Category Archives: health

As opposed to illness and degradation

Yoga and its application in health and wellness

Photo: ornamental shrine in bronze, India
Siddha Pratima Yantra, Western India, dated 1333 (Samvat 1390) Bronze, 21.9 x 13.1 x 8.9 cm Freer Gallery of Art, F1997.33

The next major event of the Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibit is the Medical Yoga Symposium to take place on the weekend of January 11-12, 2014. The first day with the theme of “Discovery and Didactics: Professional Perspectives and Personal Stories” will be in the Meyer Auditorium at the Freer-Sackler Gallery while the second day (Master Classes, Experiential Workshops,  3-hour intensives and Discussions ) will take place at the Marvin Center of the George Washington University. Participants should be prepared to get down on the mat.

The event will be led by a lot of heavy hitters in the American yoga scene, especially those devoted to yoga therapy and related applications, as well as medical researchers, doctors and psychiatrists—more than 20—too many to list here so you can consult the flyer or the website for more details. It is shaping up to be as thought-provoking and body-shifting as the yoga symposium in November.

The event is being organized by the Gallery, the Center for Integrative Medicine at George Washington University Medical Center and Therapeutic Yoga of Washington, DC. Because the two-day event is not only an exposition, but a teaching event (attendees are eligible for continuing education credits), it comes with a cost: $180 the first day, $100 the second day. Student and group pricing is available.

Topics include:

  • Evidence-based Integrative Health Practices
  • Yoga Practice in Modern Society
  • Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention
  • Transformations in Modern Medicine
  • Scientific Research on Yoga and Yoga Therapy

“Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit will remain at the Freer-Sackler Gallery until January 26, when it will go on a road show to San Francisco and Cleveland. Several special events are planned for the final week.

From the yoga mat to the massage table and back

I found myself in a curious position over the weekend in yoga class. I was unable to sustain myself in a pose modified for novices or people not used to sustaining their body weight. It should have been easier for me.

Modified side plank

The pose was side plank (Vasisthasana) — most vinyasa 1 practitioners grind their teeth when they have to get into this pose from plank. In this case, the teacher decide to use me as a demo for the pose and its modification, which required me to place the lower knee on the ground to support my core (as illustrated in the photo to the right). I found that I could not keep my leg directly under me and aligned in the same plane as  my body because I could not fully open up my hip. It seemed to reach a limit at about 45 degrees. It was more difficult resting on the right knee, but I also had issues with the left variant. When I tried to muscle my way into a more open expression, it was as if I butted up against bone, with no give. It actually hurt.

Continue reading From the yoga mat to the massage table and back

Does massage really help heal fatigued muscles?

The New York Times may be in the dog house for its yoga coverage (How Yoga Can Wreak Your Body), but it just won some points with me because it covered new scientific research showing how massage helps muscles heal after exercise.

How Massage Heals Sore Muscles

They found that massage reduced the production of compounds called cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation. Massage also stimulated mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that convert glucose into the energy essential for cell function and repair. “The bottom line is that there appears to be a suppression of pathways in inflammation and an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis,” helping the muscle adapt to the demands of increased exercise, said the senior author, Dr. Mark A. Tarnopolsky.

Of course, the next question is what about the myofascial aspect, because the muscles themselves only do part of the exersion. The neuro-myofascial web is a bigger player in dealing with symtoms of fatigue after exercise.

Tools and techniques for dealing with pain

For the past three months, I’ve incorporated a set of tools and techniques into maintaining the subtle balance of my body, and it all started with an unexpected message.

Photo: two yellow balls for yoga therapy
A deceptively useful instrument for dealing with tension

When, I first published the news about my condition of peripheral neuropathy, Jill Miller reached out to me to tell me about her own therapy work with someone who was suffering from a severe case of peripheral neuropathy. I had actually read her two- part interview in The Magazine of Yoga when she was declared “Teacher of 2011”, but it was before I knew that neuropathy would take such a predominate place in my own existence. Actually, there were so many interesting segments in the interview, it was easy to overlook the part in which she discussed the case of Eric who has Charcot Marie Tooth disease, the most common genetic neuropathy. He was severely handicapped, even crippled by the disease. Miller set up a therapy program to reawaken his nervous system. Miller also pointed me to a PowerPoint presentation that she made at the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research in September 2011, sponsored by the International Association of Yoga Therapist (IAYT). My condition was far less severe than Eric’s; he was using high doses of multiple pain medications (including cannibis). After treatment, he reduced his use of pain meds by 70%.

I was intrigued. I was looking for something that would allow me to get from session to session of my massage therapy. I immediately incorporated a couple of routines of yoga poses into my evening restorative routine: bridge pose, dolphin pose (actually I skip them in the evening if I did a class that included them) and leg stretches. Miller’s reclined routines required me to prop up my hips on a yoga block and anchor my feet on a wall. As I’ve employed these routines, I’ve come to appreciate how they opened up my hips, widening and stretching the area between my sit bones.

I then placed an order for self-massage therapy audio CDs for full body and Yoga Tune Up® Balls, which had also been used in Eric’s treatment program. I’ve mainly stuck with the upper body routines and the exercises for the feet and calves. It takes a good slice of time (20-30 minutes) to work through the upper body series and I also needed to do other routines to prepare me for sleep.

Putting the balls to good use

I took the balls and audio recordings with me on my Christmas trip to Florida. I found that they really helped relieve the stress of driving around the Tampa Bay area between family gatherings, beaches and our living quarters. I got home late and was unable to turn off my hyper-alert mind and release the tension that built up between my shoulder blades. I did my Yoga Tune Up® routines and was able to rest.

Even more importantly, the routines have contributed to lessening the low-grade pain and numbness in my feet. On the downside, it’s obvious that Jill M mainly works with women because the balls (made out of a resilient rubber material) are showing signs of wear from bearing my heavier weight. I will have to order a new set of balls soon. I think she should consider making several sets of balls that take into account the user’s weight.

Going back to the extended interview, it helped me appreciate that Jill Miller is firmly grounded in yoga tradition and the new frontiers that are being opened up by practitioners who are not afraid to listen to their bodies. She’s not selling a gimmick or an angle that’s meant to differentiate her products and services in the market place.

Keeping me awake at night

Graphic: Human nervous system via Wikipedia
Human nervous system

I’ve known that I had peripheral neuropathy since early 2010 when I checked in with a podiatrist about other issues. I saw my personal doctor and he took a full battery of blood tests to determine if there was anything obvious. The results ruled out any of the “bad things” (diabetes, HIV/AIDS, etc.). He did detect a vitamin D deficiency so he had me taking mega dosages of vitamin D. Because the supplement would not have immediate effect, I did not get back to him right away and then forgot about the problem.

However, this year, I’ve noted a worsening of the symptoms (pin pricks and numbness on my feet, especially the left foot) to the point that it was keeping me from falling to sleep. Symptoms seemed to flare up about 1:00 or 2:00 am. My home medicine consisted of Aleve, restorative poses on my mat, using a tennis ball to stretch the sole of my foot, and applying ice to the foot. I tried to do some of these things before going to bed. Results were inconsistent, and I would usually dose off when I was completely exhausted. Sometimes, I could pull myself together to go to work. During the day, I would not notice the pin pricks because my shoes and socks applied a uniform pressure that tended to lessen my sensitivity.

Since my father’s death in January and accelerated by my mother’s death in April, I’ve been living off reserves (don’t ask me to explain; I’m searching for a concept that doesn’t sound too “New Age-ish”). I attended yoga class in fits and starts, I did not make to the gym either, and each new beginning seemed to start from a more degraded status. Because I had to prioritize my time and energy to take of my job responsibilities and the settling of my parents’ estate, I have not been taking care of myself as well as I should.

This summer, I could feel that things were catching up with me: just run together a string of nights with just 4-5 hours sleep each, and anyone’s performance suffers; and pain medication and sleeping pills did not seem to have an effect. I finally went to my doctor again and we did another round of blood work, which revealed that I was in otherwise good health.

The next step was to see a neurologist, who confirmed the original diagnosis — the condition of idiopathic peripheral neuropathy — the “idiopathic” means that the doctors don’t know what the cause is, and the “peripheral” means that the condition is outside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). The neurologist did not find any impairment (grip, balance, coordination, etc.) aside from the pain, and because I can remember the pin prick sensation as far back as 12 years, it’s not something of recent onset. He then ordered up an electromyography and nerve conduction test — basically electrocuting my feet, legs and arms for two hours and measuring the speed of the peripheral nerves. The results showed that the nerve circuits in my feet and legs had a degraded capacity, but no clear cause was identified.  I was given a prescription of Gabapentin (a generic drug to treat epilepsy, but also effective for neuropathic pain) and told to ramp up the dosage until it relieved my pain.

Conclusion: After a three-week blitz, Western medicine has determined that whatever the cause, the only option is to treat the symptoms by helping me manage the pain and to monitor my condition to see if it got worse. I could probably consult some more specialists or look for some obscure disease (does Dr. House receive patients from DC?). I’ve consulted with my acupuncturist and he said that he could help with the pain and, perhaps, slow the neuropathy, but did not hold out much hope for reversing it. I am going to have to take ownership of my pain and body, and learn to manage both, which is a trial-and-error process.

Better than the cure

The New York Times is on another yoga binge, putting out stories on Ana Forrest’s niche appeal and former Cornell basketball players doing yoga during off-season, to mention the most recent ones. Jane Brody has a column about Ancient Moves for Orthopedic Problems mentioning the work of Loren Fishman, a physiatrist — a specialist in physical and rehabilitative medicine affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital. I’ve already used the modified triangle headstand posture to get my shoulders aligned. His longer referenced article is available (PDF, 1.76 mb) from a special issue of Topics of Geriatric Rehabilitation (April/June 2011 – Volume 27 – Issue 2, pp. 93-166) on yoga as therapy.

I was even more struck by what Fishman writes in the Foreword of the special issue:

There are few therapies that boast about their side effects. Both medicine and surgery are undertaken because there is a favorable cost-benefit or risk-benefit ratio. The 2 (sic) are placed on opposite sides of the balance of good judgment. In yoga, the side-effects, irrelevant to the actual reasons for its initial adoption, may turn out to be more to the practitioner’s advantage than the primary therapeutic effect! Almost any style of yoga brings with it reduced blood pressure, less obesity, and less back pain, improved range of motion, safe strengthening, reduced asthma and reduced anxiety, better recovery after surgery and chemotherapy and almost stunningly low cost.

Fishman is no stranger to yoga: he practiced in India for three years before going to medical school and has co-authored books on Yoga Therapy. He has a website on sciatica and has several audios of conversations and courses on YogaU.com.

The body is weak

This is going to be quick.

I’ve been sick since mid-day Saturday. A bad case of diarrhea that has deprived me of nutrition, sleep, exercise, and even freedom, thus making it extremely difficult for me to think and write. I also had an allergic reaction to an over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicine that compounded and extended the problem. I thought I had it solved at several points, but I was wrong. Even today, I had to hold off on my trip home from work several hours until I could be sure there would be no accidents.

It was a grueling, gross way to spend a long weekend, commuting between bed and bathroom, sofa and restroom.

I don’t know where I caught it: on Thursday evening when visiting my mother’s nursing home where there have been several outbreaks of gastrointestinal infection? Or early in the week when either my daughter or wife came home from their classes at area primary schools where there’s been an abundance of viral infections? Or just some careless hygiene around the house to set off food poisoning?

Lullaby for insomnia

Photo: yoginis lie face down on mats
Rest can come in the oddest postures

I have one modest task this evening: to prepare for a good night’s sleep. My body clock is out of kilter because of my father’s death (my blog entry announcing his passing was written after I had been woken up at 1:45 am with the news) and the build-up to his memorial service. Now the world seems to be conspiring to deprive me of sleep: my daughter’s alarm clock that I can hear in the basement at 5:00 am, the dogs that insist on taking a leak at 3:00 am, the preparations for the next day that always stretching out until late, the electrical fuse that blows out every two hours until I can fix the issue.

I need to return to something like a normal circadian rhythm. I stopped drinking coffee after 1:00 am, and no tee, just chamomile. No later dinner, nothing heavy (except for that extra slice of brownie). no evening yoga class, no visit to the gym for the thread mill, the stationary bike or weights. I took a sleeping pile soon after. I started dong my yin /restorative yoga poses early. I turned off the TV at 9:15. I am seat in front of the computer now, but I am writing this really boring story about wanting to go to sleep and end my insomnia.

The strange thing is that once I get up and go to work, I do not feel the drag of a bad night’s sleep. I don’t nod off when watching the monitor. I do feel the aches of fatigue and my concentration has been failing me as the day progresses.

Dialing back the yoga

I was feeling too depleted of energy and strength to go to my usual vinyasa flow class with Susan Bowen at Thrive this morning. Although my sinuses have tried up, thanks to the recent rains, I am still hoarse and congested in my lungs. I just have to keep this from developing into something more serious, as it has in the past.

Yesterday, however, I made a point of taking a yin yoga class with Michelle Fry at Thrive. This style of yoga is the opposite of most vinyasa classes: you need to release and relax into pose and hold it for 3-5 minutes. I constantly had to remind myself to pull back my effort, that I did not have to push until I reached my edge. I liked it because it was a kind of yoga lab in which I By the end of the class, I had made up for some of the yoga missing from my life during the week (I had not been able to make it any classes since Sunday).

For the past week, I’ve been treating myself to 20 minutes of spinal twists before I go to bed. I find that the practice releases the muscular tension that I have built up during the day in my lower back. I’ve noticed that I am tighter on my left side and have doubled up the time I hold that side to see if I will eventually even out my alignment.

Excuses on the road to bliss

I don’t know how I do it, but every time I sit down to write something for this blog, something comes up that requires my immediate attention or addles my brain so much that I can’t string words together. This week, I’ve been hit between the eyes by my sinus allergies. Spring is in full bloom here in DC, and my nose is running like a fountain. Last night, I felt as if I had drained out my brain along with the mucus.

This is exactly the kind of blog you’re not supposed to write because who wants to read about why I can’t find time, energy or focus to write. Excuses are plentiful, but they don’t pave the way to enlightenment.