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.

Facial Yoga

As we age we lose collagen from our skin and our muscle tone decreases in our facial muscles the face starts to show the signs of aging.

Good diet, not smoking and avoiding over exposure to the Sun can all help, but exercise can also play a major role in “filling out” the face.

Try these exercises everyday for 2 weeks and you will see the difference.

Exercise One
Pucker your lips tightly, leaving a small hole as though you were about to whistle. Shut your eyes and continue to force your lips forward as though you are trying to reach an object in front of you. Hold this position for twenty seconds.

Exercise Two
This exercise involves doing the reverse of the above exercise. Open your eyes wide and raise the eyebrows. Open your mouth as wide as possible, stretching it to its limit and concentrating on pulling every part of your face away from your mouth. Hold this position for twenty seconds, then repeat exercises one and two alternately for two minutes.

Exercise Three
Close your mouth and clench your teeth, then force the corners of your mouth down towards your chin, so that all the muscles in your neck are taut and stand out. Hold this position whilst to keep the upper part of your face relaxed. Next bring the chin muscle upwards, causing the corners of your mouth to contract towards the centre of your face and hold. Do four very slow movements, then eight fast. This exercise improves the jawline.

Exercise Four
Tilt your head back as though you were looking at the ceiling. Next place the palm of your right hand in the centre of your forehead. Try to bring you head back to its normal position whilst resisting with your hand, as though someone were pushing your head back against your will. Repeat this exercise six times in total.

Exercise Five
Bring your head forward onto your chest and place the palm of your right hand on the back of your head. Force your head back up whilst resisting with your hand. Repeat six times initially and then alternate this exercise with exercise four. These two exercises build up the muscles in your throat and neck.

Exercise Six
Puff out your cheeks, as though your mouth were full of water and purse your lips as tightly as you possibly can. Squeeze your mouth to the size of a pea, following this, slap your face with both of your hands for two minutes. This might sound a trite masochistic, but it works wonders!

Mindfulness at Work

In today’s technological workplace it is easy to forget ourselves as we stare at screens and answer the constant emails, social media messages and telephone calls that assail us. 

Is this important and should we be concerned?

Well yes, MINDLESSNESS PRECLUDES OUR EXPERIENCING OF OTHER THINGS AND IS IMPOVERISHING. Over time our mind becomes conditioned by this narrow focus of our attention and our desire to stay within it’s habitual ways.  We can lose 7 to 8 hours per day in this “lost” mental state.

By doing a few simple mindful practices we can stay human during our working day!

Let’s begin by recalling what mindfulness is …

“Paying attention on purpose to the present moment, without judgement” (Jon Kabat Zinn)

Practice 1 – Sitting

Every 10 or 15 minutes –

• Scan body for physical sensations. Note posture.
• Scan for feelings and emotions that may arise.
• Watch and witness thoughts and thought patterns. Be attentive that you do not engage with thoughts – this will give them energy.
• Watch breath and qualities of breath.

Practice 2 – Walking at Work

Whether walking to the printer, toilets, canteen or down the corridor – INHALE when foot leaves floor and EXHALE when foot touches floor.

Give these simple practices a go and not only may you leave your desk more refreshed at the end of the day, but you may find your are more creative, empathetic and productive during the working day.

Swara Yoga

To anyone who has even taken a cursory interest in their own being, it is apparent that our being changes from moment to moment.  Our moods, thinking, personality and indeed even our body physiology is said to be in a constant state of flux according to the ancient Yogis.  This phenomena of change is due to the changing balance of the two kinds of energy within the human being – a positive solar (male) energy and a negative lunar (female) energy.

Energy and consciousness, permeate the whole of our being through the network of energy channels called nadis.  All these channels 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.

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 of studying (and consciously manipulating) the dynamic balance of energies in the body 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 –

 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

 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

Finding the Foods That Harm Us

Do you suffer from a long term health problem for which a diagnosis has proved impossible or tentative?  Do you experience a number of unpleasant symptoms that make your life uncomfortable or unpleasant?  Food could be the culprit or rather certain foodstuffs could be causing your problems.

You could be suffering from an allergy or intolerance (see definitions below).  One of the best ways to help throw light on the problem AND the solution is an elimination (or exclusion) diet.

Typical health problems caused by foods we are allergic or intolerant of include  –

  1. Rashes or other skin problems
  2. Gut problems – gas, bloating, pain, constipation
  3. Emotional/Mental health problems
  4. Low energy levels
  5. Joint and muscle pains
  6. Headaches

How To Do An Elimination Diet

  1. Make a note of all the unpleasant or uncomfortable symptoms you suffer from.
  2. Rate each symptom on a scale of 0 to 10 – the higher the number, the more unpleasant the symptom.
  3. Consult a qualified healthcare professional to ensure you will not put your health at risk by following an elimination diet.
  4. Completely remove from your diet ONE of the common food groups (see below) that cause reactions for between 2 to 3 weeks.
  5. Keep a diary – during the elimination phase make a DAILY note or symptoms (again rate them on a 0 to 10 scale).
  6. If there has been no significant improvement in symptoms over the 2 to 3 week elimination period, another food group can be tested and food eliminated previously slowly reintroduced.
  7. If you identify harmful foods, try slowly reintroducing the food.  If this provokes symptoms you have found your triggers – remove these permanently from your diet.
  8. Make sure that if you eliminate food groups, you are still getting the necessary vital nutrition these foods provided, from other foods.  Consulting a qualified dietician or nutritionist may help.


The Difference Between Allergies and Intolerances

The symptoms of both conditions may be very similar and can even confuse the experts, as both cause unpleasant symptoms and inflammation!

Generally food allergies are triggered by a protein and cause the body’s immune system to over react – with serious systemic symptoms (maybe life threatening).

Food intolerances generally only affect the digestive tract and are less severe than allergies.  They are caused by –

1.  absence of an enzyme

2. psychological stress

3.  IBS

4.  Sensitivity to food additives

5.  Inflammation of gut when exposed to gluten

Common Foods Causing Allergies

  • Milk (and dairy produce) – mainly seen in children
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish

Common Foods Causing Intolerances

  • Dairy – usually caused by a sugar called lactose
  • Gluten – a protein found in many grains, especially wheat, barley.  Gluten intolerance may present as Coeliac Disease or the less severe Non Coeliac Gluten Intolerance.
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol

Yoga and Anxiety

In Yoga anxiety is often seen as a rajasic (agitated) state of mind and by what is known in Ayurveda as vata derangement. Sometimes just the slowing down of the mind which accompanies a Yoga practice is enough to reduce anxiety – but sometime we need a more targeted practice.

Yoga has many tools to help with anxiety states, so let us list 2 of the easiest to practice.

  1. Grounding asana practice, especially standing postures and inversions and forward bends.
  2. Pranayama/breath control – particularly deep diaphragmatic breathing.

Breathwork for anxiety is particularly effective and we will discuss two simple methods.

The first method is simple exhaling for longer than you inhale. This stimulates the para sympathetic nervous system.

The second more formal method is using ratio breathing – either 4:8 (breath in for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 8) OR the slightly more advance 4:7:8 (breathe in for 4, hold the breath for 7 and exhale out for 8). BREATH RETENTIONS MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR THOSE WITH HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE.

Both of the above pranayamas can be done lying, seated or standing.

Remember if your anxiety is long standing or severe always seek professional expert help.

Stiff and Aching in the Morning?

Most people wake up feeling a little stiff and tight – then stretch to ease out their body.  Why should this happen?

Well when we sleep our spinal discs absorb water and “plump up” which reduces spinal mobility, but also cells called fibroblasts in the fluid between our tissue layers (extra cellular matrix) secrete a protein that acts as a glue to stick tissue layers together.  In essence these adhesions form between connective tissue bands called myofascia.

When we stretch, we literally flush this glue away and this allows the tissue layers to slide again.  If we allowed gluey fibre to stick our  myofascial layers together not only would it reduce movement but could quite possibly increase pain by impinging on nerves.  Many chronic pain conditions are thought to be linked (in part at least) to this “fuzzing up” of our myofascia.

The famous anatomist Gil Hedley explains this process brilliantly in the attached link (PLEASE NOTE CONTAINS IMAGES FROM A DISSECTION)

So get up and shake it out every morning! Just a few minutes stretching each morning will really help you feel more mobile and brighter.

Prehab – Fixing the Body Before Things Go Wrong!

As strong and fit as we think we are, things can and do go wrong with even the fittest of us.  Everyday living together with the activities and sports we enjoy all take a toll on the body.

Prevention as they say is better than cure – in the field of exercise future proofing our bodies (aka “prehab”) may allow us to avoid the pain, cost and uncertainty of fixing things (aka “rehab”) after they go wrong.

Research with top athletes has shown that a mixture of balance, cross body and functional exercises are the best forms of prehab.  Moreover prehab needn’t be difficult, require a lot of time or expense.

Click here for a short prehab programme – based on a more extensive programmes used in professional sport.  

Try to practice all the exercises on the sheet for 10 repetitions x 2 sets, 3 to 4 times per week.  Where weights are needed keep these low (5kg or less) and practice on a non-slip surface.  

As always if you have a medical condition, always seek advice.

Anti Aging Tips

Nobody wants to get old, but are there any simple yet practical things we can do that will at least slow down the march of time on our bodies and minds? 

Well yes there is – there is a remarkable scientific consensus as to what works.  So here is the list (simplified for the sake of brevity) –

  • Use moisturiser and sunscreen daily
  • Cleanse and exfoliate the skin every night
  • VitaminA/retinol serums really work for wrinkles
  • Avoid cosmetics/facial products which contain – SLS, propylene glycol, PEG,dimethicone, parabens, artificial perfumes, artificial colours and triethanolamine amongst others
  • Take a chelated vitamin C supplement (helps to slow and even reverse the breakdown of collagen) – which leads to wrinkles and sagging.
  • Goodsleep habits (8 hours per day – try to get to bed before 11pm)
  • Good diet – wheat germ oil, eggs, lots of dark green vegetables, avoid sugars, nuts (walnuts are very good for the heart),oily fish etc.  Don’t fry food and try to avoid processed food.  Purple foods are brilliant.  Stop eating when the stomach is 80% full.  Take 1000 iu of vitamin D each day – there is research indicates it may even kill cancer.
  • Stayactive – try to balance on one leg every day – 10 seconds per side x 3.  One of the strongest predictors of aging is aweakening thigh muscles.
  • Nap 10 minutes per day if possible.
  • Laugh every day.
  • Have sex!!!  The research indicates that once a day is the optimum.
  • Socially connection is important.

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.  Remember always work with awareness and listen to your body.

  • 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.