Student Experiments with Ayurveda to Appease Asthma

As part of Axis Yoga’s Denver-based teacher training program, students conduct personal experiments that bring yogic principles into their daily lives. Some students choose to explore the application of different yogic yamas such as non-violence and truthfulness, while others experiment with asana or pranayama in various aspects of their lives. This student chose to conduct an experiment with Ayurveda. She conducted her experiment over the course of two weeks to see how Ayurvedic modifications to her diet and lifestyle would affect her asthma.

Ayurveda to Appease Asthma: Introduction

When I initially started the Axis Yoga Teacher Training program I had very little knowledge of the world of yoga outside of the asana practice. Certainly I knew that there were other components that made up the practice of yoga, but I did not understand that all of these parts must be practiced in order to have a whole and well rounded experience. Of course some teachings resonated with me more so than others. No where did this hold more true than in the study of Ayurveda. My interest in Ayurveda was two fold. First I have always had a relatively unhealthy relationship with food. I think that this is partially related to my general lack of self control as well as the fact that I was brought up in a very Italian household where it is taught that food can ease or enhance any emotion. However, my second reason was the one that drove me to further explore the benefits of Ayurveda, my asthma.

Since childhood I have had asthma. Initially the doctors diagnosed it as exercise induced asthma. Very early on though I realized that this was a mis-diagnosis because it often times seemed that the more in shape I was the less my asthma bothered me. From the time I was diagnosed until now, I have never felt comfortable leaving the house without my medication in fear of having an attack. There have been times that I recall being a half an hour from home realizing that I do not have my medication and turning around to get it. Not only is this scary on many levels it also makes me feel a like I have a certain amount of dependence. When I learned that Ayurveda could very effectively lessen the symptoms of asthma I was hooked. I generally eat quite healthy, but I certainly have never consumed food, slept or lived a life that was specific to my dosha. I decided to embark on a two week experiment, and track my inhaler usage respectively. During the first week I would follow the pitta guidelines and live a dosha specific life. During the second week I would live a completely chaotic and uncontrolled life.  For purposes of this experiment I am defining ‘asthmatic episodes,’ as any time I feel enough constriction in my breathing that I am forced to use my inhaler.

Ayurveda to Appease Asthma: Week 1

During the beginning of the experiment I was very motivated to see if living a more pitta soothing life would make a difference for my asthma. I was lucky that week one happened during the Ayurveda section of our class. I felt very supported my classmates who were also working hard, and Beth Sanchez who was very available to help with any questions that arose. Upon reviewing Dr. Lad’s and the Ayurvedic institutes guidelines for what would help soothe pitta dosha and asthma I realized that I was going to have a very measured week ahead of me. During the week I followed the sleep wake guidelines: waking up at 5:30AM and falling asleep by 10:00PM. When I woke in the morning I did a 30 minute mediation practice focusing my pranayama practice on nadi sodhana and sitali. Following my meditation practice I did a very short, (15 minute) grounding asana practice. I had to certain that I was finished with this practice by 7:00AM so that I could eat breakfast at the appropriate time. For breakfast each day I ate oatmeal with sweet apples. I noticed on the first day how much more alert and motivated I felt when I stepped into the workplace. Asthma aside I enjoyed how I felt. For the entire week I diligently followed the eating times: 7AM for breakfast, 12PM for lunch 6PM for dinner. I ate a rather bland diet (as suggested), and cut out what seemed to be every food that I loved. In addition, each morning and night when I showered I infused the air with Eucalyptus or Cedar essential oils. I could feel the menthol of the Eucalyptus seeping into my body and almost calming my airways. By the end of the week my bronchial tubes only felt constriction very rarely. During this week I used my inhaler on average twice (2 puffs) per day. This was a drastic reduction from my normal usage.

Ayurveda to Appease Asthma: Week 2

During the second week of the experiment I lived a completely unmeasured and chaotic lifestyle, and I paid for it. I started off by paying no attention to the time I went to sleep or when I woke up. I went to bed when I was tired, sometimes this was 9:30PM and other times it was midnight. Consequently this effected my wake time as well. When I went to sleep at 9:30PM I found myself naturally waking around 7:00AM and on the nights I went to sleep at 12AM I was naturally waking closer to 8:00AM. I did not practice meditation or asana, I just simply woke, showered and went to work. I felt so groggy and cloudy when I arrived at work and noticed that it took hours before I felt fully awake. I also paid no attention to what I ate or when I ate it. I was eating pizza, cookies, and other sweets; these are items that I generally don’t even eat during my ‘normal’ life. I must admit from the gluttonous taste side these items tasted delicious, but I could feel the terror they were wreaking on my body. Before the end of the week I noticed an obvious weight gain around my abdomen, my skin was breaking out and I felt a general sense of lethargy. Although all of theses implications were negative what I was focused most on was my inhaler usage. During this week I also stopped performing the aromatherapy while I showered. There was a HUGE increase in my inhaler usage from week one to week two. As referenced above in week one I was using my inhaler an average of twice (2 puffs) per day. During week two my average inhaler usage went up to 5 times (10 puffs) per day. Although is a huge increase in inhaler usage my general sense of well-being felt compromised as well.

Ayurveda to Appease Asthma: Conclusion

Overall, I felt like this experiment was very telling in many ways. What we feed our body and how we incorporate both exercise of the mind and body into our daily routine is very important. Although it is often time a ‘hassle’ to structure a day with such precision it makes the day far more enjoyable. I do not think that I will be able to live a life that follows all of the teachings of Ayurveda, but I do think that I will take some of the teachings in order to live a more mindfully aware life.

Student Experiment Explores Fear of Faith

As part of Denver’s Axis Yoga teacher training program, students conduct experiments that incorporate yogic priciples into their daily lives. Coming into the program with a clear and strong set of spiritual and philosophical beliefs, Sarah found herself losing sight of those as she became more and more immersed into the program. This loss of focus on her core values provoked skepticism in her acceptance of many yogi beliefs. The following is  a description of her process of questioning and confronting the fear of faith.

Working Through Fear of Faith: Hypothesis #1

I planned my personal experiment with a typical beginning, middle and end. However, the experiment took a quick left turn and ended up going down a much different path than expected. As this paper will describe, I found the end result was exactly what I needed.

Over the last couple months of soaking up a lot of new information, I continually found myself questioning some of these new theories. How was I to be sure that what I was learning wasn’t a lot of ethereal nonsense? I was surprised by my skepticism, but it was unrelenting. So when presented with the opportunity to do a personal experiment, I decided to research some of the yoga and Ayurveda claims. I hypothesized that by arming myself with enough data I could then clearly delineate what is factual and what requires a leap of faith, thus preparing me to become a true yogi.

Working Through Fear of Faith: Research Findings

I spent the first two days researching the internet to find data that would substantiate some of the claims and methods I’d been learning about. Here is a sampling of what I found:

Question: How does yoga heal on an anatomical level?

Answer:  Certain yoga poses stretch muscles that from animal studies are known to stimulate the lymph system. Lymph is known as the body’s dirty dishwater. The lymphatic system carries infection-fighting white blood cells and waste products of cellular activity. Yoga asana promotes the draining of the lymph.

Also, yoga asana has been shown to affect the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by initiating a process that turns the fight-or-flight system (sympathetic) off and the relaxation response (parasympathetic) on. This causes the heartbeat to slow and respiration and blood pressure to decrease.

Question: Does pranayama have any physical effects on the body aside from calming the nervous system?

Answer: One study showed that yoga breathing through a particular nostril, or through alternate nostrils increases hand grip strength. The practice of mudras and simple breath awareness showed no change in grip strength.

Pranayama also helped prevent free radical damage in coronary artery disease patients.

Question: Can mediation replace other medical therapies yielding similar benefits?

Answer: In a study of chronic pain patients, 10 weeks of meditation practice resulted in statistically significant reductions of present-moment pain, negative body image, inhibition of activity by pain, symptoms, mood disturbance, and anxiety and depression. The use of drugs for pain decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased.

Question: Is honey toxic when cooked?

Answer:  Most information found on this subject said no. However, according to one source (credibility not confirmed) “cooking honey is toxic from chemical changes that occur during cooking to create cancer causing chemicals as well as accumulates free radical heavy metals into your body.”

I found this information to be interesting but also rather random and incomplete. The conclusion I came to after these two days was two-fold. First, there are far too many questions and too much data to try and process in just a couple weeks. This should be a life-long study as my interests take shape and unfold in new areas. Second, I have a fear of faith. And this is where my experiment took its turn.

Working Through Fear of Faith: Hypothesis #2

I started this program with some concrete beliefs that I’ve long held and was searching for a system to fit these beliefs into. But once I started to learn so much I lost track and started doing the reverse. I began taking outside beliefs and trying to find proof to help me have faith in them. I decided it was time to let go of my fear of faith and simply listen to what the Divine inside of me is saying. I therefore changed my experiment to focus on the application of what I’ve learned in this training program. My new hypothesis was that by focusing on what I do believe, rather than what I don’t believe, I can find deeper faith and peace than I can by searching for proof. My method for testing this hypothesis was to begin a practice that I will carry out beyond graduation from yoga teacher training. In essence, stop learning about being a yogi and start living like one. 

I began by writing out my core beliefs. This provided me with a foundation to build upon. I then designed a daily routine. This included my waking time, prayer, asana, pranayama, meditation, self-care and continued study of yoga texts.  For my meditation practice, I contacted Santosh for a recommendation on a mantra (he gave me Om Gum Ganapataye Namah) and purchased a mala of 108 beads to help keep me focused. I also set an intention to be present; to actively stop dwelling on anything past and not striving incessantly for the future. I let go of any expectations that I will adopt these changes perfectly at the start. I have been forgiving and kind toward myself, knowing that my practice will ripen over time. Finally, I created a schedule of yoga classes that I will attend once I’m no longer learning from Axis.

Working Through Fear of Faith: Conclusion

Over the course of this experiment I have found spiritual growth in setting a routine. When I first approached this idea from our Ayurveda section, I expected to feel physical benefits. I can’t say I feel any better or worse but it has given me a way to actually practice my spirituality. And this is what I was missing. I had my core beliefs but very little context for them. Now I have a way to express and deepen my faith on a daily basis. I have also enjoyed the process of refining my yoga practice with each new experience. For example, experimenting with the order of my sadhana and finding what works best for me. As well as realizing that visual meditations aren’t as helpful to me as using a mantra. This process makes me feel as though my practice is my own and I’m not just following someone else’s directions. This is how I know I am working through my fear of faith, because originally I wanted someone to hand me a complete set of instructions for how to be a good yogi and why it’s all worth it. Now I have grown to listen to the teachings from my own heart instead.

Setting an intention each day to be present and live consciously has also been powerful. I made this attitudinal change years ago but combining it with my other practices gives it additional strength. It has been especially helpful in this vata season to help keep me grounded. Rather than darting from one task to another, always with an eye one what’s next, I’ve worked on appreciating the moment. I’ve begun to decline invitations in order to keep space in my schedule for me to just relax and stay caught up. While part of me regrets missing out on those activities, I appreciate the calm I am able to maintain.

I certainly haven’t been perfect. Some nights I stayed up too late and had to miss some of my morning routine to catch up on sleep. Some days I ate poorly and felt the ill effects. Over the Thanksgiving break I caught a cold while travelling and completely fell off my schedule with that double whammy.  However, having given myself forgiveness and kindness during this process, I finish feeling successful and excited about this continued lifestyle. Including a post-teacher training schedule and continued study into my methodology for this experiment gives me confidence that I will transition smoothly into the next chapter of my life as a yogi.

I can’t even count the number of times during this teacher training that I was told “your own personal experience will be your best teacher.” Now I can fully agree that this is true. As I had hypothesized (the second time anyway), I have re-connected with my faith by focusing on my core beliefs rather than on the unknown and the uncertain. And is this not the definition of faith itself?