Ashtanga Yoga and the Circulatory System (part 4)

Awakening to the happiness of one’s self revealed.

How many peripheral arteries are occluded in Marichyasana D?

Who thinks about this stuff . . .

“inhale,” he tells me as he lifts my arm holding my wrist. 

“Exhale.” My arm is taken across the knee, down and around so that my fingers are touching the shin of the opposite foot which has disappeared inside my stomach.

“Teaching side,” he says with a head bobble pulling the other arm around my back connecting my fingers together.


White knuckle grip, I try to keep my fingers from coming apart. I’m taking shallow breaths so that my stomach doesn’t push the knee any further away. I’ve been sweating so much that at any moment the arm is going to slid off of the knee it is wrapped around.

I was in Miami, visiting my Pop’s and practicing at the Miami Life Center with Tim. I had forgotten about the humidity and about how much sweat the human body can produce. I didn’t have a towel to put over the knee to give me an extra edge of support.

I was new to this practice, maybe 9 months in, I had no idea what he meant about ‘teaching side.’

2 months earlier his wife Kino did a workshop at the studio I practiced at in Chicago. She was talking about how asana is supposed to be a comfortable seat. (That is the rough translation from Sanskrit to english) “Can you imagine drinking a cup of tea in Marichayasana D,” she asked us during a discussion on twists.

We are supposed to be that comfortable. That got a lot of laughs. And my BS radar went up with lights and sirens screaming, ‘Easy for her to say!’. How is one supposed to find ‘comfort’ in Marichayasana D with a heel digging into the gut, a knee in the chest, a head craned looking backwards like the Exorcist, and little fingers grasping to hold this shape together.

I filled this tea drinking BS, in my wacky Mysore hocus pocus woo woo folder for a few years. Every couple of weeks this tea idea would haunt me in Marichayasana D, maybe that’s why I needed to urinate before this asana? After some time, like years, I no longer needed assistance getting into this asana. D didn’t require towels to dry sweat, evacuation of the bowels before practice or a minimum of 10+ hours of fasting before attempting it. At this point years later, there was a different asana that was consuming those thoughts and actions. I forgot about the tea.

In 2010 I fractured and dislocated the left clavicle during a 4th of July party that involved a kiddie pool. 6 weeks of modified practice without any weight or pressure on the shoulder meant that I had to relearn the entire primary series again. I was super trepidatious attempting Marichayasana D again, or any of the Marichayasana’s.

Do you know why ‘they’ recommend consulting a MD before beginning an exercise routine? 

The skinny of it is that if you have a blood clot or a piece of plaque (fat, cholesterol, and calcium) in your veins and it becomes dislodged and makes it’s way back to the heart it could get lodged in a smaller blood vessel blocking the blood flow and cause a heart attack or stroke. If one of these clots gets stuck in the lungs it could cause shortness of breath, chest pain, or the coughing up of blood. This is called a pulmonary embolism. 

That’s a very simple explanation, but you understand that it’s a bad thing.

The same ‘they’ recommend getting up and walking around on an airplane while traveling for long periods. (So that the blood doesn’t pool and clot, or dislodge one of these plaque formations, sending it back to the heart)

Health care is fundamentally concerned with the prevention and alleviation of suffering. The responsibility for the alleviation or prevention of that suffering is rarely discussed* And who is responsible?

I believe that we are responsible for our health. We, being the individual, along with MD’s, RN’s, Pharmacists, Acupuncturists, insurance companies, hospitals, parents, and politicians. The responsibility cannot be pawned off to someone else. The Mayo Clinic recommends getting 30 min of moderate activity most days of the week to prevent cardiovascular disease. It’s not the politicians responsibility to ensure that I got in my 30 minutes of activity, it’s mine. But it is the politician’s responsibility to ensure that EVERYONE has access to health care.

So I dragged myself into the changing room and took care of my health. In time I learned how to come up from backbends without blacking out. I learned how to breathe correctly and made the heart happy.

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga makes the individual strong from the inside by improving the digestive and circulatory systems. It allows the individual to become responsible for their own health and develop a responsibility for it. Understanding our individual responsibility to our health and health care prevents the unnecessary suffering of others.

Most athletes don’t worry about clots, also known as DVT’s (deep vein thrombosis) because they are young and healthy. Blood clots usually affect older unhealthy individuals, but can affect everyone, and Nurse Morgan knows that a bone fracture increases your risk of developing a DVT and I just fractured the clavicle.

My mind was not still in practice. I was afraid of a DVT and afraid of dislocating the clavicle again. That’s when the question that started this entire search for a scientific meaning behind the practice began.


How many peripheral arteries are occluded in Marichyasana D?

The answer has awakened an internal happiness for me. I began researching what Jois said about the asana. I read other’s blogs, books, videos and never found a satisfactory answer.

I had so may questions, I still have so many questions.

What, if any, are some scientific and medical explanations for the benefits of doing asana? I know there are benefits but give me the science. 

There are 18 major peripheral arteries in the body, 9 on each side. In the neck, arms, and legs. Arteries are like mini hearts, they push blood further along in the body to bringing  oxygen and nutrients to that area of the body.

In Marichyasana D we occlude 12 of them. 

The volume of blood inside the body during our asana practice does not change. When we place significant pressure on the arterial wall restricting the free flow of blood to the region of the body supplied by that artery we build up the blood volume to the area before the artery.

With restricted blood flow to the peripheral limbs when we are in the state of the asana breathing for 5 breaths, the heart receives a higher volume of blood which also registers a higher concentration of CO2. To compensate for the change in the body’s pH from a build up of CO2 and the increased blood volume, the heart rate, and respiratory rate increase. Meaning we breath faster and shallower to circulate more blood through the heart.

With a daily practice over the course of time our breathing will begin to slow down as each breath is able to receive more O2 and expel more CO2. Essentially the breath becomes more efficient. The muscles of the arteries also begin to strengthen which means that it allows for the movement of this larger volume of blood.* This means that the vasculature of an athlete is more open. This is why physicians do not think to look for DVT’s in athletes. Think hot dog down a hallway.

Ashta, up

After 5 breaths in Marichayasana D the increased volume that the heart has adjusted to suddenly drops as the arteries are no longer occluded. Blood, rich with oxygen rushes to fill the starved tissue in the feet and hands, legs and arms.

Ever stand up too quickly and felt dizzy or lightheaded? Maybe you were dehydrated, or sick, on medication, or your blood sugar was low when this happened? That lightheaded feeling is the brain not getting enough blood. The volume of blood in the arteries was not enough to adequately supply the brain with oxygen. This results in a sudden loss of blood pressure, and the vaso-vegal responses to black out to re-direct blood to vital organs.

When we transition between asana we are decreasing the pressure in the arteries and veins. This happens quickly, usually in one breath we go from contraction to expansion. It takes extra work for the entire circulatory system to keep up with the change. More work than simple cardiovascular exercise. Ashtanga is cardiovascular exercise since the heart rate stays elevated typically for more than 30 minutes, but it also conditions the arteries and veins to expand and contract with constant changing volumes as we move between asana.

If the veins and arteries don’t keep up we black out.

I blacked out a few times in practice when I was learning to come up from backbends. I would hold my breath, and no matter how many times I was told to inhale-up my body wasn’t listening. One time in Mysore after fighting a stomach bug and dehydration I came up from a backbend and the room went black. My knees buckled and I sat down.

The boss looked over at me and I shook my head gathering my mat and heading to the changing room. He gave me a head bobble. 

*Shepherd, Lois L., Rethinking Health Law: Assuming Responsibility. Wake Forest Law Review, Forthcoming; FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 189. Available at SSRN:

**Vascular adaptation in athletes: is there an ‘athlete's artery’?

Daniel J. Green Angela Spence Nicola Rowley Dick H. J. Thijssen Louise H. Naylor

First published: 28 March 2012

Morgan Lee