According to NPR, an estimated 20 million people practice yoga in the U.S. Featured on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2012 on was William Broad, a New York Times award-winning author and writer of the book, The Science of Yoga. Broad’s book has done a lot to push yoga even further into the American limelight in recent years, as it takes a Western approach to analyzing the risks and rewards of yoga. Some say Broad’s book is controversial for his exaggerated descriptions of various yoga masters, his criticisms of the yoga instructor certification process, his outright discussion of the potential dangers of yoga. Because of this I am debating reading the book, but I might pick it up for another reason: Broad synthesizes and discusses of the scientific benefits of yoga. He says that yoga can improve your focus and strength, stating “the benefits start to accrue… It’s like putting a little bit of money in the bank every day or every month. The payoff comes as these things start to multiply.”
I think he’s right. And so do a lot of other people that have been practicing yoga for over five thousand years. Broad is just another person doing what master yoga teachers like Shiva Rea, Maty Ezrati, Chuck Miller, Particia Walden, John Friend, and Rod Stryker have been doing since the 60s and 70s: trying to make yoga accessible to the masses here in the U.S.
Focus on Strength
Simply practicing for 30-60 minutes a day for one week, I am beginning to feel stronger and more stable in my yoga. Most yoga poses focus on body alignment, and help increase blood flow throughout the body. Poses that focus on balance or abdominal tension can help strengthen not only the core, but the entire body. Not only does yoga increase body strength in a well-rounded way, it increases body awareness as well. And the benefits of increased strength include everything from more energy to decreased risk of arthritis! One study in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that just 75 minutes of yoga up to three times a week can help to significantly decrease the common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Focus on Breathing
Yoga is more than just strength-training though, and because it is slow and controlled, it takes a lot of focus. You have to focus on the things we normally ignore about our bodies: breathing, alignment, balance, and tension. In yoga one of the ultimate goals is to maintain a focused, steady breathing rhythm known as ujjayi breath, but to do it in a natural way, not forced. It takes a lot of concentration and at first there were quite a few poses I couldn’t do without maintaining ujjayi breath. One week later and I can already “breathe through” some poses that caused me trouble a few days ago, but there are still many more that cause me to fall out of my steady breathing. This is the ongoing challenge that is being and doing yoga, and it requires much focus and patience. Even when you master a pose, it can become a challenge again if you attempt to hold it for longer periods. Master yogis are often able to comfortably hold poses for hours at a time!
But for now, when I’m not doing a yoga vinyasa (set sequence/flow of poses), I’ll just focus on maintaining my breathing with correct posture for 5 inhales and exhales. Even if you don’t know any routines, you can hold the yoga poses you know and focus on holding them for at least 5 full ujjayi breaths. For those of you who are not familiar with ujjayi breathing, here are the basics from alannak.com:
- In any position, breathe through the nose and allow the breath to become calm and even.
- Gently contract the epiglottis until you hear a soft hissing sound on the inhale and exhale. The action is similar to what you would do to fog a mirror, except the mouth is kept closed. Basically, you’ll sound like Darth Vader as you breathe.
- Keep neck muscles, mouth and tongue relaxed.
Focus on Balance
Drishti is the sanskrit word loosely translated to area of focus, or place to look. Drishti can offer many benefits including its balancing effect. If you’re relatively new to yoga like me, you might have tried to hold tree pose for 30 seconds only to fall out of it every 5. Yoga teaches you that this is okay; you simply and without judgment get back into position, but drishti can offer you more stability to remain in poses longer. Most instructors will tell you to focus your eyes gently downward at a point near the top of the yoga mat, or about 5 feet in front of you because this has a relaxing effect, but you can focus wherever you like really. When I’m doing either a particularly challenging or boring posture I find that my gaze wanders in an unconscious attempt to dissociate or take myself out of my body. According to Ali Washington – author of The Perception Diet:
What you are doing when you start to incorporate drishti into all of your postures, those that are old and familiar as well as those that are new, is training your mind to stay with the present moment. You are teaching yourself how to stick with experiences as they are happening even when they are slightly (or more than slightly) unpleasant. This builds up your ability to do this in life. The gift of focused, present attention in every day life is invaluable in problem solving, communication, and general living. By training your mind to stay with your practice, you will be training your mind to stay with your life. This is direct mindfulness training built straight into asana [asana means yoga poses].
This ability to stay calm and focused, breathing through difficult postures and keeping my drishti gaze fixed, is very important to someone like me who tends to become overwhelmed by stressful situations. Often when I find myself stressed I will flit around, multitasking inefficiently until I eventually get through it gritting my teeth or break down emotionally. During these times I have been able to draw on my yoga practice for assistance. Even when I don’t have time to do yoga I can still breath, and I can still focus my attention mindfully.
Drishti in yoga means a place of focus for your eyes, but the philosophy of drishti encompasses much more. In our daily life drishti is like our point of view or our vision. Having a clear vision for my life, where I want to go and who I want to be is the first step in creating drishti in my life. This is where I am generally lacking in life, even though I know I am wealthy in many other regards. As you know if you read my “About” Page, my ongoing journey this year has been to discover what I truly want to do with my life, and so this couldn’t apply more. I want to continue working to apply drishti to my everyday life.
Focus on Attention
A Portland-bases Yoga nonprofit organization known as Yoga Calm has been offering opportunities for teachers, counselors, and parents to integrate yoga into their children’s daily routine. Since 2002 they have been offering research-supported yoga-based movement and breathing, social/emotional games, relaxation activities and storytelling for the classroom setting. This especially interests me as a teacher at a school where many of the students have issues with attention and concentration. Many of my students suffer from ADHD, anxiety disorders, and emotional issues, and I think yoga could have a tremendous impact on their ability to learn and take in information. I have already learned that one of my students with ADHD is much more receptive and retains more information when he is engaged in something else simultaneous to our lesson. You wouldn’t think that going for a walk, playing catch, or even playing a computer game WHILE teaching would be beneficial for him, but it is. I can already see the ways yoga could help each and every one of my students, the problem is making time for it!
One of the coolest things is that evidence for yoga in schools is coming from right here in our own backyard. Research conducted in Minneapolis Public Schools says that programs like Yoga Calm that integrate yoga into the regular school day have had the following benefits:
- Boost in attendance rates
- Increase time on task – specifically reading time
- Decrease behavioral referrals and thereby time out of the classroom
- Improve feelings of community – #1 predictor of High School graduation (Search Institute)
- Improve auditory comprehension in students
- Ability to transition between classes more effectively
- More quickly exhibit on task behavior
- Improve ability to demonstrate reflection in writing
- Lower classroom volume by 21db leading to less teacher redirection
- Improve direction following, imitation, and choice making in early childhood after calming activities
- 100% awareness in students on how to self-calm in 4th Grade classroom
—Action Based Research, MPLS Public Schools, 2007
Here is some other research that has found positive benefits to yoga.
- Concentration (Hopkins, Perlman and Hechtman,1979)
- Test results, anxiety, ability to relax (Klein, 1990)
- Reducing maladaptive behavior (Johnson, 1979)
- Improving static motor performance (Telles, S., Hanumanthaiah, B., Nagarathna, R. and Nagendra, H.R., 1993)
- Lower resting heart rate (Narendran, Raghuraj and Nagarathna, 1997)
- Increased attention span (Zipkin, 1985)
- Increased body / self image satisfaction (Clance, Mitchell and Engleman, 1980)
- Activates parasympathetic nervous system (Ross & Thomas, 2010)
- Increases levels in serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (Ratey, 2008)
- Improves mood (Streeter, et al., 2010)
- Reduces anxiety (Streeter, et al., 2010)
These links were found at http://www.yogacalm.org/research.asp