Great news! Scientists have proven what we yogis have been experiencing for ourselves: that yoga can have a profound impact on our physical health and mental wellbeing, fast.
Here’s the skinny.
In collaboration with the University of London, Pattabhi Jois-authorised Ashtanga teacher Charlie Taylor-Rugman gathered a sample group of 22 complete yoga beginners (10 males, 12 females) and taught them the Ashtanga Primary Series for eight weeks.
Each class was 60 minutes long and followed the same sequence each week, with specific emphasis on alignment, breath, and mindful movement.
Each week students were guided through Sun Salutations, standing postures including Trikonasana (Triangle) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold), then Dandasana (Staff), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold) and Purvottanasana (Upward Plank).
This was then followed by three seated finishing poses and final relaxation.
The results speak volumes.
After eight weeks, participants demonstrated significant improvements in upper body and core endurance, trunk and hamstring flexibility, shoulder and ankle-calf flexibility, as well as a reduction in total body fat percentage.
Results also suggested there were beneficial effects on the subjects’ overall mental wellbeing.
Said one participant, “When I took place in this study, I was a complete beginner. I’m amazed at the transformation in just eight weeks. I’m noticeably more flexible, stronger, and feel much calmer.”
This study is a huge step forward in solidifying the hearsay about how yoga can help and heal.
Said Charlie Taylor-Rugman, “I have practiced yoga for more than 20 years, and working in this study has demonstrated what I’ve known for years: that yoga works. What’s more, anyone can reap the benefits of the practice in a short space of time.”
While the Hatha yoga texts may tell us much on how asana contributes to our health, Western science is now beginning to broaden the picture by offering fresh perspectives and insights and blending Eastern philosophy and practice into its toolkit.
The mystical and mythical is merging with our own particular brand of homegrown logic, revealing the deeper dimensions of yoga and expanding our understanding of the practice.
Studies like this help yoga shed its former ‘just for hippies’ shadow, letting it be taken more seriously by the medical profession as part of a holistic approach to maintaining health and preventing disease.
How does yoga work?
I asked Charlie why he thinks yoga works. He said the immediate impact of moving the body in a controlled and focused way, emphasising on the breath, is that is feels amazing. It encourages the production of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-happy chemicals, which act to calm the mind.
Secondly, people today are living increasingly sedentary lives. We’re generally sitting down for longer and spending less and less time moving around.
Looking at the evolutionary history of humans, you’ll see that we’ve developed to move around almost constantly at a moderate pace, which isn’t supported by our modern 21st century lifestyles.
The truth is, when we move the body, the brain produces a whole range of chemicals which enhance our mood, alleviate depression, help fight disease, and encourage our internal organs to function more effectively. This is science, not New Age speculation.
Ashtanga yoga’s unique qualities makes it effective.
Not all styles of yoga focus on breath, movement, and drishti (or gaze) the way Ashtanga yoga does. The study advocated that these three magic ingredients combined brings mental focus and a connection with the body through which the practice becomes centered.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Chapter 2, Verse 2) clearly tell us that yoga is a breath-focused practice and that only by controlling the breathing can we start to control the mind.
There’s also value in emphasising alignment in a way that is relevant to the needs of a student.
A good teacher is always looking to help students find the balance between strength and flexibility, and this is one of the key factors in good alignment, not just getting your heels properly aligned in a standing posture.
Only this way does the student reap the rewards of practicing yoga postures and protect themselves against injury.
Sound yoga anatomy and physiology are key.
Charlie studied anatomy (the structures of the body) and physiology (how it all works) for many years and his teaching style is very focused on encouraging sound physiological principles.
In the study, participants were taught Reciprocal Inhibition, or contracting one group of muscles in order to relax another group of muscles. Charlie also encouraged using closed kinetic chain (CKC) techniques in certain postures to allow participants to move into postures more deeply.
Said Charlie, “Incorporating techniques like Reciprocal Inhibition and the use of closed kinetic chain movements in the postures really helps people progress quickly in their asana practice.”
“These techniques are easy to learn and they really help you develop the appropriate strength and flexibility you need to deepen your asana practice. More people should know about them and use them.”
And the study results certainly support this. The average study participants saw a 40 percent increase in hamstring flexibility, a 42 percent improvement in arm strength, and a 32 percent development in core stability after just eight weeks.
Be an agent of change.
While change is inevitable, we’ve seen a lot of contemporary yoga styles, teachings, and teachers emerge in recent years, not of all of which has been positive. The highly esteemed, effective practice of linking the breath with movement, student-centered alignment, and drishti are becoming lost.
It’s great that we can now find yoga on every street corner as opposed to unrolling our mats in stuffy village halls, but concerns that the practice is becoming weaker and dumbed down are legitimate.
Studies like this one helps us understand what yoga is, how it works, and what about practice is important. It isn’t about the latest Lulu-wear, the rapidity through which we can knock out asana, or a rockin’ soundtrack. It is about moving, breathing, and bringing focus and balance to the body and mind.