Archive for the ‘Asana’ Category


As I see people strenuously doing crunches and sit-ups at the gym, alone and with trainers, here is the case made by Harvard Medical School’s Focus on Fitness e-newsletter: yoga planks are good for core fitness, sit-ups and crunches are not good for the back.

A decade ago, sit-ups and grunting crunches were the standard for tight abs and slim waistlines. But research has proven that they are not effective and may actually cause harm. The repeated sit-ups push the curved spine against the floor with pressure causing damage to the compressed discs in the small of the back. Dr. Stuart McGill’s (known for his expertise on the back) work suggests that in some people the crunches may cause herniated discs.

Sit-ups can tug on tight hip flexors that are engaged in the movement–hip flexors are muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae. This results in lower back pain and discomfort.

Abdominal muscles are just a small group of core muscles. So using just a small group means the rest of the muscles are not worked.

Planks do not wear and tear the vertebrae. They also engage many more muscles–on the front, sides, and back. So they strengthen the whole torso, not just the abs.

In BBC’s Future series article, The surprising downside of sit-ups, a 2011 Illinois study had one group do daily sit-ups for six weeks and the control group did none. The sit-ups  made no difference to waist size or the abdominal fat!

The BBC article states: “Research published in 2005 on soldiers stationed at the US military’s Fort Bragg attributed 56% of all the injuries sustained during the two-yearly Army Physical Fitness Test to sit-ups.”

One study suggests that it is not the wear and tear on the discs but genetics that predispose some people to back injury more than others.

Readers may also want to look at a previous post on this blog from November 7, 2011:


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Following through on the previous post, music (not just kirtan) can have a profound role in some diseases like Alzheimer’s  with the accompanying memory loss and dementia. Here is the lead to a scientific documentary:

Slowly, inevitably, Alzheimer’s disease robs a person of profound memories, like the names and faces of loved ones. Right now, there’s no cure. But one researcher thinks he may have found a way to help mitigate the effects of the disease—using music. Listen in to learn how.

Check out this moving and inspiring PBS documentary http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/alzheimers-music-au.html.



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This is the first time I have come across the term “medical meditation”. A specific meditation called Kirtan Kriya (KK) looks very promising if the numerous research studies cited in “A White Paper: Yoga and Medical Meditation™ as Alzheimer’s Prevention Medicine” , by The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation‘s Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., are well-designed and statistically valid. The foundation offers a structured prevention program, online resources and information, and offers this background:

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) affects 5.4 million Americans and many more millions world-wide. As baby-boomers age, these numbers are predicted to sky-rocket to 16 million in the USA alone by 2050. Women especially bear the brunt of this raging epidemic, both as caregivers and patients. They are twice as likely as men to develop AD in their 60’s. A  woman’s lifetime risk for AD is higher than for breast cancer: 1 in 6 vs. 1 in 11. AD costs society as much as heart disease and cancer. Every 67 seconds someone is diagnosed with AD. It is our 6th leading cause of death. Two-thirds of all AD patients are women.

The paper goes on to make a long series of claims, with brain images or charts, supported by studies cited at the end of each claim.

  • reverses memory loss
  • enhances mood and well-being
  • provides anti-aging effect on the brain, body, and genes
  • leads to less tress, increased telomerase, and reduced depression
  • dramatically increases telomerase activity
  • down regulates inflammatory genes
  • up regulates 19 health-promoting genes
  • replenishes vital neurotransmitter and brain chemicals
  • improves sleep
  • promotes clarity of purpose
  • enhances psychological and spiritual well-being
  • activates the whole brain

Kirtan Kriya uses the four stages of mantra japa (repetition of a mantra) with the Sikh mantra Saa Taa Naa Maa (Sat Naam) coordinated with finger movements and visualization. Readers interested in all the details should go to the paper via the link above. The practice from the paper is reproduced below but we cannot reproduce the figures that illustrate the movements.

How To Do Kirtan Kriya

KK is a 12-minute singing exercise that people have been practicing for thousands of years. It brings together several actions: breath work, singing or chanting, finger movements (mudras), and visualization. Hence, it is a multifaceted, multisensory exercise that engages the whole brain and increases cerebral blood flow.

Posture: Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Alternatively, you can sit on the floor with your legs crossed, although older adults are not likely to choose this option. The essence of the posture is to be comfortable and sit with the spine straight with only the natural curvature.

Breath: Breathe naturally as the meditation unfolds.

Eyes: The eyes are closed.

The Chant, or Mantra: The chant uses the sounds, Saa, Taa, Naa, Maa. These ancient sounds taken together mean “my true identity” or “my highest self.” The tune to which these sounds are sung is the first four notes of the familiar children’s song, “Mary had a Little Lamb.” That is, the notes are “Mar-y had a.” See Figure 1.

The Mudras, or Finger Movements: The thumb is touched to each of the other four fingers in sequence. Both hands perform the same mudra set simultaneously. 

 On Saa, touch the index fingers of each hand to the thumbs.

On Taa, touch your middle fingers to your thumbs.

On Naa, touch your ring fingers to your thumbs. 

On Maa, touch your little fingers to your thumbs.

Always go forward in sequence: thumb to index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and pinky; never go backwards. 

The Visualization: Visualize energy coming down from above into the middle of the top of the head, proceeding straight down into your brain, and then changing to a lateral direction so that it comes out of your head at a point in the middle of your forehead in the center, lined up with the nose (the spot referred to as “the third eye” in some Eastern traditions). Hence, the energy is visualized as following the path of a capital letter “L.” One may think of this action as sweeping through like a broom. 

The Sequence: Sing the sounds Saa Taa Naa Maa while also performing the mudras with the fingers of both hands. At the same time, visualize the sound flowing in through the top of your head and out the middle of your forehead in an L shape.

1. For two minutes, sing out loud.

2. For the next two minutes, use a stage whisper.

3. For the next four minutes, say the sound silently to yourself.

4. Then whisper the sounds for two minutes and then out loud for two minutes, for a total of twelve minutes.

To come out of the exercise, inhale very deeply, stretch your hands above your head, and then bring them down slowly in a sweeping motion as you exhale.






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When the contemporary Christian musician and Grammy Award winner Matthew West’s song Forgiveness is passed around Jain homes during the holiest week of Paryushan ending in Samvatsari (the most important day of universal forgiveness), we may be moved by this essential human commonality. Many thanks to Malini for sharing the link to the song.

We now come to the holiest day of the Jewish faith–Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews ask for forgiveness for sins against God as well as fellow humans. My Jewish friends and I have sometimes talked about the similarities (the most important religious time, fasting, intense prayers, time spent at the temple) as well as differences (Jews asking forgiveness from God versus Jains asking forgiveness from all living beings, from life with one sense to five senses, and ending with personally asking forgiveness from all relatives and those who have been hurt).

No human life is possible without inflicting or receiving hurt (as we discussed in our special session Insight into Problems in July), whether it be done knowingly or unknowingly. We ask for forgiveness for our sake, to release the pain and sorrow that keep us from moving ahead. It is  often difficult for all of us to appreciate that we forgive wholeheartedly to be free. Nothing is altruistic (or very little is!) and so this can be a rational act, not sentimental emotion, in our self-interest. Sometimes we are not able do it when the hurt is too deep. But those who have strong religious faith may be able to forgive through the love of God, or a higher entity. And so we have the Grace of God, the Mercy of Allah, the compassion of Buddha, the micchami dukkadam of the Jains, the forgiveness embedded in all faiths and cultures.

Our Fall Mindful Meditation session this year begins with understanding and meditating on forgiveness. It is the most potent mental and emotional cleanse, an essential release in meditation. A mental cleanse as part of our mental well-being may be even more essential than the intense preoccupation with the body. There is some research to back the benefits of forgiveness.

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The short and quick answer is often “no”. First it is important to determine what is causing GERD. If it is hiatal hernia, surya namaskar (also known as sun salutations) may not be helpful at all and may even be contraindicated. This comes under yoga therapy and expert guidance is essential as every one is different.

For some with GERD, it may be helpful if it is done after a shat karma kriya/cleansing technique such as kunjal (drink a couple of glasses of slightly warm, lightly salted water on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning, and regurgitate it–basically throw up). This gets rid of the excess acid accumulated overnight. But again, expert guidance is necessary as this may not be good to do for many people. After kunjal, rest for a few minutes in shavasana to get the heart beat and breath settled and then try surya namaskar without holding the positions, particularly the inversions. See how it feels over a few days–if it is strengthening the gastrointestinal muscles and the valves (but these are involuntary muscles that may be affected by voluntary muscles–research evidence is unclear).

There are many questions raised around the practice of surya namaskar. It is considered the most important sequence of asanas and it is almost thought of as a panacea to all ailments–physical and mental. There are many benefits to this important flow of breath and movement but it is not good for everything. There are also as many variations as teachers, particularly in the West/US.

No asanas should be done on a full stomach, but this is particularly true of inversions (where the head comes below the heart and often below the stomach). So anyone with gastrointestinal acid reflux, hyperacidity, gastrointestinal viruses, ulcers, may not benefit and may even aggravate or trigger a worse outcome. This is also true for very high blood pressure, cardiac problems, glaucoma, severe headaches/migraines, back problems. Some people benefit from doing the series with significant personalized modifications.

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Cleaning out the room, which at a glance looked so empty, turned out to be deceptive. Embedded in the two shelves of papers was a lifetime to be sorted and cleaned. Isn’t this how it is with everyone? Perhaps that is why we obstinately avoid it. Let it stay settled, along with the dust. No need to churn it up, the Pandora’s box of the mind. But it’s grip never goes then, silently hidden, guiding life with stealth.

So each paper was examined and with it each thought, incident, feeling, that bubbled up. What should stay and what should go–first in the mental space? Out-of mind would quickly allow the discarding to out-of-sight in the garbage. Definitely not recycle life. Two feet of paper gone and oh, what a relief!

Then emerged the little squares of red and yellow, the geological and chemistry society membership cards for the Michaelmas, Lent, and Summer terms for 35 new pence each. They were 38 years old and had travelled the globe, but always very discreetly, somewhere along the bottom of the suitcase or shelf. Suddenly, they were being viewed for the last time. After 38 years, it was time to let the 20-year old go. Why this sudden change? It was not apparent all these years that holding on to them was holding on to a 20-year old.

That 20-year old no longer existed and could never come back. Looking at the cards, it was time to examine what hold they had in the mind. First, it was a very easily transportable sense of familiarity and comfort when moving geographically from place to place. As time and age inevitably brought their bearings of all sorts of responsibilities, old age, death, these cards were the addictive remembrances of a carefree period of life. With it, hidden beneath many layers, almost invisible, was a yearning for what had been but could never be now.

So why now? Awareness and acceptance. The two brought fresh space to embrace the life that is lived now without the shadow of the past. To accept with open arms the maturity that a lived life has bestowed, the wisdom it has given to be free, the awareness of understanding that the 20-year old did not have.

A fond good-bye is whispered as the cards go in the chuck pile of spring cleaning.


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It is a fact that yoga can cause injuries. We can debate the reasons–from inadequate teaching to over zealous students. But that conversation can only begin with an acknowledgement of this basic fact that we personally know. It is a conversation I have had online with Alison Eastland, a yoga teacher and blogger, in Australia.

So we accept with openness, objectivity, and maturity when William Broad points out that women’s hips are vulnerable in his New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/sunday-review/womens-flexibility-is-a-liability-in-yoga.html. A thoughtful reflection on what is yoga, why each of us practices, how we practice is  long overdue–for teachers, schools, as well as all who practice yoga. Contraindications must be clarified, and they are not. Uninformed teachers hurt themselves as well as their students, perpetuating this state of lack of knowledge.

Men are less flexible and can get hurt from forcing the body into challenging stretches. Women are generally more flexible and can overstretch. As a couple of women said to me in one class, women who clearly know the dangers of overdoing as one has a hip replacement and the other back problems, the ego gets carried away in a class. They want to do what others around them seem to be doing. For a fleeting class, it is important to show others what they can do. This is particularly true of some middle-aged women who feel terrible about their aging bodies–acceptance is hard for them.This is in spite of repeated warnings to not look at others, to feel as if each person is totally alone in that class–nothing to prove, nothing to show-off, nothing about which to feel inadequate or insecure.

So what are the consequences of ignoring warnings? Here is what Broad writes:

To my astonishment, some of the nation’s top surgeons declared the trouble to be real — so real that hundreds of women who did yoga were showing up in their offices with unbearable pain and undergoing costly operations to mend or even replace their hips….

Dr. Hyman said his typical yoga patient was a middle-aged woman, adding that he saw up to 10 a month — or roughly 100 a year. “People need to be aware,” he said. “If they’re doing things like yoga and have pain in the hips, they shouldn’t blow it off.”

Bryan T. Kelly, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, echoed the warning, saying yoga postures were well known for throwing hips into extremes. “If that’s done without an understanding of the mechanical limitations of the joint, it can mean trouble,” he said in an interview.

Broad goes on to explain the anatomically why women’s hips are more vulnerable and it is suggested that readers read his full article to get a better understanding. It helps to be well informed.

I think (though no studies have been done), based on common sense and personal observations over 30 plus years, that gentler styles of yoga will be less prone to injury while still being significantly helpful for arthritis, range-0f-motion, backs, hips, shoulders, breathing, and many other health problems. The gentler yoga is the bedrock of Satyananda Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Integral Yoga (all founders were disciples of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh). Himalayan Institute founded by Swami Rama also is firmly in the gentle yoga approach. Interestingly, the founders were all grounded in raja/tantra yoga and not predominantly hatha yogis. Krishnamachari, and his most prominent disciples B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, are master hatha yogis. But they too, particularly the late Krishnamachari (and now his son Desikachar), cautioned on extremes and having the right attitude and approach.

Somehow the practice of yoga has gotten out of hand and we need to fix it.

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