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Is Yoga Aerobic Enough? Studies Comparing Yoga Asanas to Physical Exercises

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In a 2010 survey paper, researchers found that at least when it comes to VO2 max, Yoga asanas are inferior1 to physical exercises2. VO2 max, maximum oxygen consumption, is a standard measure for the physical fitness of an individual. But in most of the other health outcomes covered in the “meta-analysis”, yoga was just as good if not better than exercise.

Below is a comprehensive table from that 2010 survey paper3 comparing the Health Benefits of Yoga and Exercise (see here for pdf version of the table below):



Here is a brief description of the studies the researchers reviewed:

Table 2 provides a summary of the studies comparing yoga and exercise by outcomes measured. Nearly half of the studies have been conducted on healthy populations, and yoga interventions have yielded positive results in both healthy and diseased populations. Nearly every study utilized a yoga intervention that combined physical asanas (standing, seated, or inverted) and restorative or relaxation poses. Seven of the 12 studies also incorporated meditation and/or breath work. Three studies did not specify the type of yoga intervention used. The remaining studies utilized Hatha yoga (N=4), Iyengar yoga (N=3), and Integrated yoga (N=2). While five of the studies provided specific sequences of yoga poses used in the intervention, the remainder offered few details.

… Most of the studies involved some form of aerobic exercise: walking, running, dancing, or stationary bicycling, plus some form of stretching. Two studies compared yoga with gentle, nonaerobic exercises and stretching.

(1) The researchers found that “… yoga interventions appeared to be equal or superior to exercise in nearly every outcome measured except those involving physical fitness. The studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise seem to indicate that, in both healthy and diseased populations, yoga may be as effective as or better than exercise at improving a variety of health-related outcome measures.”

(2) Granted, none of the subjects performed Rodney Yee’s extreme example of 108 sun salutations in a row!

(3) The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies, pdf version here.


Written by virtualsatsang

February 23, 2012 at 12:09 am

Posted in Health, Yoga

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Caring for the mentally ill in Madurai, India

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[Seva Series: Profiles of seekers dedicated to the service of others.]

Krishnan Narayanan abandoned his promising career as a high-end chef, to devote his life to care for the mentally ill who live on the streets of his native Madurai, India. Besides providing food on a regular basis, Krishnan also takes care of other basis needs such as providing access to clean clothes and baths. He is also in the process of raising money to complete his dream project of providing housing for 400 of his regular “clients”.

These acts of kindness have serious implications for him personally. As a brahmin, he isn’t suppose to eat with, let alone bathe members of lower castes.

Written by virtualsatsang

June 6, 2011 at 7:45 am

Posted in Health, Seva, Social Justice

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  • Yoga Tourism in India: I came across this unpublished manuscript by Kenneth Liberman, in an illuminating short paper on Ashtanga Yoga1. In a recent post, I used ideas from a separate paper of Liberman, to come up with a short checklist for finding yoga teachers & classes.

    American yoga aspirants remain very much inside their own cultural universe and have minimal contact with Indian society, except for the commodified yoga they desire and receive. They cannot read any signs in the regional language, leam little about the politics or culture (“We’re only here for a few months”), and keep their focus upon their own practice of asana. The most appalling part of it is that many of them suffer from a smugness that is derived from having completed such a fine, advanced practice of asana early in the morming, entitling them to spend the rest of the day in idleness while bearing a feeling of superiority toward most any other person they meet during the day.

    … Young people seeking fitness, older people wanting to regain youth, most of them self-absorbed with a focused effort to become or remain attractive, focus their energies intently upon what each of them term “my practice.” For one or two hours they direct their energies (and in many cases this energy is abundant and highly directed) upon themselves. Only themselves. Each breath is a celebration of one’s body electric. It may be beautiful, but the danger is that it easily reinforces egotism and self-centeredness at the very time that one’s practice of yoga should be eradicating the self, egoistically conceived. In all fairness, it may be said that a yoga practitioner will inevitably meet other practitioners who are more adept at asana or run up against the limits of his or her body. But a sense of inadequacy is not actually the opposite of egoism, since it is just another form of self-absorption. If Patanjali is to be believed, spiritual lessons are indeed to be gained from a correct practice of asana, but when the practice is distorted by what is already most abundant in the culture – vanity, pleasure-seeking, and self-absorption – is there a fair chance for its cultivation? The metaphor of the camel that is able to pass through the eye of the needle seems appropriate here.

  • The former warden of San Quentin as an anti death penalty advocate: In her new position heading Death Penalty Focus, Jeanne Woodford’s criminal justice gravitas and calm demeanor makes her an effective advocate for eliminating the death penalty.

  • Half of New Testament forged: CNN highlights the key findings from the new book by biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman:

    * At least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries.

    * The New Testament books attributed to Jesus’ disciples could not have been written by them because they were illiterate.

    * Many of the New Testament’s forgeries were manufactured by early Christian leaders trying to settle theological feuds.

    NOTE: Evangelical scholar Ben Witherington refutes the key arguments in his short review of Ehrman’s book.

  • Overwhelmed caregivers should try meditation: Further confirmation of what Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has been suggesting.

    … UCLA researchers Helen Lavretsky and Michael Irwin conducted an eight-week, randomized trial on the effects of meditation exercise on 49 people who were home-based caregivers of a loved one with dementia. About half of the caregivers listened to relaxation tapes for 20 minutes a day for eight weeks, while the other caregivers practiced Kirtan Kirya yoga, a meditation exercise. The study’s authors then conducted tests on mental and cognitive health, did brain scans and measured telomere length. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that are protective of cellular health. Measuring telomere length can be used to determine how fast a person is aging.

    The study found strong evidence that a meditative yoga routine improves both mental and physical health. While caregivers in both groups experienced benefits, the caregivers practicing Kirtan Kirya yoga had more improvements in quality of life, cognition and memory. Those study participants reported better sleep and less anxiety and said they felt care-giving was less of a burden than before they participated in the study.

    Surprisingly, the telomere analysis showed meditative yoga also had an anti-aging effect.

  • (1) I highly recommend that paper: “With Heat Even Iron will Bend”: Discipline and Authority in Ashtanga Yoga by Benjamin Richard Smith, pages 140-160, in Yoga in the Modern World

    Written by virtualsatsang

    May 19, 2011 at 9:47 am


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    • Cognitive Bias Modification (therapist-free therapy):

      … A typical course of a modern talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, consists of 12-16 hour-long sessions and is a reasonably efficient way of treating conditions like depression and anxiety (hysteria is no longer a recognised diagnosis). Medication, too, can bring rapid change. Nevertheless, treating disorders of the psyche is still a hit-and-miss affair, and not everyone wishes to bare his soul or take mind-altering drugs to deal with his problems. A new kind of treatment may, though, mean he does not have to. Cognitive-bias modification (CBM) appears to be effective after only a few 15-minute sessions, and involves neither drugs nor the discussion of feelings. It does not even need a therapist. All it requires is sitting in front of a computer and using a program that subtly alters harmful thought patterns.

      … Similar biases may affect memory and the interpretation of events. For example, if an acquaintance walks past without saying hello, it might mean either that he has ignored you or that he has not seen you. The anxious, according to the theory behind CBM, have a bias towards assuming the former and reacting accordingly.

      The goal of CBM is to alter such biases, and doing so has proved surprisingly easy. A common way of debiasing attention is to show someone two words or pictures—one neutral and the other threatening—on a computer screen. In the case of social anxiety these might be a neutral face and a disgusted face. Presented with this choice, an anxious person instinctively focuses on the disgusted visage. The program, however, prods him to complete tasks involving the neutral picture, such as identifying letters that appear in its place on the screen. Repeating the procedure around a thousand times, over a total of two hours, changes the user’s tendency to focus on the anxious face. That change is then carried into the wider world.

    • A Joyful Noise with Krishna Das:

      Adams: How would you describe kirtan to someone new to the practice?

      Krishna Das: It depends who I’m talking to, because I don’t want to scare people away. If I say it’s “meditation with music,” some will be put off by that. In India they call it the “repetition of the sacred names of God,” but I don’t want to say that to someone who doesn’t believe in God. I don’t even know if I believe in God — not the one described in Western religious traditions anyway. In India people understand that God is within. There are Hindu images associated with God — deities like Krishna, Hanuman, and Kali — but when it comes down to it, these deities are symbols of the divine that lives inside each one of us. Indians are more creative about worship, whereas Christians are generally very tense: there’s only one right way to do it and only one God to worship. Of course, there is only one God in the Indian traditions, too, just many forms to symbolize it. It’s ok to worship anything in any way in India, because there it’s understood that nothing is outside of us. There’s only one God, and we’re all it.

      … I’ve been to yoga-teacher trainings and heard people say, “If you don’t understand the deities, you’ll never be a good yoga teacher.” Bullshit. We’re Americans. We didn’t grow up with this. It’s not native to us. I’ve spent a fair portion of my life in India and still don’t have a clue. It doesn’t mean that much to me. There it is: I told the truth.

      All these so-called deities exist inside of us, but we don’t understand that. We don’t know who we are, so we can’t know who they are. Find out who you are, and you’ll know everything you need to know.

      When I lived in India, I went to all the temples and holy places, and I read the history and the stories, but these days I don’t really think about all that, because to me the names simply represent the love inside of me, inside of you. Whether we’re chanting about Kali or Durga is irrelevant.

      … The first place I chanted was Jivamukti Yoga School in New York. I called them up, and they said, “Sure, you can come down on Monday.” They had a program for yoga-teacher trainees, and I sang for about twenty minutes before it began. I started doing this every Monday. That went on for a month or two, and then I showed up on a Monday night as usual, and the teachers weren’t there. I was told they had gone to India and wouldn’t return for months. So I sat down and sang for two or three hours. I did it again the next week, and the next, and more and more people came. Monday night became my night.

    • The power of vulnerability: Social work academic Brene Brown studies “… our ability to empathize, belong, love.”

    • Sex and the Spiritual Teacher:
    • … The problem of spiritual teachers seducing or sexually abusing their students tarnishes every spiritual tradition, in seemingly every culture—and recorded cases go back many hundreds of years. These misdeeds damage the lives of women and men, children and adults, the rich and the poor, the foolish and the wise, the gullible and the discerning.

      A list of spiritual teachers who have committed sexual transgressions during the past few decades reads almost like a Who’s Who of modern spiritual figures, and includes priests, ministers, rabbis, gurus, yogis, roshis, senseis, swamis, lamas, maggids, and imams. Sometimes their misconduct involves other transgressions as well (misappropriation of money, physical or emotional abuse, attempted brainwashing, etc.). This widespread misconduct has created scandal after scandal for these teachers, and much suffering for their students and spiritual communities.

      With very few exceptions, each of these teachers is or was male; each offered something genuinely worthwhile to their students; each knew that sex with their students could have potentially damaging consequences for those students; and each—including those teachers raised in other cultures—understood that the prevailing social norms prohibited such sexual relationships. Many of these teachers were married, and thus had vows of fidelity to uphold, as well as (presumably) willing sexual partners. Some had taken vows of celibacy. So why did they act against the best interests of their students, their own spiritual communities, and, ultimately, themselves?

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 14, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Posted in Art, Health, Malas

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    The 8 Best Ways to Exercise Your Brain

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    From Chapter 8 of “How God Changes Your Brain” (sorted from least to most beneficial):

  • 8. Smile: Even if you don’t feel like it, the mere act of smiling repetitively helps interrupt mood disorders and strengthen the brain’s natural ability to maintain a positive outlook on life. … To my knowledge, the only religion to incorporate smiling into a spiritual practice is Buddhism. For example, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we do “smiling meditation” whenever we have a spare moment during the day. …
  • 7. Stay intellectually active: … When it comes to the dendrites and axons that connect one neuron to thousands of others, if you don’t use it, you will lose it. … Memory and mnemonic exercises, strategy-based games like chess or mahjong, and other forms of visual/spatial exercises or games can significantly improve cognitive functioning , especially in older adults. … Try to spend as many hours a day engaged in the most intellectually challenging activities you can dream up … Read books … Take a class, attend a lecture, go to a museum, … write in your diary. … However, doing math exercises and crosswords apparently doesn’t help, and performance pressure can even interfere with memory functioning. So be sure to make your intellectual pursuits enjoyable.
  • 6. Consciously relax: … I’m talking about deliberately scanning each part of your body to reduce muscle tension and physical fatigue. … Simple repetitive activities that are pleasurable and meaningful can also take you into a deep state of relaxation. In one of my most recent studies, we found that the ritual practice of counting rosaries lowers tension, stress, and anxiety. Many other religious and spiritual practices calm the mind and allow the brain to rejuvenate, and even activities like knitting will have a similar relaxing effect.
  • 5. Yawn: … Several recent brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the areas of the brain that are directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy. One of those areas is the precuneus … The precuneus is also stimulated by yogic breathing, which helps explain why different forms of meditation contribute to an increased sense of self-awareness. … Our advice is simple. Yawn as many times a day as possible. … Conscious yawning take a little practice and discipline to get over the unconscious social inhibitions … All you have to do to trigger a deep yawn is to fake it six or seven times. …

    12 essential reasons to yawn:
    1. Stimulates alertness and concentration.
    2. Optimizes brain activity and metabolism.
    3. Improves cognitive function.
    4. Increases memory recall.
    5. Enhances consciousness and introspection.
    6. Lowers stress.
    7. Relaxes every part of your body.
    8. Improves voluntary muscle control.
    9. Enhances athletic skills.
    10. Fine-tunes your sense of time.
    11. Increases empathy and social awareness.
    12. Enhances pleasure and sensuality.

  • 4. Meditate: … Even ten to fifteen minutes of meditation appears to have significantly positive effects on cognition, relaxation, and psychological health, and it has been shown to reduce smoking and binge-drinking behavior. …
  • 3. Aerobic exercise: … In general, the more intense the better. For example, running is better than walking, and walking is better than stretching, but it is important to find the “right” amount of exercise that feels best for you. … Vigorous stretching, such as yoga, also does wonders for both your body and your brain. Yoga has similar cognitive benefits to other forms of contemplative meditation, and in a recent meta-analysis of 813 meditation studies, the researchers stated that yoga was as beneficial as exercise. It can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, help control the symptoms of diabetes, lessen the severity of menopausal symptoms, reduce chronic back pain, and prevent the onslaught of migraine headaches. …
  • 2. Dialogue with others: … if we don’t exercise our language skills, large portions of the brain will not effectively interconnect with other neural structures. Dialogue requires social interaction, and the more social ties we have, the less our cognitive abilities will decline. In fact, any form of social isolation will damage improtant mechanisms in the brain leading to aggression, depression, and various neuropsychiatric disorders. …
  • 1. Faith: … Faith is equivalent with hope, optimism, and the belief that a positive future awaits us. … Recently, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers concluded that “a moderate optimistic illusion” appears neurologically essential for maintaining motivation and good mental health. They also found that highly optimistic people had greater activation in the same parts of the anterior cingulate that are stimulated by meditation. …
  • Written by virtualsatsang

    March 11, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Posted in Health, Meditation, Yoga


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    • Margaret Atwood on the Publishing Pie: The ideas in this talk applies to all creative types, not just writers. For that matter, yoga and meditation teachers who struggle to make a living have a lot in common with writers and artists:

    • Cartwheels In A Sari: Born into the organization of Guru Sri Chinmoy, author Jayanti Tamm provides an insider’s view into Chinmoy’s organization. As for Chinmoy himself, he “… comes off as a spiritual huckster both ridiculous and oppressive.”
    • Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Not that we’re returning to the days when spiritual gurus were fashionable, but as Carol Horton points out, it’s easy to see how Yoga students end up idolizing certain teachers.

      … A yoga instructor stands in a different cultural space than an aerobics teacher or sports coach. Even if students are only interested in “fitness yoga,” most recognize that for others, yoga can involve not only the body, but also the mind and perhaps even spirit as well. Even if it’s not necessarily taken seriously, the fact that yoga is a “body-mind-spirit” practice is a well-known part of its “branding” and appeal.

      Conversely, yoga instructors aren’t considered spiritual teachers along the lines of priests, rabbis, lamas, or monks. Yoga, of course, is not a religion, so that’s appropriate. But it’s also true that yoga teachers are trained in so many different ways, and have so many different outlooks and commitments, that it’s impossible to assume anything about their orientation to spirituality – or any of the “big questions” – at all.

      While this is great in that it allows for openness, innovation, and authenticity, it’s also confusing.

      This is particularly true because yoga, by its very nature, offers people a path into deep psychological and emotional territory. Even if you start yoga simply because you want to exercise and/or de-stress, it’s very common that sooner or later, you’ll start to have much more intense emotional, psychological, and perhaps what you might call “spiritual” experiences anyway.

    • Yoga, meditation program helps city youths cope with stress:

      They found a 12-week yoga program targeting 97 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Baltimore elementary schools made a difference in students’ overall behavior and their ability to concentrate. They found students who did yoga were less likely to ruminate, the kind of brooding thoughts associated with depression and anxiety that can be a reaction to stress. The findings, which focused on a pilot program that took place in 2008, were published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. One program is still active, and researchers are now applying for federal funding to expand the effort into schools across the city.

      … While many studies on yoga are limited, there is “intriguing evidence” that it can have a host of health benefits, she said.

      To test their theories, Hopkins researchers used a curriculum designed by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit founded in 2002 by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their college buddy, Andy Gonzalez. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, “the traveling yogis” as they called themselves, returned to their poor West Baltimore neighborhood looking for a way to give back.

      … The traveling yogis combined various yoga disciplines, poses and breathing exercises to create their own blend of practice that emphasizes mindfulness, or awareness that emerges when one is present or “in the moment.”

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 28, 2011 at 7:44 am


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    • LA Times profile of Sharon Salzberg:

      Sharon Salzberg, 58, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, has spent more than three decades helping Westerners access a daily spiritual practice that originated in Buddhism but is not confined to that faith.

      … The Buddhist principles of vipassana, or mindfulness, and metta, lovingkindness, afforded Salzberg what she calls a “spacious” form of awareness in which people know they have a choice. Instead of being dominated by her fears, Salzberg said, she began to communicate what she learned, ultimately publishing seven books.

    • Yoga isn’t as old as you think: Responding to the the “Take Back Yoga” marketing campaign, the author cites a couple of authors (Sjoman and Singleton) that I’ve previously highlighted. One additional academic source worth mentioning is David Gordon White’s upcoming book on the Yoga Sutras.

      … Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its heyday in the 1930s, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovative style of Sritattvanidhi. Krishnamacharya, who was familiar with this text and cited it in his own books, carried on the innovation by adding a variety of Western gymnastics and drills to the routines he learnt from Sritattvanidhi, which had already cross-bred hatha yoga with traditional Indian wrestling and acrobatic routines.

      In addition, it is well established that Krishnamacharya had full access to a Western-style gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace, with all the usual wall ropes and other props that he began to include in his yoga routines.

      Sjoman has excerpted the gymnastics manual that was available to Krishnamacharya. He claims that many of the gymnastic techniques from that manual—for example, the cross-legged jumpback and walking the hands down a wall into a back arch—found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, which he passed on to Iyengar and Jois. In addition, in the early years of the 20th century, an apparatus-free Swedish drill and gymnastic routine, developed by a Dane by the name of Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was introduced to India by the British and popularised by the YMCA. Singleton argues that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” The link again is Krishnamacharya, who Singleton calls a “major player in the modern merging of gymnastic-style asana practice and the Patanjali tradition.”

    • Europe’s New Politics: I try to stay away from politics on this blog, but I thought this recent BBC podcast on the rise of populist, anti-immigrant parties in Denmark & Sweden was worth highlighting. The Danish cartoon controversy aside, it is disturbing to witness the rise of intolerance in Western Europe. Immigrants are stereotyped as being ill-suited because of culture (Islam) and economics (over dependence on the welfare state). To be fair, in both Denmark and Sweden, we are talking about minority parties. But in both cases they have real influence on parliamentary proceedings.

    • How effective is yoga?:

      The aim of this overview was to evaluate critically all systematic reviews of yoga for the symptomatic treatment of any condition. Twelve electronic databases were searched and 21 systematic reviews relating to a wide range of conditions were located. Nine systematic reviews arrived at positive conclusions, but many systematic reviews were associated with a high risk of bias. Unanimously positive evidence emerged for depression and cardiovascular risk reduction. Despite an impressive number of systematic reviews, evidence of effectiveness is positive only for two indications.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 21, 2011 at 8:06 am