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ARTICLES

YOGA DEMYSTIFIED

In this article, we examine some of the most searched questions and myths about yoga. Age old beliefs are challenged with science and we look for truth in yoga stereotypes. Read through or jump to topic categories:

What Is Yoga?

All yoga is the same.

If you’ve tried one class, you have not tried them all.

 

Yoga traces back at least 5000 years. It has evolved, branched and crossed the globe in that time.

 

Modern yoga, the focus to postures, is about one hundred years old (1). There is, at least, a dozen recognized styles (2,3) widely practiced and innumerable more styles, when you begin to consider teachers and studios, who have develop their own methods.

 

Styles differ by what they value, such as: intention of practice, energy flow, spiritual connection, rituals, sound/chanting, repeated sequences, speed of movement, coordination of breath, physical cueing/shapes, or use of props. It’s definitely not one thing. 

 

On a micro level, a yoga class from one teacher can be a completely different experience to a class from someone else, even within a style or studio. If you’ve attended a few yoga classes you may have begun to create preferences for a certain instructor. Individual differences in voice, delivery, instruction methods and emphasis, not only shape the class but your affinity to yoga.

 

The benefit of this variability means there’s something for everyone.

 
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Yoga is religious.

Yoga has influence from Hinduism and Buddhism but it is not a religion.

 

Yoga is more of a philosophy of how to create optimum balance in the body, in the mind and in the spirit. Historically it is a science of therapeutics. (4)

Yoga is just stretching.

At minimum it’s just stretching but hopefully with the right instructor yoga is also therapeutic, relaxing, muscle strengthening, joint mobilizing, corrective of imbalances, and informative.

 

Yoga can be a gateway to meditation, an active recovery to an exercise program, a physical challenge or an important part of self care.

 

Unlike simple stretching, yoga intends to link mindfulness with movement and promote yoga philosophy of being a better person. (5)

 
What Does Yoga Do to the Body?

Yoga is good for weight loss.

Yoga can contribute to weight loss but it’s dependent on several factors such as the person’s current activity levels, stress, nutrition and sleep habits.

 

For example, one scenario where weight loss could be possible is if:

  • A previously completely sedentary person practices a vigorous style of yoga several times a week, for a prolonged period of time.

  • They were chronically stressed and find relaxation in the practice. Off the mat, stress is also reduced.

  • The yoga practice inspires them to make better food choices and habits.

  • The exercise improves their sleep.

 

Weight loss results from only the physical activity component of low to moderate intensity yoga, will not be as effective as from other more vigorous activities such running (higher calorie burn, increased endurance) or intense activities like weight training (increasing muscle mass, strength).

 

However, a practice of yoga is still beneficial to a weight loss program through secondary benefits (6).

 

In a study (7) by the CDC, US Dept of Health and Human Services, comparing yoga to natural health supplements and chiropractic or osteopathic spinal manipulation, yoga significantly outranked both in all perceived behavioral outcomes surveyed. These outcomes were: exercising more, eating better, reduced alcohol, reduced smoking, reduced stress, improved sleep, better at coping with health problems, feeling better emotionally, improved overall health and feeling better.

 

Other secondary benefits of yoga:

  • It improves mobility to optimize performance in exercise.

  • Yoga is perfect for active recovery.

  • Reduced stress and improved sleep contributes to weight loss as yoga calms the nervous system and regulates hormones.

  • Yoga is easy to add to an existing program to increase activity levels.

  • It is also a low barrier start to a health journey.

 

In the end, “the best exercise is the one you do” so if you only like yoga, choose something adequately challenging and practice often.

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Yoga is detoxifying.

This is not true to the degree, or in the ways, widely promoted.

Two common ideas in specific about yoga detoxification have to do with twists and sweating.

 

Twists:

The belief popularized by master yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar is that twists compress muscles and the spine, ridding them of toxins, old blood and fluid. Upon release of the twist, new synovial fluid and oxygenated blood rejuvenate the area (8).

 

This idea is physiologically inaccurate. The body removes waste through the lungs, the digestive system, the kidneys and the liver. It is also constantly removing waste naturally.

 

Yoga, like all physical activity, helps the detox processes. Movement increases the motility and mobility of the organs to perform their normal detoxifying functions. (9).

 

It’s possible the sensations of increased circulation, released muscular tension and warmth from exertion feel like rejuvenation. That, on its own is a great reason to continue practicing yoga.

 

Sweat:

Building heat through intense exercise or in a heated room for Hot Yoga is thought to help the body sweat out toxins.

 

While some toxins do dissolve and get excreted through sweat, only 1% at most, is removed from the body through sweat (9); a trivial amount if the goal is to detox.

 

Remembering to drink plenty of water can aid the body’s natural detoxification.

If your need to detox comes from feeling unwell, exercising at sweat-producing levels release endorphins that act as natural painkillers.

In conclusion, the body’s detoxification systems are designed to run without any external forces. Practicing yoga and staying hydrated can keep these systems working optimally.

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Yoga is for Who?

You have to be flexible to do yoga.

Quite the opposite. In some ways this is saying you need to be clean to take a shower.

 

Yoga is not all about the poses. It can be about many things such as breathing, concentration, relaxation, mindfulness, or preparing for meditation, to name a few (5).

 

If the goal for the practitioner is doing poses, accepting the challenge to work on them will bring much more self discovery and progress, than coming to an activity fully capable. This humble and open mind is more in the spirit of true yoga than being able to perform an advanced pose.

 

Being inflexible is an ideal reason to do yoga as it can increase flexibility and mobility.

 

 

 

Yoga is for wealthy white women.

This impression is understandable from what is sold as yoga in the west.

 

Historic socialization of women in the west has made yoga a comfortable home for people identifying as women. The following reasons have nothing to do with yoga being more ideal for women than any other group, but may explain the skewed popularity:

  • Female team sports have been less available.

  • Gym weight areas tended to be male dominated, while gym fitness classes were more popular with females (aerobics, dance, gymnastics).

  • Girls are still not as encouraged athletically in the ways boys are. Sports and athletics can therefore be more intimidating and yoga being more inclusive, all levels and non-competitive appears more attractive.

  • Modern yoga has an air of grace, which fits with socialized feminine ideals.

  • Women attract women, and this furthers the stereotype.

  • Yoga is a business and it’s can be an expensive hobby and lifestyle, especially if you follow popular brands. Groups with less status and money can find the cost prohibitive or be self conscious.

  • Marketing to white women with more white woman imagery alienates groups not represented and makes it harder for them to find immediate connection. (10)

 

Fortunately the general population is starting to see the benefits of practice and that’s shifting its image. We know that maintaining good mobility is beneficial to better sport performance and overall physical fitness (11) .Yoga also develops proprioception (spatial awareness), nociception (inner physical awareness) and regulates the nervous system (reduces stress).

 

Yoga can benefit everyone and classes serving specific populations and needs are paving the way to more equality. Real body campaigns for yoga clothing and gear using mixed age, race, gender, and sexuality are also a move in the right direction.

 
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Yoga Precautions

Yoga is dangerous or causes injury.

Not usually or remarkably more than other activities.

 

A typical all levels yoga class is a comparatively low risk offering. It would be low/no impact, bodyweight only, with limited exposure to advanced poses. A well taught class should provide adequate warm up and progressions to safely work toward challenges or inform appropriate modifications. In a yoga class, you don’t have to worry about getting tackled or tripping!

 

However, participating in any physical activity can pose risk (12). The source of most common yoga injuries:

 

  • Overuse – getting adequate rest, practicing in moderation and having a varied exercise program, can avoid this.

 

  • Doing something the body is not ready for – Paying attention to out of the ordinary sensations and understanding the body’s limitations are critical to addressing early red flags and knowing when to modify. Unfortunately, it’s possible to be unaware of underlying predispositions for injury or unfamiliar to questionable sensations.

 

  • Ego – Showing off, pushing past abilities to “achieve” a pose, excessive training from self or peer pressure can push people to unsafe places. Remember why you practice and check in if that aligns with what you are doing.

 

  • An overly aggressive hands on adjustment - Trusting someone else to know what’s best for you (when they can’t possibly know your history) is dangerous. Lots of good communication is more important than blind trust no matter how good the intentions or experienced the teacher.

 

  • Accident – Falling or slipping. Rare, as the practice stays in the space of the mat but always an unfortunate possibility.

 

Despite these risks, The American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons say,  “Fortunately, the rewards of basic yoga outweigh the potential physical risks, as long as you take caution and perform the exercises in moderation, according to your individual flexibility level” (13).

 

Yoga is an individual journey and connecting mind and body not only respects and deepens the practice, but also keeps us safe.

 

 

Yoga inversions should be avoided during menstruation.

This thought is based on the idea that menstrual blood will backflow and cause illness and reproductive conditions. This is anatomically incorrect and no available research has shown any correlation supporting (5).

 

From a philosophical perspective of energy, menstruation causes low energy so inversion which are considered high energy, should be avoided. The problem is not ALL women feel low energy during their period and what is considered an unacceptable inversion, varies across disciplines and teachers. If the intention is to balance energy, then there’s even more contradiction.

 

“Much of what we’ve learned from traditional yoga is based in a deeply antiquated view of menstruation and dictated by people who have never experienced menstruation” (14). Doing what feels comfortable during one's period makes the most sense as there's no evidence that yoga has injurious effects in this regard (15).

As yoga reaches more people, it will evolve and adapt to modern tastes, needs and abilities. Inquiries into the origins of yoga and comparing that to what we know today, through science and research, can inform us of to how yoga can be of service to our life now. Weeding through misinformation empowers us make better choices instead of following doctrine. Yoga is about connecting the mind and body, and enjoying harmony in balance. There are many ways to stay true to this spirit.

REFERENCES:

1) History of Modern Yoga. Article

 

2) Types of Yoga. Article

3) Not All Yoga is Created Equal. Article

4) Yoga Facts. Article

5) 13 Yoga Myths You Should Stop Believing. Article

6) A Qualitative Study Exploring the Behavioral, Physical, and Psychosocial Changes Associated with Yoga That Promote Weight Loss. Study

7) Wellness-Related Use Of Common Complementary Health Approaches Among Adults. Study

8) Myth vs. Fact: How Yoga Helps Detox Your Body. Article

9) Reality check: Does yoga release toxins from the body? Source

10) The Real Reason Why Yoga Is Still Dominated By Women. Article

11) Why Yoga Is Still Dominated By Women Despite The Medical Benefits To Both Sexes. Article

12) 5 Most Common Yoga Injuries And How to Prevent Them. Article

13) Yoga Injury Prevention. Study

14) Should You Avoid Yoga Inversions During Your Period? A Doc Weighs In.  Article

15) Is It Safe To Practice Inversions During Menstruation? Article