Stretching V Strength in Yoga

Up until recently Yoga was seen purely in terms of flexibility and it’s benefits.

There are 2 questions that are now emerging after recent research –

  1. Is Yoga JUST about stretching and flexibility?
  2. How beneficial is stretching to our mental and physical health?

Besides stretching Yoga has strength work, core work, balance/motor skills, breath work, relaxation and mind control.  Indeed some authors argue that stretching is the least important part of Yoga.  The general public mistakenly often believe Yoga = stretching.

Much recent research points out that reduced mobility is best served working on alignment of joints, strength and muscle balance work. VERY LITTLE “TIGHTNESS” IS THE RESULT OF LACK OF FLEXIBILITY.

Moreover there is little hard evidence that stretching reduces the risk of injuries or even aids rehabilitation after injury.  However subjectivity Yogis consistently report that stretching does help them feel relaxed.

So is stretching is wrong?  If stretching is passive there is little evidence of the positive gains for this, however if the stretching is active (one group of muscles tightening, the opposite group relaxing ) this can lead to a better aligned and stronger body.

The key phrase here then is “strengthen to lengthen”.  Misaligned joints and weaknesses in soft tissue lead to shortening of muscle, tendon and fascia.  Alignment and strength is the way to progress.

The Cold Cure

As a society we have become obsessed with comfort and keep ourselves ourselves in an environment that promotes this.  We have centrally heated homes, hot tubs, air conditioning, cars with temperature control, food constantly available (and delivered to our doors if needed), covered shopping centres, medical care on hand 24 hours a day and all manner of devices to make things easier and more appealing.

All well and good you may say, but there is an increasing evidence that these “comforts” of the 21st century are also leading to a crisis in health with an overweight population, lifestyle illnesses burdening health systems (WHO – estimates that nearly 82% of illness in the modern “developed” world is caused by environmental and behavioural factors) and finally soaring mental health problems.

We are all told that we need to improve our diet and exercise on a regular basis.  But is there anything else we could do, that is quick and easy and fits into our busy lives?

Well yes there is!!  There is increasing evidence that exposure to cold helps to boost the immune system, helps regulate our metabolic health, assists weight loss (by activating Brown Adipose Tissue – BAT), tones up our cardio vascular health and helps us to maintain a more peaceful mindset. Famous proponents of this approach include Wim Hof (aka “the Ice Man”), professional sports players, cold water swimming clubs and lifestyle doctors.

Below I have detailed a brief and simple programme of cold exposure.  This programme is suitable for all – HOWEVER IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL CONDITION, ESPECIALLY A HEART PROBLEM OR ARE PREGNANT SEEK THE ADVICE OF A MEDICAL PRACTITIONER BEFORE ATTEMPTING.

Simple Cold Programme

  • Start with taking 3 to 5 cold showers per week – start with a warm shower and at the end switch to cold water
  • Increase the number of sessions to 7 days per week
  • Over two or three months attempt to increase the cold duration of the showers by 15 second increments up to 2 minutes per session.
  • If cold water is too shocking, start with cool/tepid water (any water below 16oC has physiological benefits)
  • You will gasp when you start this programme, this mild hyperventilation is normal.  Over the weeks and months this will lessen.
  • Try to relax as much as possible during the cold showers
  • An alternative is to use a cold pack on the upper back (just below the neck) for up to 20 minutes a time

 

High Blood Pressure and Sugar

Up until quite recently, the received wisdom was that high blood pressure (hypertension) was generally idiopathic (of unknown origin) in most cases.  Excess excess salt could increase any tendency to hypertension, but in general other foods had little effect.

A number of studies dating from 2014 have now shown that excess sugar is as bad or worse than salt in the diet.  If you think of our ancestors who ate large amounts of salted food, but rarely suffered hypertension, this may make sense.

It is believed that sugar (especially fruit sugar/fructose) raises blood pressure chiefly by it’s effect in increasing insulin levels in the blood.  Chronically raised insulin can,

  1.  Increase the development of smooth muscles in arteries (insulin is a growth hormone)
  2. Triggers the sympathetic nervous system – the “flight and fight” part of the autonomic nervous system
  3. Reduces the sensitivity of the body’s blood pressure monitoring receptors
  4. Depletes the body’s store of ATP (the energy “currency” of cells) leading to artery constriction

So we may all do worse than limiting our sugar consumption, particularly fruit sugar (whole fruit is fine though).  Watch out for the following on food labels as these are ALL SUGARS and limit your intake –

  • Sugar
  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Corn Syrup
  • Agave
  • Golden Syrup
  • Fruit Juice (yes really!!)
  • Invertase
  • Molasses
  • Barley Malt
  • Dextrin/Dextrose/Maltodetrin
  • Maltose
  • Treacle
  • Caramel

Inner Watching During Yoga Practice

There are many traps to get caught in when practicing Yoga.  Some of the most common ones are becoming obsessed with “achieving” or “mastering” an asana (posture) OR perhaps losing ourselves in the physicality/sensualness of the practice OR perhaps just letting the mind drift with thoughts, hopes and dreams.

Well a clever little technique to bring mindfulness back into our body when practicing involves asking ourselves the following when we are on the mat,

  1. Is the breath free?  When we hold or control our breath we tend to lose awareness – ALWAYS SET THE BREATH FREE
  2. What is the direction of an asana, ie what spatial direction should we moving into?
  3. Where is our centre of gravity (centre of our mass/weight)?

By asking these 3 questions as we practice we can move into Sthira and Sukha (Steadiness and Ease) which is the essence of a true Yoga asana practice.

The Best Exercises for Flat Abs?

Many people looking to get a flat toned tummy invariably try curl ups or sit ups, whether at the gym, studio or home.  These exercises involve lying on the back (with the knees either bent or flat on the ground) and slowly lifting the trunk off the floor.  This strengthens the superficial muscles of the abdomen – the rectus abdominus, but may cause a number of problems if you do not already have a very strong core and well aligned spine and pelvis, such as;

  1. They target the most superficial muscle group in the abdomen – the rectus abdominus. These muscles are used to flex the trunk DO NOT to flatten the tummy, but can lead to a bigger bulge!
  2. It is very easy to use the lower back and neck muscles to assist sitting up, this can cause back pain. Indeed taking the lumbar spine into repeated flexion can lead to disc prolapse.
  3. Because of the pressure that curl ups and sit ups exert at the diaphragm and pelvic floor, problems with hiatus hernia and pelvic floor prolapse can and do occur IF THE CORE IS NOT ALREADY STRONG.
  4. Too much of sit ups and curls can lead to over recruitment of the hip flexor muscles (psoas and rectus femoris) and this in turn can lead to lower back pain, poor gait (walking/running patterns) and dysfunctional posture.

The Alternative

Why not try this simple alternative from the Pilates repertoire of matwork exercises – they are called KNEE FOLDS and are very effective at targeting the muscles that do draw the tummy back, that is the Transversus Abdominus (TVA) and Oblique muscles.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.  Check to make sure you are in neutral spine (a slight gap under the lumbar and neck)
  2. Lift the pelvic floor up and “scoop” the abdomen by drawing the navel back and up. Keep the neck and face relaxed
  3. Alternatively lift one knee to the chest – as this drops, lift the other knee up.
  4. Continue for up to 2 minutes (start with 1 minute)
  5. Ensure that you keep the core engaged, the spine in neutral and the breathing quiet.
  6. IF THE LUMBAR IS VERY UNSTABLE/PAIN IS PRESENT – press the lower back to the floor when executing the moves. You may also wish to only move on an exhalation (outbreath)

Exercise and the Diaphragm

Good breathing is for your overall health and wellbeing. Your breath affects all of your vital systems, right down to the cellular level. Poor breathing patterns affect not only the physical body, but can lead to anxiety/depression, insomnia and reduced concentration.

One of the main reasons for poor breathing in otherwise healthy people is an overly tight diaphragm.  The diaphragm is the body’s main breathing muscle and sits under the ribs and is attached to the lower ribs and spine.  There are myofascial connections into the lower trunk and even thighs.

Poor posture (especially rounded spinal posture and “tucking” the tailbone), limited movement (particularly spinal movement), a weak core and excess weight all adversely affect the diaphragm.

The diaphragm isn’t typically talked about in the context of your core. But located right at the centre of your trunk, it connects to many of your body’s stabilisers. Working in close relationship with the deep abdominals, the pelvic floor, and the multifidus muscles in the lower back, the diaphragm has a dual role of both stabilising AND supporting breathing. 

Problems for many people start when the diaphragm starts losing elasticity and strength.  When this starts compensatory patterns start to develop in other areas.  For example typically the front thighs, lower back and neck muscles may start gripping and the front chest tighten and depress.

OVER TIME A WEAK OVERLY TIGHT DIAPHRAGM WILL LEAD TO POOR MOVEMENT PATTERNS AND POSSIBLY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHRONIC INJURIES.

 Ways to Stretch and Strengthen the Diaphragm

  • Find your Diaphragm

Running the fingers under the ribs trace the course of your diaphragm right to the spine at the rear of the body.

Next lie face down with your solar plexus/lower ribs on a small folded towel.  Feel the inhalations pressing into the towel.

  • Don’t “Tuck Your Tailbone”

When sitting, walking or exercising don’t tuck the tailbone and rotate the pelvis backwards.  Let the tailbone naturally lift when bending forward or backward.

  • Backbend

Add some backbends to your daily activity list.

IMPORTANT POINTS –

  1. Remember backbends involve LENGTHENING THE FRONT BODY NOT COMPRESSING THE SPINE.
  2. When you backbend LET GO OF YOUR CORE!
  3. Lift the kidney area up and forwards.
  4. Have the legs wide enough apart to allow the sacrum to tilt – experiment with what your ideal leg distance is.
  5. Try “entering” the backbend on an exhalation – this stretches the muscle more!
  • Straw Breathing

This Yoga technique is brilliant toning all the breathing muscles including the diaphragm.

Lie comfortably on your back with a support under your head or sit upright. Allow your shoulders to fall back and your chest to open. Holding a straw between your lips (or pursing the lips), inhale through your nose and exhale through the straw/puckered lips. Breathing out like this will naturally extend the exhalation.

After a few cycles, you can start to notice if a natural pause occurs after the out breath. You may wish to slightly backbend at this point to add an extra stretch – but let the bend go into the lumbar. Keep your breathing as easy as possible.

Stay for 3 minutes or more.

Stretching and Immunity

It is now common knowledge that many of the current health crises that afflict the world – heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and dementia – all have a common precursor – INFLAMMATION.  Even Coronavirus infections would seem to be a lot worse for the patient if they have high levels of inflammatory blood markers.

Inflammation is the process that lets the body fight off invading pathogens (bacteria, viruses and fungi) by kick starting the immune system into action and is typically characterised by heat, swelling, pain and redness.  There is an increase pathogen destroying cells including macrophage, neutrophils, B and T cells.  Both B and T cells also produce long living inflammatory proteins called cytokines.

However this inflammatory immune response should only be a short term response, if the inflammation becomes chronic, the immune system can begin damaging healthy tissue.  Why does chronic inflammation develop?  Well this is largely due to 21st Century lifestyles with unrelieved stress (and the production of stress hormones), lifestyle factors including obesity, high sugar diets, smoking and lack of exercise/activity.  All these things are seen by the body as an attack on it which stimulates the inflammatory response.

Over the past 20 years evidence has emerged of what we can do to put out the “fire of inflammation” –

  • Lose weight (excess weight is a storehouse for cytokines)
  • Increase our Omega 3 consumption
  • Exercise
  • Take low dose aspirin (PLEASE SEE YOUR GP BEFORE TRYING THIS)
  • Stretching (see below)

There is now evidence that these healthy lifestyles choices work by flicking the off switch in inflammation via the productions of chemical called Resolvins produced by macrophages and neutrophils.  Resolvins would appear to be able mop up the circulating inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, as mentioned above.

In the past 10 years it has been found that as well as the well known lifestyle changes mentioned above, stretching skeletal muscle regularly also stimulates the production of resolvins.  Could this be the reason that Yoga and Pilates have such a reputation as health tonics?  The research would indicate that the stretching needs to be slow and held for some time (as in a typical Yoga class).

Exercise and Dementia

It is estimated that the number of people with dementia is likely to triple by 2050. Dementia is very rare below 60 yeas, this goes up 1% of the population between 60 and 70 years, 5% for the 70 to 80 years. After 80 years the figures increase dramatically.

By far the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease (in the UK) – this accounts for approximately 65% of cases, followed by vascular dementia which accounts for around 30%.

So if we are all living longer do we just have to accept that cognitive impairment is a fact of life we have to live with?

There is an increasing amount of evidence that although our genes are very important in our susceptibility to dementia, there is much we can do to prevent of slow the progress of cognitive decline.

  1. Keep our blood pressure at a healthy level
  2. Avoid obesity and diabetes (both of these are inflammatory conditions)
  3. Get enough sleep – 7 hours of quality sleep is seen as important. Good sleep allows for glymphatic drainage of the brain, in which potentially inflammatory debris is “washed away” (much like lymphatic drainage keeps the body healthy).
  4. Build “cognitive reserve/padding” by taking up languages or music
  5. Maintain good gum health – keep flossing. The bacteria that cause gingivitis are often found in the brains of people with dementia.
  6. EXERCISE REGULARLY – PARTICULARLY FOCUSSING ON RESISTANCE/WEIGHTS EXERCISE (although all exercise is good).

Exercise appears to stimulate the production of a hormone called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF or “brain fertiliser”). This helps new nerve cells to grow, stimulates connectivity between cells and boosts the number of mitochondria in the brain (the energy producers of the body).

Also resistance exercise in particular increases the amount of another hormone called Irisin as this is largely produced by skeletal muscle. Animal studies indicate a strong association between low levels of Irisin and cognitive impairment. It is thought low levels of Irisin have negative effects on learning and memory.

So when you are sweating in the gym or Yoga studio, it is not just the body that is benefitting – it is the mind as well.

Presence of Mind in Stressful Situations

It would perhaps be an understatement to say we are living through stressful times. Our minds are either clinging to thoughts of our pre lockdown lives or we are worrying about the future.

Well this is exactly the moment we need the stabilising effects of mindfulness in our lives.

With this in mind, I have drawn up a short list of things we can do in everyday life to keep focussed, calm and positive.

Click here to download our brief mindfulness guide and practice.

Tibetan Eye Exercises

During our current lockdown, lots of us are staring at screens – whether this be TVs, PC, tablets, laptops or phones.

Why not give our eyes a break and try these Tibetan Eye Exercises that may relieve tension, relieve headaches and possibly strengthen the eyes.

I have attached a chart to print out as an A4 sheet and pin to a surface at head height.

HOW TO USE THE CHART:

Attach the chart to a convenient wall with the white centre spot in line with the nose. Stand erect with the tip of your nose as close to the white spot as possible. Then move the eyes slowly clockwise following the outer edge of each arm of the figures including the black spot, until the beginning point is reached. Then repeat the same action in a counter clockwise direction. After each cycle blink and relax the eyes and then do three to five minutes of Palming.

Download – Eye Chart