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Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Longer You Practise Yoga, the Happier and Healthier You’ll Be

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From Monday’s Globe and Mail

When Nina Moliver decided to study the long-term health and wellness effects of yoga for her doctoral research in psychology, one of her professors offered some advice.

“The yoga world doesn’t need more testimonials,” the professor at Arizona’s Northcentral University told her. “The only way you’re going to communicate with the medical community is with numbers.”

Yoga science is a burgeoning discipline, with researchers probing yoga’s effects on everything from stress hormones to skin conditions. But how can a typical four to six-week study capture the benefits of an ancient mind-body discipline that takes years, if not decades, to master? It can’t, Dr. Moliver concluded – so she decided to take a radically different approach that offers the first quantitative look at yoga’s long-term benefits. And the results of her study are promising for dedicated yoginis.

The “gold standard” in medical research is the randomized controlled trial, or RCT. Subjects are randomly assigned to receive either an experimental treatment or a placebo or sham treatment. Yoga fits uneasily into this model: It’s impossible to “blind” participants to which group they’re in, and imposing a standardized protocol runs counter to yoga’s ethic of individual progress.

But the more serious problem is practical. Prospective trials tend to last only a few weeks or months, which means conventional studies are “forever studying beginners,” says Dr. Moliver, who is now a research consultant in Boston. It’s simply not practical to randomly assign volunteers to a yoga practice and expect them to maintain it for a decade.

The alternative is observational studies. Dr. Moliver’s thesis, completed last year, surveyed 211 women who had been practising yoga for as long as 50 years, plus 182 matched controls. Her goal was to search for a “dose-response” relationship between cumulative yoga experience and positive psychological attitudes, perceptions of aging, medication usage and other traits, while using statistical analysis to eliminate confounding factors like age, education, body-mass index, other exercise and processed-food consumption.

“I wanted to see if there were linear relationships, where more yoga leads to more benefits,” she says. “Because the yoga masters make these claims, but nobody has ever tested them.”

Sure enough, the study found that levels of psychological and physical well-being among the study participants were proportional to how long and how often the women practised yoga – a greater dose produced a greater effect.

Interestingly, the most experienced yoginis weren’t necessarily happier or healthier than the happiest and healthiest non-yoginis, at least in the parameters Dr. Moliver was able to measure. “They didn’t find ‘enlightenment’ that others can’t reach,” she says. The biggest differences were at the other end of the scale, in the scarcity of unhealthy or unhappy long-time yoga practitioners.

Unfortunately, one question observational studies can’t address is how yoga works. Traditional yoga teaching ascribes its benefits to prana, a Sanskrit word meaning “vital life” – a concept that’s difficult to measure, and thus, as Dr. Moliver points out, easy to ignore.

Timothy McCall, a doctor and the author of Yoga as Medicine, cites studies investigating more conventional explanations for yoga’s powers, such as its influence on the body’s physiological response to stress, the connection between breathing and the autonomic nervous system, and the emerging evidence that the brain can rewire itself in response to techniques like meditation – “crucial components, though not the whole story, of yoga’s efficacy,” he points out.

Dr. Moliver’s research can’t settle this question, and it can’t conclusively untangle cause from effect. After all, it’s possible that happy people do yoga, rather than the other way around, or that the discipline necessary to maintain a yoga practice over many decades is the type of character trait that leads to a happy and healthy life, with or without yoga.

But such debates don’t undermine Dr. Moliver’s central finding. Whatever the reason, those who make a long-term commitment to yoga tend to be happier and healthier – and the benefits continue to accrue the longer you stick with it.

“There’s no plateau,” she says. “What the masters promised was true.”

What type of yoga is best?

The subjects in Nina Moliver’s study reported following more than a dozen different yogic traditions, including Kripalu, Hatha, Iyengar, Anusara and Kundalini. She found no significant differences between the followers of different traditions – in fact, she says, most people end up taking elements from several traditions to create a program that works for them. So what’s the “essence” of yoga that distinguishes it from, say, an aerobics class? For the purposes of her study, Dr. Moliver emphasized three elements:

Asana: These physical postures and patterns found in yoga are dominant in many Western practices

Breathing: Controlled breathing exercises, or pranayama, link the physical and spiritual realm

Awareness: Meditation and concentration on internal sensations differentiate yoga from most conventional forms of exercise.

Thanks goes out to the  Alex Hutchinson and Globe and Mail  for reporting on the benefits of yoga.

Ask the OG Team…

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You asked: I experience muscle cramps, can a shift in my diet help? 

We asked OG’s Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Kate Leinweber.

Make sure you are drinking enough water. Dehydration can show up physically as pain and tightness in the calves. If you are drinking reverse osmosis filtered water add a few grains of Himalayan salt to re-mineralize. Minerals are required to properly digest, absorb, and assimilate the water.

Minerals are key in the contraction and relaxation of our muscles. Magnesium in particular is related to the act of relaxing the muscles. Muscle cramps, twitches, and poor sleep can be signs of a magnesium deficiency. Foods high in magnesium include buckwheat, oats, whole wheat, artichokes, almonds, and cooked spinach. Cooking with homemade soup stock is a natural way to supplement the full spectrum of minerals.  Good quality magnesium comes in a supplement as well a tea called Natural Calm found at any health food store.


You asked: Why do I crave sweets when I am stressed or tired? What can I do to lessen these cravings? 

Carbohydrates are the fastest form of energy we can provide our body. When we are stressed we burn more calories and can crave sweets, and when we are tired we crave sweets for a quick burst of energy. These situations often arise when our blood sugar is low, but just in taking sugary snacks is not the answer. Simple carbohydrates which include: refined sugar, white flour and white rice, cause a spike in our blood sugar and then a rapid crash afterwards. This fluctuation causes a lot of stress on our pancreas and can lead to a pre-diabetic condition (hypoglycemia).  The adrenal glands also attempt to regulate blood sugar, but over time can result in general fatigue and exhaustion.  If you have been diagnosed with hypoglycemia there are specific eating patterns that can greatly reduce your symptoms.

A diet which includes whole grains as well as a healthy source of fat can contribute to long-term energy sources and help our bodies deal with stress in daily life. Fat provides endurance and long-term energy. A variety of fats are required for balanced energy including unsaturated fats: flax, hemp, olive oil, or avocado, and of equal importance saturated fats found in meat, dairy, or coconut oil.

There are other imbalances in the body that can cause sugar cravings ranging from an imbalance in macronutrient intake to candida overgrowth.  Meeting with a qualified Nutritionist can help you design a simple daily meal plan that specifically helps your body stay in balance.

Thanks Kate.

Kate’s holistic model empowers each client with knowledge of how whole foods can sustain a healthy and whole body.

Let the Beat Go On…

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Octopus Garden is excited to have Anita Katakkar’s drumming beats accompany our Friday 630 to 800pm Level 1-2  class, lead by Alix Bemrose.  We asked Anita to share her take on drumming in a Vinyasa class and how it can deepen your practice.

I have two practices: yoga and playing tabla (the premiere drum of North India). I’ve practiced yoga for the past 9 years and have played tabla for the past 16 years. I think that I’ve deepened my yoga practice through my tabla practice and vice versa. In my experience my yoga practice is the most powerful when I dedicate it to someone else. Similarly, the best musical sessions that I’ve had with others are when my only agenda is to completely support them. In both my yoga and tabla practices, I listen to my breathing, and have learnt to pay attention to the emotions that result from the composition I’m playing or the asana I’m taking. I’ve learned the importance of my core and have related the balance of my hands in many yoga poses to the balance of my hands while playing tabla. In both practices, I’ve learnt the importance of separating my non stop influx of thoughts from my sense of self.

Indian music, in general, is largely an improvised art form. In accompaniment (dance, instrumental or vocal) it is the tabla’s role to follow the mood of the person they are accompanying. One of my beloved yoga teachers (Jeannine Woodall) asked me to play for a yoga class a few years ago. I played to a single loop that I burned onto a CD for the entire class. I remember becoming very aware of the energetic levels as the class progressed – it starts out low, then becomes very energetic and flowing for vinyasa and standing poses, then dips for seated poses, rises again for inversions and back bends, and then comes back down for samastithi. I also remember recognizing the equivalent importance of silence and sound.

Since then, through developing my accompaniment style to yoga, I try to honour the need for space while also trying to capture the mood exuding from the class. My weekly residency with Elke Shroeder in 2009 – 2010 allowed me to develop my accompaniment style to where it is today. Elke liked to link breath to movement for part of the class and then in the other part, she let this link go. Playing for yoga class is not an exact science, which I love, because it allows me to explore a creative side that etiquette does not allow for when playing classically. My other non traditional outlet is my solo project Rakkatakwhich merges Indian classical rhythms with instrumental melodies and electronic soundscapes.

When accompanying yoga, in addition to my tabla, I bring in a laptop and loop a plethora of samples including drones, beats and melodic samples. Going forward on Fridays, I’m playing weekly with Alix Bemrose at Octopus Garden and am excited to see where it will evolve to next. Hope to see you out!

Ask the OG Team…

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You asked: Should I have a shiatsu treatment before or after yoga?

We asked Carol Culhane, Shiatsu Therapist at Octopus Garden Holistic Yoga Centre.  Carol has over 10 years of experience in both practising and teaching shiatsu.

Often in our busy lives as we try to fit in self-care, family and friends, meditation, working overtime, our yoga practice, cooking healthy food, and the many other things that simply must get done we can do them in an order that is not beneficial.

The simple answer to this question is it is best to have a shiatsu treatment after yoga.  To understand why this is the case, it’s helpful to understand what is happening during a shiatsu treatment.

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage based on the same principles as acupuncture.  The basic concept is that energy or Qi flows in certain pathways of the body.  The Qi can be accessed at acupoints and they have particular actions on the body.  For instance, to help with a headache a shiatsu therapist can use points on the hand or the inside of the calf.

Qi can sometimes get stuck.  Shoulder and upper back tension is a common example of this phenomenon.  When Qi is unblocked in stuck areas flexibility is increased and pain and tension in the body are lessened.

Qi can also be lacking in some areas such as in the case of a low back ache.  In the course of a shiatsu treatment the therapist reinforces or tonifies the Qi in areas where it is lacking.  This decreases aching sensations and improves circulation and healing in these areas.

This rebalancing is achieved in shiatsu by using appropriate points and meridians (lines of Qi), differing levels of pressure, stretches and using holding techniques to rebalance the Qi.

Interesting, but how does that feel? 

The most common reaction to a shiatsu treatment is a feeling of deep relaxation, a slight ‘spaciness’, and a desire to rest.  This is because the Qi flow has been changed and the body is working to adjust to this change.  After some rest, food, and water the benefits of a shiatsu treatment can be solidified and integrated in the body.

A vigorous yoga practice directly after a shiatsu treatment places a bit too much strain on the Qi system when it is trying to integrate these changes.  A return to vigorous practice the day after a treatment or, where appropriate, with several hours of rest is very beneficial.  The timing is dependent on the individual and the reaction to the treatment

That said it may be appropriate for an individual to take a restorative class after shiatsu or do some gentle asanas that feel appropriate for your body.  Gentle yoga practice can compliment this change in Qi flow while at the same time being restful.  It is very important to honour how we feel and listen deeply to what the body has to say.

The best case scenario is to schedule your shiatsu treatment after your yoga class.  In this way you can increase the positive health benefits of both shiatsu and yoga.

Carol Culhane has been practising shiatsu for over 10 years.  She has taught both introductory and professional therapist level shiatsu and is a Board member of the Shiatsu Society of Ontario.  Carol is grateful and excited that through her practice she is able to deeply connect with her clients and assist their healing.

Carol’s other talents include juggling, strumming her guitar Lucy and following her Mother’s tradition of cooking while never quite following the recipe.

Thanks Carol!

A Moment of Gratitude

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As I sit on my porch rubbing my pregnant belly I am thinking about teaching my last class at Octopus Garden before I welcome this little person into the world this July. I am struck by the gratitude I feel for my yoga practice and the Octopus Garden community. This baby has been so blessed to have soaked up week after week the effort and joy emitted by the students at Octopus Garden during their practice, students in my classes as well as the time I have spent on the mat.

I am particularly grateful to Pat and Scott for taking the immense leap of faith manifesting their vision of a yoga-healing centre this past year. My gratitude towards them stretches back to 2005 when I moved back to Toronto and coincidently they started their Octopus Garden journey. From the very beginning I was welcomed with open arms and encouraged to blossom as a student and teacher under their guidance. This environment of support is one of the true gifts they have given to me over the last six years. I feel honoured to have had a teaching position in their new home on College Street. To the friends I have made from teachers to students I am grateful to have met such wonderful and open souls. Lastly I am thankful for all the students who have come to my class and have allowed me to guide them through their practice. It has been a gift to me to be led by you.

When I think of the Octopus Garden family it feels like a special place in the city where I come to be myself and surround myself with like-minded people. I hope my children have the opportunity to experience spaces in their lives to feed their spirits, strengthen their bodies and calm their minds. This is the gift of the Octopus Garden community and the lesson I soak up each day I walk through the front door.

Namaste,
Elisse Peltz was introduced to yoga in high school when she stumbled upon a yoga instruction manual in her parent’s library. Her experiences since then have only deepened her belief that yoga has the ability to strengthen, rejuvenate and heal the human spirit

In 2004, she became a certified instructor at Yoga People in New York. Elisse has since completed a Restorative Teacher Training at Yogaspace in Toronto, the teacher training at Octopus Garden and she became a certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy Practitioner.

Elisse provides psychotherapeutic counselling for children, youth, adults and families where she combines her passion for yoga with traditional psychotherapeutic techniques. She has taught at Twist Yoga, Octopus Garden and Yogaspace studios as well as schools, boardrooms, weight loss clinics and in people’s basements to encourage accessibility for all types of people. Elisse has had many amazing teachers who have guided her along the way. Currently, her most influential teacher is her two-year-old son Izzy.