The Practice

Aloha Yogis,

It turns out, it’s quite difficult to send periodic newsletters as a full time PhD student. Who knew? While I had every intention and hope to keep you all up to date on yoga classes, events and also monthly yoga themes, it simply didn’t happen! In fact, I can’t even imagine a scenario in which it could have happened! I spent nearly every free moment studying, I learned a whole lot, and now I am coming up for air to say hello!

Only those of you who I see regularly in yoga classes heard and practiced the weekly intentions with me. Not much has changed for me on the yoga front. Meaning, I am still teaching events, classes, and running trainings; however, advertising this all has become truly a word of mouth process. If you weren’t aware, I am a student again, not just of life and yoga, but at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Here is my last update.

To be honest, there are some differences on the yoga front. In terms of my overall view of the practice, I see it through a new lens. Before going back to school to study biomechanics for my doctorate, yoga for me was an immensely spiritual practice. The postures and alignment cues were truly rooted in the ancient practice and teachings. I thought, if B.K.S. Iyengar teaches Warrior I this way, he surely knows best and I followed suit. Of course, I always offered modifications for students and believed everyone should listen to their body, but I stayed very true to the yogic root origins.

This year, after studying in a cadaver lab for 10-15 hours per week, digging into biomechanics research, and learning all about exercise physiology, it’s not surprising, the big change for me is knowledge. They say, knowledge is power, and I am here to say – it’s true.

I love the practice of yoga and even more so now believe in its healing powers for the mind, body, and soul. No longer is it the same spiritual practice where I trust in the healing powers, in the same way, I trusted in Iyengar’s alignment cues. Now, I know there are healing powers, and I know how to cue specifically to each student.

Most of my teaching this year has been on a private basis. I teach privates with many students, most of whom I’ve taught for many years. There is a reason the ancient practice began on a private basis, everyone is different! My private teaching along with my growing knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics (statistics doesn’t really help here) has been the perfect way to enhance and reinforce my studies.

One area I am really keen to study is balance. Many research studies use a one-legged balance test, and I hope to as well in upcoming pilot studies. Generally with age our bone mineral density declines and so too does our balance ability. This is a disaster combination, because it places us at high risk for falls and injurious falls. Our ability to balance is a skill we can build with practice, one that requires our central nervous system and musculoskeletal system to work in harmony. I will be digging into more research in this area over the summer, but for now, I wanted to leave you with some positive and exciting thoughts.

Just as when you exercise new capillaries sprout as an important adaptation to exercise training (to ensure adequate diffusion for oxygen and nutrients), a similar process takes place in your mind. It is a heck of a lot harder to study, but essentially, our brain ‘hears’ our thoughts  and responds to our work (for example, running or yoga) and shunts or spurs growth accordingly. Meaning, if we think positive thoughts certain adaptations happen, likewise, if we practice half-moon pose, certain adaptations occur. Both occurring in the brain, in different capacities.

My life completely changed after really studying the brain and seeing the cranial nerves and having a-ha moments, as I connected my learning to the practice of yoga. For example, as I connected what I learned about the vestibulocochlear nerve (cranial nerve VIII) to the practice of yoga, I realized it’s one reason why our drishti, our gaze, is crucial to our ability to both balance and focus throughout our yoga practice. In this way, our muscles, our brain, and our focus are yoked. Yoga’s root, yuj, means ‘to yoke’ – meditation becomes the ultimate form of this practice. I could write an entire piece on the brain and mediation. To be brief, meditation has been associated with differences in gray matter brain cortical thickness. Sara Lazar of Harvard University demonstrated this in her study, other researchers has similar findings. Excited yet? Me too.

I’m not going to get into the discussion of stress and cortisol, but as you can imagine when we let this get the best of us there can be deleterious effects on the brain. One of the best antidotes? Exercise. Through neuroplasticity our brain has the ability to change throughout our life. Whether you are learning new facts or kinesthetic movements – your brain is ready to adapt. Aerobic exercise in particular promotes adult neurogenesis, and consistent aerobic exercise over a period of months creates clinically significant improvements in executive function as well as increased gray matter. In other words, our brains are not plastic in the literal sense, but rather, just as our muscles grow and capillaries sprout, so can our brains. Aerobic exercise enhances cognitive function and attenuates age-related deterioration of the brain. Here are a few articles to get you started (1234, enjoy!).

Can we all just agree to get moving? For these reasons, I made sure to sweat nearly every day this year, even on my busy days. The night before finals, I hit the track. I walk to and from school, every day. I am in the practice. I hope to see you on the mat soon!

Deep breaths and Sun Salutations,

laura mary

Photography by Lululemon.

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