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3 Claims about the Body Yoga Teachers Should Stop Making

By Guest Contributors Sara Hoy, Magnus Ringberg, & Robin TågIntroduction from Jenni:I’m thrilled to present this specially-commissioned article by a trio of authors whom I have immense respect for. I asked Sara, Magnus, and Robin if they could write a piece for my blog on some of the most common claims yoga teachers tend to make about the body that they probably don’t realize lack scientific support.As yoga teachers who are also experts in human movement, physiology, and physical therapy, I knew this team of thinkers would have excellent insights on this topic. Sara Hoy is a PhD student in Sport Science at The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. Magnus Ringberg is a physical therapist with a master’s degree in Sports Science from the University of Linneus in Sweden. And Robin Tåg is a physical therapist and co-owner of the Nordic Yoga Institute in Sweden.I was so excited when this yoga and science powerhouse of collaborators said yes to my article-writing request, and I enthusiastically support the fantastic and educational piece they put together for us. I hope you enjoy it, and please let us know what you think if you have a moment!– Jenni3 Claims about the Body Yoga Teachers Should Stop MakingBy Sara Hoy, Magnus Ringberg, & Robin TågHave you ever taken a yoga class where the teacher overstated the benefits of a specific pose or part of the practice, explained that something specific was going to happen in a particular part of your body, or told you where to feel something? Maybe you’ve heard explanations similar to these:“This pose targets your digestive system.”“That pose releases your hamstrings.”“These poses target the frontal lobe of your brain.”Perhaps you’re a yogi who loves those types of explanations, maybe you feel the opposite, or maybe you don’t care much at all. We can’t say for sure if these are new trends or if they’ve been around forever in yoga practice. However, we got curious about these phenomena and decided to highlight our thoughts on the subject from a scientific point of view.When it comes to (yoga) research, the least confident we can be is about why something seems to work. It’s very difficult to be sure of what exactly is happening in a body at a specific moment and in a specific exercise. Still, we seem to love these types of instructions. Today, we thought we’d give three examples of instructions and explanations we’ve heard in classes, read online, and last but not least, even instructed ourselves through all the years we’ve been teaching yoga.1) Instructions concerning why you do something, targeting a specific systemExample: “This will boost your immune system.”A common instruction or explanation we’ve experienced in yoga class is how you’re targeting and boosting your immune system in a specific pose or exercise. This has been especially pervasive throughout the pandemic.

Robin Tåg
Sure, you can consider yoga practice to be part of a healthy lifestyle including physical activity, nutritious food, low stress levels, a positive social environment in a yoga community, and maybe even good sleep patterns. In general, a healthy lifestyle is considered to support a well-functioning immune system. However, engaging in yoga practice doesn’t necessarily lead any further towards a healthy lifestyle – and certainly not full protection from disease and dysfunction. We became curious about this type of instruction both because it’s very attractive and because it focuses on the “why” of a pose or exercise. As we mentioned earlier, the least we know in (yoga) research is about why something seems to work. We can rarely be sure about what specifically is happening in a body at a specific moment and in a specific exercise. Still, we seem to love these types of instructions. A research review article published in 2019 (Djalilova et al) showed a promising result for yoga’s impact on inflammation biomarkers. An additional review from 2018 (Falkenberg et al) drew similar conclusions, and at the same time wrote “The field of investigation is still young, hence the current body of evidence is small and for most immune parameters, more research is required to draw distinct conclusions.”This is exciting research and results! However, far more research is needed to make the claim that “yoga lowers levels of inflammation” or “boosts your immune system.” We also don’t know much about what the key components and doses are in a yoga practice, let alone the mechanisms.2) Instructing that something specific is going to happen in a specific areaExample: ”Here you’re releasing the psoas.”The word “release” is widely used by yoga teachers and in yoga teacher trainings when explaining the purpose of a position or an exercise. The word usually refers to achieving a sensation of softness/relaxation within a tissue or area of the body. Some areas of the body are more commonly targeted, such as the iliopsoas, trapezius, hamstrings, gluteus and IT band. The idea is that these areas are “tight” and need to be “released.”The idea of a release might be attractive to many of us, especially when we’re experiencing stiffness or pain within our body. Honestly, most of us would do just about anything to eliminate severe pain issues. The question is what this concept really entails, and if “releasing” is in fact the antidote it’s often made out to be.To investigate what intention the concept might mean for you, it’s helpful to ask yourself the following questions:What is it that I want to achieve for myself and/or my students with a “release”? What value does the word “release” carry for me and/or my students? Can I always assume that everyone needs a “release”? Sara Hoy
This word – “release” – projects the belief that tension and stiffness is something that’s wrong and harmful, and that a release is something that’s optimal, healthy, and right. Sometimes it seems that it even creates an idea that muscle activation and strengthening is something that creates further tension, and that stretching and relaxation is what you need to do to create a desired release. Since the word release is often discussed in relation to specific myofascial tissues (i.e. “myofascial release”), the belief is created that single structures within the body can be isolated and targeted specifically. The most common approach is to hold a stretched position for a chosen amount of time without intentional muscle contractions. In flexibility research, this is called static passive stretching. Research often looks at the effect of static passive stretching on our range of motion. In these studies, static passive stretches have been held for seconds all the way up to several minutes. To our knowledge, the longest amount of time that’s been studied in published research is 450 seconds or 7.5 minutes (Freitas & Mil-Homens, 2015). The effects of static passive stretching are an acute increased range of motion and a sensation of being more mobile. If the practice is repeated, the passive range of motion will increase in the chosen positions (Baranda & Ayala, 2010). In other words, we can increase our range of motion in the movements and poses we perform. What we know so far is that acute changes in range of motion most likely happen due to regulations happening in the central nervous system – not physical “releases” in the structure of tissues like fascia or muscles themselves. We actually know very little about the extent to which structural change occurs, but it seems that little to no change is happening locally in the tissue.Many folks experience a relaxation effect when performing static passive stretches. This effect is most probably related to a lower pulse, a lower blood pressure, and a slower breath frequency. A study published by Winroth et al (2019) showed that an hour of yin yoga (a type of static passive stretching) acutely reduces anxiety in healthy individuals. There are so many reasons for experiencing stiffness in our bodies, including our movement history and behavior. From a biopsychosocial perspective, many factors interact and affect our experience in our yoga practice. Based on the understanding – that there’s a complex web of mechanisms working – condensing things to “A leads to B” can be problematic.Most often, this reductionism leads to oversimplified explanations in yoga class such as “you’re releasing your psoas.” We believe it may be more empowering for the student to receive open-ended instructions that support the many possibilities that could be influencing their experience.3) Instructing a specific experience and result in a specific areaExample: “Feel this yummy asana in your thoracic spine; it will improve your posture.”Telling a group of people they should feel one asana/movement/exercise in a specific area, with a specific sensation, and with a specific result is very tricky. Where and how we feel something in our bodies can be highly individual.

Magnus Ringberg
First of all, we have different understandings of anatomical landmarks on our bodies. If we’re not clear on the area being instructed, we’re lost from the beginning. Guiding with anatomical words can be great if you’re teaching a bunch of personal trainers and physiotherapists, but most people can’t locate the 7th rib or the attachment of their psoas major.Moreover, the asana will have different requirements such as strength, flexibility, postural control, and coordination. Each student experiences different outcomes depending on their previous experience with the movement, unique individual capacity (e.g., musculoskeletal system and cardio respiratory system), and psychological factors. Control of equilibrium, flexibility in the spine, strength in the back of the hips, or pain around the wrist joints could be limiting factors. Some students may be more focused on their annoying boss, a hungry stomach, or an intense headache.

“Where and how we feel is individual, and so is the result we gain from an exercise.”

— Sara Hoy, Magnus Ringberg, & Robin TågWhere and how we feel is individual, and so is the result we gain from an exercise. It’s a personal experience based on our history and present selves. A complex scenario, to say the least. Educate your students that sensations are individual and that we even expect variations within a single person.The idea of telling someone where and how they should feel is often not helpful for our students. We as teachers can instead focus on supporting our students through the process of how to execute a movement. Instead of focusing on the result, can we create more awareness and precision connected to the action of the body?If you like to integrate your students’ experience of sensations as a process of self-inquiry, you can ask your student, “How does this movement feel in your body?” You can also add helpful guidance like the following:“Where and how it feels is different for every person.”“Respect your own body; what you feel is okay.”“This is what you feel today. Maybe it will be different some other time.”Robin Tåg
Reflecting on These Common ClaimsWe know that these are just a few not-so-helpful examples picked out of an abundance of great (yoga) teaching. Still, we believe these examples are important because they relate to what a yoga practice can and can’t do for us. They highlight some of the many claims that run wild in the yoga scene, where the science and research aren’t there to support them. From a scientific perspective, we find this worrisome. Instead of bringing false hope to what the practice does, let’s focus on evidence-based ways that yoga teachers can support and guide students through a yoga practice.Referencesde Baranda, P. Sainz, and F. Ayala. “Chronic flexibility improvement after 12 week of stretching program utilizing the ACSM recommendations: hamstring flexibility.” International Journal of Sports Medicine 31.06 (2010): 389-396.Djalilova, Dilorom M., et al. “Impact of yoga on inflammatory biomarkers: a systematic review.” Biological research for nursing 21.2 (2019): 198-209.Falkenberg, R. I., C. Eising, and M. L. Peters. “Yoga and immune system functioning: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.” Journal of behavioral medicine 41.4 (2018): 467-482.Freitas, Sandro R., and Pedro Mil-Homens. “Effect of 8-week high-intensity stretching training on biceps femoris architecture.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 29.6 (2015): 1737-1740.Winroth, Denise, Peter Hassmen, and Chris John Stevens. “Acute effects of yin yoga and aerobic exercise on anxiety.” Alternative & Integrative Medicine 8.2 (2019): 1-6.About the Authors

Sara HoySara is a PhD student at The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences (GIH) with a master’s degree in Exercise Science and a bachelor’s degree in Public Health from Karolinska Institute. She’s been working as a research assistant in projects that look at health benefits from yoga and physical activity. She’s also an ERYT-500 certified in Virya Yoga and a registered YACEP, a licensed Personal Trainer and FRC™ , FRA™ and Kinstretch™ Mobility Specialist within the FRS™ systems.Website: / IG: @yogaprehab

Magnus RingbergMagnus is a physiotherapist (Bachelor of Science in Physiotherapy from the University of Lund in Sweden) with a master’s degree in Sports Science from the University of Linneus in Sweden. He’s also a yoga teacher and personal trainer who travels around the world teaching trainings, workshops, and classes.Website: / IG: @magnusringberg

Robin TågRobin is a Physical Therapist, FRC™ Mobility Specialist and cert. Virya Yoga Teacher (E-RYT) originally from Finland. He is now based in Menorca (Spain,) where he is creating yoga experiences at his home and life-project Poblado Corazón. Robin is one of the co-owners and main educators at the Nordic Yoga Institute in Sweden.Website: / IG: @robin.tag