December 2008 – Ashtanga Yoga Benefits

Ashtanga Yoga Benefits

  • Muscular Skeletal System
  • Digestive System
  • Circulatory System – Blood and Lymph
  • Nervous System

Too often in our yoga practice we forget the purpose of the postures and mis-direct our effort to attaining the form.  This month we will focus on the benefits of the postures on the different systems of the body; the musculoskeletal system, the digestive system, circulatory system, and nervous system.

Yoga and our Muscular Skeletal System
The standing poses focus on our musculoskeletal system; helping to open and prepare the body for the deeper work of the seated poses.  The seated poses too will help with flexibility and strength in the body although their focus is more on internal cleansing.  The flexibility and strength developed by this practice is the external work on the body; a strong flexible body keeps us free of pain (especially for sufferers of lower back pain), maintains good posture, and is able to move freely throughout our days.  The practice will counterbalance the movements we do habitually in our daily lives, strengthen weak areas, and stretch tight areas that pull us out of correct alignment.  Stretching also helps to prevent arthritis and the build up of spider-like webs of connective or scar tissue around our joints.  However the main benefit of all this stretching is the release of stress and tension from the body, movement and stretching are one of the best ways to relieve tension, relieving tension helps to remove stress, stress is the number one “killer” of the systems of our body.  Truly the release of stress and tension is the best benefit of the external work of this practice.

Yoga and our Digestive System
Good digestion is the key to good health, if we have poor digestion our body can not break down the food we eat and absorb the nutrients from it.  When digestion is thrown off balance by poor food choices or illness, improperly digested matter becomes toxic and poisons your system—this combined with a sluggish bowel can retain pounds of toxic materials in your body for days!  This build up of toxic matter in the body leads to disease and cancer.

Yoga poses in general increase blood flow to your digestive tract stimulating digestion, they create “space” in your body allowing food to move more easily through our system, they also remove tension and stress from the body, calming the body allowing for more effective elimination.  Forward bending and twisting postures are the most effective for digestion.  In Ashtanga yoga it is the Marichyasana series that focuses on digestion and elimination, not only are we forward bending (mari a/b,) and twisting (mari c/d) but we are doing this with our heel stuck in our abdomen—left heel first to put pressure on the ascending colon, right heel afterward then pressing on the descending colon—remembering the correct order is important otherwise you will be talking shit all day 😉  Boat pose is also for stronger digestion as it strengthens the abdominals and stronger abdominals aid in digestion and elimination—same goes for the bandhas, remaining connected with you bandhas will help stoke the fires of digestion and aid with elimination.

Other tips for digestion off your mat . . .
Don’t eat in your car, don’t eat in a rush, don’t eat standing up (old Ayurvedic saying “if you eat standing up death looks over your shoulder”), and don’t eat when you are stressed or upset — all these conditions interfere with our body’s ability to digest food.
Relax and eat good homemade fresh foods, relax for at least 15 minutes after each meal, preferably lying on your left side—lying on your left side will put gravity in a position to help food move through our digestive tract, also lying on your left side stimulates breath through your right nostril, right nostril breathing is heating further aiding digestion (left nostril breathing is cooling).

Ayurvedic herbs that can help with digestion and elimination are trikatu and triphala, trikatu is a mixture of ginger and pepper and should be taken prior to eating, triphala is a mixture of three fruits and is best taken before bed to aid in elimination the next morning.

rest and digest (lying on left side . . .)

Yoga and Circulation – Blood and Lymph
The circulatory systems comprise mainly of the heart lung system and the lymphatic system.  It is the job of the heart lung system to transport the blood as it collects waste and supplies oxygen and nutrients to our cells, the lymph system removes toxins and waste from the circulatory system keeping us from getting sick—the lymphatic system is our “immune” system.  The lymphatic system does not have a “pump” or heart to pump the fluids and relies on our muscles to contract and expand to move lymph fluids.  This is where yoga is most beneficial as the poses alternatively “squeeze and soak”; squeezing  fluids out of the lymph nodes and various organs of the body, when we release the pose blood rushes into the cells in our body soaking them with fresh oxygenated blood and nutrients.  The binds in the Ashtanga system further accentuate this action by pulling us tighter in a pose, squeezing and soaking the deeper tissues.

Inversions further help the circulatory systems, rarely in our daily lives does our heart pump hard enough to circulate blood through the lower portions of our organs where stale blood and fluid accumulate, when we invert this stale fluid is drained into the circulatory system where it is cleaned and thus prevents disease.  Inversions also support the lymphatic system of the legs, the muscles of the legs are constantly trying to pump lymph fluids upward and get a rest while inverted.

Deep breathing oxygenates our blood better than shallow breathing!  The breathing systems of yoga bring more oxygen into the blood for transportation to all cells; improved circulation will help this oxygen reach your brain improving alertness, memory, and mood.

Specific poses for circulation:

  • In standing poses the lateral wall of the heart is stretched and toned, the bodies major blood vessels are stretched keeping them free flowing and elastic, and the bones of the thighs are stimulated; the body produces marrow and blood cells in the long bones of the body—the femur being the longest is the main center for this production.
  • Kurmasana, Supta kurmasana, and leg behind the head poses in general emphasize blood flow to the heart aiding in prevention of the thickening of the main arteries that support blood flow to the heart and thus are touted to help the body prevent heart disease.

As a result of improved circulation yogis tend to have better immune systems and a better ability to deal with infections and disease than our non-yogi friends.

Yoga and our Nervous System
The nervous system is integral in all other systems of the body!  It connects our brain to every organ, muscle and gland in our body!  A healthy nervous system enables you to meet events that arise in your life with calm and resiliency, it keeps the muscles and organs of our body working at full efficiency, and gives us sharper sensory perceptions.
We have 72,000 nerves or nadis—as they are known in Sanskrit—that carry signals from our brain to our peripheral body.  If we substitute the word prana for motor neuron we find yoga has been teaching neurology for thousands of years!  Whether we use the language of motor neuron traveling through a nerve, or prana flowing through a nadi—it is all the same, only different terminology.

Nerves are bundles of fibers joined together, which are stretched and purified removing blockages during an asana practice improving the neurotransmissions between our muscles and nerves—so yoga poses by removing waste from our tissues improves how our brain and bodies communicate.  Imagine a wire that is corroded, and how the electrical impulse is thwarted by the corrosion; it is the same in our bodies, if our nerves and tissues are clean and clear then nerve impulses, or prana flow smoothly for our body and brain to communicate more effectively.

Yoga also stabilizes the response of the nervous system to stress by releasing tension and by calming anxiety.  The breathing system of yoga has a lot to do with the latter; breathing through your nose invokes the part of your nervous system that cues your body to relax, slows down your heart rate and blood pressure.  Breathing through your mouth stimulates the fight or flight response in the nervous system gearing up our body to run or fight, increasing heart rate, breath rate, cortisol levels in the blood (a stress hormone) and creating tension in our body.

During your asana practice beware to not push too hard or to perform jerky movements, the nervous system is agitated by jerkiness and trembling—so working too hard in a posture will leave your nervous system agitated instead of relaxed and refreshed.

Meditation trains the brain and nervous system to not react emotionally to events, to remain detached and neutral observing and accepting the events in our life as they unfold.  It is our emotions that wreck havoc on our nervous systems!  Learning to control your emotions will have a positive effect on your nervous system.

Second series in the Ashtanga practice is known as Nadi Shodhana or Nerve Cleansing, this series focuses on cleansing our nervous system.  In second series we are deeply bending backward (backbends) and then deeply bending forward (leg behind head postures), this deeply stretches the front and back of the spine allowing fresh blood and nutrients into the spinal cord.  We do this similar movement every time we go from upward dog to downward dog—however these poses are not as intense or deep as the back bending and leg behind head postures of second series.

In primary series, during the seated poses such as dandasana and paschimottanasana Nancy says that pushing through your heels (dorsiflexion  of your feet—moving toes toward shins) strengthens your nervous system.

Other tips for your nervous system based on Ayurveda; the vata dosha is most closely associated with your nervous system, during the winter months (we are currently in the week of Winter Solstice) the vata dosha can get easily unbalanced.  Tips to keep your vata balanced and thus your nervous system calm:

  • Stay warm and hydrated! Winter winds and the dry heat inside our homes dry us out.
  • Eat foods that are warm, moist, and heavy. Higher protein and fat is appropriate for winter, avoid all raw foods including salads, and even beans are best avoided in the winter, although lentils and mung beans are good this time of year.
  • Steaming veggies is better than baking as steam adds moisture, baking dries things out.
  • Oil up! The best time to oil is after your shower before you dry off, sealing moisture into your skin. The best oil for the winter months is sesame oil.
  • Drink ginger tea throughout the day, you can make your own buy slicing up fresh ginger and pouring boiling water over it.

“An agitated nervous system fails to receive the Spirit’s guidance, just as a warped antenna cannot receive television signals properly.”  anonymus

Yoga is a discipline unique in its combinations of body, heart (spirit), and mind focus.  The asanas keep our body healthy and strong with a minimal amount of “grunt”.  The meditation and breathing keep our emotions and nervous system relaxed and healthy, and the philosophy of yoga helps us socially (also an important part of good health!).
Yoga keeps our entire being healthy.  This sure beats taking medications!  Enjoy the natural way of being healthy—in body mind and spirit—with yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga Benefits

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