Can practising ashtanga yoga really add years to your life? Sarai Harvey-Smith, well-known London yoga teacher, shares her points of view ...
What is the effect of ashtanga yoga on health and ageing? Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, (Thorsons, London 1966) and Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, (Yoga Publications Trust, 3rd Ed. Bihar, India 1996), both list extensively the health benefits connected with practising certain yoga postures, and I have certainly witnessed students' health issues mitigate or disappear after they start practising ashtanga yoga.
I hear from them how ashtanga has changed their lives, cured health problems, and transformed their psychological landscapes. But is there any research to back this up, anything quantifiable?
The modern postural yoga movement, which was spearheaded in Mysore, India, in the 1930s by Krishnamacharya, is a fairly young and developing phenomena, but one that is growing exponentially in the western world, and I think it is only a matter of time before we start to see research on the long term effects on health of ashtanga yoga.
He found that on average participants experienced 40% increase in hamstring flexibility, 42% improvement in arm strength, and 32% improvement in core stability.
Alice Cardini, 44, a private student of mine for 2.5 years (3 times per week) has since the age of 15, had a heart arrhythmia diagnosis. Over the years she has tried various different medications to manage the arrhythmia, and has annual check-ups, which include an ECG and a 24 hour heart monitor.
For 30 years the heart monitor has shown a significant number of irregular heartbeats during the 24 hour period. She was struck by the recent results of her latest heart check-up.
“On my last visit to the cardiologist, the arrhythmia was virtually gone. I was stunned by the dramatic difference. What changed? What had I been doing that had helped my heart regulate? Yoga.”
The only thing Alice, who has been a regular runner for years, had changed in her life, was her regular yoga practice, and she is convinced that ashtanga yoga, especially the ujjayi breathing, has been instrumental in the regulation of her heart beat.
When originally diagnosed, she was told not to worry about her hepatitis C, that AIDS would kill her first. But now, with the advent of anti-retroviral therapy, her main risk is the damage the hepatitis C will do to her liver, the high risk of liver disease.
Around the time she started treatment for hepatitis C, she started practising ashtanga yoga six times a week, and is convinced that the yoga is what has made her her feel strong and healthy, and importantly helps lessen the strain on the liver of processing all the anti viral drugs. She writes:
“I feel healthier than when I was HIV and HCV negative, and I can do things with my body now at 41 then I didn’t dream of doing in my 20s.
My liver exams have been getting better and better. Even my doctor – who has been trying to convince me to go on interferon for the past 6 years, told me: 'Whatever you are doing keep doing it!'”
Inspiring stories from yoga students and teachers like Alice, Silvia and Charlie convince me there are healing properties to ashtanga yoga, and I look forward to the time when more research is undertaken.
Research topics include yoga and PTSD (studies with veterans), yoga and the brain, yoga and self-regulation (anxiety/depression), yoga for weight loss and the psychological effects on yoga for police recruits.
In terms of yoga and ageing, yoga will help improve the quality of one's life as we age. I asked ashtanga teacher Netta Imber, who did a degree in gerontology, how ashtanga yoga can help.
“By learning new movements and repeating them (ashtanga is great!) we build new connections in the brain and strengthen connections already there, therefore strengthening the brain – very good for memory (that naturally reduces with age) and to help prevent Alzheimer's ... you'll find this in neuroscience”.
Netta explains that yoga helps with a number of other aspects of ageing. That from the age of about 50/menopause, muscle mass starts to reduce, making it more difficult to do things one used to, including balancing.
We also get dry, and to lubricate the joints doing simple movements will help to the fluid in the joints keep moving, and by keeping (or getting) flexible, we are less prone to injuries.
And that osteoporosis effects mostly the wrist joints, spine and hip joints, and activity with resistance strengthens the bones, especially movements of twists, pulling and compression – all of which exist in yoga.
So in conclusion, practising ashtanga can indeed add years to your life, improve the quality of your daily living and offers many wondrous health benefits – physically, mentally and emotionally.