Online Classes: Yoga and Science – Putting It All Together

Please note: I’ve included links to various items below, none of which I’m compensated for. If I’m writing about them, it’s because I think they’re excellent and worth recommending to others.

In my never-ending quest to bring more peace into my life, and with the extra time I’ve found in COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve been taking advantage of online class on platforms such as edX and Coursera, and have been impressed with the breadth of courses that are available.

Currently, I’m mid-way through a class on Coursera from New York University (NYU) connecting yoga and science, called “Engineering Health: An Introduction to Yoga and Physiology,” and I am thoroughly enjoying it. This class can be audited for free, or $49 gets you access to the quizzes, a certificate once you’re done (that can be posted on LinkedIn) and no time limit on access to the materials.

The course is taught mainly by three individuals: (1) Prof. Alexandra (Ali) Seidenstein, lecturer and research scientist in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at NYU, who is also a yoga teacher; (2) Eddie Stern, NYC-area yoga teacher and author, co-founder of the international Yoga and Science Conference and creator (along with Deepak Chopra, Sergey Varichev and musician Moby) of the highly-rated Breathing App for mobile devices; and (3) Prof. Tommy Lee, senior lecturer in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at NYU. In addition, there are interviews with other scientists who have studied or made use of yoga in their research. For me, as someone who’s always looking for scientific validation, this combination of yoga and physiology is very gratifying.

First and foremost, the class teaches basic physiology. If you took survey classes in high school and college, the material will be familiar, and it’s presented in a clear manner with lots of visuals. Topics include physiological systems such as nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, immune, digestive and much more. Additionally, there are discussions of homeostasis, epigenetics, and the effect of stress on human physiology.

As a cancer survivor, I find it so empowering to see the science behind how yoga affects my physiology, especially strengthening my immune system!

But woven in between all of these topics are instructions on breathwork and yoga movements for beginners, and this is what really ties the course together for me. The yoga is expertly taught by Eddie and Ali, both of whom make the experience very positive and not intimidating. With each lesson, they take the time to connect the physiology topics with what is being taught in the yoga class. This is a novel approach that I have found very empowering: there is a direct link between the work being done in the yoga lessons with functioning of the body.

For me, making that connection leads to a sense of self-efficacy and patience with myself, as it is with consistency of practice that we make change. Even more than that is the feeling that I can affect my immunity against disease (and cancer?) by keeping my stress levels in check. I have always felt that stress played a role in the development of my cancer, and although I cannot prove this, knowing that there is good science behind using such relaxation techniques as yoga and meditation in prevention of inflammation and subsequent disease gives me a sense of control in a situation that has often felt completely outside my control.

As mentioned, I am only at the midpoint of this class. I look forward to the second half and will report back about my overall impression once I am finished. In the meantime, if this post has piqued your interest, I highly encourage you to check the class out!

A New View of Stress That Can Save Your Life

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a history of not handling stress well.

A recent PubMed search on the connection between stress and proliferation of cancer didn’t help, as I found sufficient evidence to show that the two may be closely linked, and that is a disconcerting thought for a cancer survivor. Finding ways to relieve everyday stress has become one of my highest priorities. But would I be better served by focusing on stress as a positive force?

In her 2013 TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a new view of stress, not as a horrible experience, but instead as a state that primes your body for better dealing with hardships.

This is a novel and intelligent way of looking at something that, unfettered, could otherwise harm us. Why not turn it into a positive instead?

McGonigal points out that our attitude towards stress is critically important. A study from the University of Wisconsin (Keller et al., 2012, Health Psychol) demonstrated that people who experienced high levels of stress and were convinced that stress was harmful to their health were 43% (!) more likely to die during the eight-year study period. Note, these are correlational (not causational) findings, although it was striking how that belief predicted an earlier demise.

McGonigal describes research at Harvard (Jamieson et al., 2012, J Exp Psychol Gen) to discover whether changing someone’s attitude about stress can change their response to it. The study was designed to invoke anxiety in the subjects via a “social stress test”. But one group of participants was primed with information about how sensations associated with anxiety were actually beneficial for their performance: pounding heart = preparing the body for action; breathing faster = getting more oxygen to the brain for clearer thought.

Test subjects taught to reappraise their responses reacted differently to the stressors than might have been predicted. They felt energized, more confident and ready for the challenge. But what was even more surprising was that their physiological response was more positive, because they didn’t experience the tightening of blood vessels commonly associated with chronic stress and thereby with cardiovascular disease. Rather, the blood vessels stayed relaxed, as happens during periods of “joy and courage.”

What if effectively dealing with stress is as simple as changing the way you view it?

This is a much healthier physiological reaction. As McGonigal puts it, “How you think about stress matters.” It may make the difference between a long life and an early death.

McGonigal goes on to describe another positive benefit of a healthy stress response: the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, which results in people seeking out social support during times of stress. Says McGonigal, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how to you feel, instead of bottling it up.” In addition, this results in an increase of empathy so that you are more likely to help someone else who’s experiencing stress.

Further, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory and protects the heart from potential negative effects of stress.

But most telling is a study (Poulin et al., 2013, Am J Public Health) that examined the connection between high levels of stress, risk of dying and amount of time that people spent supporting those around them. As might be expected given the above information,”people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. …Caring created resilience.”

For me, McGonigal’s talk stood my belief about stress on its head. Can I learn to view the stress response differently? Yes, I believe I can. And what about social support? That is the path my life is taking: finding a more meaningful existence though supporting others.

This is a “win-win” of the highest degree.