Swara Yoga

Yogis thousands of years ago discovered two kinds of energy within the human being – a positive solar (male) energy and a negative lunar (female) energy – together they govern the whole of our being and when in balance, they provide for harmonious functioning of our mind and body and all its systems.

Energy and consciousness, permeate the whole of our being through the network of energy channels, called nadis which converge into two main channels ida and pingala which travel up the body on either side of the spine, – the lunar energy flows through ida and the solar energy through pingala, and they move upward through the body from the perineum to the crown of the head.

When the flow of energy in ida and pingala is in harmony with each other, a third channel opens within the spinal canal in the centre of the spinal cord, called sushumna, manifesting as an equal flow of breath in both nostrils. An active sushumna expresses itself as a state of deep harmony in body, mind and spirit promoting health and well being.

A pranayama technique called Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) may be practised and used as a tool for rebalancing the nervous system as it is one of the simple, safe pranayama (breathing) exercises with numerous health benefits.

To live life fully and evolve in a harmonious way we must practice, achieve and maintain balance between the right and left brain, between ida and pingala, as this will have very real implications in our daily life, in the way we function, interact, grow and evolve.  The science and practice of working to balance the energies of Ida and Pingala is known as SWARA YOGA.

Ancient Yogis noted that every 60 to 90 minutes one of the channels becomes dominant and the other passive (this is called NOSTRIL DOMINANCE) – the dominant nostril becomes clear and the passive nostril becomes partially or fully blocked.  Certain attributes, characteristics  and traits are traditionally associated with nostril dominance and these would affect the behaviour, desire and abilities of the Yogi.  Below is a short list of the effects of the changing balance of energy in the body as seen via nostril dominance –

LEFT NOSTRIL DOMINANCE        

  • Receptiveness
  • Body Coolness
  • Elimination of Toxins
  • Thirst
  • Expending energy in a slow sustained way
  • Nourishing
  • Imaginative pursuits
  • Playing music and singing
  • Reciting mantras
  • Initiating sustaining relationships
  • Drinking liquids
  • Intuitive, holistic thinking
  • Subjective decision making

RIGHT NOSTRIL DOMINANCE

  • Activity
  • Increased body heat
  • Strength
  • Hunger
  • Eating and digesting food
  • Short term intense effort
  • Expending energy in a vigorous way
  • Aggressive, negative acts
  • Intellectual pursuits
  • Deductive rational reasoning
  • Hunting and fighting
  • Attention to detail

What is Ageing?

Aging is not a simple business.

After all – if it were that simple – humankind would have already worked things out and average life expectancy would be around 200 years and rising.  Understanding why we age is a question that keeps some of the best scientific brains in the world fully occupied – and there is still no definitive answer.

Why do you need to know?

If your concern is looking good as you get older – you may wonder why you need to make your brain ache with ageing theory.

More and more scientific studies are discovering promising new skin care ingredients, warning us about dangerous lifestyle choices, focusing our attention on what to eat and drink for protection from premature aging.  Sometimes the theories seem to contradict one another or offer too many choices.

Simplified Theories of Ageing

  1. Free radical theory

The oldest (since 1956) and most well known and accepted theory of aging – most of us by now have heard of free radicals and the damage they do. The simple explanation of a free radical is a molecule with a free electron which then reacts with healthy molecules in a destructive way producing disease, cell aging and death.

You must have read lifestyle advice based on free radical theory – poor diet, alcohol, smoking, sun exposure – cause free radical build up in the body and result in ill health and premature aging. What you may not have known is that apart from the bad choices you make – just breathing in oxygen and generating energy to move or eat produces natural free radicals which are equally as bad for you.

What we all need is plenty of “free radical scavengers” – or as we now call them antioxidants – which include vitamin C, vitamin E, Betacarotene, green tea catechins and others.

Antioxidants are freely promoted in products like supplements and as anti aging ingredients in skin care based on this theory of aging.

  1. DNA and genetics

Based on the fact that we all have a pre-determined genetic tendency to function in certain ways including how and when we age. Research around this theory shows that genetics isn’t everything. In spite of DNA – rates of aging can still be greatly influenced by our lifestyle choices and by pollutants and toxins we encounter (as in the Free Radical Theory above) – these affect what is called “gene expression”.

  1. Rates of cell division or the Hayflick Theory

Named after the scientist who first outlined the theory in 1961 – Dr Hayflick. The suggestion is that human cells are limited in their ability to divide and reproduce themselves. Hayflick estimated that after 50 cell divisions they die leading to ill health, decay and eventually death. Longer life (anti aging) depends on slowing down the rate of cell division. The way we do this is largely through diet and lifestyle choices as described in the free radical theory before although some drug interventions are being studied.

One discover to emerge from this line of study is that over fed cells divide quicker and restricting calories extends life in lab experiments with mice. As a result calorie restriction (CR) has emerged as an anti aging programme in its own right closely connected to the Hayflick theory.

  1. Cross-linking or glycosylation

A relatively new (1990’s) theory which is becoming increasingly accepted with the work of Dr Robert H Lustig and others. Cross-linking theory is based on the damage to health caused by the presence of simple (added) sugars in the modern diet. Simple sugars bind to proteins in a process called Glycation which results in the formation of AGE’s (Advanced Glycation End Products). Resulting health problems include: Alzheimers, diabetes, cancer, sight loss, deafness and heart failure.

Fructose in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCS emerges as the main villain in this theory largely because in many ways it acts as a toxin in the body and has ten times the glycation activity of glucose – the body’s main fuel source.

Glycation is also directly linked to collagen deterioration and skin aging.

Recommended antidotes to AGE’s include vitamin E, Alpha Lipoic Acid and flavonoids (plant chemicals in highly coloured fruit and vegetables) used in both diet and skin care.

  1. Mitochondrial decline

Mitochondria are the powerhouses of cells where energy is produced for everything we do, say and think in the form of ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) which cannot be stored and has to be continually renewed.

The mitochondria make use of some essential nutrients to produce this energy including: CoQ10, Acetyl L Carnitine and B vitamins. Both mitochondria and ATP production decline with age and this is linked in part to free radical damage.

This theory of aging focuses on the need to protect and increase ATP production by repairing mitochondrial damage. Antioxidants play a part in limiting free radical damage but supplementation with the key nutrients needed to form ATP – in particular Acetyl L Carnitine, CoQ10 (idebenone) and CoQH (ubiquinone).

Summary – what matters?

Free radical damage is a common theme and the role of antioxidants is key. Focusing on lifestyle choices – boosting your diet with antioxidants (vitamin C, E, Betacarotene, green tea catechins, omega 3) and cutting out the damage from smoking, photoaging (UV) and alcohol will make a real difference to how well you age. Some supplements emerge as winners – CoQH (ubiquinone), Acetyl L Carnetine are two to focus on.

For the future – The movement is rightly focussing on sugar damage (from fructose in particular) as a significant cause of disease and premature aging. Cutting down on added sugar and eliminating fructose is something you can start doing now if you value your looks and health.

 

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

There has been a huge amount of publicity on the benefits of high intensity interval training (HIIT) lately – it’s protective against virtually the major diseases of affluence and lifestyle (heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia), great as rehab if you are already suffering or poorly, easy to fit into a day (10 to 15 minutes a day) and cheap or free!

So what is not to love about HIIT?  Well what about a few ideas on what to do – so here goes.

Note – it is safer to start and finish all exercise programmes with 2 to 3 minutes of warming up and cooling down.

Sample HIIT Programmes

Programme 1

Cardio – 3 minutes jog, 30 seconds sprint, 3 minutes jog, 30 seconds sprint, 3 minutes jog.

Frequency: twice weekly

Programme 2 

Strength – 20 x push ups/three quarter push ups, 20 x tricep dips, 20 x shoulder presses (use weights/bands), 20 x bicep curls, plank x 20 seconds, side plank x 40 seconds (each side) and 5 lunges or squats.

30 second rest between exercises.

Frequency: twice weekly

Programme 3

Cardio + Strength:  2 minutes moderate walking, 1 minute vigorous power walking, 2 minutes moderate walking, 1 minute vigorous power walking, 2 minutes moderate walking, 1 minute vigorous power walking,  2 minutes moderate walking.  THEN, push ups  (30 seconds), wall squat (30 seconds), curl ups (30 seconds), step ups (30 seconds), lunges (60 seconds), high knee running (30 seconds) and reverse curls (30 seconds).

Allow up to 30 seconds between strength exercises.

Frequency: twice weekly

Gastric Reflux

Some of the most prescribed medicines in the Britain (and the rest of the western world) are for drugs that help gastric reflux or heartburn (sometimes called dyspepsia).  The shelves of the average chemist are weighed down with over the counter medicines.

Heartburn or reflux is where the acid of the stomach makes it’s way back into the foodpipe (or oesophagus), creating the typical burning feeling of this condition.  The stomach is protected against the acids it holds, but the foodpipe can be easily damaged by the presence of gastric acids.

Acids can re-enter the foodpipe where the lower oesophageal sphincter (a muscular ring at the entrance to the stomach)  becomes weak or “incompetent” – this can happen for many reasons including hiatus hernia.  However most cases of reflux are idiopathic or of unknown origin.

Most people have suffered from reflux at some point in their lives, but what can we do if it becomes regular and for some people this condition can dominate their lives?  Well yes there is – however first we should check with our doctor to check there is nothing more serious happening.

If there is no serious underlying condition, try these simple self help tips –

  • Diaphragmatic breathing (also known as full body breathing or complete breathing) – a toned diaphragm can aid the oesophageal sphincter in “pinching” the lower foodpipe closed.  Try Yoga for these exercises!
  • Wear looser clothes, try not to wear “shapewear”, tight belts, skirts or trousers/jeans.
  • Avoid bending at the waist.
  • Try to avoid large meals, have smaller portions.  Also keep a food diary to see if certain foods make the condition worse.
  • Eat simple foods – dense proteins and fatty foods stimulate acid production and churning/squeezing of the stomach.
  • Allow yourself a few times a day when the stomach is empty.
  • If overweight, try to lose weight.
  • If a smoker, cut down or stop (if will help lots of other things as well).
  • Learn to relax – a nervous stomach is an active stomach – again Yoga is brilliant for this.
  • Acupuncture can help, although this can be very subjective.
  • Never exercise immediately after a large meal.
  • Some people find bio live yoghurts, kefir and Symprove can help their symptoms.  These products can also help with irritable  bowel syndrome.

As with all things experiment to find what works for you.

Fat, Low Fat Diets and Health

Since the 1970s the message from government and public health bodies has been that dietary fats (especially saturated fats) need to be reduced in the nation’s diets.  Even today the general public health message is that dietary fat is associated with weight gain, cardio vascular disease and possibly a whole range of other problems such as diabetes and certain cancers – however there is an increasing body of science that casts doubt on these claims.

The government watchdog that assesses and advises on the efficacy of medical interventions and public health initiatives (NICE) still advises that at least 50% of our energy from food should come from carbohydrates (sugars), no more than 35% should come from fats (saturated fats should form no more than 10% of dietary energy intake) and 10% to 15% should come from protein sources.

Weight management is still generally promoted through restriction of fats as these are very energy dense foods.  Indeed since the 1980s the food industry in particular has promoted low fat (high carbohydrate) meals and foodstuffs.  Yes still the nation gets bigger, type II diabetes is increasing rapidly and coronary heart disease shows no sign of becoming less prevalent!

However since the millennium researchers have been looking at alternative approaches to a healthier diet. Recent evidence from 2002 onwards (see especially Westman et al, 2007) suggests that a carbohydrate restricted, moderate protein and higher fat diet may be more effective in weight loss, managing diabetes, reducing cholesterol and even high blood pressure than the historic low fat/high carbohydrate diets.

This superficially would make no sense, as fats are far more “energy dense” than carbohydrate.  However higher fat/low carb diets have been shown to  –

  • Lead to reduced amounts of processed food in the diet
  • Perform better at reducing weight loss – especially central obesity
  • Provide increased satiety/satisfaction from food
  • Improve HDL levels (good cholesterol)
  • Reduce plasma levels of fats
  • Reduce blood pressure

Indeed the benefits of higher fat/low carbohydrates diets would appear to be higher for people with insulin resistance.  The Swedish government now recommends high fat/low carbohydrate approaches to tackling overweight and obesity.

So are all fats good?  Well probably not, so it would still be wise to avoid trans fats/hydrogenated fats (man made fats) as these are associated with inflammation in the body.  It is also probably wise to increase our levels of unsaturated fats (from plants or oily fish) more than natural saturated fats (such as butter, cheese, cream, fats in meat etc).

Sugar and Ageing

High sugar diets are not only implicated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia – scientists now believe that they can cause the skin to prematurely age.  Indeed many scientists now argue that high sugar consumption is as aging for the skin as smoking.

All the evidence indicates that Britons love sugary treats and we consume roughly 3 times the recommended daily amount – government guidelines indicate that no more than 5% or 30g should be consumed.

So how is sugar guilty for not only making us fat and unwell, but also looking older?

There are two important proteins in our skin – Elastin (which gives it stretch) and Collagen (which plumps it out).  Both of these proteins are gradually lost over time resulting in wrinkles and saggy skin, however high sugar diets massively speed this process up.

Sugar “spikes” during the day, as we eat our cakes and biscuits, causes the release of insulin into the blood – this causes inflammation under the skin and eventually leads to the degradation of elastin and collagen, through a process called glycation.

The safest and easiest way to avoid the ravages of sugar (and time) is simply to reduce the amount of free sugars consumed by trying to eat low GI foods and keeping the chocolate cake as an occasional treat!!

Pilates and Lower Back Pain

Do you have lower back pain and have tried everything, but still got no relief? Have you read newspaper articles that have given curl ups and twists for lower back pain and ended up in even worse pain?

Lower back pain is endemic in our society (it is estimated that 80% of all adults will suffer at least one episode of “severe” lower back pain in their lifetime (the true figure could be closer to 100%). Well our sedentary lifestyle, posture and limited movement patterns all contribute.

Well below I have listed 7 Pilates based exercises that in my experience have really helped clients.

  • Pelvic Tilts (1 minute) 
  • Knee Folds (2 minutes)
  • Swimming from Kneeling (1 minute)
  • Side Bend/lateral lift (3 reps on each side)
  • Shoulder Bridge (10 reps)
  • Supine Hamstring Stretch with Belt (hold for minimum of 1 minute)
  • Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch (hold for minimum of 1 minute)

Really important is to remember what NOT to do when you have back pain.  Avoid forward flexion, straight leg lifts and all twists.

Difficult Ground

It is estimated that the average Briton walks approximately 2.2 miles per day (the Government advice is 5 miles a day or equivalent activity) and the average citizen of the USA only walks 0.6 miles per day.

As human beings we evolved to move, specifically as hunter gatherers it is believed our ancestors would cover 3.5 to 10 miles per day.  Moreover is it also believed that the development of the human brain was (at least in part) due to deal with these walking and running behaviours (walking over difficult ground requires more eye-brain coordination, quick decision making and quicker reflexes).  Some scientists also believe the “S shaped” curve of our spines developed due to our bipedal movement on challenging ground.  Also it should be borne in mind early humans would be traversing uneven and often difficult surfaces – all of which are now known to stimulate brain activity, brain development and physical development.

However in the 21st century our reduced levels of activity and the presence of smooth surfaces in towns and cities, means that our joints and brains are less challenged.  Our movements now tend to be linear with little or no rotation or lateral movement.  Limited movement patterns will obviously lead to accelerated joint wear via soft tissue imbalances, but it is also theorised that they can –

  • increase mental decline
  • damage the cardio vascular system by increasing blood pressure
  • reduce muscle tone
  • lead to weight gain via reduced calorie expenditure
  • decrease balance
  • reduce proprioception

To put it crudely walking on “nice safe surfaces” may lead to accelerated aging.

Research in China has also shown that walking/running on difficult ground reduced blood pressure, improved balance, helped restful sleep and improved mood.  People suffering chronic pain reported reduced pain scores.

So if possible take yourself “off path” – in a park, walk on cobbles/uneven surfaces in towns, go for a hike in the countryside.  Start slowly and if you have a health problem speak to your health practitioner before starting your “off road challenge”.

Good luck.

Stress, Cortisol and Belly Fat

Fat serves many functions in the human body – energy storage, protection of vital organs, vitamin and mineral storage, thermal insulation, is an essential component of certain hormones (including the sex hormones and steroidal hormones eg cortisol and adrenaline and lastly fats helps the body produce make cell membranes and the fatty nerve insulation called myelin.

There are fat cells all over the human body, although the distribution varies from person to person.  The fat cells lying just under the skin are called subcutaneous fat cells, whilst the deeper fat cells which wrap around the inner organs are called visceral fat cells.  The majority of people are worried about the subcutaneous fats as this can be seen – however the more dangerous fats are those deeper in the body which are the visceral fats.

Visceral fat cells produce cytokines which trigger low grade inflammation in the body.  Chronic inflammation has been linked to a whole array of illness including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes and even dementia.  Indeed of all the visceral fat areas, the most dangerous for health are said to be those around the abdomen – the “beer belly” or more correctly central obesity.

So what can be done to reduce this dangerous fat storage?  Exercise and diet is often inadequate to shift these fats.

It is now thought that central obesity is the result of chronic stress which activates the HPA axis (a cascading chain of hormones) that ultimately leads to cortisol production.  Cortisol once produces remains in the body for days and has the effect of encouraging fat storage in the abdominal area (in a organ called the omentum).  Vigorous exercise and dieting can even cause the body to lay down more fats in this area, as these can often stress an individual more!!  In essence active but stressed people may develop belly fats they find almost impossible to shift.

Recent research would seem to indicate that more gentle activities (ie those that reduce stress in individuals) may be more effective than exercise or diet alone.  Positive results have been produced with gentle Yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, guided relaxation and Tai Chi in addition to good diet and a healthy level of daily exercise/activity

The Chemistry of Happiness

Yogis, sages, wisemen and philosophers have long questioned the human search for happiness – it purpose, role, how to achieve happiness and even if happiness exists.  Well in this post I will examine how the body’s “chemical factory” may provide a series of keys to how and why we experience the state we describe as happiness.

Happiness is often described as the inner state of joy, lack of worry, contentment or absence of inner agitation.  But why is happiness sought and what is the purpose of happiness.  The modern world is awash with anxiety, depression and absence of happiness.

It is argued that our evolutionary biology makes us feel good or happy to reward behaviours that increase our chances of survival.  For example the pleasures of food or sex, drive us to indulge in these behaviours.  However the development of modern cultures with new technologies  have switched off our body’s chemical happiness factories through lack of exercise, poor diet, social isolation, repetitive activities and isolation from nature.  Most of the chemicals described below are hormones (chemical messengers), produced by the brain or for the brain.

Happy Hormones

1. Endocannabinoids – “The Bliss Molecule” 

Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis substances that work on the receptors of the cannabinoid system in the brain.   Aerobic and endurance activities are said to increase their production, eg the “runner’s high”.  Many spices (especially those traditionally used in curries) can stimulate these chemicals and foods rich in omega 3 can also help these “bliss” chemicals

2. Dopamine –  “The Reward Molecule”

Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking. Every type of reward seeking behaviour that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it.

Many addictive drugs act on the dopamine receptors in the brain (especially stimulant drugs like cocaine).  Extrovert people often have high levels of dopamine.

Foods that can help include oily fish, plants rich in omega 3 oils, nuts/seeds, cheese and eggs.  Dark green leafy vegetables are also useful.   These foods help both dopamine and serotonin production.

3. Oxytocin –  “The Bonding Molecule” 

Directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty.  This hormone can be stimulated by skin to skin contact, affection, love making and other forms of intimacy.  In fact any of close personal human contact stimulates this hormone (some studies have shown having a pet and cuddling it produces the same chemicals!).

In a cyber world,  we often lose sight of the fact we absolutely need human face to face contact – digital contact is a very very poor replacement for this.

Foods that have high levels of phyto – oestrogens may help stimulate oxytocin.

4. Endorphin: – “The Pain-Killing Molecule”

Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm – make these a regular part of your life to bring more happiness into your life.

Spicy foods, dark chocolate and ginseng can all have a positive effects on endorphin levels.

5. GABA: – “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” 

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurones and creates a sense of calmness. You can increase GABA naturally by practicing yoga, meditation and relaxation.  Benzodiazepines  that work as anti-anxiety drugs by increasing GABA.   Studies show Yoga may increase GABA significantly.  Nuts, seeds, good plant oils and oily fish can also increase GABA production.

6. Serotonin –  “The Confidence Molecule” 

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies.  High levels bolster self esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging. To increase serotonin, challenge yourself regularly and pursue things that reinforce a sense of purpose, meaning and accomplishment.  

Foods that can help include oily fish, plants rich in omega 3 oils, nuts/seeds, cheese and eggs.  Dark green leafy vegetables are also useful.

Low levels are associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCDs and increased pain perception.

A variety of popular anti-depressants are called SSRIs help keep serotonin levels high artificially.

7. Adrenaline –  “The Energy Molecule” 

Adrenaline, technically known as epinephrine, plays a large role in the fight or flight mechanism. The release of epinephrine is exhilarating and creates a surge in energy. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and works by causing less important blood vessels to constrict and increasing blood flow to larger muscles.

An ‘adrenaline rush’ comes in times of distress or facing challenging situations. It can be triggered on demand by doing things that terrify you or being thrust into a situation that feels dangerous. You can also create an adrenaline rush by taking short rapid breathes and contracting muscles. This jolt can be healthy in small doses, especially when you need a pick me up.

Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximising your potential.   Coffee, tea, citrus juices, chocolate and cocoa can all elevate levels of this hormone.