Yoga for Athletes...How yoga can help you reduce injury, recover faster and improve your performance

What do Andy Murray, the New Zealand All Blacks, and Paula Radcliffe all have in common?  They are all top athletes who practice yoga to help them stay in peak physical condition. But, why is yoga so beneficial for athletes? Read on to find out more…..

Three of the most obvious benefits of yoga are relaxation, increased flexibility and breath control. Being supple as well as strong, the ability to stay cool under pressure and the ability to regulate your breath are key for any athlete. However, there are a whole host of more subtle benefits that come from a regular yoga practice which lead to an enhanced sense of body awareness.  The benefits include improved coordination, balance and proprioception (our sense of where we are in space).

Athletes, of any level, need to prevent and recover from injury and enhanced body awareness is the foundation for this.

In terms of injury prevention an athlete with enhanced body awareness is more likely to move smoothly and in harmony with their own biomechanics therefore reducing the risk of overuse injuries. If a niggle starts to develop during training it’s often very tempting to try and push through but they are able to stop, assess and adjust to avoid it developing into something major. Good balance and reflexes reduce the risk of trips and give a better chance of self-righting if you do start to fall.

But what happens if the worst comes to the worst and you develop an injury? Yoga can still help with that! The key for effective rehab is rest in the very early stages and then (and this is the tricky part) enough movement to help the tissue fibres heal correctly but not so much as to re-injure them.  Yoga can provide safe and low impact cross training during recovery, plus the enhanced body awareness can help the athlete better sense how much movement / pressure their injury can safely take during the rehab process.

So if you’re an athlete of any level why not give yoga a try? You might be surprised by the results.
If you have an injury that is bothering you then I offer tailored yoga rehab and sports massage combi packages to get you back to peak condition as quickly as possible. I also offer yoga rehab workshops for sports clubs. Get in touch with me at kateyinyoga@gmail.com for more info.


Meditation and Biophotons: Cultivating Inner Light

We are all beings of light. Our cells emit low intensity 'packets of light' called biophotons, in the UV and visible regions of the electromagnetic spectrum.[1]

Yes you read that correctly, humans emit light and not just any kind of light. The biophotons we emit are highly coherent and can communicate with themselves and their surroundings on a quantum level [2]. The full scope of  biophotons within the body hugely complex and still not fully understood, but we know they are a key method of cellular communication[3] and may even explain the unification of cells within the body[4]. Suddenly the traditional image of a meditating yogi radiating light in perfect harmony with themselves and the universe doesn't seem so far fetched after all!

Except that levels of  biophoton emission seem to be the opposite of what one might expect. Biophoton emission is actually lower than average in regular meditators [5] and higher than average in those who are sick [6] and on the affected side of stroke patients[7]. Almost as if  our inner light drains out of us when our bodies are under stress.

The explanation seems to lie in our DNA. One of the major discoveries of Fritz Albert Popp, the pioneer of biophoton research, is that DNA is a major source of biophotons. Popp found that biophoton emission increases when our DNA unwinds[8]. This unwinding can happen as a result of:

  1.  Cell growth where the DNA splits to allow its information to be duplicated.
  2.  Cell death when the dead cells are broken down by the body  
  3.  Damage to the DNA itself due to toxic chemicals or radiation. 

So what does this mean for us as meditators? Simply put this even more evidence for the healing benefits of meditation! Regular meditation reduces inflammation[9], and free radical levels in the body. Free radicals are highly reactive chemicals that damage cells and DNA. Lower free radical levels lead to less cell and DNA damage, and decreasing biophoton emission[5]. In modern life our bodies are being bombarded with free radicals like never before from pollution, pesticides, certain food additives, cosmetics etc.The power of meditation to reduce the impact of these chemicals on our systems and potentially help heal or reduce the risk of inflammation related disease should not be underestimated.

Another amazing property of biophotons is that they can be influenced by our intention. A study in  2012  found that when subjects actively imagined light in a very dark environment their intention produced significant increases in biophoton emission from around their heads[10]. This is huge as it is strong evidence that we can influence physical process with the power of our minds. Again this links back to meditation and has implications for our potential abilities to direct healing around our bodies.

To conclude, biophotons are an amazing, hugely complex and surprisingly under researched phenomenon of life. They are in overarching cellular communication, a measure of health, potentially instrumental in healing and can be influenced by our minds. There appears to an amazing synergy between their properties and the effects of meditation. And again meditation is proved to have enormous benefits for our wellbeing with the power to protect and harness our inner light.


[1] B. Ruth, F.A. Popp, Experimentelle Untersuchungen zur ultraschwachcn Photonenemission biologi~her Systeme, Zeitschrift Naturlbrschung,  1976, 3 Ic  741-745.

[2] Cohen, S., Popp, F.A. Biophoton emission of the human body. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology, 1997, 40(2): p187.

[3]Sun, Y., Wang, C., and Dai. J.. Biophotons as neural communication signals demonstrated by in situ biophoton autography. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2010, 9(3): p315

[4] Popp, F. A., Properties of biophotons and their theoretical implications, Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, 2003.41(5): p391

[5] Eduard, P. A., Van Wijk, H. K,, Bosman, S., and Van Wijk. R., Anatomic characterization of human ultra-weak photon emission in practitioners of transcendental meditation(TM) and control subjects. J Altern Complement Med. 2006, 12(1):p31

[6] Takeda, M. et al. Biophoton detection as a novel technique for cancer imaging., Cancer Science. 2004, 95(8): p656

[7] Jung, Hyun-Hee, et al. Left-right asymmetry of biophoton emission from hemiparesis patients., Indian J Exp Biol. 2003, 41(5):p452

[8] Popp, F. A., Nagl, W., Li, K. H., Scholz, W., Weingartner, O., and Wolf, R., Biophoton emission,
Cell Biophysics, 1984, 6(1): p33.

[9] Kaliman, P., et al., Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014, 40, p96

[10]  Dotta, B.T., Saroka, K.S., and Persinger, M.A., Increased photon emission from the head while imagining light in the dark is correlated with changes in electroencephalographic power: support for B√≥kkon's biophoton hypothesis. Neurosci Lett. 2012 513(2): p151



Healthy Shoulder Movement in Downward Facing Dog, Warrior One and Other Asanas

'Reach your arms overhead and bring you shoulder blades down your back.' How often do you hear this well intentioned cue or something similar uttered in a yoga class?

Probably fairly often, and as a teacher I know I have said it plenty of times. In theory it's a good cue aimed at preventing students hunching their shoulders up around their ears when they bring their arms overhead or move into downward facing dog. Instead of hunching, we would like our students to feel breadth across the back of their shoulders and free around their necks.

However, what we are actually asking our students to do is dislocate their shoulders! Unlike the hip, the shoulder is optimized for mobility rather than stability. That means instead of there being a nice deep socket for the head of the upper arm bone (humerus) to sit into there is only a small shallow area on the side of the shoulder blade (scapula). A bit like a golf ball in a tee, see below.

So if you start trying to bring the shoulder blades down while the arms are raised, the head of the upper arm bone starts to separate from its socket on the shoulder blade. Not the healthiest movement pattern to be promoting, especially for anyone with shoulder instability. As teachers we would still like to discourage hunched shoulders in down dog or warrior one, so what to cue instead?

Happily mother nature is already one step ahead. The shoulder blade naturally rotates outwards once the arms get past 90 degrees. This is to avoid the bony projections above the shoulder joint blocking the movement of the arm bone as it elevates further as shown in the photo sequence below.

We can still cue our shoulders, or our students shoulders, not to hunch but by encouraging the natural rotation of the shoulder blade instead. A helpful cue in downward dog might be: 'Wrap your shoulder blades around towards you underarms'. In warrior one 'Roll your little fingers in towards each other'. By shifting the focus from down to breadth we can work with the body not against and still achieve open shoulders and free necks. Try it and see what you think!


Yoga Is The First Step In Managing Back Pain: NICE Update Their Guidelines

Back pain is the second most common reason for long term sickness in the UK and costs the NHS millions annually. Yet it is often very difficult to identify an origin for the pain and up to 85% of sufferers show no identifiable cause. These cases are lumped under the umbrella of 'non-specific back pain'. This type of is pain is from cumulative injuries, caused by a variety of factors including poor posture, repetitive movements, too much sitting, obesity and psychosocial considerations.

Yoga included as a non-invasive treatment

The latest NICE guidelines (published 6/1/17) for low back pain and sciatica recommend group yoga or tai chi classes as a main component of non-invasive treatment! This is brilliant news as it means the evidence is finally there to support what many yogis have known for years: yoga can be a very effective treatment for back pain. But what is it about yoga that makes it so powerful? For answers we need to look at the body's response to pain a little more deeply.
Unfortunately because it is hard to pin down a cause of back pain it is often challenging to treat, leading to chronic pain conditions for millions of people. Once the pain becomes chronic a number of changes occur in the nervous systems, muscles affected and psychological state. These changes cause feedback loops which amplify or even cause pain even if the original cause has healed.

How yoga helps with back pain

One of the most significant feedback loops is the interplay between fear/hypervigilance of pain, muscle tension as a result of the fear, and ongoing pain which creates further inflammation and more pain. A schematic of this relationship can be seen in Figure 1, which clearly shows how treatment is unlikely to be successful unless these secondary factors are also addressed. The NHS and NICE now view chronic back pain as a multifaceted condition which requires a multifaceted treatment package.

Figure 1. Chronic pain cycle

The good news is yoga can form a major part of that multifaceted treatment package in one go! One key piece of advice to those with chronic back pain is 'keep moving'. Yoga definitely helps with that, improving both core strength and flexibility. Increasing core strength is key because it reduces the load on the spine and back muscles, increasing flexibility and allowing people to move more freely.

But, that's not all. At the heart of yoga is the connection of mind and body through breath which promotes relaxation and much greater internal awareness. Or in medical terms, yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system or PNS (the system responsible for rest, digestion and healing). Different elements of yoga stimulate the PNS in different ways allowing all the elements of the secondary chronic pain feedback loop to be targeted simultaneously (see Figure 2).

  • Pranayama connects mind and body, promoting relaxation. 

  • The asanas teach the body how to regulate and reduce muscle tension in key areas 

  • Meditation: teaches the mind to draw away from hypervigilance, easing over-sensitised neural pathways and decreases inflammation in the body.

  • Figure 2. How yoga targets the chronic pain cycle.

    Reducing cost & the use of opiates

    Additionally the shift away from painkillers and towards yoga as a first line intervention for back pain could dramatically reduce the amount of opiate painkillers prescribed. This is a huge benefit to patients as it avoids the potential side effects, and addiction risks of opiates. It also benefits the NHS in terms of reduced drug costs and demands on clinician time.
    To conclude, the inclusion of yoga in the NICE guidelines for low back pain and sciatica is a huge breakthrough for patients and for those of us who dream of seeing yoga thoroughly integrated into the NHS. Yoga has great potential as an intervention for many conditions and I hope this will be the first of many more NICE.
    This blog was written in conjunction with the Minded Institute who are running a course on yoga therapy for low back pain and sciatica in April.


How the Shape of Your Bones Affects Your Yoga Practice

In yoga we tend to talk a lot about muscles and connective tissue, but very little about bones. We talk about soft tissue being tight, stiff or flexible and how to change it. Often there is the underlying assumption that if you are diligent enough with your yoga practice then you will eventually be able to do any pose you wish. This assumption might be true if soft tissue was the only limiting factor in yoga. But that simply isn't the case, sometimes you come up against the hard portion of your anatomy: Bone.

Skeletons are the framework for yoga practice. They are all uniquely proportioned and as yogis they define our individual limits. If your legs are much longer than your torso you will never be able to touch your nose to your toes in a forward fold no matter how flexible your hamstrings are. Or, if you come up against a hard 'bone on bone feeling as you move into to pose that is your anatomical end point. Hips are a key area where we can come up against this 'bone on bone' feeling and I'm going to explore the reasons in the remainder of this post.

Figure 1, below is of  the top of two femurs (thigh bones). It shows the heads (which fit into the hip socket) and the necks attaching to the shaft of the femur, This picture is commonly used to illustrate the anatomical extremes of femur development. The bone on the left has a small head, and a long slim neck coming straight out from the shaft. The bone on the has a large head with a short thick neck, angled forward from the shaft. It's easy to see how these variations could mean different ranges of movement for the individuals involved. However, the shape of femur head and neck are only part of the story

Figure 1. Top view of two femurs

The shape and depth of the hip socket play a huge role in hip range of motion (ROM) as well. Figure 2.a, below shows scans from a hip imaging study . The blue shows a very shallow hip socket and the red a very deep one. Figure 2.b shows what happens to an individual's ROM when you take into account of the shape of the femur AND the hip socket. As can be clearly seen a shallow hip socket and narrow femoral neck allow a large ROM but with a deep socket and thick femoral neck the ROM is much reduced.

But what does this mean for us as yogis? Simply put if you have the hip configuration on the left you poses which require a lot of hip ROM e.g. pigeon or cow face are likely to be quite easy easy for you but you may struggle more with poses that require a lot of stability eg tree or warrior three. If you have the hip configuration on the right then pigeon may be very difficult but balancing on one leg might seem like the most natural thing in the world!

Figure 2. a) Shallow and deep hip sockets. b) Hip ROM combining shape of the femur and the hip socket.

The point here is not to beat yourself up one way or the other but simply learn to work with your body as you practice rather than trying to force yourself  into a position that might simply be impossible for your body. Give yourself permission to modify alignment to allow for your body geometry. Good yoga teachers should understand and respect this (provided you are not doing anything unsafe!) and be happy to provide modifications for you if you are unsure!

 For example, if you come up against a bone on bone feeling in pigeon then you could try moving the front knee out to  the side more to give yourself more space.Or if you feel stuck in janu sirsasana try bringing your torso more to the inside or outside of your straight leg.


Inflammation, Yoga and the NHS

In September I started a physiotherapy degree at Kings College London and dived deeply into the realms of human anatomy, physiology and disease. So far it has been fascinating, overwhelming and frustrating. Fascinating because the human body is amazing and it's a privilege to be learning about it in such detail. Overwhelming because I'm not sure how I'm going to memorise everything I'm being taught. And to find out about the frustration read on!

As a yoga teacher and scientist I have a strong belief in the healing potential of yoga. I have seen it many times in the students I teach, in myself and in the growing body of scientific research into various therapeutic applications of yoga. I am always viewing the body from a yoga perspective as well as a physio perspective. I look for links between the two areas and ways yoga might help in some conditions. The more I learn, the more convinced I am that yoga could be beneficial in so many health conditions. But the greatest potential for yoga is in reducing one of the major pandemics of the western world; inflammation.

Inflammation is the single most recurrent theme in my course. Lecturers come back to it again and again when talking about things that can go wrong within the body and how to reduce inflammation when it has got out of control. Sometimes, the causes of inflammation are obvious e.g. as a result of a sprained ankle, but in other cases, such as a spontaneously occurring frozen shoulder, we simply don't know. 

We do know inflammation can affect any part of the body, muscle, nerves, connective tissue, joints etc. We know it is helpful as part of an acute healing response but extremely unhelpful if it becomes chronic, linking in to chronic pain and other issues. And we know diseases which cause inflammation in the body, stress and external irritants can all increase risk of other inflammatory conditions. However, reducing inflammation is very poorly understood, especially when it becomes chronic. Except yoga can do just that.

Yoga and meditation have been proved to reduce inflammatory blood markers in patients with cancer1, heart failure2 and chronic pain3 and in members of the general population4. These are all rigorous studies published high impact journals and are just a snapshot of the wonderful research being done into the therapeutic benefits of yoga and meditation.  But not once have they been mentioned as useful interventions in any of my lectures. A situation which I find incredibly frustrating! From a patient perspective, they are being denied drug free and enjoyable way to help treat themselves which has proven physiological and physiological benefits. For the cash strapped NHS yoga offers great potential as a cheap, safe and efficient (particularly group classes) way to reduce inflammation in patients with many different diseases.

How yoga and meditation reduce inflammation will be the topic of a future blog, but now the evidence is available I don’t understand why it is taking so long for them to be routinely offered to patients. We are gradually starting to see some patchy inclusion but it’s still very much on the whim of individual hospitals and wards. My dream is to see yoga thoroughly integrated into the NHS and for that to happen it needs to start being included in NICE guidelines. A huge break though has happened with the most recent set of NICE guidelines for lower back pain which include yoga for the first time! Hopefully this will be the first of many more inclusions for yoga but it’s important to keep up the pressure.

If you are a patient and think yoga could help especially if you are suffering from inflammatory conditions then talk to the health care professional/s (HCPs) treating you. One of the key priorities in the NHS is ‘client focused care’ e.g giving the patient as far as possible what they want. If there is increasing patient demand for yoga then more HCPs will start to listen. If you are a HCP be open minded about the benefits of yoga and maybe even have a look at some of the research out there. You might be surprised at the quality and the results! If you are a yoga teacher again why not investigate some of the research and keep you students informed. Finally if you are a researcher keep doing research the more we have the more convincing our arguments. I know from experience it can be quite difficult to get funding for this kind of research (I was tantalizingly close to doing a project on yoga for chronic pelvic pain which fell though at the last minute) but please keep trying and if anyone would like to collaborate on a project then please get in touch!!

1. J.K. Kiecolt-Glaser,. et al., “Yoga's Impact on Inflammation, Mood, and Fatigue in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Randomized Controlled Trial” Journal of Clinical Oncology, vol 32, no. 10, pp. 1040-1049, 2014. 

2. P. Pullen, et al., “Effects of yoga on inflammation and exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure,” Journal of Cardiac Failure, vol. 14, no. 5, pp. 407–413, 2008.

3. A. Wren, et al., “Yoga for persistent pain: New findings and directions for an ancient practice,” Pain, vol. 152, no. 3, pp. 477–480, 2011.

4. P. Kaliman, et al., “Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 40, pp. 96–107, 2014.