Yoga makes you taller

This week a student came to class telling me that she had read that yoga would make you taller. She had read a news article about research that showed that 100% of the participants in a study got taller doing yoga. I found that astounding. Could it really be true? 100% of the participants got taller? I went in search of the data. And she was right.

Dr. Jinsup Song conducted the research at a Temple University. He studied 24 women over 65 years old who had not been active before the study. He introduced an Iyengar Yoga routine to the group. They worked on a set of poses that Mr. Iyengar prescribed specifically for this study. Dr. Song describes the practice as a ‘very basic regimen” and contrasts it with more active yoga practices in other studies. The women were observed over the course of 9 weeks. At the end of the 9 weeks all of the women were one cm or more taller than they had been at the beginning of the study Dr. Song believes that postural improvements account for their increased height in the participants.

They also showed significant improvements in gait, posture, flexibility, and strength. They carried their weight more effectively on their feet. They had a faster stride with fewer falls and stumbles. This later improvement is considered one of the most valuable outcomes of the study as falling can be a significant cause of loss of independence for seniors. The participants enjoyed the program and were motivated to continue as they had a better outlook on their day-to-day lives, found the classes engaging and missed it when they couldn’t attend.

I mentioned the study to my students this week. And they all shook their heads in agreement. They started telling me their stories of improved health. Here are some reports of the benefits my yoga students have found from their practice:
“Yes, I am taller now.”
“My doctor measured my breathing, and I have more breath volume than I did before I started practicing.”
“I have less pain and I just feel better when I attend.”
“I don’t need to go to the chiropractor anymore, I can take care of my own back now.”
“My neck pain is gone.”

Yep, it’s good for us. Yep, it makes you feel better in your body. Yep, you’ll age more gracefully. Yep, you’ll be more comfortable on your feet.

I’ve written to Dr. Song to find out the specific routine he used. I’ll report more soon.


Asana 101: Take a comfortable seat

One of the things I love most about yoga studios is that they are large rooms with no furniture. We have to create our own support, our own seats. How do we get comfortable on the floor? Do you remember how you sat on the floor in preschool? Most of us were more flexible then, both physically and mentally. Now we sit in chairs all day. Chair posture makes our hip flexors short and weak; our low backs concave, our hamstrings short. One result of sitting in chairs all our lives is back pain. Another result is a separation from gravity and the direct support of the earth. In most yoga classes we get down on the floor. Here’s how:

Begin with a simple cross-legged seated posture, Sukhasana: Easy Pose. Or, as Asana is more correctly translated seat, “Easy Seat.” In spite of its name, this is not an easy seat for everybody.

To make Sukhasana comfortable, grab a couple firm blankets and a couple foam blocks and come to your yoga mat. Fold the blankets carefully, to form a rectangle large enough to sit on. Set the blankets on the floor so that the clean folded edges are stacked directly on top of each other facing the front of the room. Sit down on the blankets and cross your legs in front of you with your feet on the floor under your thighs. You want the blanket stack high enough that your ankles are comfortable and your knees near the height of your hips. If your knees are much higher than your hips, then add some more blankets to your stack so that you can begin to bring them level. Use the foam blocks (or additional blankets) to provide support under your knees. Your inner thigh muscles will be more willing to release and lengthen if there is something for them to release into. Thin blankets can also be used as additional cushion under your ankles. You can practice without props if you can comfortably maintain a neutral spine without pain in knees, hips or low back.

Let your upper arm bones fall straight down from your shoulders. Bend your elbows and rest your hands on your thighs. Now close your eyes and notice how you feel. Make any small adjustments you need to find comfort and ease. Notice if your weight is balanced equally right and left on your sitting bones. I like to wobble around on my sitting bones and then find center again to bring my pelvis into alignment. Once you feel clearly centered begin to notice your spine. As you inhale, make space in your spine, realign, grow taller. As you exhale reconnect to the earth directly through the sitting bones but don’t slump. You want to allow the natural curves of the spine while creating as much height as possible.

Sukhasana is a great pose for breathing exercises and sitting meditation. You can add a forward bend to Sukhasana and you’ll get a great outer hip stretch and hip rotator stretch. You can take your fingertips to the floor behind you and add an upper back backbend and heart opener. And finally, you can turn this pose into Parvatasana by interlacing the fingers and extending the arms alongside the ears toward the ceiling thereby stretching your shoulders.

As the pose becomes familiar and your inner thigh and hip flexors lengthen and become at ease, you can graduate to Half Lotus, Ardha Padmasana. Begin in Sukhasana. Slip the outer shin forward and lift it up and over the other shin. Rest the foot of the lifted leg onto the opposite thigh and then rest both your knees back toward the floor. Your half way to lotus pose!


Taking Yoga off the Mat

Dear Yogini: I feel great when I’m in class, but I can’t seem to take my yoga with me out to my life. How do I make that shift? ~~ A Friend

Dear Friend: In the second chapter of the yoga sutras Patanjali tells us that the tools of yogic awareness are: discipline, self study and devotion. Our commitment to these tools may be easy when we step onto our yoga mat. We arrive on the mat for a purpose. We set aside our concerns and our worries. We move through asana practice. We breathe. We have discipline, self study and devotion together in a tidy package during yoga class.

Life is messier. Our worries, concerns and challenges have to be dealt with. My child has a fever, it snows on the new plants, an employee doesn’t show up for work and I get cutoff in traffic. The pressure builds and I lose my calm abiding center. I swear and yell and don’t feel like a Yogini at all. I judge myself for my actions.

Maybe in this moment I have no discipline and no devotion to draw upon, but I can begin to practice self study. I can invite my witness, my observing self, into the moment rather than my self critic and judge. I see that I am stressed. There is too much going on right now. That simple observation will let off some of the pressure. I remember to breath. I focus on my exhalation, letting go of all the air in my lungs and then take a long slow full breath of fresh air.

That full breath is a natural place for devotion to arise. I say a short prayer: ‘help’ or ‘thanks’ will do. I continue to breath. When I get out of the car I take a moment to stretch or walk, I practice some form of simple asana, appropriate to the place. No one else needs to know what I am doing. As I become aware of what my needs are in the moment then discipline can arise and I can practice yoga in the moment. My calm abiding center begins to return.

I create a short portable yoga practices: breathe, a simple movement, a prayer. I reflect on what is happening that pushes me to the edge and then I see if I can find balance even there. I have been practicing challenging balance poses in class, but the balance we need to find in life can be much more difficult.

Sometimes I fail magnificently. I cry or laugh or scream. Then I brush off the emotional crumbs, make a apology, and try again. Yoga is a practice after all. We will never perfect Yoga. We just keep practicing.