7 Anatomy & Physiology Myths (Some Of Which, Even Your Yoga Teacher Likely Believes)

co-written by  Alex Pfeiffer & Katy Wallace

Since the day before you took your first yoga class, you have probably learned a lot more anatomy that you ever thought you would.  Whether it was the first time you realized that you knew what the yoga teacher was talking about when she mentioned your sacrum, or suddenly found that you felt better breathing a certain way from “oxygenating your blood” , you may have come to realize that Anatomy doesn’t have to be the boring subject it was in school.  It is, in fact, connected to our very vitality and happiness when its taught right.  And yoga has been that for all of us.  Learning about our bodies in ways that deeply affect our lives.  Although this writing is partially a promotional piece (at the end we’ll mention a workshop weekend), we think you’ll find the education you get from it extremely helpful in of itself.

Have you ever wondered about some of the things you hear around the yoga studio?  There are certainly things you hear that your bookworm friends would scoff at (of course they’ll never try yoga), and it is absolutely true that yoga revolutionizes how we can see the human body.  The mechanistic, partitioned view of the body we were given as “science” growing up was severely limited and yoga’s (as well as bodywork’s and natural medicine’s) more whole view actually helps us see much of the mythology we’ve been under here in the mainstream West.

But the culture of Yoga (starting from India), while remarkable and eye opening, is not without its myths either.  And some of the things from your yoga classes don’t hold up.  Alex argues that Yoga’s growing edge is not romanticizing by replacing one mixed paradigm for another (or what is often the case, taking the worst of each).  Its edge is integral – favoring truth over paradigm.  Katy argues that understanding your body is the first step to empowering your health because when you know how to use it, what you learn is yours forever.  Myths get in the way of your raw aliveness and vitality.

 

Myth 1  :  Stiffness, Aches, Pains, and getting shorter are a result of Aging.

If you’ve been practicing yoga very long, you’re not falling for this one.  How many times have you heard yoga being a “fountain of youth”?  … and then experienced it?  But Wait.  Older folks do get more stiff, aches, etc.  than younger folks.  Isn’t there some truth in this?

Yes.

But it is not aging itself.  Aging just slows down your body’s ability to rejuvenate itself.  You can still rejuvenate when you’re older, but it will take a little longer.  The stiffness, aches, and pains typically associated with aging are usually the result of poor patterns in your structural tissues.  We all have patterns and the longer you’re alive, the stronger those patterns get.  The poor ones show up as aches and pains.  The really bad ones show up as bulging or ruptured vertebral discs.  While pill and surgery pushers of mainstream western medicine scoff at the idea that something like yoga can heal these problems, these problems are, in fact, a symptom of patterning.  (As is getting shorter the effect of gravity on a poorly patterned body over time)  Address the patterning and the symptom goes away.

 

Myth 2  :  Yoga Poses, Done Enough, Will Reverse Stiffness, Aches, and Pains.

Yoga poses are like the invitation.  They are not the party.  They are simply positions you put your body in.  Without connected, integrated, and expansive action that protects the joints, your yoga poses may only give you some new bad patterns (which given enough time, pop up as pain) to distract your current bad patterns for a while.  To truly reverse your body’s patterning and restore yourself to your vibrant blueprint, you must align.

 

Myth 3  :  Yoga Alignment is About Body Position


Your body, despite what it looks like in a textbook, is not a static entity.  True Alignment, that which drastically affects your core vitality, is not static either.  It is about balanced action.  If the action of every muscle fiber creates a myofascial network that fully integrates and expands, (active – tensegrity) then you are aligning.

Yup, like that weird thing in the video.

 

 

Myth 4  :  Yogic breathing increases oxygen in your bloodstream.

There are many health benefits from pranayam such as breath of fire and kapalbhati but if it increased oxygen in your bloodstream, you would die! Your body automatically, through homeostatic mechanisms, keeps the oxygen level in the bloodstream balanced. What yogic breathing offers is the increased availability of oxygen for uptake into the lungs and tissues which improves functioning in a number of body systems.

Your body is holistic like that.  Just how it likes to roll.

 

Myth 5  :  A raw vegan diet is the healthiest in the yogic tradition.

Many health issues improve from raw and vegan approaches to eating.  However,  without any animal products long term, an individual may become severely deficient in multiple areas including B12, iron, minerals and protein that can lead to reproductive, cognitive and digestive disorders.

 

Myth 6  :  One daily bowel movement is an indicator of a balanced elimination

in case you were eating at your keyboard

system.

One typically needs to have 2-3 thorough bowel movements daily to avoid the build-up of toxins and residues in the digestive tract.  The Right Yoga offers many tools for regulating this self-cleansing mechanism.

 

 

Myth 7  :  Your Skeleton Mainly Holding You Up.  The rest of your Structural Anatomy is basically like a series of levers and pulleys.  

This is a primary Western Myth.  That our body is built like a building or a car, with interchangeable, separate parts working like a machine in mechanistic order.  In fact, your skeleton is not like the steel frame of a building that holds the rest of the pieces “up.”   It is more like the center pole of a tent or pillar on a suspension bridge.  It gives your soft tissues something to “push into” so that the soft tissues hold you up.   Yes.  The crazy yoga teacher (in the case of this part, Alex) is telling you that the idea you were given in grade school that your skeleton holds up your soft tissues is exactly backwards.                   Jon Burras Article

 

 

And this can drastically affect how you do your yoga.  As do all of these because when you are orienting to your own body based on a myth, it shows in your patterns, actions, and decisions.  So the next time you’re in a yoga pose, imagine, not that your bones stacking are holding you up, but that you are suspended up like a tent.  Seek out teachers who understand Anatomy because that is the source of quality yoga action.

It is the difference between having a yoga practice that is good for you and having one that is twice as good for you as the one you’re doing now.

Hopefully this article was helpful.  If you’re interested not only in diving deeper into these myths (and many more), but in finding out what it means to your yoga practice (and diet) and how some simple tweaks can help you create even more vitality, Katy and Alex will be co-hosting a yoga teacher training caliber Anatomy Weekend on Feb 17 – 19 at Kaivalya.  The workshop is open to everyone! (not just yoga teachers) and will feature years of experience and expertise packed into one weekend.  Alex with his multiple yoga and bodywork certifications will bring his expertise on structural anatomy, and team up with Katy Wallace’s remarkable expertise as a Kundalini Yoga Teacher and Doctor of Naturopathy.  Alex will cover structure and Katy everything else.

Information Here.  If you are interested, please join us.  The soonest this workshop will run again will be June of 2014.  Imagine the kind of impact could this knowledge have on your yoga practice (or teaching) in the course of 2.5 years?

See you on the mat…

8 thoughts on “7 Anatomy & Physiology Myths (Some Of Which, Even Your Yoga Teacher Likely Believes)

  1. Alex
    In general I agree with your commentaries on these myths. And that our work with the fascial network is one of the most important impacts of yoga practice, not just asana. However, I disagree with several comments.
    Myth 4: Approproiate asana, pranayama, and pranayama-like practices can have an impact on blood oxygenation for those whose blood is not close to 100% saturated. I have worked with several people whose health conditions caused their O2 saturation to be less than 90%, and our work helped raise it. However, for the run-of-the-mill yogi, your comment still stands.
    Myth 5: The Vedic teachings do not specifically address food guidelines other than diet should be appropriate for the individual. The body of research around this issue shows that one can be unhealthy and eat meat, and one can be healthy and not eat meat. Personally, I have eaten a vegan diet for almost 30 years, and as far as I know I have no nutrient deficiencies, am rarely sick, and have run marathons and ultramarathons without depleting myself. There are lots of reasons different people choose to eat one way or the other, and I work with them in support of there choices (including making recommendations when I believe their choice is not helping them move in the direction they would like to).

    The focus in the yoga community, and the wellness community in general, on a rigid set of ideas, and the concept of one size fits all is not good. Patanjali advises us to adapt the practices to the individual based on constitution, condition, and intention. One of the biggest myths that you alluded to in talking of aging, is the concept of normal. Trends that we observe are not necessarily normal, but merely typical based on that observation. It is not probably not normal for humans to have multiple chronic diseases, but that is what we see a lot. It is probably not normal for humans to become frail in old age, but that is what we see a lot.

    Thanks for your efforts to help set the record straight in the yoga community.

  2. Hi Jerry,

    Thank You for your comments and really cool to hear about the great work you are doing. These 2 myths fall into Katy’s domain of expertise, so I’ll let her handle the science in those. I would only add that this article is talking about myths in context of the yogic culture’s current incarnation, particularly the culture in the US around hatha yoga. Hatha Yoga which I might add wasn’t fully developed until far after the Vedic & Classical Philosophies you brought up. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika does in fact bring up several restrictions around diet. It, the Vedas, and Patanjali also never bring up myofascia. This is not to put down any of these philosophies, but just to say that over time, we know more, and therefore have the opportunity to keep improving yoga. Yoga is not dead, but alive, and evolving.

    Yoga’s philosophical reach is deep and extends over much more than the Vedic Era and Patanjali’s Era, which only account for one-quarter of its philosophical body at most. We also have the great myths (Ramayana, Mahabharta, Bhagavad Gita), pre-classical works, the Samkayans, Vedanta (which may or may not be considered Vedic depending on who you ask), the work of the Hatha Yogis (such as the fore mentioned text that does in fact refer to diet), and the immense work of Tantra. It seems that part of your disagreement around that myth is that its somehow not in the yogic tradition because it doesn’t show up in the Vedas. That seems like saying that we shouldn’t take the Bible to task for its stance on homophobia because there’s nothing about it in Genisis; when, in fact, that is only a small part of a larger body of work that has created the culture that exists today.

    The Vegan – Raw Ideal does exist today, and while I’m glad its working for you so well (wow! I don’t know what an ultramarathon is, but it sound pretty damn impressive), Katy’s claim is that the research does not bare this out long term for most people. We’ll talk in the workshop about what the bio markers are in understanding what works and what doesn’t. Again, I will let her respond to your comments.

  3. Jerry, thank you for your comments, my response is below:
    Myth 4: My comment was meant in the context of the average American practicing yoga. Your comments on the statement are noted, and appreciated. I might clarify the statement by saying:
    “There are many health benefits from pranayam such as breath of fire and kapalbhati but it cannot increase oxygen in the bloodstream of a healthy individual at normal atmospheric pressures. This is because the body automatically, through homeostatic mechanisms, keeps the oxygen level in the bloodstream balanced.”
    Myth 5: One emphasis intended in this statement is that raw and vegan together may not be ideal. This was brought to my attention in a training with Paul Pitchford who presented information about the lack of historical precedent for the raw vegan diet and examples of how some have recently been injured by such a diet. I have met a number of individuals that have exacerbated imbalances through dietary choices, both vegan and omnivorous. The intent behind the statement was to encourage people to more carefully consider these issues for themselves.
    The second important phrase in my comment is that “an individual may become…” not that they definitely would. I agree with you whole-heartedly that it is important to address the needs of the individual, and I, too, strive to support people in a diversity of dietary choices. What works great for one person, may not be right for the next.

  4. Yes, the HYP and other texts do mention some dietary restrictions and proscriptions. However, these are meant for the sadhaka, not someone living “in the world.” And I agree with you Katy, and Paul Pitchford, that a raw, vegan diet will not work for many (especially living in Wisconsin), but some will do well on a vegan diet (not totally raw). A raw vegan diet might work just fine in a more tropical climate. My comment was more about what I read as an absolute statement.

  5. Alex,

    I’m happy to see myths of any kind debunked. Good write up. If I may, I’ll comment on two points.

    # 4 :: “What yogic breathing offers is the increased availability of oxygen for uptake into the lungs and tissues which improves functioning in a number of body systems” … is actually the very myth that is being debunked.

    As you said, a healthy body delivers exactly as much oxygen – liters of oxygen over time – to itself as it needs, given the circumstances. Blood is loaded to about 99% of the possible oxygen saturation level as it flows through the lungs no matter what the body’s doing at the moment (napping, skiing the 50st mile of the Birkies, or pranayama breathing). Altering breathing patterns and/or recruiting accessory respiratory muscles does not alter general availability of oxygen to the body. Disclaimer: this, of course, only applies to a healthy person whose body’s ability to maintain homeostasis is uncompromised.

    # 7 :: Both, bones as well as muscles hold the body in the upright position in an orchestrated play of forces. The erecting effects of each tissue cannot be separated from each other, and one cannot be meaningfully put in front of the other. They operate in a loop: skeleton holds the muscles (it provides attachment sites) and the muscles pull on the skeleton. This conveniently happens in such a fashion that the body assumes a stable upright position, or runs. I’d like to add that an upright body wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for the nervous system. Vast processing power of our brain is devoted to keeping the body up and balanced at all times (including yoga class). I’d argue this is one of the key reasons why yoga “feels” so good right there in the class when it is being practiced. Focus feels fantastic.

    Cheers man, I want to take one of your classes soon, haven’t’ seen you in a while!
    martin

  6. Thanks for the comments! To respond:

    Martin. #4 “availability” to systems receiving the O2 is different than the amount in the system. “Availability” is the key, just like it is with the gal across the bar. ;)

    #7 : Correct Sir. And those nerve impulses need the digestive system for fuel, the circulatory system for delivery, etc. etc. No system is an island, but ignoring bio chemistry and looking at pure physics it is difficult to undervalue the importance of the soft tissues. It is not merely that the soft tissues ‘hold’ the bones up by not being limp. It is that they do so by compressing bones to expand themselves (like a tensegrity model). This one piece transforms what most yoga alignment is (merely preventing injury) to something with nearly miraculous (as new understanding often creates) impact.

  7. I like the bar girl parallel. Maybe she would call 911 if I do my pranayama there? :)

    # 4 :: If the purpose of the blog post is to dispel a few myths, and one of the myths concerns respiration, the uninformed and interested reader – a healthy individual, breathing diaphragmatically around the clock – may appreciate to know that changing respiration patterns in no way “improves” intake and distribution of oxygen into the tissues, disposal of carbon dioxide (detoxification), or functioning of any of the body’s systems. It may, however, change chemistry of the blood triggering different physiological responses which may be felt (experienced). Also, the neural control of respiration is complex and partially under conscious control. This offers new space for interesting experiences.

    On a related note. If the breathing recruits accessory respiration muscles (generally muscles of the trunk) such as during hot yoga pranayama, there will be actually less oxygenated blood available to all other tissues (except brain). This is so because the now working accessory muscles of respiration divert blood flow to themselves to synthesize the additional ATP (the energy molecule) needed to fuel the labored breathing. In other words, the “extra” oxygen is used to power the breathing itself. It is not a physiologically significant change, it has no adverse effect on the body, but it’s a counterintuitive and interesting fact.

    # 7 :: I like John Muir’s: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

    Which reminds me of John Muir mountain bike trails on Kettle Moraine.

    martin

  8. Alex and Katy – thanks for the article and Jerry for the comments.

    Regarding myth 5 and speaking as a student of Ayurveda – the Charak Samhita (not sure if it is considered a true vedic text) from the 1st Century BC contains many references to food guidelines including the nature of food energetics, management of the digestive fire and the proper ways to take food. Classical Ayurveda teaches that the taking of meat is rarely advised and reserved for those who are emaciated, as the taking of meat brings karma to the person. Not true for dairy products however as Ayurveda considers raw milk and ghee, properly prepared, spiced and combined, to be a part of any diet. Practical Ayurveda as it has evolved from these earliest teachings would rarely advise a raw diet except for those of primarily Pitta dosha in Pitta season. I mention all of this primarily because classical Ayurveda and Yoga are virtually inseparable from each other. The Ayurvedic diet was developed specifically to support the practice of classical yoga. Therefore I propose that the vegan diet or any raw diet are in no way connected to these classical practices but are instead more modern inventions.
    Thanks for the article and to those who have commented as well.

Leave a Reply to Martin Fencl Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>