Monthly Archives: May 2014

Look Twice!

A photo is worth a thousand words. This one left me speechless.

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H.S. Arun, prop master!


parivrtta trikonasana with chair

At my Iyengar yoga assessment last September, one of the candidates told me about a teacher from Bangalore who would give yearly workshops in Santa Fe. “This guy is a prop master,” she said, then showed me one of his teachings: a simple version of Pavana Muktasana (see below) with a white strap in a three foot loop with one end behind the knees, the other end around the neck. Five minutes in this pose turned my tight back to butter. The constant tension of the thighs pushing against the strap in the pose makes the muscle fibers in the back unwind one-by-one until the back is completely softened. This was revolutionary. “He does this every night after he teaches coupled with Supta Padangusthasana to relieve the stress from teaching,” she said.

pavana muktasana

Pavana Muktasana with strap

The man is H.S. Arun. He has been teaching yoga since 1976 under the tutelage of BKS Iyengar who awarded him with a Advanced Junior certification. Full disclosure, I have never met Arun or attended one of his classes. That is what makes his practice more intriguing to me.

I sought him out on YouTube. If you saw this man walking down the street, you wouldn’t even think of him as a yoga practitioner. This man is an accountant by profession and looks very much the part. All you would see is just see a 60ish year old man in workout gear, like they kind you would see your gramps wearing to the gym. Ha ha Lululemon! Watching him do yoga, that illusion transforms. In all of his poses, he demonstrates beautifully. In the final pose, he closes his eyes and looks peaceful and content. Not just easy poses. Poses like Yogadandasana (as seen below) where you have to rotate your hip so much that your foot is placed in the armpit. Poses like Krounchasana, where one leg is fully flexed in Virasana, and the other leg is extended up.

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H.S. Arun in Yogadandasana

His Facebook page which is rife with pictures of him a various workshops, as he is just finishing a US tour. The photos inspire. He doing Virabhardrasana I with a long strap looped around his back foot and hold the other end above his head. I tried this today, and have never felt such a stable and even backbend in this pose…ever!

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Virabhadrasana I with strap

Iyengar yoga gets its undo share of ribbing for its use of props. But this man takes it the other way. He shows what is possible with the use of props like no other teacher I have seen. And at 60 years old, he looks like he is still in his  30s when doing asana…and far better than any 30 year old I’ve seen!

So far I have had much success in reverse engineering the poses just based on his photographs and videos. I even had my uncle who has severe back problems do the Pavana Muktasana as mentioned above. My uncle felt immediate relief. Arun highlights the innovativeness of the Iyengar method and inspires me to want to experiment more with props to see what is possible. Perhaps one day I will be fortunate enough to attend one his workshops.

Research: which style of yoga is most highly rated in the US?

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I was disheartened to see some Yelp reviews that were critical of some of my favorite Iyengar yoga studios. This led to a bizarre obsession to see if all Iyengar studios were getting trashy reviews on Yelp.

I set up an experiment by using a random US city generator to get a list of 70 cities. Next, I set variables. Since I was looking for Iyengar studios, I might as well look for other styles as well for comparison. I chose styles that have a standard nationwide teaching curriculum. Those styles are Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, and Corepower. Then the work began.

Yelp uses an ordinal scale with 1-to-5 star ranking. If you have every taken a survey that has a “extremely dislike to extremely like” Likert-type scale, it’s the same thing.

I spent a good part of three days collecting the data on my time off. The research was conducted on May 7-9, 2014. As very few cities had all four styles it took me longer than anticipated to get all the data. Some interesting challenges presented themselves during this process. For example, Corepower is primarily a West Coast-centric practice and I had to take measures from several studios in the same community to get enough scores. Also, finding is “pure” Asthanga yoga studio is very difficult, and I only tallied the studios who reported to teach the series’ with some degree of authenticity. There were plenty of “Ashtanga/vinyasa/hot flow studios which were not suitable to my parameters. Finding a “pure” Iyengar studio was a bit easier than Asthanga because it was easy to verify credentialing via the IYNAUS website. Lastly, Bikram studios are everywhere and outnumbers the other styles roughly 2-to-1. The three days’ work yielded 30 scores of each style.

Threats to internal validity from what I can see would be whats called position set from reviewers. Usually people will write a Yelp review if they are really happy or pissed off, corresponding in a 1 star or 5 star review. There are probably plenty of “fake” reviews which Yelp itself says it takes great pains to counteract with an internal algorithm. As I mentioned about the Bikram style, many of the reviews had markedly higher counts of reviews than the other styles which indicate that it may be the most well-attended style of the styles chosen. Another threat to internal validity is the bias of people who write Yelp reviews (or can write period) versus those who don’t use the review site or cannot write. One more would be that Corepower yoga tends to be in cities along the West coast and may not reflect nationwide attitudes toward this style. I  happily invite statisticians out there to point out other threats to internal validity that I failed to mention.

With all that out of the way, here are the results:

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Iyengar = 4.61 stars

Bikram = 4.083 stars

Ashtanga=4.51 stars

Corepower=4.266 stars

Group average=4.34 stars

Out of 30 scores of each style from 70 randomly selected US cities, Iyengar had an an average mean of 4.61, Bikram had an average mean of 4.083, Asthanga had an average mean of 4.51, and Corepower had an average mean of 4.266. The mean of the whole group was 4.34.

What that “means”

My hypothesis that Iyengar yoga is favored poorly nationwide in the US was rejected in this study. That means that Iyengar was the highest rated style of the group, with Asthanga being a near statistical tie. Corepower was just below the group’s average mean. As far as Bikram, they got the lowest score of the group. Before you Bikram fans fret, Bikram yoga is easily the most practiced style in the US. So that means that their classes are best attended, but the students are more apt to complain about it.

One advantage about using Yelp as a measure is that respondents gave information on “why” they gave the rating they did. People who responded with a 5 star review of the Bikram style said that felt it was a “great workout” and stated they felt it had improved their health. For negative ratings of the Bikram style, most addressed poor sanitary conditions of certain studios, and also complaints of not honoring of Groupon discounts.

For the Iyengar style, many 5 star review respondents said they appreciated the detail of instruction and ability of instructors to work with injuries. Some respondents gave a one star rating for instructors who were perceived as “rude” and also for blankets that were not washed regularly.

For the Corepower style, reviewers who gave 5 stars remarked that they enjoyed the modern looking facilities, and the range of options for classes. A large number of one star ratings complained about the of locking doors too early. Others included complaints about Corepower being too “workout focused” and not addressing the more inward aspects of yoga.

Lastly, positive Asthanga reviewers cited “authenticity” often in 5 star reviews and often praised teachers who adhered to the Jois lineage. For criticisms, a one star rating came from a reviewer who said the instructor did not address his injury. Another reviewer gave a studio a two star rating because she said she did not know the primary series by heart and the class “left her in the dust.”

For teachers and studio owners, this research yields useful data on how to improve ratings. It appears as though sanitary conditions of the studio weigh heavily on one’s perception of the style. Also teacher friendliness and experience are major factors in a studios rating. It also appears as though Groupon users will decrease one’s studios ratings if owners have any type of perceived breach of contract (whether or not it is legitimate).

One last flaw I see in the Yelp review method is that many the reviewers do not appear to have enough experience in the style to make an informed rating of the style. As good yoga practitioners know, it takes many years of practice to truly appreciate the fruits of their particular style.

Again, if there are any statisticians out there, please feel free to hammer away at my findings. If anyone else wants to replicate the study, I can provide further data on which cities were selected. Now how do you spend your free time?

Yoga vs. Psychology or Yoga as a Psychology?

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Today I passed my National Counselors Exam, the last step I needed to become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. That process took a good part of a year after receiving hundreds of hours of supervision. This test required me to know all the major psychology theories from psychologists like Freud, Perls, Rogers, Skinner, and Ellis. It required me to know statistics and testing design. It also required me to know about group counseling dynamics, career and lifespan developmental theory. There was a nice dosage of ethics questions in there too.

Just about six months ago, I passed my Introductory II certification for Iyengar yoga. Because I was dumb enough to work on both certifications simultaneously, it made me reflect many times on which one is more difficult. Both certifications require one to be current in their field and adapt to constantly evolving changes. Both certifications require a code of ethics that require one to give beyond what is asked of them.

To reframe the question of which one is harder, what would happen if I just stopped studying for my psychology test? I would probably still be a good mental health counselor and may require an occasional refresher course to get my CE credits. What would happen if I stopped doing or teaching yoga? I would get jettisoned back to square one in no time fast! So yoga is, gulp, much harder than Psychology.

About 10 years ago, I was accepted into a Psy.D. program. After careful evaluation, I opted out of the program as I had my Masters in Psychology and could focus more on my ultimate goal of using yoga as an adjunct therapy for anxiety and depression instead of spending another 5 years in school. Ten years later, I have conducted many groups with clients using yoga as a means to decrease anxiety. In one Psycho-Social-Rehabilitation (PSR) group with clients who had severe mental illness to the point where they were hearing voices, doing standing poses greatly relieved their symptoms.

In graduate school, I wrote many papers on yoga as an legitimate theoretical orientation (like psychoanalysis or behaviorism). The more I practice, the more I believe that yoga transcends many of the contemporary psychologies. The path of yoga directs the practitioner upwards toward self actualization (much like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model). Many contemporary psychologies focus on client pathology. Freud pretty much reduced humans to a spring loaded sexual impulse just ready to pounce on whatever got in the ego’s way. He has many great points, but yoga seems to easily trump them with practice and detachment. I anticipate much rebuttal from practicing psychologists who will have valid points refuting my claim. Before they pounce, I just ask them to practice yoga daily 2 hours daily for one month.