The Physiology of Yoga

The Overlooked Practice: Yin Yoga and Fascial Stiffening
(Part 1 of 3)

The yin and the yang. You likely first encountered this phrase and its
accompanying image at a young age, whether in the form of a friendship necklace or a doodle. The contrast of black and white alone hints at one of its basic definitions of duality. Representing the intention to achieve balance between oppositional energies, the yin and yang can be applied to almost all facets of life. However, finding a harmonious equilibrium is an active, difficult practice, as our environments and predispositions sway us to allow one energy to take precedence over the other. When we allow this delicate balance to shift too far to one side, problems begin to arise. While yoga can be, by nature, a balancing practice, it is not exempt from falling into an uneven equilibrium.

In recent years, yoga has gained momentum and become commonplace in society. At this point, it would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of vinyasa, Bikram, or Baptiste yoga. All of these styles can be considered “yang,” as they are associated with more active practices, which build heat, involve strong muscular engagement, and/or have a fast-paced flow. These practices are energizing, strength-building, and stimulate almost all of our organ systems.

In today’s modern, driven society, which emphasizes achievement, progress, and ambition, it makes sense that this type of practice is very popular. Culturally, we are “doers” and often even look down upon actions or practices that move slowly or don’t demonstrate a large, visible reward. In a vigorous vinyasa class, it is easy to see immediate effects: sweat dripping off your body, an increased heart rate, and muscular fatigue. Additionally, these classes often incorporate more complicated postures, which create the feeling of accomplishment and progress. For these reasons, opposite, balancing practices such as yin yoga, which does not involve much active engagement, are practiced at room temperature, and employ the use of long, passive holds, are often misrepresented as “lazy” or useless. In truth, this logic could not be more flawed.

Yin yoga is not a familiar, muscular type of exercise, but the benefits the practice offers our physiology are invaluable. While yang practices target our muscles, yin exercises our connective tissues. What exactly are connective tissues? While there are many types of connective tissue in the body, yin postures have the most profound impact on our dense, irregular connective tissue, or the deep fascial layer surrounding the muscles and joint capsules. Fascia is a stiff, matrix-like net that provides support for our muscles and joints, as well as biomechanical feedback to the body.

Unfortunately, as technology has progressed, we have transitioned from an active, mobile society to a sedentary society that sits behind a steering wheel, computer, or television screen for the majority of the day. Even with regular exercise, most of us cannot avoid long periods of being sedentary. During these sedentary periods, our body’s intelligence induces adaptations to fit our primary level of activity. Therefore, as our muscles and joints are chronically shortened, our fibroblasts (cells of the connective tissue) read this information and begin to induce biochemical changes in the fascia. These biochemical signals cause increased cross-linking of collagen, a stiff, fibrous component of fascia, which results in shortening and reduction of elastic mobility in our tissues.

tl-fasciaOnce a shortened, tight state is acquired, unfortunately, it is difficult to easily reverse. Unlike our muscle cells, which have a large degree of plasticity and can undergo changes in length somewhat rapidly, facia is much more rigid. This property is beneficial for fascia’s basic function of stabilization, but problems arise when we force our fascia into an unnaturally rigid state due to our lifestyle. When we sit for extended periods of time, facia adapts and hardens into these positions. Locked in these seated, often hunched, positions for most of the day, it is not a coincidence that most complaints of tension, pain, and tightness relate to the hips, lower back, shoulders, and neck. If we do not actively exercise our connective tissue, this problem will only be exacerbated over time, eventually leading to morphological changes, most vividly demonstrated by individuals with a “frozen shoulder” or older individuals with a “hunch back.”
So how can we counteract this facial hardening? An answer lies in yin yoga. In the next post, we will discuss how yin ignites biomechanical feedback and induces biochemical changes to restore mobility and fluidity in the body.
For more information about the author, Jessica Pate, or to view her other blog posts, click HERE.


Featch-a Teach-a: Lauren Messinger

Where are you from and how long have you been in Boston?

I'm originally from Danvers, MA, which is about 20 miles north of Boston. I have bopped all around the city, but my husband and I finally landed in Jamaica Plain five years ago. I wouldn't want to live anyplace else in Boston!

What was your first yoga class like?
It was a hot mess! I had taken some yoga here and there, but what I consider my first "real" yoga class was on January 22, 2007 with one of my favorite teachers, Jacqui Bonwell. It was the morning after my first "real" date with my then-friend, now-husband and it was also my little sister's 2nd birthday. It was truly the perfect storm of three of my greatest loves!

What’s your favorite pose to teach?
I love to teach and assist extended pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). I adore this pose as a practitioner and I think it is so beneficial to every body...whether you melt all the way to your belly or practice it on your back. I Iove when my prenatal mamas set themselves up with a bolster under their hips. You can see the instant relaxation in their bodies! There's always a way to make it work for you!

As a practitioner, what pose makes you cringe?
Warrior 3. (Virabhadrasana). Enough said.

Where can we find you when you’re off your mat?
You can find me running all around JP with my two year old daughter, Penelope, commuting around town on my sweet pink bike, talking safe skin care with Beautycounter, or trekking to the North Shore to soak up the sunshine in Gloucester on Good Harbor Beach. Life is good!

What’s your favorite or the most random song on your class playlist right now?
I'm currently obsessed with a song called Shamanic Dream by Anugama. It's the perfect song for a deep, luxurious savasana!

The Physiology of Yoga

      Soft Belly, A Key to Balanced Health

“Engage your abdominals, draw your low belly in, and harden through the midline.” These are familiar cues to yogis and those practicing any type of physical activity, from cycling to weight lifting to dance. Being mindful of abdominal engagement is important in many movements because it helps stabilize the spine and prevent “dumping” into the low back or lumbar spine. Nonetheless, we walk a fine line in terms of creating a culture that overemphasizes abdominal engagement and strength. True, many of us spend the majority of our day sitting at a desk, not thinking about contracting the abdomen, so we do need to create an active practice of abdominal strengthening exercises. But as with most aspects of life, in order to maintain health we must engage in balancing or opposing practices as well. By actively focusing on softening the abdomen, we are giving our immune and nervous systems the chance to take the spotlight and function at maximum capacity as well. 

Functionally, the nervous system is divided into two main branches: the
somatic (responsible for voluntary actions, such as lifting your arm) and the autonomic (responsible for involuntary actions, such as digestion and dilation of the pupil). While many are familiar with two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic (commonly associated with the “fight or flight” response) and the parasympathetic (or the “rest and digest”) systems,  there is a third branch of the autonomic nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS lies in the abdominal, or visceral, cavity and acts in coordination with both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. It also has the ability to stand alone, harboring intrinsic reflexes that can operate without input from the brain, central nervous system, and autonomic nervous system.

This unique, independent nature sets the ENS apart from other branches of the nervous system and therefore it is often classified as a completely separate system. While the ENS is often understated, its importance is profound. The ENS is intricately connected to our physical and emotional well-being. It is interspersed throughout our entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract; contains more than 100 million neurons (five times the number found in the spinal cord); produces more than 80 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin (a broad acting neurotransmitter influencing mood, appetite, the endocrine system, and cardiovascular system); and 50 percent of the body’s dopamine supply (a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of motivation and happiness).

Problems arise when the ENS is overworked and not given a chance to restore. In our hectic, over-stimulated lives, we can overactivate this system both locally and peripherally. Locally, the GI tract has receptors that translate chemical and mechanical stimuli into enteric neuron activation. While many of us may not be aware of it, most people store tension in their abdomen. Granted, while we might not be actively contracting our obliques and rectus abdominus (our “6-pack muscle”), it is likely we are holding a deep, subtle contraction in our abdomen in response to daily stressors. By simply placing your hand over your belly and focusing on breathing and softening, you will likely notice a change in the pressure and firmness of your abdomen. Overengagement, or too much “clenching,” of the abdominals causes a restriction of blood flow to the organs of the visceral cavity, which limits nutrient delivery and waste removal. Without continuous, fluid blood flow, there is a local build up of chemical messengers, which can exacerbate the issue by generating a feedback signal for our visceral cavity to contract further. When this environment persists, it can lead to chronic pain, as well as digestive distress.

Peripheral stimuli can also affect abdominal tension. In day-to-day life, we encounter various stressors, all of which initiate chemical responses in our bodies. Stress, while actually beneficial in small doses, creates a problem when it is chronic and not managed properly. It causes a central release of certain hormones and immunological factors, such as the corticotropin-releasing hormones, IL-6 and IL-8, which then circulate throughout the body, initiating stress responses in various tissues. A recent study revealed that elevation of these three factors caused a change in the expression of structural proteins in the GI tract, leading to visceral pain and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, these stress hormones have been shown to directly stimulate neurons of the enteric nervous system, which then initiate the aforementioned “clenching.”

blanketrollHow exactly can we help our ENS through yoga? One simple way is to
practice slow, deep, abdominal breathing. Since the ENS works in concert with the other branches of the autonomic nervous system, when we activate the parasympathetic nervous system through controlled breath we also initiate a relaxation response in the ENS. Countless studies have also shown that deep breathing can shift your biochemistry by affecting the levels of stress hormones in our bodies, which has an indirect impact on the ENS by decreasing the stimulatory load on the receptors connected with the ENS. Finally, besides the internal, mechanical influence the rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm has on the ENS, we can also initiate an external, mechanical, relaxation response by laying the abdomen over a bolster or rolled up blanket. By placing external pressure on the abdomen and relaxing abdominal contraction, we force ourselves to release the subtle clench that is chronically maintained in the visceral cavity. This allows for unhindered blood flow, which, in turn, allows nutrients to access the abdomen, removes waste, and causes those mood-boosting hormones, serotonin and dopamine, to start circulating throughout the body. 

So don’t be afraid to soften your belly periodically. Your body and mind will thank you.

For more information on the author, Jessica, visit her profile HERE. 

Yogi of the Month: Russ Pinkham

  Russ Pinkham

Occupation? Equity trader 

Fun fact about you? I have taken flying lessons, piloting a Cessna 172.

Favorite yoga pose? Child's pose! Actually, my favorite is cat and cow pose. Both feel good on my neck and spine. 

When not on your mat, where can you be found?
 I can be found running, skiing in the winter, cheering on
the Patriots, lunching with friends, attending an occasional concert - last one was Lady Gaga. 

How long have you been practicing and what's your latest yoga breakthrough? I have been practicing for about 5 years. My latest breakthrough has been side crow.

How has yoga impacted your life?  A steady practice of yoga allows me to work smarter, to sleep better, and to be more present with family and friends. 

Featch-a Teach-a: Tiffany O-Connell

paschimottanasa_copyWhere are you from and how long have you been in Boston?
I’m somewhat local. I grew up in Franklin (a suburb about 45 miles southwest of Boston.) I left home not long after high school, so I guess this means I’ve been in Boston for over <gulp> 20 years now.

What was your first yoga class like?
It was at a gym, where I eventually ended up teaching my first yoga class. The space was huge, dark and cold and you could hear the music and machines from the gym floor more than the instructor and her music. Still, I absolutely loved it. I knew I finally found something that would still my crazy mind while challenging me physically.

What’s your favorite pose to teach?
This is a toughie to pick only one, but probably revolved half moon (Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana). There’s so much to instruct. I love twisting poses and then you add in the element of balance, core-strength and glute/hamstring strengthening – so good!

As a practitioner, what pose makes you cringe?
Like above, I have a few in mind, but I’ll go with one-legged crow (Eka Pada Bakasana). I can tell when a teacher is sequencing for it too and it frustrates the #@*! out of me because no matter how hard I try I just can’t do it.

Where can we find you when you’re off your mat?
Typically I’m walking, snuggling or playing with my dogs. I also volunteer and foster with a French Bulldog Rescue so I’m often doing something for them.

What’s your favorite or the most random song on your class playlist right now?
It changes quite often, but right now “Ode” by Nils Frahm – It’s so simple and pure. I love the way the room feels in the space between the notes.

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