not the only culprit that constricts muscles and joints. Even if you're active, your body will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. Your muscle fibers have begun to adhere to each other, developing cellular cross-links that prevent parallel fibers from moving independently. Slowly our elastic fibers get bound up with collagenous connective tissue and become more and more unyielding. This normal aging of tissues is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan! Stretching slows this process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cellular structure.
Remember the cheesy '70s sci-fi flick in which Raquel Welch and her miniaturized submarine crew get injected into someone's bloodstream? To really grasp how Western physiology can benefit asana practice, we need to go on our own internal odyssey, diving deep into the body to examine how muscles work.

Flexibility and Muscles

Muscles are organs—biological units built from various specialized tissues that are integrated to perform a single function. (Physiologists divide muscles into three types: the smooth muscles of the viscera; the specialized cardiac muscles of the heart; and the striated muscles of the skeleton—but in this article we'll focus only on skeletal muscles, those familiar pulleys that move the bony levers of our bodies.)
The specific function of muscles, of course, is movement that is produced by muscle fibers, bundles of specialized cells that change shape by contracting or relaxing. Muscle groups operate in concert, alternately contracting and stretching in precise, coordinated sequences to produce the wide range of movements of which our bodies are capable.
In skeletal movements, the working muscles—the ones that contract to move your bones—are called the "agonists." The opposing groups of muscles—the ones that must release and elongate to allow movement—are called the "antagonists." Almost every movement of the skeleton involves the coordinated action of agonist and antagonist muscle groups: They're the yang and yin of our movement anatomy.
But although stretching—the lengthening of antagonist muscles—is half the equation in skeletal movement, most exercise physiologists believe that increasing the elasticity of healthy muscle fiber is not an important factor in improving flexibility. According to Michael Alter, author of Science of Flexibility (Human Kinetics, 1998), current research demonstrates that individual muscle fibers can be stretched to approximately 150 percent of their resting length before tearing. This extendibility enables muscles to move through a wide range of motion, sufficient for most stretches—even the most difficult asanas.

What Limits Flexibility?

f your muscle fibers don't limit your ability to stretch, what does? There are two major schools of scientific thought on what actually most limits flexibility and what should be done to improve it. The first school focuses not on stretching muscle fiber itself but on increasing the elasticity of connective tissues, the cells that bind muscle fibers together, encapsulate them, and network them with other organs; the second addresses the "stretch reflex" and other functions of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. Yoga works on both. That's why it's such an effective method for increasing flexibility.
Connective tissues include a variety of cell groups that specialize in binding our anatomy into a cohesive whole. It is the most abundant tissue in the body, forming an intricate mesh that connects all our body parts and compartmentalizes them into discrete bundles of anatomical structure—bones, muscles, organs, etc. Almost every yoga asana exercises and improves the cellular quality of this varied and vital tissue, which transmits movement and provides our muscles with lubricants and healing agents. But in the study of flexibility we are concerned with only three types of connective tissue: tendons, ligaments, and muscle fascia. Let's explore each of them briefly.
Tendons transmit force by connecting bones to muscle. They are relatively stiff. If they weren't, fine motor coordination like playing piano or performing eye surgery would be impossible. While tendons have enormous tensile strength, they have very little tolerance to stretching. Beyond a 4 percent stretch, tendons can tear or lengthen beyond their ability to recoil, leaving us with lax and less responsive muscle-to-bone connections.
Ligaments can safely stretch a bit more than tendons—but not much. Ligaments bind bone to bone inside joint capsules. They play a useful role in limiting flexibility, and it is generally recommended that you avoid stretching them. Stretching ligaments can destabilize joints, compromising their efficiency and increasing your likelihood of injury. That's why you should flex your knees slightly—rather than hyperextending them—in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), releasing tension on posterior knee ligaments (and also on the ligaments of the lower spine).
Muscle fascia is the third connective tissue that affects flexibility, and by far the most important. Fascia makes up as much as 30 percent of a muscle's total mass, and, according to studies cited in Science of Flexibility, it accounts for approximately 41 percent of a muscle's total resistance to movement. Fascia is the stuff that separates individual muscle fibers and bundles them into working units, providing structure and transmitting force.
Many of the benefits derived from stretching—joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation, and enhanced mobility—are related to the healthy stimulation of fascia. Of all the structural components of your body which limit your flexibility, it is the only one that you can stretch safely. Anatomist David Coulter, author of Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, reflects this in his description of the asanas as "a careful tending to your internal knitting."

Flexibility 101: Paschimottanasana

Now let's apply this physiology lesson to a basic but very powerful posture: Paschimottanasana. We'll begin with the anatomy of the asana.
The name of this pose combines three words: "Paschima," the Sanskrit word for "west"; "uttana," which means "intense stretch"; and "asana," or "posture." Since yogis traditionally practiced facing east toward the sun, "west" refers to the entire back of the human body.
This seated forward bend stretches a muscle chain that begins at the Achilles tendon, extends up the back of the legs and pelvis, then continues up along the spine to end at the base of your head. According to yoga lore, this asana rejuvenates the vertebral column and tones the internal organs, massaging the heart, kidneys, and abdomen.
Imagine you're lying on your back in yoga class, getting ready to fold up and over into Paschimottanasana. Your arms are relatively relaxed, palms on your thighs. Your head is resting comfortably on the floor; your cervical spine is soft, but awake. The instructor asks you to lift your trunk slowly, reaching out through your tailbone and up through the crown of your head, being careful not to overarch and strain your lower back as you move up and forward. She suggests that you picture an imaginary string attached to your chest, gently pulling you out and up—opening anahata chakra, the heart center—as you rotate through the hips into a seated position.

The image your teacher is using is not just poetic, it's also anatomically accurate. The primary muscles at work during this first phase of a forward bend are the rectus abdominis that run along the front of your trunk. Attached to your ribs just below your heart and anchored to your pubic bone, these muscles are the anatomical string that literally pulls you forward from the heart chakra.
The secondary muscles working to pull your torso up run through your pelvis and along the front of your legs: the psoas, linking torso and legs, the quadriceps on the front of your thighs, and the muscles adjacent to your shin bones.
In Paschimottanasana, the muscles running from heart to toe along the front of your body are the agonists. They're the muscles that contract to pull you forward. Along the back of your torso and legs are the opposing, or complementary, groups of muscles, which must elongate and release before you can move forward.
By now, you've stretched forward and settled into the pose completely, backing off slightly from your maximum stretch and breathing deeply and steadily. Your mind focuses on the subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) messages from your body. You feel a pleasant pull along the full length of your hamstrings. Your pelvis is tilted forward, your spinal column is lengthening, and you perceive a gentle increase in the spaces between each of your vertebrae.
Your instructor is quiet now, not pushing you to stretch further but allowing you to go deeper into the posture at your own pace. You're getting to know the posture and getting comfortable with it. Perhaps you even feel like a timelessly serene statue as you hold Paschimottanasana for several minutes.

How Long to Hold Stretches to Increase Flexibility

In this kind of practice, you're maintaining the posture long enough to affect the plastic quality of your connective tissues. Prolonged stretches like this can produce healthful, permanent changes in the quality of the fascia that binds your muscles. Julie Gudmestad, a physical therapist and certified Iyengar instructor, uses prolonged asanas with patients at her clinic in Portland, Oregon. "If they hold the poses for shorter periods, people get a nice sense of release," Gudmestad explains, "but they aren't necessarily going to get the structural changes that add up to a permanent increase in flexibility."
According to Gudmestad, stretches should be held 90 to 120 seconds to change the "ground substance" of connective tissue. Ground substance is the nonfibrous, gel-like binding agent in which fibrous connective tissues like collagen and elastin are embedded. Ground substance stabilizes and lubricates connective tissue. And it is commonly believed that restrictions in this substance can limit flexibility, especially as we age.
By combining precise postural alignment with the use of props, Gudmestad positions her patients to relax into asanas so they can remain long enough to make lasting change. "We make sure people aren't in pain," Gudmestad says, "so they can breathe and hold a stretch longer."

The Stretch Reflex: Key to Increasing Flexibility?

ccording to physiologists who view the nervous system as the major obstacle to increased flexibility, the key to overcoming one's limitations lies in another built-in feature of our neurology: the stretch reflex. Scientists who study flexibility think that the small, progressive steps that allow us to go a little deeper during the course of one session—and that dramatically improve our flexibility over a life of yoga practice—are in large part the result of retraining this reflex.
To get an understanding of the stretch reflex, picture yourself walking in a winter landscape. Suddenly you step on a patch of ice, and your feet start to splay apart. Immediately your muscles fire into action, tensing to draw your legs back together and regain control. What just happened in your nerves and muscles?
Every muscle fiber has a network of sensors called muscle spindles. They run perpendicular to the muscle fibers, sensing how far and fast the fibers are elongating. As muscle fibers extend, stress on these muscle spindles increases.
When this stress comes too fast, or goes too far, muscle spindles fire an urgent neurological "SOS," activating a reflex loop that triggers an immediate, protective contraction.
That's what happens when the doctor thumps with a small rubber mallet on the tendon just below your kneecap, stretching your quadriceps abruptly. This rapid stretch stimulates the muscle spindles in your quadriceps, signaling the spinal cord. An instant later the neurological loop ends with a brief contraction of your quadriceps, producing the well known "knee jerk reaction."
That's how the stretch reflex protects your muscles. And that's why most experts caution against bouncing while stretching. Bouncing in and out of a stretch causes the rapid stimulation of muscle spindles that triggers reflexive tightening, and can increase your chances of injury.
Slow, static stretching also triggers the stretch reflex, but not as abruptly. When you fold forward into Paschimottanasana, the muscle spindles in your hamstrings begin to call for resistance, producing tension in the very muscles you're trying to extend. That's why improving flexibility through static stretching takes a long time. The improvement comes through slow conditioning of your muscle spindles, training them to tolerate more tension before applying the neuro-brakes.

How Breathing Helps Increase Flexibility

Kraftsow also emphasizes the importance of the breath in any kind of neurological work, pointing out that breathing is a link between our consciousness and our autonomic nervous system. "It's this quality of breathing," Kraftsow says, "that qualifies it as a primary tool in any science of self development."
Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb in a yogi's path toward samadhi
. One of the most important yogic practices, it helps the yogi gain control over the movement of prana (life energy) throughout the body. But whether viewed through esoteric yoga physiology or the scientific physiology of the West, the connection between relaxation, stretching, and breathing is well established. Physiologists describe this mechanical and neurological correlation of movement and breath as an instance of synkinesis, the involuntary movement of one part of the body that occurs with the movement of another part.
While you are holding Paschimottanasana, breathing deeply and steadily, you may notice an ebb and flow to your stretching that mirrors the tide of your breath. As you inhale, your muscles tighten slightly, reducing the stretch. As you exhale, slowly and completely, your abdomen moves back toward your spine, the muscles in your lower back seem to grow longer, and you can drop your chest toward your thighs.
It's obvious that exhalation deflates the lungs and lifts your diaphragm into the chest, thereby creating space in the abdominal cavity and making it easier to bend the lumbar spine forward. (Inhalation does the opposite, filling the abdominal cavity like an inflating balloon, making it difficult to fold your spine forward completely.) But you may not realize that exhalation also actually relaxes the muscles of your back and tilts your pelvis forward.
In Paschimottanasana, the musculature of the lower back is in passive tension. According to research cited in Science of Flexibility, every inhalation is accompanied by an active contraction of the lower back—a contraction in direct opposition to the desired forward bend. Then exhalation releases the lower back muscles, facilitating the stretch. If you place your palms on your back, just above the hips, and breathe deeply, you can feel the erector spinae on either side of your spinal column engage as you inhale and release as you exhale. If you pay close attention, you'll also notice that each inhalation engages the muscles around the coccyx, at the very tip of your spine, drawing the pelvis back slightly. Each exhalation relaxes these muscles and frees your pelvis, allowing it to rotate around the hip joints.
As your lungs empty and the diaphragm lifts into your chest, your back muscles release and you are able to fold into your ultimate stretch. Once there, you may experience a pleasant, seemingly eternal moment of inner peace, the pacifying of the nervous system traditionally considered one of the benefits of forward bends.
At this point, you may feel especially in touch with the spiritual element of yoga. But Western science also offers a material explanation for this experience. According to Alter's Science of Flexibility, during an exhalation the diaphragm pushes up against the heart, slowing down the heart rate. Blood pressure decreases, as does stress on the rib cage, abdominal walls, and intercostal muscles. Relaxation ensues, and your tolerance to stretching is enhanced—as well as your sense of well-being.

Flexibility and Yoga Philosophy

By now you may be asking yourself, "What do these Western stretching techniques have to do with yoga?"
On the one hand, of course, stretching is an important component of building the yoga-deha, the yogic body that allows the practitioner to channel ever more prana. That's one reason why the major hatha yoga schools base their practice on the classic asanas, a series of postures that illustrate and encourage the ideal range of human movement.
But any good teacher will also tell you that yoga isn't just about stretching. "Yoga is a discipline that teaches us new ways of experiencing the world," Judith Lasater, Ph.D. and physical therapist, explains, "so that we can give up the attachments to our suffering." According to Lasater, there are only two asanas: conscious or unconscious. In other words, what distinguishes a particular position as an asana is our focus, not simply the outer conformation of the body.
It's certainly possible to get so caught up in pursuit of physical perfection that we lose sight of the "goal" of asana practice—the state of samadhi. At the same time, though, exploring the limits of the body's flexibility can be a perfect vehicle for developing the one-pointed concentration needed for the "inner limbs" of classical yoga.
And there is certainly nothing inherently contradictory about using the analytical insights of Western science to inform and enhance the empirical insights of millennia of asana practice. In fact, yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, perhaps the most influential figure in the Western assimilation of hatha yoga, has always encouraged scientific inquiry, advocating the application of strict physiological principles to the cultivation of a refined asana practice.
Some yogis are already embracing this synthesis enthusiastically. At the Meridian Stretching Center in Boston, Massachusetts, Bob Cooley is developing and testing a computer program that can diagnose flexibility deficiencies and prescribe asanas. New clients at Cooley's stretching center are asked to assume 16 different yoga postures as Cooley records specific anatomical landmarks on their bodies with a digitizing wand, similar to the ones used in computer-aided drafting. These body-point readings are computed to make comparisons between the client and models of both maximum and average human flexibility. The computer program generates a report that benchmarks and guides the client's progress, spelling out any areas needing improvement and recommending specific asanas.
Cooley uses an amalgamation of what he sees as the best points of Eastern and Western knowledge, combining the classic yoga asana with techniques similar to PNF. (An eclectic experimenter, Cooley incorporates Western psychotherapeutic insights, the Enneagram, and Chinese meridian theory in his approach to yoga.).
If you're a yoga purist, you may not like the idea of a yoga potpourri that mixes new-fangled scientific insights with time-honed yoga practices. But "new and improved" has always been one of America's national mantras, and blending the best from Eastern experience-based wisdom and Western analytical science may be a principal contribution our country makes to the evolution of yoga.