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ASU celebrates ancient practice of yoga

Open ASU event Saturday in honor of International Day of Yoga, which is June 21.
Yoga comes from an ancient Sanskrit word meaning "to unite."
ASU expert: 5-10 minutes of yoga a day better than single 1.5-hour class a week.
June 15, 2017

Learn more about the practice, history and benefits from ASU's experts; take part in community event this weekend

Thirty years ago the phrase “downward dog” was likely to raise a few eyebrows when overheard in conversation, but nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize it as a yoga pose.

The United Nations seemed to think so when in 2014 it sought to give the more-than-5,000-year-old practice the recognition it deserved by establishing June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. From 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 17, the Arizona State University student chapter of the Art of Living Foundation will host a community yoga celebration on the Tempe campus’ Hayden Lawn.

The gathering is part of a nationwide event to spread awareness of the practice, and an estimated 50 to 100 people are expected to show up, according to Alicia Nelson, global studies undergraduate and president of the Art of Living ASU student chapter.

Nelson took her first yoga class at ASU a few years ago and began teaching it around the Valley in early 2016.

“Yoga is that time where you say, OK, I’m going to pause everything I’m doing in the outside world and focus on what’s going on inside,” she said. “When you give yourself that time, you’re more aware of how you’re going through life, and it gives you the power to have a deeper experience and come to happiness in the moment.”

Yoga featured prominently at the recent opening of ASU’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, a new initiative that will bring together researchers, practitioners and educators across disciplines to collaborate, study and spread ideas about mindfulness, compassion and resilience throughout the university and surrounding community.

“I’m really excited about the new center,” ASU health sciences lecturer Julia PearlJulia Pearl is a lecturer in ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. She holds the following certifications: E-RYT 500 (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher); YACEP (Yoga Alliance Certified Education Provider); ACSM-CPT (American College of Sports Medicine, Certified Personal Trainer); and AFAA- CGFI (Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, Certified Group Fitness Instructor). said. She has been teaching yoga since 1995 and hopes to incorporate her specialty, Ashtanga yogaAshtanga yoga is a style of yoga popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century and consisting of eight “limbs,” or branches, of which physical poses are only one. “Power yoga” is a generic term that may refer to any type of aerobically vigorous yoga exercise derived from Ashtanga yoga., into the center’s offerings.

In preparation for Saturday’s event, ASU Now tracked down some of the university’s foremost experts on yoga to create a mini guide on its practice, history and benefits.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

An age-old practice

The word “yoga” comes from an ancient Sanskrit word that means “to unite,” as in uniting the body, mind and spirit. The practice originated in India more than 5,000 years ago with the goal of enlightenment and self-realization.

“In almost any culture, there’s this desire to understand why are we here, and now that we’re here, how do we live this life,” said attorney and Desert Song Healing Arts Center yoga instructor Alisa Gray. “People have always sought answers to these questions, and we’re still seeking answers.”

Desert Song Healing Arts Center is a community partner of ASU’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience. Gray, who earned her undergraduate and law degree from ASU, also teaches yoga and mindfulness to law students and legal professionals.

Gandhi, as it turns out, was also both a lawyer and a yogi, though not in the sense we might think. He practiced Ahimsa, or non-violence.

“Gandhi was a yogi in the sense of practicing what’s called karma yoga — good works,” Gray said. “So he was a yogi although you wouldn’t see him doing downward dog.”

Western vs. Eastern

Yoga only recently became commonplace in Western countries. Some trace the origin of yoga in the West to the yogi Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where he demonstrated various poses. Almost a century later, during the 1970s, University of Massachusetts Medical School professor Jon Kabat-Zinn helped boost its popularity in the U.S. when he integrated the teachings with scientific findings.

Since then, yoga has seen the endorsement of celebrities like Sting and Madonna and has even been incorporated into professional athletes’ training regimens.

“Gosh, it’s changed so much over the last 22 years,” Pearl said. “The biggest way is just how mainstream it’s become. … It’s very normalized. Much more so than when I first started in Seattle, when I was involved in the ‘Earthy-mama’ movement.”

And yoga is no longer thought of as a solely religious practice meant to achieve enlightenment.

“Western yoga is definitely more fitness-oriented,” said ASU health sciences lecturer Christina BarthChristina Barth is a lecturer in ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. She holds the following certifications: Registered Dietitian Nutritionist; Registered Yoga Teacher., “but it still helps us to manage stress, learn to relax and increase our overall sense of well-being.”

More than just striking a pose

There are several schools of yoga, including Bikram (hot yoga), Yin (slow-paced) and Ashtanga (power). One of the main components of Ashtanga is deep breathing, which Pearl said “almost sounds like Darth Vader” in an otherwise quiet studio.

That breathing aspect is very important, though. In fact, breathing is one of the eight “limbs,” or branches, of yoga. Other limbs include meditation and ethics.

The poses we generally associate with the entirety of yoga actually only make up one limb, called the “asana” limb, and there is some debate among yogis as to where they all came from, since ancient writings mention just one: the seated meditation pose. One theory, according to Gray, is that the plethora of modern-day yoga poses originated from calisthenicsCalisthenics are gymnastic exercises intended to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement..

There’s also the mental and emotional aspects of yoga to consider, said Devi Davis-StrongDevi Davis-Strong is a lecturer in ASU’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion. She holds the following certifications: Yoga Alliance 200 Hour Teacher Certification; American College of Sports Medicine Health Fitness Specialist and Personal Training Certificate; American Council on Exercise Group Fitness and Personal Training certifications; Certified Health Education Specialist., ASU exercise science and health promotion lecturer. It’s those aspects, as opposed to the physical poses, that have kept her coming back over the roughly 15 years she has been practicing.

“The poses are challenging, but that’s not really the point of yoga,” Davis-Strong said.

Research to back it up

Among the benefits of yoga are lessened insomnia, anxiety and depression; lower heart, respiratory and blood pressure rates; increased serotonin levels; and improvement in body image. And those benefits have been scientifically proven, something that satisfies Westerners’ desire for empirical justification, Gray said.

Barth, who has been doing yoga for 10 years, has seen firsthand the positive effect it has had on clients at her private practice, who are recovering from eating disorders.

“I’ve seen a big change in them as far as mindful eating,” she said.

Research has also shown that yoga can shift the body from a state of “fight or flight,” our bodies’ natural response to stress, to a more relaxed one.

“We live in such a fast-paced, stressful society, we need a way to calm ourselves, to soothe ourselves,” Davis-Strong said. “The stress response is quick; it’s a survival mechanism” that can muddle the circuitry in our frontal cortex, which helps us make good decisions. “Yoga can help us slow down so we can make better decisions and respond better to challenging situations.”

Anyone can be a yogi

Incorporating yoga into your life could be easier than you thought. Pearl recently helped create a video demonstrating 10 stress-relieving postures that can be done at your desk.

“You don’t even have to go to a gym; you can practice mind-body exercises at your desk when you get an email that makes your blood pressure go up,” she said. “You can do something about it right then that will be better for your well-being.”

When it comes to setting goals, she advises against putting too much pressure on yourself or forcing yourself to do something that’s too difficult.

“With all behavior change, it’s really about starting with the ‘smart’ goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-oriented. Things that somebody will actually be able to do, because consistency is key. If you can do five to 10 minutes of yoga a day, that’s better than one, one-and-a-half-hour class a week,” Pearl said.

Adding to that, Davis-Strong said it’s important not to be intimidated and to just enjoy the experience.

“I just encourage people to give it a try and see how they feel,” she said. “Just feel good, have fun and enjoy your body.”

Sun Never Sets on Yoga

What: Yoga session open to the public.

When: 6:30-8 p.m. Saturday, June 17.

Where: Hayden lawn, Tempe campus.

Admission: Free; donations accepted.

Details: Bring mat, water bottle and small meditation cushion. Find more information at ASU Events.

Top photo: ASU health sciences lecturer Julia Pearl does yoga at ASU's Sun Devil Fitness Complex on the Downtown Phoenix campus. Photo by Anna Werner

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The healing effects of yoga

Study participants use online yoga to help deal with grief or cancer symptoms.
Yoga helped ASU prof with her grief from stillbirth; she hopes to help others.
June 16, 2016

ASU researcher studying how online yoga can help those dealing with grief of stillbirth or symptoms of a rare blood cancer

Jennifer Huberty didn’t give much thought to the healing effects of yoga — until she lost her child.

It was Jan. 27, 2011, and the ASU health researcher was about to give birth to her first daughter, Raine Madilynne Huberty. She was 39½ weeks pregnant and looked up at the monitor, which revealed her 8-pound, 4-ounce child was not alive.

Raine was stillborn.

“I remember looking at my husband and he was crying. I was in disbelief, yelling at the health-care providers, asking them how this could happen,” said Huberty (pictured above, center), an associate professor in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion in the College of Health Solutions.

“Giving birth to Raine was the most devastating experience, and I will never forget any moment of that morning.”

Huberty tried grief counseling a few times but quit because it wasn’t doing much for her. She switched to yoga to deal with her grief and discovered it helped.

She thought if it worked for her, it could work for others.

Huberty and her team will be receiving a grant of just under $500,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct a study investigating the effects of yoga on symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after stillbirth.

They’ve already completed a nine-month beta feasibility test of a home-based online-streaming yoga intervention for women who have experienced stillbirth. Twenty participants between the ages of 19 and 44 completed the study; all were women who had experienced a stillbirth within the previous two years. A majority of them reported symptoms of PTSD and depression prior to beginning the study.

online yoga class

Feasibility-study participants accessed
online yoga courses through,
the only yoga website participating in
active research, according to ASU
associate professor Jennifer Huberty.

Photos courtesy of

Stillbirth presents a sixfold increased risk for PTSD and a fourfold risk for depression when compared with live, healthy births, research has shownAccording to a research article Huberty co-wrote with Jason Coleman, Katherine Rolfsmeyer and Serena Wu called "A qualitative study exploring women's beliefs about physical activity after stillbirth." (Published November 14, 2014). PTSD and/or depression may contribute to a variety of health problems, including weight retention or gain, increased risk of chronic disease, premature mortality, stress, anxiety and sleep quality.

Mary Queen, who was 36 when she went through a stillbirth in 2012, said she experienced almost all of those symptoms after the death of Rayna, one of her twin daughters. Queen was 38 weeks along and had a C-section scheduled in the afternoon. Her daughter Sara came out fine, but Rayna was stillborn; the doctor said the umbilical cord had gotten wrapped around her neck.

“Many people said to me, ‘Well, you still have a healthy baby,’ but they don’t understand I still suffered the loss of a child,” Queen said from her home in Charleston, West Virginia. “Every time Sara celebrates a milestone, Rayna should have been there with her. I might smile on the outside, but I feel horrible on the inside.

“After you suffer a loss like that, you live in a parallel world of ‘what if?’ My life is now divided into before Rayna and after Rayna. I still get bothered.”

Queen said the next few months were a blur and she fell into a dark place. She said her 3-year-old child and baby Sara were the only things that kept her going. A year later she give birth to another set of twins but couldn’t shake off the loss of Rayna.

When she discovered the online yoga study through a Facebook site, she thought it might make a difference. It has.

“Boy, did it whip my butt,” Queen said, who did up to three 60-minute yoga sessions a week at her peak. “What I liked most about it was that it makes you concentrate on your breathing. During those times I didn’t think about Rayna, and it allowed my brain to shut off for a while. I felt a whole lot better and only saw benefits from taking online yoga.”

Jeni Matthews, a physical activity, nutrition and wellness doctoral student in the College of Health Solutions and yoga instructor who assisted Huberty with the study, said yoga is highly individualized and can be modified for any activity level.

“You don’t have to do it all at once; you can do yoga in smaller increments of time,” Matthews said. “Most of the benefit doesn’t come from the physical part but the breathing and meditation. The important part of yoga is for patients to take the time to practice self-care and quiet the mind.”

“What I liked most about it was that it makes you concentrate on your breathing. During those times I didn’t think about Rayna, and it allowed my brain to shut off for a while.”
— Mary Queen, online-yoga study participant whose daughter was stillborn

Participants access the online yoga sessions through, which was created by film producer and yogi Yariv Lerner. The site offers a library of more than 400 classes, fitness programs and health and wellness challenges. It’s also the only yoga website participating in active research, according to Huberty.

“I didn’t have any funding to conduct the beta test for the feasibility study that is being funded by NIH. I reached out to Yariv and asked him if he would be willing to donate the memberships for mothers of stillbirth,” Huberty said. “He generously and graciously agreed. The chief operating officer, Patty Van de Bogart, supported the entire study without compensation. They were, and still are, an amazing support for the work I am doing.”

Huberty has learned that the recuperative powers of yoga are far-reaching and will seek an additional $2.5 million grant from the NIH in the next year in partnership with Mayo. This time it will be to examine the effects of yoga on symptom burdenSymptom burden refers to the physical and emotional toll of disease and its treatments. in Myeloproliferative Neoplasm (MPN) patients, which is a rare blood cancer.

In a feasibility study Huberty recently conducted with 30 MPN patients over a 12-week period, there was a significant improvement in symptom burden, depressive symptoms, anxiety and sleep. Ryan Eckert, an exercise and wellness master’s student in the College of Health Solutions, shared, “MPN patients felt that one of the most beneficial aspects of the online yoga was the breathing. They learned how to incorporate breathing techniques into their daily lives and are benefiting from this.”

Fifty-seven-year-old Marty Paciocco was diagnosed with MPN two years ago after she got a checkup for severe vertigo, migraine headaches and double vision. While fatigue was also a symptom, she thought that was because she was overworked and stressed at her job.

“I’d come home from work and spend most evenings on the couch and weekends resting and relaxing, gearing up for the week,” said Paciocco, a mental-health and substance-use counselor who lives in Amherst County in Virginia. “I just assumed my age and stress were slowing me down.”

Although Paciocco’s MPN numbers became manageable over time, she still had to deal with fatigue. She discovered the study through a listserv and decided to make a commitment to improve her health.

“Most of the videos were short and I could close my door in my office, move my desk and follow along,” Paciocco said. “My energy level is much better, and physically it feels good to stretch my body. Yoga also slows my brain down and allows me to take a mental break from my work.”

Huberty said the new ASU/Mayo study would investigate the efficacy of online-streaming yoga to reduce fatigue and improve quality of life as compared with a wait-list control group in MPN patients. Additionally, it will explore the feasibility of collecting blood biomarkers that may be associated with fatigue in MPN patients participating in an online yoga intervention.

“As a health professional, it’s wonderful when you can do something for the common good and reach so many people in many places,” Huberty said. “If it’s not going to help people lead a healthier life, then it’s a miss. Luckily for all involved, this is a can’t-miss.”