After the class gratefully exited locust the other night, the teacher chastised us all for kerploping our four limbs to the ground. Lower them slowly instead, she said. Make the motion weight-bearing. Don’t give in to gravity. Instead of taking that moment to be lazy, to let your legs and arms drop fruitlessly, exert muscle against gravity, lower them slowly, like barbells, using the opportunity given by gravity to grow strong.
“Don’t give in to gravity,” is a strategy that maxs out your postures. In triangle, for example, holding the torso aloft, so that the spine is a straight diagonal with the back leg, is far harder work than letting it curl down. Half the point of balancing stick is to resist the torso’s inclination to succumb to gravity and topple to the floor. Indeed every one-legged posture doubles the exertion against gravity, and the point is to bear that doubled weight and not give in.
Along with conquering gravity with muscular force, yoga also conquers gravity by toning the body, enabling it to resist gravity’s downward drag. After age 40, the spine shrinks half an inch per decade. But this is not biology, not inevitable. It is caused by gravity compounded by laziness. Stretch the spine with yoga—and Bikram yoga focusses on the spine—and gravity will literally not lower you. (And if you do headstands, those spongy discs in your spine get a chance to decompress and plump up, keeping your height.) And every teacher or blogger who extols yoga as the fountain of youth mentions the sag it reverses, how it prevents the drooping and pebbling that gravity inflicts on thighs and arms.
If yogis don’t give in to gravity in our postures, and our bodies don’t give in to gravity because of years we commit to our practices, yogis also don’t give in to gravity in our hearts and spirits. As our teachers advice us over and over, “don’t let anyone steal your peace.”
The choice to emotionally or psychologically not crumble or rage at the grave is a choice to not give in to gravity. Crumbling or raging will not change gravity nor the grave. Not giving in is the first step toward thinking, now what, what is the next step given this serious pickle? Thinking, not buckling to the weight or the downward force, while standing straight, feeling tall, and, well, defying gravity.
Score: Gravity, 0; Yoga, 3.
Science knows one thing for sure about yoga: The more flexible your muscles, the more flexible your arteries. And flexible arteries are crucial to heart health.
That is one message I gleaned from the symposium on “Yoga as Medicine,” held Sunday February 8 at Flatiron Studio. Dr. Stacy Hunter, an exercise physiologist and Bikram yogi, overviewed research on yoga, heart health, and her own recent studies on the short-term effects of practicing Bikram.
Hunter showed a fascinating chart from research at Colorado State University on the metabolic rate, heart rate, and core body temperature readings from 19 “experienced Bikram yogis”. These brave lab rats did the 90 minute practice in an “environmental chamber” just a bit bigger than your yoga mat and maintained at ideal studio conditions (105 degree heat, 40 percent humidity. Plus, they were bedecked in all the latest research gear, including a gas-mask-like affair to measure metabolic rate. (Imagine adjusting for that in your balancing stick!)
The data showed just what the teachers tell us. Such as: By the end of the warm up, your heart rate is up. Heart rate and metabolic rate skyrocket during triangle and camel. What else? The highest core body temperature was a perfectly safe 101.6, fever strength but no danger to a well-hydrated body. Perhaps disappointingly for some, calorie exertion peaked at 541, with the average exertion “energetically equivalent to a moderately brisk walking pace.“ To that I say: calories are only a partial measure of what you accomplish in a Bikram session.
Another of Hunter’s studies hints at a most important cardiovascular benefit. “Arteries maintain life,” Hunter explained, and over time, they stiffen: The arteries of an average 40 year old might be half flexible as those of a 20 year old. Yet after just eight weeks of practice, these crucial tubes become more flexible, allowing better blood flow. So far, Hunter has found this effect only in younger participants, but she is optimistic that with longer studies, she will be able to document more benefits.
Bikram points out that time is required to change and heal the body. He will warn the 40 year old: “It took you 40 years to mess your body up, fixing it may take another 40.”
So far, science is on his side. The cardiovascular benefits of saunas and stretching and interval training are well known. Well- designed experiments, Hunter pointed out, that prove the healthful consequences of doing yoga will spur insurance companies to cover your classes, just as when you join a jock and jump gym.
The symposium was presented by “Pure Action,” a nonprofit organization dedicated to “bringing the ancient benefits of yoga to mainstream medicine through scientific research, global education, and community outreach. Their vision? To “Heal the World with Yoga.” Bikram Yoga NYC teacher Jeanne Heaton has partnered with Pure Action to bring classes to rehabilitation facilities for addicts of all kinds.
In her classes, people striving to control their cravings one day at a time learn to build self control “one posture at a time,” Heaton said. She told the symposium audience that yoga one posture at a time was a crucial tool in her own recovery, and she is passionate about sharing her strategy.
One day at a time, one posture at a time, one study at a time, yoga heals. Science is often slow to catch up to the truth, but we are yogis, are we not? We can be patient.