Archive for the ‘Yoga & Medicine’ Category


photo credit: paul kitagaki, jr., sacramento bee


Yesterday’s edition of the Sacramento Bee profiled 50-year-old mountain climber Gabriel Amador, who, during his December 2003 attempt to summit New Zealand’s Mt. Tasman was caught in an avalanche that killed four climbers in his group.

Amador, one of only two survivors, spent a week in a coma after suffering from a broken neck, a fractured spine, two broken hips, brain swelling, and other injuries.

Despite two artificial hips, which makes the simple act of bending over to tie his shoes quite difficult, Amador has made an unbelievable recovery. He continues to be active hiking, skiing, biking, and in July of 2010 summited Stok Kangri, a 20,135 ft. Himalayan peak.

What does he credit a large part of his recovery to?

You got it.  Yoga.

“It’s just been phenomenal,” said Amador, a pension administrator in Roseville. “The biggest reminder of how it’s helped is every day, just putting my pants on. I can actually do that without holding on to anything for balance.

“Really, I’m not supposed to be bending more than 90 degrees. My doctor tells me that. But he also tells me, every time I see him, ‘I can’t stop you from doing what you love doing, but just be careful.’ ”

Part of that care is taking up yoga to improve his limberness.

It seems that Amador’s yoga class, a hot yoga class taught by veteran teacher Ping Yu, is filled with students recovering from physical and mental maladies.

Indeed, at one recent class Amador attended, several students came for help with assorted maladies. John Padrick of Fair Oaks is recovering from lower-back surgery. Jeff DeGroot of Citrus Heights is trying to avoid back surgery after he injured three disks several years ago.

Meanwhile, Julie Flora, a junior at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, said yoga has cured her insomnia, and real estate agent Nancy Knuth and nurse practitioner Holly Kirkland said the practices help them cope with stress.

Ms. Yu has admitted that Amador might be her most difficult project.

Hips are arguably the key to the balance and flexibility needed for yoga – throughout the two-hour workout, Yu repeatedly admonished students to “open your hips” – but the metal in Amador is anything but supple.

When he started attending yoga classes 10 months ago on the advice of a friend, Amador said he felt rigid and found it nearly impossible to follow Yu’s admonition to let his body “flow.” With diligence, Amador strengthened and elongated the muscles, tendons and fascia around his hips enough to nail nearly every pretzel-like pose Yu could throw at him.

For Amador, like many students of yoga, just getting a hang of the breath is a big challenge.

“Ever since the accident, I’ve just been fighting my body the whole time,” he said. “Yoga’s helped me to just relax. When you breathe, it’s amazing how much more you can do. She reminds everyone to keep breathing. When I’m grunting, I’m not breathing.”

And Yu, a slight, lithe woman who looks more 38 than 58, is not afraid to call Amador on it. She admits she was a little intimidated when she learned of Amador’s mountain-climbing exploits, but she knew she could help him acquire the grace and balance to go with his well- cultivated leg and cardiovascular strength.

“You can tell he’s very competitive,” she said. “So babying him is not going to work. You need to challenge him to bring it out. When I first saw him, I thought, ‘This guy doesn’t breathe.’ I go, ‘Come on!’ I put my fingers on his belly and say, ‘Give me some movement.’

“I say, ‘That’s not real breathing; that’s survival breathing. Bring it from deep.’ We go over this issue every time.”

That’s something Amador is likely to work on for a long time. Even though he’s back reaching summits, flexibility and breathing are mountains still to conquer.

“She’s right, you know,” he said. “When I surrender my body, everything just goes and flows.”

Yet another example of the healing power of yoga!



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courtesy of time magazine

In the December 23, 2010, issue of Time Magazine, reporter Maia Szalavitz profiles a fascinating new study on meditation and longevity.  It is well worth the read and I’ve posted it all here:

The image of the ancient but youthful-looking sage meditating on a mountaintop might be closer to reality than you think, according to a new study that found that after a three-month stay at a meditation retreat, people showed higher levels of an enzyme associated with longevity.

The study is preliminary and didn’t show that meditation actually extends life, but the findings suggest a possible means by which it could.

Researchers led by Tonya Jacobs of the University of California-Davis compared 30 participants at a meditation retreat held at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado with matched controls on a waiting list for the retreat. Participants meditated six hours per day for three months. Their meditation centered on mindfulness — for instance, focusing solely on breathing, in the moment — and on lovingkindness and enhancing compassion towards others.

After the three-month intervention, researchers found that the meditators had on average about 30% more activity of the enzyme telomerase than the controls did. Telomerase is responsible for repairing telomeres, the structures located on the ends chromosomes, which, like the plastic aglets at the tips of shoelaces, prevent the chromosome from unraveling. Each time a cell reproduces, its telomeres become shorter and less effective at protecting the chromosome — this, researchers believe, is a cause of aging. As the chromosome becomes more and more vulnerable, cell copying becomes sloppier and eventually stops when the telomeres disintegrate completely. Telomerase can mitigate — and possibly stop — cell aging.

“Something about being on a retreat for three months changed the [amount of] telomerase in the retreat group,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, a study author who has won a Nobel Prize for her previous work on telomerase. “We didn’t prove that it was meditation [that caused the change]. A lot of things happened during the retreat. But the interesting thing was that the changes we saw tracked quantifiably with the change in people’s psychological well-being and outlook.”

In other words, people with higher levels of telomerase also showed more increases in psychological improvement. In retreat participants who showed no psychological change, telomerase levels were not any higher than in controls. (Researchers were unable to compare telomerase levels in the groups both before and after the retreat for logistical reasons.)

“It’s a very good study with interesting results in terms of health implications,” says Alan Marlatt, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who has studied meditation for decades but was not associated with this research.

Of course, the relationship between health and telomerase is complex. In a recent study in mice by Harvard researchers, they found that boosting levels of telomerase reversed signs of aging, restoring graying fur and fertility, increasing brain size and sharpening scent perception. Too much telomerase activity can also be a problem, however. A cell that reproduces endlessly sounds like a good thing at first — that cell would be immortal. But this is exactly what happens with cancer cells — infinite replication. “If telomerase levels go too far up, that’s [associated with] cancer,” says Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain and a co-author of the new paper.  He notes, however, that the difference is one that is orders of magnitude higher—so that meditation could not possibly cause cancer.

So how does meditation affect the machinery of cellular reproduction? Probably by reducing stress, research suggests. Severe psychological stress — particularly early in life and in the absence of social support — has been linked with poorer health, increasing risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers. This is likely due to the negative effects of high levels of stress hormones on the brain and body. By reducing stress hormones, perhaps meditation contributes to healthier telomeres.

In a study published a few years ago in Lancet Oncology, researchers compared 30 men before and after adopting lifestyle changes following a diagnosis of low-risk prostate cancer. The patients started meditating, switched to a healthy plant-based diet, exercised and attended a support group. Like the new study, the Lancet Oncology paper found increases in telomerase linked with reduced psychological distress.

“The mind has a big influence on the body. If you get anxious, your heart beats faster and your stomach churns,” says Blackburn. “But we don’t know yet [if meditation is linked to] a reduction in stress hormones. The physiology is very complex.”

Recent evidence supports a connection: a study published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that mindfulness meditation can reduce relapse in patients who recovered from depression just as well as antidepressants.

Of course, the increases in telomerase seen in the current study could be due to some other unknown factor that separates the meditators from the controls. That’s another reason why it’s too early to suggest that stress-reducing mind-body interventions like meditation be prescribed as a treatment for any diseases or disorders. The study also did not show that meditation actually extends life, only that it may increase the activity of an enzyme that is associated with longevity.

Still, research on meditation is expanding dramatically, with studies finding it helpful for pain, depression, addiction and many other conditions. “There’s a very exciting dialogue going on,” Marlatt says of the research. “It works for many different kinds of clinical problems. It’s very promising.”

That noise you hear in the background? Millions of new meditators chanting, “Om.”

This study is really interesting.  I wonder if we would see the same results if the subjects began a daily meditation practice, or if the increase in telomerase was the result of the 3-month immersion like?  Regardless, study after study shows that meditation is an amazing practice to cure what ails you.  Studies like these make me wonder why more yoga studios don’t offer meditation classes.

Does your local yoga studio have a meditation class? Tell me about it! Know of a good one in the Los Angeles area?

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Ah. Cold and flu season. Now, I know that many of you brave souls have been in the thick of cold and flu season for a few months now, but here in Southern California, it snuck up on us in the last week or two.  Yes, the chill is in the air and the wind has picked up…and my poor Beast is struggling with a little allergy exacerbation.  Not only ’tis it the season, but there is the fact that we live with these hairy hooligans:

And do a lot of this:

Looks like its time to pull out the neti pot.

For those of you unfamiliar, a neti pot is a small pot, usually made out of ceramic, that looks a bit like a tea pot (see photo below). You use it to irrigate your nasal passages. You fill it with a warm saline solution, insert the spout into one of your nostrils, and, while leaning over your bathroom sink, allow gravity to draw the solution out of the other nostril (see photo below).

What’s the point? Nasal irrigation was believed to originate with the ancient practice of Ayurveda. However, it is now widely used in western medicine as a treatment for chronic allergies, colds, and mild sinus infections. The popularity of the neti pot exploded several years ago when Oprah and Dr. Oz did a segment on nasal irrigation. Here’s Dr. Oz’s segment on spring allergies and why a neti pot works:

The first time I told The Beast about it, he was not sure he wanted to try it. He preferred the more ‘civilized’ approach to allergy treatment – some nasonex and an over the counter pill. Plus, I made the mistake of saying that using a neti pot isn’t scary but does give you a sensation like you’re swimming and got a little water up your nose. He’s a city boy, and not much of a swimmer, so it was a bad analogy. But I showed him how easy it was, he said he’d give it a try.  So, I doctored him up a pot, and he closed the bathroom door and told me not to listen (sometimes, you do have to gently, very gently, blow the water out of your nostrils…so it does sound a bit like you’re – pardon the expression – blowing a snot rocket). He came out of the bathroom with a pleasantly surprised look on his face, and has been a convert ever since.

Here are some more resources for nasal irrigation and using a neti pot. Check them out:

  • Information on neti pots from the Mayo Clinic
  • A fantastic site from the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Complete with video demonstration and information on medical research regarding use of nasal irrigation/neti pots.
  • The Himilayan Institute, makers of the original neti pot since 1972.

Happy irrigating!

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Liz Owen leads a class of Iyengar students at Wellesly College / courtesy of Sarah Thomas, Boston Globe

A while back, I posted about a recent study out of Boston University and published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine showing that yoga may reduce symptoms of anxiety and mood. In today’s edition of The Boston Globe, a reporter profiled the lead researcher and lead Iyengar yoga teacher involved in the study. Check it out:

It’s 1:40 p.m. on a Monday, and Liz Owen and about 30 students are going through the Sun Salute, the Bound Angle, and other poses that make up the study of Iyengar Yoga. Some of the students in the class at Wellesley College are taking yoga for credit; others are auditing, just for a few hours of relaxation a week.

After 45 minutes of challenging contortions, Owen has the class lie down and concentrate on breathing.

“Feel your heart expand,” Owen said. “See if you can feel a shift in your brain away from the concerns of the day into a place that’s quiet and supportive.”

Now, Owen says, that shift in the brain has been quantified by modern science. For the last few years, she has been working as part of a research team on a study of the effects of yoga on anxiety and mood. The group’s results were published this month in ‘‘The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.’’

“What I’ve seen and experienced in my practice is now what the evidence is proving,” Owen said. “Yoga has a profound effect on both the body and on emotional well-being.”

The study, which was backed with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, looked specifically at the effect of yoga practice on a chemical called gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA.

“GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain,” said Dr. Chris Streeter, associate professor at BU Medical School and lead researcher on the project. “It’s low in people who are depressed, and if you treat that depression, GABA levels go up.”

Streeter, herself a yoga practitioner, has long seen that patients suffering from depression and seizures (another condition associated with low GABA levels) reported increased well-being after practicing yoga. That’s when she got the idea that yoga elevated GABA levels.

“Our first study, with experienced yoga practitioners, was very positive,” Streeter said. “In this second study, we studied people who were not experienced with yoga.”

In the study, the participants either practiced yoga or did a metabolically equivalent amount of walking over a 12-week period. At the end, their GABA levels were measured with MRIs.

“What we found was that, while there wasn’t an overall change in their GABA levels, the participants who practiced yoga had an increase in GABA levels right after completing the yoga exercises,” Streeter said.

Owen said the results support what Owen she has long known. A certified Iyengar yoga instructor since 1990, she began practicing in 1984 to help improve her posture.

“I’m like a completely different person now,” Owen said. “I’m a calmer and more secure person. Yoga has helped my relationships and helped me understand my family. Every day I feel I go deeper and deeper into a place of mental well-being.”

Owen and Streeter said their next goal is to try to replicate their results on patients suffering with clinical depression.

“I hope this study will bring yoga more and more to the attention of the medical community, and maybe even into the corporate world,” Owen said. “Anyone who is suffering from stress and anxiety can benefit from yoga.”

That sentiment is echoed by Owen’s students.

“I feel like I’m emotionally better able to cope with my life after I do yoga,” said Lauren Tonti, a first-year student.

“Senior year is a stressful time, but I can forget my stress for an hour when I’m here,” said fourth-year Jo Treitman.

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As I near closer and closer to my 31st birthday, I have started thinking a lot about my 30th year. While I have so many wonderful memories from this year, there is one thing – if you can call “it” a “thing” – that I have experienced for the first time at age 30, that has definitely had a big impact on the way I think about getting older: back pain.

The American Chiropractic Association website indicates that, at any given time, 31 million working Americans are suffering from back pain. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons for missed work. Estimates indicate that back pain will affect 80% of the population at some point.

For me, it started about six months ago with an ‘eh’…like something was a little off. I could feel it – an imbalance, a twinge, I don’t know, something in my lower back – especially when I practiced yoga. I muscled through it, figuring it was just the fact that I needed to do more yoga. But as I muscled through my practice, it kept nagging.  About two months ago, I noticed it getting worse, not better.  Those difficult poses, like camel and wheel, which I was once able to do without wincing? Forget about it. Simply trying to hold myself up in chaturanga (which, surprisingly, you can feel in your lower back), or trying to do those deep lateral bends in reverse warrior, or even trying to hold warrior I without excessively tilting my lower back and causing some serious painage, was really difficult, not to mention frustrating.

Let me just stop here and say that what I’ve been dealing with is not that serious. I have been fortunate to have a pain-and-limitation-free existence for 30 years. The sensation I’m experiencing has not affected my ability to walk. I’m not demonstrating any signs of a more serious condition. I can sleep (although I wake up from the ache), and there are times when I get to forget that it’s even there. There are many people out there, some of them close family members of mine, who have it a lot worse than I do. Heck, as I featured in a previous post, some people manage to have a successful yoga practice without the use of their legs. What I have is a persistent, mild-to-maybe-moderate ache that Just. Will. Not. Go. Away.

A few weeks ago, I have to admit, I got kind of freaked out about it.  I stopped doing yoga, choosing instead to rest for a few weeks. I tried – for about 4 days – to stay with the Kundalini Aura Sweep I promised my friend Lo I would try. But even that was too much. Stopping yoga always has its downside for me (namely, increased anxiety, etc.), so it left me thinking and ruminating a lot on life. Is this what I’m going to experience for the rest of my life? Is this just the beginning? Will the pain get worse? Do I need to simply modify the way I think about my life with this new pain-included reality? Is this how it feels to experience your body age?

For a while, I felt like a bit of a failure. Here I am with this cool new yoga blog, and I couldn’t even practice yoga. For a while, I felt completely and utterly freaked out by the fact that this is what it feels like to get older. In addition, I didn’t know where it was coming from (sitting on a bad chair at work all day? sleeping on a bad mattress? stress?), and whether I was even justified in feeling bummed out by some relatively mild aching back pain. Even worse, was yoga the culprit?  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m frequently frustrated by the yoga “flow” classes that are so popular in Los Angeles yoga studios. Could it be bad yoga – and by that I mean yoga that gives short shrift to alignment – that has caused my problem?

Instead of going down a really bad path, I am trying to talk myself into feeling okay with it. I am trying to tell myself that I am lucky.  I am trying to tell myself that this is a good reminder to tuck your tailbone, to stand up straight, to go check back into that Iyengar class once in a while, and that maybe strengthening your core does have its benefits. I am trying to believe that being aware of your body (in a way that is not always comfortable) is not necessarily a bad thing.

And I’m trying to do something about it. I had a massage the other day and the masseuse told me that I had a gigantic knot at the base of my spine. She did her best to work it out and I’ve been suffering the consequences for a week. And by consequences I mean that I am currently typing this post while sitting on a black-and-blue left ass cheek. If I were immodest enough to post a photo, I would, because it could almost be classified as a work of art. But once this gigantic bruise heals, I’m headed to a pretty awesome sports medicine clinic where I’ll be getting treated by a team of chiropractic/orthopedic specialists who prescribe a course of physical therapy, acupuncture, and personal training. So, I’m forward hoping to put my back behind me, so to speak.

I started this blog to discuss some of the detours and delays that keep me from my ideal yoga practice, and to find solace and wisdom amongst my fellow yogis. So, I’m wondering, what can you tell me – about getting older? About getting perspective? About muscling through a doing it anyway?

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According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health website, there are currently 108 studies in the works studying the effects of practicing yoga on various physical and psychological conditions.  108.  Interesting.

There are studies currently in progress on conditions ranging from HIV to smoking cessation to headaches to the effects of laughter yoga on people suffering from cancer.

As the results of these studies are published, I will try to keep my readers informed.

Thanks to reader, Maxwell, for bringing this to my attention!  You guys are awesome.

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A new study conducted by researchers at the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and published in the September/October 2010 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Oncology, suggests yoga reduces stress and anxiety in children diagnosed with cancer. I am unable to access the full text article, but here’s the abstract:

Children with a cancer diagnosis experience symptom distress, including anxiety, because of the disease and its treatment. Parents experience stress and anxiety because of the uncertainty of the disease as well as the suffering of their children. Yoga is a complementary intervention that has physiological and psychological benefits in healthy children and healthy and chronically ill adults. On an inpatient hematology/oncology unit, 11 children aged 6 to 12 years, 5 adolescents aged 13 to 18 years, and 33 parents participated in a single yoga session tailored to the needs and abilities of the patients and parents. Sense of well-being pre- and postclass was measured with the Spielberger State Anxiety Scale. Children had normal anxiety scores preclass that did not change. Adolescents and parents experienced significant decreases in anxiety scores, and all cohorts gave positive feedback about the experience. The authors conclude that yoga is a feasible intervention for this population and is beneficial to adolescents and parents.

Another small study published in the October 14, 2010, issue of the journal Pain, shows that gentle yoga and meditation eases the pain associated with fibromyalgia, a medical disorder characterized by chronic pain and fatigue.  The participants in the study (all of whom met the criteria developed by the American College of Rheumatology for the diagnosis of fibromyalgia) were divided into two groups: one group was assigned to practice a gentle yoga program for 8 weeks, the other group continued their normal routine for treating symptoms.  Of those participants who practiced yoga, an overwhelming percentage reported a decrease in symptoms including pain and other symptoms.  Those participants who didn’t practice yoga reported little change in symptoms.

According to The National Fibromyalgia Association, approximately 10 million Americans, mostly women.  There is no known cure.

This study has several shortcomings including a small sample size, lack of follow-up and reliance on entirely subjective reports.  Moreover, the lead psychologist/pain specialist and author of the study, James Carson, used a type of yoga called “Yoga of Awareness”, which he developed.  As much as this sounds a bit shady, Mr. Carson does not seem to be interested in financially benefitting from his research.  Instead, he seems genuinely committed to studying the benefits of a yoga practice.  Mr. Carson is a former yogic monk and has practiced yoga for 25 years.  Now a clinical health psychologist at the Oregon Health & Science University, he and his wife (Kim, a yoga therapist) have authored multiple studies.  You can read more about them here.

Let the studies pile up, friends!  Let’s hear it for the healing power of yoga.

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