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Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures: Ancient and Modern Perspectives of Asanas

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Asana (posture) is usually defined as a body posture held with stability and ease by Patanjali. Hathayoga Pradipika emphasises that asana helps bring about stability in health and suppleness of body. As intra-thoracic, intra-abdominal pressure-volume changes affect internal organs and systems, it is plausible that asanas produce changes through mechanisms both local as well as general. This chapter takes a look at various studies that have explored human physiology in relation to asana. Some examples are glucose metabolism, changes in energy expenditure, ventilatory responses, oxygen consumption as well as respiratory, neuromuscular and cardiovascular parameters. It also explores the neuromuscular reflex arcs dynamics that position asana as an excellent system to restore psychosomatic harmony and balance. It needs to be stressed that the actual efforts being made in asana are of a somato-psychic nature while benefits that accrue are of a psychosomatic nature. It is suggested that Hathayoga helps us evolve out of our primitive sub-human tendencies thus developing human and humane qualities.
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Research-Based
Perspectives on the
Psychophysiology of Yoga
Shirley Telles
Patanjali Research Foundation, India
Nilkamal Singh
Patanjali Research Foundation, India
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Names: Telles, Shirley, editor. | Singh, Nilkamal, 1982- editor.
Title: Research-based perspectives on the psychophysiology of yoga / Shirley
Telles and Nilkamal Singh, editors.
Description: Hershey, PA : Medical Information Science Reference, [2018] |
Includes bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017010726| ISBN 9781522527886 (hardcover) | ISBN
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Subjects: | MESH: Yoga | Psychophysiology--methods | Mind-Body Therapies
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Chapter 1
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2788-6.ch001
ABSTRACT
Asana (posture) is usually defined as a body posture held with stability and ease by Patanjali. Hathayoga
Pradipika emphasises that asana helps bring about stability in health and suppleness of body. As intra-
thoracic, intra-abdominal pressure-volume changes affect internal organs and systems, it is plausible
that asanas produce changes through mechanisms both local as well as general. This chapter takes a
look at various studies that have explored human physiology in relation to asana. Some examples are
glucose metabolism, changes in energy expenditure, ventilatory responses, oxygen consumption as well
as respiratory, neuromuscular and cardiovascular parameters. It also explores the neuromuscular reflex
arcs dynamics that position asana as an excellent system to restore psychosomatic harmony and balance.
It needs to be stressed that the actual efforts being made in asana are of a somato-psychic nature while
benefits that accrue are of a psychosomatic nature. It is suggested that Hathayoga helps us evolve out
of our primitive sub-human tendencies thus developing human and humane qualities.
INTRODUCTION
Yoga considers that every individual is not merely limited to only the physical level of existence but is
made up of a multi-fold universal nature. Concepts of pancha kosha (five-fold aspects of our existence)
and trisharira (threefold aspect of our bodily nature) helps understand the multi-dimensional real nature
of the individual, where health results from a dynamic interaction at all levels of existence.
Psychophysiology of
Yoga Postures:
Ancient and Modern
Perspectives of Asanas
Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani
Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth University, India
Meena Ramanathan
Sri Balaji Vidyapeeth University, India
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Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
The sister sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda consider the human body to be made up of seven substances,
the sapta dhatus which are rasa (chyle), rakta (blood), maamsa (flesh), medas (adipose), asthi (bone),
majjaa (marrow) and sukra (semen). Both these ancient health sciences understand the importance of
tridosha (three humors) whose balance is vital for optimal health and functioning. Health is also fur-
ther understood as harmonious balance of prana vayus and upa prana vayus (major and minor energies
of physiological function respectively), coupled with stability of nadis (subtle energy channels) and
harmonious flow of energy through all chakras (major energy centres correlated to the psycho-neuro-
immuno-endocrine axis).
The Hathayoga Pradipika echoes these qualities when Yogi Svatmarama says, “Slimness of body,
lustre on face, clarity of voice, brightness of eyes, freedom from disease, control over seminal ejaculation,
stimulation of gastric heat and purification of subtle energy channels are marks of success in Hathayoga
(vapuh krsatvam vadane prasannataa naadasputatvam nayane sunirmale arogataa bindujayogni diipanam
naadiivishuddhir hatha siddhi lakshanam- Hathayoga Pradipika II-78) (Bhatt, 2004).
Figure 1. Definition of Asana according to Maharishi Patanjali
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Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
In the Patanjala Yoga Darshana we find an excellent description of the attributes of bodily perfec-
tion (kaya sampat). (Bhavanani, 2011) It is said in Vibhuti Pada that perfection of body includes beauty,
gracefulness, strength, and adamantine hardness (rupa lavanya bala vajra samhanana kaya sampat-Yoga
Darshan III: 47).
In the Gheranda Samhita, a classical treatise on Hathayoga, the human body is likened to an unbaked
earthen clay pot that is incapable of holding the contents and dissolves when faced with the challenge
of water. It is only through intense heat generated by practice of yoga that the human body gets baked,
making it fit to hold the Divine Spirit (aama kumbha ivaambhastho jeeryamanah sada gatah yoganalena
samdahya ghata shuddhim samacaret- Gheranda Samhita I: 8) (Bhatt, 2004).
WHAT IS ASANA?
Asana, the third limb of Maharishi Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is usually defined as a body posture held
with stability and ease (sthirasukhamasanam). (Bhavanani, 2011) Hathayoga Pradipika emphasises this
by saying that asana helps bring about stability in health and suppleness of body (kuryat tad asanam
stairyam arogyam ca angalaghavam) (Bhatt, 2004). Though the term pose is also often used, the noted
yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein has referred to it as “poise”. (Feuerstein, 2010) This concept is tenable
as asana seems to begin at the external level but in fact influences the emotions, mind and spirit ulti-
mately. The Tejobindu Upanishad says that asana is a state of the body which gives stability that enables
one to practice long drawn meditation (sukhenaiva bhavedyasminnajasra brahmacintanam āsana
tadvijānīyādanyat sukhavināśanam) (Ramanathan, 2007a).
As the performance of asana can be perceived externally and has similarities to other forms of physi-
cal activity, it has garnered attention worldwide and many researchers have studied effects of this limb
of yoga. However, many adherents to the traditional yoga perspective have lamented the fact that asana
has taken over the ‘Yoga World’ and felt that other aspects of yoga have been neglected in the process
of focusing on body culture alone.
For any posture to qualify as an asana, it can be said that certain pre-requisites need to be fulfilled.
1. It must be stable and held with ease.
2. It must be done with awareness/mindfulness.
3. It should have the potential to bring about changes in the attitude of the practitioner.
In our daily activities, most humans often move only in a few directions, and even those are within a
limited range of movement. In the practice of asana, movements are done in all three planes, enhancing
full range of movement, thus helping retain the ability to perform full and free movements, especially
as one ages.
CLASSIFICATION OF ASANA
According to the Shiva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita it is claimed that there are 8.4 million asanas.
However the text goes on only to describe 32 of them. The Hathayoga Pradipika describes 15 and the
Yoga Bhasya 11, while Hatha Ratnavali and Goraksha Samhita enumerate 84. The general consensus
4
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
in most traditional texts is that the preeminent four are: siddhasana, padmasana, simhasana and bha-
drasana of which siddhasana is further extolled as the best of all (Bhavanani, 2010; Bhavanani, 2014).
Asanas may be classified in many ways depending upon the starting position, nature of performance
and purpose, or individual application of the technique. They are commonly classified into cultural, and
contemplative classes (inducing meditation and relaxation) (Sovik & Bhavanani, 2016) but can also be
classified based on spinal movements as front bending, back bending, twisting, lateral stretching etc.
Another classification based on nature of performance would be: dynamic and static.
Another classification may be made functionally depending on the therapeutic application of asana
(Kogler, 1995):
Asanas for Compensation: Compensative asana promotes general harmonious development of
body by activating insufficiently loaded muscle groups and corrects imbalances of the motor sys-
tem through regular and systematic practice. During intensive training activity, muscle groups are
loaded individually, resulting in partial loading depending on the activity undertaken.
Asanas for Regeneration: Regeneration is a biological process fostered to regain functional abili-
ties and prevent injuries and hence is essential after intensive training as done in sports. The basic
three types of muscle relaxation occurring in regenerative asanas are:
Stretching involving relaxation of shortened and painful muscles.
Post isometric relaxation through active stretching of muscles thus inhibiting motor neurons
thus facilitating deeper relaxation.
Anti-gravitational relaxation using natural resistance against which muscles are isometri-
cally contracted, held firm and then released. It can be done without assistance and deep
relaxation follows the active phase of muscle contraction (spanda nishpanda).
Asanas for Supplementation: Supplementary asanas are an effective means to avoid monotony
and boredom that often occurs in sports / exercise training as it offers a form of active rest by
balancing training load. It can effectively restore energy and provide psycho-physical harmony.
PSYCHOPHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF ASANAS
Different yogic techniques are bound to have different psycho-physiological effects on each and every
cell of the human body. This will of course depend on the various body systems, organs and tissues
involved in the performance of such practices (Giri, 1976). As the role of the spinal column is empha-
sised in yoga, it follows logically that the effects of forward bending postures would be different from
those of back bending ones and these in turn may be different from the physiological effects of twisting
Table 1. Classification of asanas based on starting position
Supine ardha halasana (half plough), uttan padasana (legs elevated), chakrasana (wheel)
Prone bhujangasana (cobra pose), shalabhasana (locust pose), noukasana (boat pose), dhanurasana (Bow pose)
Sitting padmasana (lotus pose) matsyendrasana (spinal twist pose), paschimottasana (forward bend pose), vajrasana (thunderbolt
pose)
Standing trikonasana (triangle pose), veerasana (warrior pose), vrikshasana (tree pose)
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Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
postures. As both intra-thoracic and intra-abdominal pressure-volume changes affect the cardiovascular
system, it is plausible that such asanas will produce changes in the heart rate (HR) and blood pressure
(BP). However, there is a lacunae of studies on such effects and there are few studies comparing cardio-
vascular effects of different asanas (Bera, Gore, & Oak, 1998; Malhotra & Tandon, 2005; Bhavanani,
Ramanathan, Balaji & Pushpa, 2014).
The Swara Yoga tradition (Bhavanani, 2007) emphasises subtle differences existing between energy
flows on the right and left sides (pingala and ida nadi respectively) manifesting through the ultradian
rhythmicity of right or left nostril dominance (surya and chandra swara respectively). Autonomic
function is affected by right-left brain activity (Werntz, Bickford, Bloom, & Shannahoff-Khalsa, 1983;
Shannahoff-Khalsa, 2002) and as there is a sensory-motor crossover relationship between right and left
sides of the body and the contralateral hemispheres, leading to speculation of differences in autonomic
function depending on techniques performed utilising either right or left sides.
Various mechanisms have been postulated to be responsible for beneficial psycho-physical effects
of yoga. Postulates include restoration of autonomic balance as well as an improvement in restorative,
regenerative and rehabilitative capacities of the individual. A healthy inner sense of wellbeing produced
by a life of yoga is believed to percolate down through different levels of human existence from higher
to lower levels producing health and wellbeing of a holistic nature. Streeter et al proposed a theory that
yoga practices reduce allostatic load in stress response systems thus restoring optimal homeostasis.
(Streeter, 2007; Streeter, Gebarg, Saper, Circaulo, & Brown, 2012).
They hypothesized that stress produces an:
Imbalance of the autonomic nervous system with decreased parasympathetic and increased sym-
pathetic activity,
Under activity of the gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA) system, the primary inhibitory neu-
rotransmitter system, and
Increased allostatic load.
They further hypothesized that yoga-based practices i) correct under activity of the parasympathetic
nervous system and GABA systems in part through stimulation of the vagus nerves, the main peripheral
pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system, and ii) reduce allostatic load.
According to the theory proposed by them, decreased parasympathetic nervous system and GABA agric
activity that underlies stress-related disorders can be corrected by yoga practices resulting in ameliora-
Figure 2. Asanas described in Gheranda Samhita
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Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
tion of disease symptoms. Innes et al had earlier postulated two interconnected pathways by which yoga
reduces the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disorders through the mechanisms of parasympathetic
activation coupled with decreased reactivity of sympathoadrenal system and hypothalomo-pituitary-
adrenal (HPA) axis (Innes, Bourguignon, & Taylor, 2005; Innes & Vincet, 2007).
NEURO-MUSCULAR CORRELATES OF ASANA AND THE SPINAL REFLEX ARC
In modern yoga teaching and practice, stretching is the main focus of asana more often than not. This
makes it imperative that we understand the anatomical and neuro-physiological aspects of stretching.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching techniques have become popular and are ex-
tensively cited as the most effective techniques facilitating a greater experience of the stretch itself. PNF
utilizes the shortening contraction of opposing muscles to place the target muscle on stretch followed by
static contraction of the target muscle. This leads to enhanced range of movement (ROM), both active
and passive (Sharman, Cresswell, & Riek, 2006; Funk, Swank, Mikla, Fagan, & Farr, 2003; Feland &
Marin, 2004; Hindle, Whitcomb, Briggs, & Hong, 2012; Victoria et al., 2013).
Stretching in asana involve isometric contraction of various muscles groups and the agonist-antagonist
activity. Muscle spindle stretch receptors are modified muscle cells that act as sensory receptors and are
located within the belly of muscles. They detect changes in length and tonus of the active muscle and
convey this information to the central nervous system (CNS) via sensory neurons. These spinal cord
reflex arcs regulate contraction of muscles, by activating motor neurons via the stretch reflex that signal
active muscles to contract and resist such excessive muscle stretch thus providing an instinctive protection
against over-stretching or tearing. This has practical application in asana practice as it is important one
doesn’t try and force oneself into the asana. If this were to be attempted, the muscles spindle activity
would be intensified and the resultant “block” would prevent us from going further. When we learn to
work with the spinal cord reflex arcs, we can on the contrary help “dissolve” such “blocks” and enter a
deeper state of asana itself. It has been suggested that this can be done by either holding the stretch for
30-60 seconds thus causing muscle spindles to decrease firing or to back out of the posture part-way
thus inducing relaxation of the muscle allowing for a deeper stretch into the asana. For example one
could go into any of the forward bending postures such as padahasthasana or paschimottanasana and
then back out part-way, so that after a few deep breaths one can go into the asana and attain a deeper
and more relaxed “feel” of the asana.
On the other hand, the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) located in the musculo-tendon junction (MTJ)
relaxes a muscle immediately if there has been a sustained contraction lasting longer than 6 seconds.
Thus, it has been suggested that isometric contractions (the hold phase) and concentric contractions
(the contract phase) used immediately before the passive stretch (the relax phase) can help to facilitate
autogenic inhibition that is reflex relaxation occurring in the same muscle where GTO is stimulated
(Sharman et al., 2006; Feland & Marin, 2004).
Another important aspect is that concentric contraction of the muscle group opposing that which
is being stretched, helps achieve reciprocal inhibition that is a reflex muscular relaxation occurring
in muscles antagonist to the agonist muscle where the GTO is stimulated. Reciprocal inhibition is an
example of the Yogic concept of dwandwa or pairs of opposites well exemplified by agonist-antagonist
coupling. When the agonist contracts, the antagonist relaxes and vice versa. This knowledge can be used
to enhance the experience of asana by contracting the agonist to relax the antagonist and deepen the
7
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
posture. For example, in paschimottanasana, the quadriceps would be contracted to relax the hamstrings
through the primitive spinal cord reflex inducing reciprocal inhibition. This can be termed the modern
equivalent to the yogic concept of spanda-nishpanda, activation-relation coupling.
SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH ON ASANA
Glucose Metabolism
Manjunatha and colleagues studied effects of selected yogic postures on fasting and postprandial gly-
caemia and insulinemia in healthy young subjects and concluded that the performance of asanas led to
increased sensitivity of pancreatic β cells to glucose signals (Manjunatha, Vempati, Ghosh & Bijlani,
2005). It was found in that study that performance of four different sets of asanas had similar effects
of reducing fasting and postprandial glycaemia and that blood insulin levels also fell after performance
of the asanas. However, when oral GTT was administered, there was a greater insulin response that
may be interpreted as an enhanced sensitivity of pancreatic β cells to the glucose challenge too. At the
metaphysical level this may imply a dynamic state of balance where one is relaxed, yet ready for any
challenge that may occur.
Energy Expenditure and Ventilatory Responses
Previous studies have reported energy expenditure and ventilatory responses of yogic standing (virasana)
and sitting (siddhasana) postures (Rai & Ram, 1993; Rai, Ram, Kant, Madan & Sharma, 1994). They
reported that virasana induces temporarily a hyper metabolic state characterised by enhance sympathetic
activity that gets inhibited upon the adoption of shavasana (Rai & Ram, 1993). Siddhasana was reported
to be a mild type of exercise as it had higher energy expenditure and ventilatory responses as compared
to supine and chair sitting postures (Rai et al., 1994).
Oxygen Consumption
A study by Telles and colleagues studied O2 consumption and respiration following four yoga postures
interspersed with relaxation and supine relaxation alone, and concluded that the combination of stimu-
lating and relaxing techniques reduced physiological arousal better than the mere practice of relaxation
techniques alone (Telles, Reddy, & Nagendra, 2000). This implies that even though performance of
yoga techniques may seem to be stimulatory in nature; physiological effects in the longer run are of a
more relaxing nature. This is corroborated by a previous study from JIPMER reporting that shavasana
relaxation is enhanced with the addition of savitri pranayama thus decreasing O2 consumption by 26%
(Madanmohan, Rai, Balavittal, Thombre, & Giri, 1983).
Cardiovascular Effects
A study from CYTER, Pondicherry evaluated the time course of cardiovascular changes during and after
performance of different asanas (Bhavanani et al., 2014). Post postural HR and BP both fell below the initial
values during the recovery period and this was consequently seen to be even lower than the responses to
8
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
supine relaxation in shavasana. It was concluded that the effect of supine relaxation is more pronounced
after performance of the asanas, as compared to just relaxing in shavasana. This may be attributed to
a normalisation and resultant homeostatic effect occurring due to a greater, healthier de-activation of
autonomic nervous system occurring due to the presence of a prior activation. One of the extra find-
ings of that study is the revelation of subtle differences between right-sided and left-sided performance
of vakrasana and janusirasasana that may be occurring due to the different internal structures being
either compressed or relaxed on either side. This requires further exploration and studies with a greater
number of subjects and doing asanas in different positions may help unravel basis of such differences.
A previous study on individual asanas evaluated BP of 25 medical students during performance of
sukhasana, vajrasana and dhanurasana and also compared these findings with the supine, sitting and
standing positions (Malhotra & Tandon, 2005). Dhanurasana had highest BP as compared to all other
postures in that study too. The main difference between both studies above is that Malhotra & Tandon
(2005) had measured BP while subjects were in the posture whereas Bhavanani and colleagues measured
parameters before and after the posture along with a 10 min recovery period (Malhotra & Tandon, 2005;
Bhavanani et al., 2014). Subjects in Malhotra & Tandon’s study were not regular practitioners of yoga
while subjects in the CYTER study were undergoing a yoga training programme and had been practising
the techniques for more than 3 weeks at the time of the study.
Bera and colleagues studied the recovery from induced physiological stress in shavasana and compared
it with two other postures (resting in chair and resting supine posture) (Bera et al., 1998). Subjects were
allowed to rest in one of the above postures immediately after completing scheduled treadmill running.
Recovery was assessed in terms of HR and BP that were measured before and every two minutes after
treadmill running till they returned to initial levels. This study concluded that the effects of induced
physiological stress were reversed in shorter time in shavasana when compared to the other postures.
Studies on Sirsasana
Studies on the headstand known popularly as the ‘king of asanas have shown that irrespective of
whether it is done with or without support, there is an immediate resultant sympathetic activation and
2-fold increase in the intra ocular pressure (Manjunath & Telles, 2003; Baskaran et al., 2006). Manjunath
& Telles (2003) in particular detailed heart rate variability (HRV) changes reflecting autonomic tone
and its responses following practice of 2 min of the headstand. It has also been seen that head-down
positions are associated with a rapid rise in IOP in glaucoma and healthy eyes but that IOP returned to
baseline values within 2 minutes (Jasien, Jonas, de Moraes, & Ritch, 2015). Hence it is important that
researchers study the relaxation phase that normally follows performance of headstand in practice and
not focus only on immediate effects.
SAFETY ASPECTS
A systematic review by Cramer and colleagues reported that of 76 unique cases of yoga associated
adverse events, most were related to musculoskeletal, nervous, or visual systems (Cramer, Krucoff, &
Dobos, 2013). They recommended that “beginners should avoid advanced postures such as headstand
or lotus position”. They cautioned wisely that, “it can also be recommended to patients with physical or
mental ailments, as long as it is appropriately adapted to their needs and abilities and performed under
9
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
the guidance of an experienced and medically trained yoga teacher”. Another national survey in Australia
reported that postures most commonly associated with injuries were the headstand, shoulder stand and
variations of the lotus pose (Penman, Cohen, Stevens, & Jackson, 2012). Both Cramer et al., (2013) and
Penman et al., (2012) reviewed numerous reports on injuries following performance of padmasana the
lotus posture and suggested adoption of precautionary measures.
A recent prospective study evaluated safety of asanas in 25 healthy pregnant women between 35-37
weeks of gestation (Polis, Gussman, & Kuo, 2015). Various tests including baseline non-stress test, vital
signs, and pulse oximetry were performed following which the participants assumed the 26 yoga pos-
tures. Vital signs, pulse oximetry, tocometry, and continuous fetal HR monitoring were obtained during
each of the postures. They then obtained post-session non-stress test, vital signs, and pulse oximetry and
participants contacted 24 hours post-session. Both pre-session and post-session non-stress tests were
reactive while there were no changes in maternal heart rate, temperature, pulse oximetry, or fetal HR
post session. During the 26 yoga postures, vital signs, pulse oximetry, and uterine tocometry remained
normal in all women and in all postures and fatal HR across all 26 postures were normal. There were
no falls or injuries during the total cumulative 650 poses and there were no reports of decreased fatal
movement, contractions, leakage of fluid, or vaginal bleeding in the 24-hour follow-up.
A recent study has used biomechanical methods to quantify the lower extremity joint angles, joint
moments of force, and muscle activities of 21 Hathayoga postures (Salem et al., 2013). The study
demonstrated that Hathayoga postures engendered a range of appreciable joint angles, joint moments
of force, and muscle activities about the ankle, knee, and hip, and that demands associated with some
postures and posture modifications were not always intuitive. They also demonstrated that all postures
elicited appreciable rectus abdomens’ activity, which was up to 70% of that induced during walking.
Another study by Wang and colleagues suggested that musculoskeletal demand varies significantly
across the different poses and suggested that their findings be used to guide the design of evidence-based
yoga interventions to address individual-specific training and rehabilitation goals in seniors (Wang et al.,
2013). The Crescent, Chair, Warrior II, and One-legged Balance poses generated the greatest average
support moments while Side Stretch generated the greatest average hip extensor and knee flexor joint
moments of force (JMOFs). Crescent placed the highest demands on the hip flexors and knee extensors.
All of the poses produced ankle plantar-flexor JMOFs. In the frontal plane, the Tree generated the great-
est average hip and knee abductor JMOFs; whereas Warrior II generated the greatest average hip and
knee adductor JMOFs. Warrior II and One-legged Balance induced the largest average ankle evertor and
invertor JMOFs, respectively. The electromyographic findings were consistent with the JMOF results.
ASANAS AND DOSHA-S
The tridosha theory of health and disease that developed during the late Vedic period is common to
virtually all traditional Indian systems of medicine. Health is understood to be the balanced harmony
of the three humours in accordance with individual predisposition while disease results from an imbal-
anced disharmony. This is found in numerous classical texts of Yoga and Ayurveda like Shiva Swaro-
daya, Sushruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita and Tirumandiram. According to the Dravidian poet-saint
Thiruvalluvar, disease results from imbalance of tridoshas (miginum kuraiyinum noiseyyum noolor
valimudhalaa enniya moondruThirukkural 941) (Ramanathan, 2007b). Vata is the energy of the body
that moves like the wind and causes flow in the body. It may be related to the nervous system as well as
10
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
joints that enable us to move. Pitta is related to bilious secretion and is the cause of heat in the body. It is
the energy of catabolism that is essential for digestion. Kapha is the glue that holds everything together
and is the energy of anabolism helping generative and regenerative processes.
According to Mark Halpern, Founder-Director, California College of Ayurveda, USA, and the tri-
dosha-s fluctuate constantly (Halpern, 2007). As they move out of balance, they affect particular areas
of our bodies in characteristic ways. When vata is out of balance—typically in excess—we are prone
to diseases of the large intestines, like constipation and gas, along with diseases of nervous system,
immune system, and joints. When pitta is in excess, we are prone to diseases of the small intestines,
like diarrhoea, along with diseases of the liver, spleen, thyroid, blood, skin, and eyes. When kapha is in
excess, we are prone to diseases of the stomach and lungs, most notably mucous conditions, along with
diseases of water metabolism, such as swelling.
Tirumandiram of Tirumoolar, the 3000 versed Tamil treatise by the Dravidian saint has prescribed
the practice of yoga at different times of day to relieve disorders arising from tridosha imbalances.
According to him, practice of yoga at dusk relieves kapha, practice at noon relieves vata and practice
in morning relieves pitta disorders (anjanam pondrudal iyarum andiyile vanjaga vatha marumaddi
yaanatthir senjiru kaalaiyir seithidir pittarum nanjara sonnom naraithirai naasame Tirumandiram
727) (Natarajan, 1991).
SOMATO-PSYCHIC NATURE OF ASANA
Asanas are an excellent system through which one can work towards the restoration of psychosomatic
harmony and balance. Regular, repeated and rhythmic practice of asanas facilitate the restoration of
the millieu interior as they gather attention to a particular muscle/organ/area enabling regeneration by
developing a positive mental state. However, it is often not understood that the actual efforts being made
in asana are somato-psychic in nature while the benefits that accrue are of a psychosomatic nature. The
body is placed into different postures/poses/poises. This conscious and mindful placement of the body
into certain ways helps simulate the experience of different levels of evolution such as reptilian, amphib-
ian, mammalian, human and even super-human and divine states of being. Asanas such as bhujangasana
enables us to experience what it feels like to be a cobra while the makarasana simulates the “feel” of
a crocodile. This enables an emotional psychic cleansing of such bestial tendencies in a conscious and
controlled manner. This can change our very perspective of the world in which we live. Interpersonal
relationships take on new meaning and we begin to understand what it really takes to be ‘human. Vrik-
shsana gives us a taste of the tree-like experience while vajrasana makes us feel more humane as only
humans can sit in it. The veera/veerabadrasana series enables courage and strength to develop while
asanas named after great rishi-s such as vashistasana, matsyendrasana and bharatwajasana enable us to
develop our higher nature. We can take this even further through the hanumanasana, trivikramanasana
and natarajasana that simulate the divine experiences.
It is well known that voluntary physical activity and exercise training can influence neuroplasticity in
a favourable manner by facilitating natural neuro-generative, neuro-adaptive and neuro-protective pro-
cesses. Dishman and others have suggested that these intrinsic and natural regenerative and rehabilitative
processes may be modulated by neurotropic factors (Dishman, 2006). They suggested that metabolic
and neurochemical pathways among skeletal muscle, the spinal cord and the brain offer plausible and
testable mechanisms that might explain effects of physical activity and exercise on the CNS.
11
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
Regular exercise and conscious motor skill training occurring through asana practice may enhance
executive functions of cognition and motor learning in the spinal cord. Such improvements would be
especially beneficial to those having cognitive decline associated with aging, trauma and neurological
disorders including dementia and stroke (Dishman, 2006).
The somato-psychic effects of the asana also include the release of endorphins that induce a sense
of relaxation, ease and wellbeing in the practitioner. These are triggered by stretching of the muscles
in the asanas and may be responsible for the positive feelings of self-empowerment and self-regulation
often quoted by practitioners.
BALANCING THE SUBTLE ENERGIES THOUGH HATHAYOGA
According to Yogamaharishi Dr Swami Gitananda Giri Guru Maharaj, founder of ICYER at Ananda
Ashram, Pondicherry, India, the word “hathais composed of two syllables: “hawhich refers to the
solar, positive, warm, activating energies and tha” which refers to the lunar, cooling, negative, inhibitive
energies. “Hathayoga” thus becomes a method of creating a harmonious interaction or polarity between
these two powerful, dialectically opposed primordial universal energies. The dominant right side of the
body is harmonized with the more passive left side. The creative, intuitive, visionary right side of the
bi-cameral brain is “yoked” harmoniously with the logical, rational, mathematically inclined left side of
the brain. A polarized duality is transformed into a harmonious unity and the human personality becomes
integrated. Then, real yoga or Union occurs spontaneously. All this can be achieved by an aware, step-
by-step, conscious, intelligent approach to asana, kriya, mudra, bandha, and pranayama which are the
practical components of Hathayoga. Only when the being exists in a perfect polarity of prana-apana,
can the highest experience, that of samadhi occur.
HATHAYOGA: A TOOL OF CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION
Hathayoga is the perfect tool to help man evolve efficiently out of his animal tendencies into human
qualities and then, to obtain transcendence into Divine realms of being. Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gita-
nanda Giri taught his students the concept of “Four-Fold Awareness” (Bhavanani, 2009). One must first
become aware of the body. The second awareness is awareness of emotions, senses and energy. The third
awareness is awareness of mind. And the fourth awareness is of awareness itself”. Hathayoga fosters
deep awareness of the body both internally and externally. The practices stimulate deep consciousness
in every cell. This awareness “spills over” into an awareness of emotions, sensations, and energy (prana)
flows. The awareness deepens into an awareness of the working of the mind and how body, emotions,
sensations and prana are inseparably linked together. This deepening of consciousness enables the prac-
titioner to direct the course of his own life activities, rather than be a victim of haphazard karmic forces.
Consciousness is the key to control and Hathayoga fosters consciousness. One becomes deeply aware
of old reptilian and animal instincts lurking in the primordial sub-conscious. The various practices purify
and exorcise these old animal / reptilian conditionings. Swami Gitananda often explained this by say-
ing, “All of the evolutionary history of life on this earth planet is contained in your brain. You have a
reptilian brain and a mammalian brain, in common with those lower life forms and all their primordial
instincts for survival: sexual drive, dominance, territoriality, etc., are also active there. Then, you have
12
Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
the cerebral cortex, the human brain, which is no longer bound by instinct, but can make conscious
choices. The problem facing man today is the lack of communication between this “old, unconscious
brain” and the “new conscious brain.” Hathayoga is the superb technology which enables man to bridge
that gap” (Bhavanani, 2009).
Table 2. Major scientific reports on Asana
Madanmohan et al., 1983 Shavasana relaxation is enhanced by addition of savitri pranayama thus decreasing O2 consumption
by 26%.
Rai & Ram, 1993 Virasana induces hyper-metabolic state with increased sympathetic activity that gets inhibited upon
adoption of shavasana.
Rai et al., 1994 Siddhasana had higher energy expenditure and ventilatory responses as compared to supine and
chair sitting postures.
Bera et al., 1998 Effects of induced physiological stress were reversed in shorter time in shavasana when compared to
resting in chair and resting supine posture.
Telles et al., 2000 Combination of stimulating and relaxing techniques reduced physiological arousal better than
relaxation techniques alone.
Manjunath & Telles, 2003 Practice of sirsasana resulted in immediate sympathetic activation as evidenced by HRV changes.
Malhotra & Tandon, 2005
BP was evaluated during performance of sukhasana, vajrasana and dhanurasana with comparisons
to supine, sitting and standing positions. Dhanurasana had highest BP as compared to all other
postures.
Manjunatha et al., 2005 Performance of Asanas led to increased sensitivity of pancreatic β cells to glucose signals
Baskaran et al., 2006 Practice of sirsasana resulted in 2-fold increase in intra ocular pressure.
Streeter et al., 2007 Single yoga Asana session of 60 min enhanced levels of GABA by 27% in experienced yoga
practitioners.
Penman et al., 2012 Australian national survey reported that postures most commonly associated with injuries in yoga
were the headstand, shoulder stand and variations of the lotus pose.
Streeter et al., 2012 Greater improvements in mood and anxiety after 12 weeks yoga Asanas than walking. Yoga postures
associated with increased thalamic GABA levels and improvements in mood with decreased anxiety.
Cramer et al., 2013
A systematic review reporting adverse effects following yoga. Most were related to musculoskeletal,
nervous, or visual systems. Cautioned that yoga be appropriately adapted to individual needs /
abilities and performed under guidance of experienced and medically trained yoga teachers.
Salem et al., 2013
Biomechanical methods used to quantify lower extremity joint angles, JMOFs, and muscle activities
of 21 Hathayoga postures. Postures engendered a range of appreciable joint angles, JMOFs, and
muscle activities about ankle, knee, and hip. All postures elicited appreciable rectus abdominis
activity, which was up to 70% of that induced during walking.
Wang et al., 2013
Musculoskeletal demand varies significantly across different poses. Suggestions given to design
evidence-based yoga interventions addressing individual-specific training and rehabilitation goals in
seniors.
Bhavanani et al., 2014
Post postural HR and BP fell below baseline values during recovery period. This was lower than
responses to supine relaxation in shavasana. Subtle differences reported between right-sided and
left-sided performance of Asanas.
Jasien et al., 2015 Head-down positions were associated with rapid rise in IOP but it returned to baseline within 2
minutes.
Polis et al., 2015
Evaluated safety of Asanas in 25 healthy pregnant women between 35-37 weeks of gestation. During
26 yoga postures, vital signs, pulse oximetry, and uterine tocometry remained normal in all women
and fetal HR was also normal. No falls or injuries during the total cumulative 650 poses and no
reports of decreased fetal movement, contractions, leakage of fluid, or vaginal bleeding in the 24-
hour follow-up.
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Psychophysiology of Yoga Postures
This is the reason why the ancient rishi-s taught their disciples to put their bodies into positions
resembling lower life forms like trees, mountains, insects, birds and animals. The body remembers
those past incarnations consciously when locked back into a form resembling those physical structures.
By becoming “conscious of the unconscious” the jiva develops a metacognitive perspective (vairagya)
that can deal effectively with its primitive conditionings. This detached witnessing puts space between
stimulus – response and one can choose consciously how one will respond to situations rather than react
with the animal response of “flight or fight”.
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KEY TERMS AND DEFINITIONS
Agonist-Antagonist Muscle Groups: Antagonist and agonist muscles often occur in pairs, called
antagonistic pairs. As one muscle contracts, the other relaxes. An example of an antagonistic pair is the
biceps and triceps; to contract - the triceps relaxes while the biceps contracts to lift the arm.
Allostatic Load to Stress: Allostatic load is “the wear and tear on the body” which accumulates
as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. It represents the physiological consequences
of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from
repeated or chronic stress.
Gamma Amino Butyric Acid: Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid which acts
as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. It inhibits nerve transmission in the brain, calming
nervous activity.
Golgi Tendon Organs: The Golgi tendon organs are proprioceptive sensory receptor organs that
sense changes in muscle tension. They lie at the origins and insertion of skeletal muscle fibers into the
tendons of skeletal muscle.
Isometric Contraction: Isometric contractions generate force without changing the length of the
muscle.
Muscle Spindles: Muscle spindles are sensory receptors within the belly of a muscle that primarily
detect changes in the length of this muscle.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): PNF stretching, or proprioceptive neuromuscular
facilitation stretching, is a set of stretching techniques commonly used in clinical environments to enhance
both active and passive range of motion in order to improve motor performance and aid rehabilitation.
Spinal Reflex Arc: A reflex arc is a neural pathway that controls a reflex action. In higher animals,
most sensory neurons do not pass directly into the brain, but synapse in the spinal cord. This charac-
teristic allows reflex actions to occur relatively quickly by activating spinal motor neurons without the
delay of routing signals through the brain, although the brain will receive sensory input while the reflex
is carried out.
Tocometry: Toco is short for tocodynamometer, a device that is used to measure the duration,
frequency and relative strength of uterine contractions in pregnant women, according to the Center for
Experiential Learning.
Ultradian Rhythms: In chronobiology, an ultradian rhythm is a recurrent period or cycle repeated
throughout a 24-hour circadian day.
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... Asanas are theorized to reduce physical tension produced by stress, and emerging psychophysiological indicators suggest that they may hold promise for the reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms (Bhavanani & Ramanathan, 2018;Streeter et al., 2007). The present study suggests potential symptom reduction benefits specifically associated with increased asana experience. ...
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Different body postures that can be maintained for a certain duration with awareness are called yoga-asanas. These asanas matter flexibility, coordination, and strength, while the breathing practices and meditation sharpens the mind for better awareness and reduce anxiety and thus adds quality into life. Other beneficial effects might involve a reduction of stress, blood pressure, and improvements in resilience, mood, and metabolic regulation. The asanas performed regularly for a short duration in hours is well studied in the literature. However, when performed for a long duration continuously for several hours (40-hour yogathon), without food and sleep has a significant effect in regulating homeostasis. The homeostasis is accessed through cardio-respiratory and galvanic skin response changes. The study shows the physiological changes after the yogathon and compares it with effects on physiology due to short term yoga. It also emphasizes on the reduction of dependency on food, because of energy compensation through yoga-asanas.
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Understanding the physical demands placed upon the musculoskeletal system by individual postures may allow experienced instructors and therapists to develop safe and effective yoga programs which reduce undesirable side effects. Thus, we used biomechanical methods to quantify the lower extremity joint angles, joint moments of force, and muscle activities of 21 Hatha yoga postures, commonly used in senior yoga programs. Twenty older adults, 70.7 years ± 3.8 years, participated in a 32-wk yoga class (2 d/wk) where they learned introductory and intermediate postures (asanas). They then performed the asanas in a motion analysis laboratory. Kinematic, kinetic, and electromyographic data was collected over three seconds while the participants held the poses statically. Profiles illustrating the postures and including the biomechanical data were then generated for each asana. Our findings demonstrated that Hatha yoga postures engendered a range of appreciable joint angles, JMOFs, and muscle activities about the ankle, knee, and hip, and that demands associated with some postures and posture modifications were not always intuitive. They also demonstrated that all of the postures elicited appreciable rectus abdominis activity, which was up to 70% of that induced during walking.
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Yoga is an applied, practical and experiential science that establishes the lost balance in the human affairs caused by the one-sided growth of science. This grant Indian Art/Science /Philosophy helps overcome the shortcomings of both science and religion by enriching our minds, by giving rise to wisdom, and by controlling our savage animal instincts. Equanimity is Yoga. Serenity is Yoga. Skill in action is Yoga. Control of the senses and the mind is Yoga. Anything by which the best and the highest in life can be attained is Yoga. Yoga is thus all-embracing, all-inclusive and universal in its application leading to all-round development of body, mind and soul This book discusses about contribution of Yoga to Health and Wellbeing in various fields of Human Activity under the following Headings: Integration : The Purpose of Yoga, Yamas and Niyamas, Asanas, Application of Asanas, Pranayama, Shat kriyas, Mudras and Bandhas, Dhyana, Necessity of yoga for Human Resource Development , Yoga and Adaptation, Yoga and Health: the Definition of Health, Guidelines for diet , Diet Power, Tradition and Therapy (Yoga and Aging; Yoga for the Physically Challenged; Yoga for the Children with Intellectual Disabilities; Remedy for Addictions through Yoga)
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Objective: To examine the acute maternal and fetal effects of yoga postures and suspected contraindicated postures in a prospective cohort of healthy pregnant women in the third trimester. Methods: This was a prospective study that evaluated pregnant women between 35 0/7 and 37 6/7 weeks of gestation in a one-on-one yoga session. A baseline nonstress test, vital signs, and pulse oximetry were performed. Participants then assumed 26 yoga postures. Vital signs, pulse oximetry, tocometry, and continuous fetal heart rate monitoring were obtained in each posture. Postsession nonstress test, vital signs, and pulse oximetry were obtained. Participants were contacted 24 hours postsession. Results: Twenty-five healthy pregnant women were evaluated. Ten reported regular yoga practice, eight were familiar with yoga, and seven had no yoga experience. Yoga groups were similar in age, race, body mass index, gestational age, and parity. Presession and postsession nonstress tests were reactive. Presession and postsession data showed no change in maternal heart rate, temperature, pulse oximetry, or fetal heart rate. During the 26 yoga postures, vital signs, pulse oximetry, and uterine tocometry remained normal in all women and in all postures. The fetal heart rate across all 26 postures was normal. There were no falls or injuries during the total cumulative 650 poses. No participants reported decreased fetal movement, contractions, leakage of fluid, or vaginal bleeding in the 24-hour follow-up. Conclusion: All 26 yoga postures were well-tolerated with no acute adverse maternal physiologic or fetal heart rate changes. Level of evidence: III.