Tag Archives: illness

Yoga as medicine gets a bad review

Brian Palmer is Slate‘s chief explainer and tackles the claims that yoga is medicine for many medical conditions.

Slate Does therapeutic yoga work? The best studies say no, but they don’t get much press..
Doctors eventually realized—most of them, at least—that prayer didn’t fit well into a clinical trial. Yoga doesn’t, either. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do yoga. By all means, do yoga, pray, and eat lemons, if those things bring you contentment. Do yoga especially if it’s your preferred form of exercise—exercise is a health intervention supported by thousands of clinical trials. But recognize the “yoga as medicine” craze for what it is: an indicator of the zeitgeist, not a scientific discovery.

I’ve commented on the trend towards prescribing yoga for all kinds of ills and flaws. Much of it goes back to the inception of modern yoga in India when its early advocates wanted to validate yoga within a Western, medicalized framework. In the States, the application of yoga as a therapeutic tool has also help it makes inroads into mainstream culture. There’s been a lot of bad science done around yoga therapy, which has compounded the problem. It’s hard to run standardized, double-blind studies on a massive scale on a practice that should be tailored to individual bodies.

But I also think that all this talk about yoga addressing medical conditions is wrongheaded. The practice of yoga is aimed at wellness, the holistic utilization regulation and balancing of bodily systemic functions (myofascial, neurological, circulatory, lymphatic, and others). You could focus a session exclusively on lower back pain, but the asanas and vinyasas would not affect just the lower back, but the whole body. The effects would be accumulative over time, not something like a round of antibiotics. In addition, yoga addresses mental states that Western-style exercise ignores and have a huge impact on well-being.

This article is the latest wave of skepticism about yoga, mindfulness and other things vaguely New Agish. You should also check out The Mindfulness Racket: The evangelists of unplugging might just have another agenda by Evgeny Morozov, a senior editor at The New Republic. He’s actually talking about another trend, the recommendation that people should unplug from their stress-inducing devices because Western society is too hyper-wired and needs to stop multitasking. The mindfulness thing gets lumped in because unplug advocates frequently cite that mind state as the counterweight to multitasking.

Yoga and football players! What about the desk jockeys?

In the wake of the Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory with the “aid of yoga and meditation,” I unphased by the chatter on blogs and online media about this being a turning point for the acceptance of yoga into mainstream America:

NY Times Title for the Seahawks Is a Triumph for the Profile of Yoga
Men and athletes doing yoga is not new. Basketball’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an early proponent, as was the tennis star John McEnroe. Most recently, Andy Murray credited part of his recent tennis success to Bikram yoga. Stanford’s football team has incorporated yoga into its training program.

Every training season for every major sport has a surge of news articles about coaches, trainers, physical therapists and the players themselves taking to yoga to gain an edge or prevent injury. Even if asanas may not be explicitly part of a training routine, you just have to look at the warm-up  exercises (stretching)  to see that yoga has been assimilated by the modern physical conditioning disciplines.

Photo: yoga class in Warrior 2 pose
Jenny St. Clair leads her sequence of poses, including Warrior 2, a pose that is a lot harder than it looks.

I am far more deeply concerned about grandmas, plumbers and desk jockeys who would have to catch on to the glaring truth that physical exercise—preferably yoga, but even a 30-minute walk—would instigate a dramatic shift in their quality of life. One of the most eye-opening experiences during my yoga teacher training this past summer was the demo class that we put on for “friends and family.”  Bless their souls for venturing into a yoga studio in support of my classmates. Many of those novices had serious difficulty getting down to and up from the floor, much less doing a downward-facing dog or triangle pose. Several of them had to leave the room after 20 minutes.

I am not looking down my nose at them because I’ve been practicing yoga for 10 years or am a few hours away from being certified as a teacher. The past six months have been a humbling experience for me because I have seen how easily my “command of yoga”  slipped into a tenuous toe-hold on the mat. For any one, an injury or illness provoke a sharp drop-off in well-being and resilience.  Fortunately for me, I could fall back on meditation, pranayama, self-massage, restorative yoga and other approaches to keep a handle on my mind-body connection. I had an acupuncturist, body worker, chiropractic, ayurvedic healer and physicians to help me.

Who should yoga evangelists be preaching to?

Yoga advocates don’t need to get giddy about which sports team or star athlete is sweating in a Bikram class. They need to convince senior citizens and keyboard (white-collar) workers  that even simple routines can improve their flexibility, balance and body awareness, as well as assist the body in fighting off disease and the brain in holding off cognitive decline.

By the way, yoga may have given some kind of competitive edge to the Seahawks over the Broncos, but it won’t compensate for the fact that the players are bashing each others’ brains out and twisting their limbs in configurations that exceed any asana’s potential to mortify the flesh. Any for my own defense, I did yoga while watching the Super Bowl came until I became so bored with the game that I decided to sort my socks (I was far more focused matching pairs).

Yoga DorkSeattle Seahawks Changing Future of Football with Yoga and Meditation and Official Super Bowl XLVIII Yoga Game! and Super Yoga Bowl XLVIII: Seahawks vs Broncos

Yoga Confluence: Yes, the yoga team won the Super Bowl

Looking aging in the face and on the mat

Photo: Michael moves into full wheel pose, with aid from friend and Desirée
Urdhva Dhanurasana or wheel pose. My friend Glenn Buco helps move deeper into the pose. One of my better days from three years ago

I’ve been a bit swamped by my new job, to the point that I haven’t made it to many yoga classes, visited the fitness center or stepped up my home practice to make up for these shortcomings. I’ve been swept up in the new work demands, the fresh challenges, my enjoyment of accomplishing my tasks and exceeding my goals. Just because I am happy at work does not mean that there’s no stress jazzing my metabolism.

Last weekend, I went to a couple of yoga classes and it came crashing down on me at the end of class. It was hard! My jammed wrist kept me from doing any but the minimal weight-bearing on my arms.  My months-long battle with bronchitis and sinus infection has sapped by stamina and strength. The holidays had provided further distractions, with my son visiting from California and family celebrations around the dinner table. I added another five pounds, weight that was resistant to remove in a quick and painless way.

Continue reading Looking aging in the face and on the mat

A few thoughts on my 64th birthday – health, resilience and the future

Yesterday was my 64th birthday. I did not get to spend it as I would have wanted. I’ve been held back for the past four weeks by bronchitis, which has lingered longer than expected. I had been hoping that the condition would fade away as my body rallied its resources to respond to the illness and restore me to health. It didn’t happen. Although I got my voice back (I was practically aphonic in the first days), my chest developed asthmatic conditions.  I could still slog through daily activities (I made a trip to Florida), but I ended up being exhausted at the end of the day.

Photo: Michael Smith seated on a Caribbean beach - 2008
An old shot on the beach at St. Johns, Virgin Islands in 2008

This week, I finally forced myself to see my doctor, who prescribed a round of antibiotics and an inhalant to help me breathe. The past few days, it’s been a throwback to my childhood. I had an allergy that manifested itself as hay fever, asthma and skin rashes. I can remember being pulled out of my primary school classes to go to the doctor for my monthly injection. Being asthmatic affected how I approached physical activity.  I could never fully trust my body so I never pushed it to its limits. I was timid at sports. I was among the last one picked when dividing up to play neighborhood sports. By ninth grade, I had ruled out the prospect of participating in competitive team sports, and turned to choir, drama, and debate as extracurricular activities (My senior year I decided to join the first soccer team at my school, but that’s another story). By the time I went to college, I did not need my allergy shots and could manage my allergies with antihistamines. My asthma and skin rashes had gone away. Continue reading A few thoughts on my 64th birthday – health, resilience and the future

An anniversary, illness, injury and spiritual practice

September 5 was my 39th wedding anniversary so Teresa put a air ticket in my hand and we headed off to Boca Raton, Florida, to spend a week together. I owed it to Teresa because I had been isolated (in mind and body, at least) for a month doing my yoga teacher training at Thrive Yoga. Now Teresa got her chance to get my exclusive attention.

Photo: couple sitting on the beach with waves in background
Our 39th anniversary found us in the Boca Raton beach, enjoying the Florida surf and sun.

Of course, there were other complications. The week before, I came down with acute bronchitis, which kept me pretty debilitated and hoarse for most of a week. I had to give up yoga classes. Even when I was in Florida, my breathing was wheezing whenever I did anything too strenuous. I had to be careful doing my restorative practice in the evening because I felt the phlegm bubbling in my chest when I was laying down, and it would frequently provoke coughing. Luckily, I was still able to walk around so that was our main activity in Boca Raton.  There were lots of jellyfish just off the shore, which discouraged us from spending a lot of time in the water. On our last day, the winds and tides seemed to clear waters of the jellyfish so we could spend more time swimming. Continue reading An anniversary, illness, injury and spiritual practice

Bad week for mind-body connection

I’ve been dealing with a cold all this week. I spend Wednesday in bed, and today I tried to get up for work, but my body gave out as I was preparing breakfast. I went to work on Tuesday, and spent most of the day feeling brain dead. All of my faculties were focused on how bad my body was feeling so I could not concentrate on my work. This is a case of where the body’s feedback to the brain is dominant. With so much time spent nursing my cold I can feel some of the gains of my 40-day renewal slipping away.

What made matters worse was that Monday evening and Tuesday morning, I found myself confined in a Red Line Metro train (or waiting) for 90 minutes  each time because of technical difficulties that disrupted my commute. Monday, I did not get back in time for a yoga class (I wasn’t feeling sick yet).

Coda: I went back to work on Friday and felt as if I was dragging my body around the whole day. I dread my next class on the mat because I am definitely depleted.

Another 40-day challenge and flu-like symptoms

I decided that I wanted to pick up a challenge from a year ago, and use it to revitalize my yoga practice. But I did not count on the flu epidemic giving me a glancing blow.

Last year, I signed up for the 40-day Renew program at Thrive Yoga, and about 30 days into the effort I injured by my iliopsoas/hip flexors and I had to stop short of completing the whole program. The injury set off a long period of investigation, healing, recovery, restrengthening, re-injury and starting all over again. It seemed to stretch out over the whole year. I learned some lessons, and I had to recruit of whole team of specialists to deal with the specific condition, but other complications.

Another opportunity

This time, I hope to tackle the 40-day renew challenge more mindfully, more aware of my body,  less aggressively, less mechanically. I certainly need to improve my physical conditioning and stamina to embrace my yoga practice more wholeheartedly. This year, David and Susan Bowen signed up 18 people to go through the program, several of them for a second time, like me. We make a commitment to practice yoga six days a week (three times in class, at a minimum), meditate twice a day (starting at five minutes each teaching, increasing by five minutes each week), studying course materials, sharing our experience among ourselves and seeing how a focused practice can make a shift in our minds and bodies.

Last weekend, I started out taking a vinyasa class on Thursday, and then sat crosslegged for the 40-day renew orientation session.  On the weekend, I took Susan Bowen’s 2/3 vinyasa class, which always challenges, and this time around she focused on the hips. I took a hatha class on Sunday. I felt sore and exhausted by the end of day.

Other forces intervene

On Wednesday evening, I reached home with the intention of going to class at Thrive, but I seemed to turn into a zombie, walking around the house pointlessly, trying to pull together my kit and get changed. I sat down and my wife put dinner in front of me and I ate, thus ruling out a yoga class immediately afterwards.

The next morning, I heard the alarm go off, turned it off a couple of times but could not get out of bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, with clear symptoms of exhaustion, muscle and joint pain and loss of appetite. I got out of bed the next day, but called off work again. Yesterday, I was feeling better. I had my flu vaccination in November so I guess I got an indirect hit from one of the flu strains, dodging the bullet of the worst flu symptoms, like a cough, a runny nose. It may have something completely different, a cold or virus. I may have been fighting it off for some time, and my defenses collapsed.

So today I went back to Thrive for a restorative yoga class, restarting my 40-day renew initiative even more modestly than I had planned. Carla Kasun starts off her class with a light hatha sequence to get the muscles warm. Within 20 minutes, I was gasping for air and had to seek relieve in child’s pose. I was flabbergast at how low the flu had laid me. Luckily, the second half of the session, I was flat on my back. I am going to have to be careful about how I stress my body during this 40 day renewal because I am starting from a low baseline.

I have kept up with my home practice, but scaled back and more inclined towards restorative poses and hip-openers. I also keep up with my pranayama and meditation, which I think may have mitigated my symptoms.