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

Karuna Yoga

If you are suffering from any chronic pain condition, you have probably tried many different things to find comfort and ease … but have you thought about Yoga?

Skilful Yoga practice can decrease pain, heal the body and lift the spirit in many ways.  Indeed the practice of Yoga is said to lead to “karuna”– the relief of suffering. Traditional Yoga teachers see this as one of their central acts of service to students.

Yoga has been shown to reduce suffering in a number of ways –

1. Yoga can realign and strengthen areas where wear and tear is evident – this includes all mechanical joint problems and soft tissue injuries.
2. Decreases the presence of inflammatory chemicals in the systems such as Cortisol, prostaglandins and cytokines in chronic conditions (please note inflammation is used by the body to heal acute ailments, but only becomes problematic when the inflammation is prolonged).
3. Increases the body’s natural anti-inflammatory agents such as phagocytes and modulates the immune response via B and T cells. The immune system is fine tuned to become more active and responsive.
4. Fine tunes the nervous system and can break the link between negative emotions and pain. Yoga brings hope, optimism and can lift low mood. 
5. Increases the activity of the para-sympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system) and stimulates the vagus nerve.
6. Yoga gives the practitioner tools to reduce the experience of pain, thus giving back control and reducing anxiety and fear which often spring from loss of control.

So if your life has been haunted by pain or suffering, why not give Yoga a try … you may be pleasantly surprised.

Finding Inner Peace at Christmas

Sometimes Christmas can be a very fraught time of year, when we feel our physical energies are depleted, our emotions sorely tested and our mind disturbed.  This scattering of our energies is experienced as pain (in it’s many forms) and to sentient beings something to be avoided.

Well it doesn’t have to be that way.  Within Yoga the practice of meditation helps put back into perspective the true experience of being – centred, relaxed and non grasping/striving.  Indeed it is this constant desire to have and acquire that creates all the pain we feel.

If you would like to discover a little more about meditation please click here to download our beginner’s guide or ask a qualified Yoga teacher. 

Chronic Inflammation and Yoga

If you have ever experienced an unexplained chronic pain, numbness, tingling or burning in the joints, muscles/soft tissue, skin or internally – that may have then just disappeared – you might be suffering from chronic inflammation.

What is Inflammation?

So, what is inflammation, why does it occur, and what are the best, safe and natural options to curb this disorder? Let’s start by defining the term: From the Latin term inflammo (meaning setting alight or igniting), inflammation is part of the body’s immune response, the body’s attempt at self-protection. The objective of inflammation is to remove damaged cells, harmful irritants, or toxic pathogens and begin the healing process. The 4 classic signs of inflammation are –

• Dolor (pain)
• Calor (heat)
• Tumor (swelling)
• Rubor (redness)

When something harmful or irritating affects a part of our body, there is a biological response to try to remove it. This response takes the form of inflammation for the body to heal itself. While inflammation is not infection, an infection caused by bacteria, virus or fungus can trigger an inflammation process.

As a short term response to a threat inflammation is a very useful self protection mechanism.

The Inflammatory Process

Acute inflammation is the initial response of the body to harmful stimuli and is characterised by the release of –

• Specialised chemicals that create a conducive atmosphere for the pro-inflammatory molecules to act and
• Specialised immunity molecules/cells that fight the invaders – such as leukocytes, macrophages, mast cells, bradykinin, histamine, and TNF.

This internal process leads to the removal of pathogens and promote healing of any damaged tissue. Thus, in a perfect world or perfect body the inflammatory process occurs just as it should, releasing pro-inflammatory molecules and immune factors when needed, and then turning them off when the threat has been sufficiently addressed. However …

Chronic Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is characterised by a response that is aberrant, out of control and is not completely turned off or extinguished. In chronic inflammation the inflammatory response continues eve when not needed. With the inflammation switch refusing to turn off, the body operates as if it is always under attack. Inflammation draws on our body’s energy and resources and having a constant, low-grade flow of powerful pro-inflammatory molecules can result in bodily damage over time.

Once this system goes out of control it self-perpetuates and quickly spirals into disease in areas such as blood vessels (atherosclerosis); pancreatic tissue (diabetes); bones and joints (arthritis); digestive system (lactose and gluten intolerance); limbs, muscles and nerves (fibromyalgia); fat tissue (obesity); throat (thyroid issues)—just for starters.

Causes of Chronic Inflammation

There are many factors that can lead to chronic inflammation, these may include –

• Aging
• Genetic disposition
• Hypertension
• Chronic infection
• Chronic physical stress (under/over activity, environmental pollutants, smoking, excess alcohol etc)
• Chronic mental stress
• Poor diet
• Long term medication

Conventional Treatment for Chronic Inflammation

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), that include drugs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are often used together with steroids for more severe cases, such as glucocorticoids which work to calm an overactive immune system and to decrease the level of inflammation in the body.

However all these medicines, although extremely useful, can have serious side effects. Is there anything that is safer?

Yoga as Therapy

There’s also good news for those of us who have a regular yoga practice. Several studies now report that a regular yoga practice –

• Brings down the levels of stress hormones that promote inflammation
• Lowers the levels of a number of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body and brings down inflammation that is beneficial in conditions like arthritis
• Reduces a subset of pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines thereby relieving severe pain seen in diseases like fibromyalgia
• Inhibits inflammation that in turn weakens and may even kill cancerous cells in people with cancer.

We are still not quite sure how Yoga works (the mechanism), but there is considerable evidence that is does! So get the mat out and start practicing – you will feel the benefits.

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