Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

Have you ever done a yoga class and somewhere along the way you realize (maybe at the end during savasana) that you feel more calm, connected with your body, and relaxed compared to when you first arrived. You might also notice the busy mind chatter has dulled and there is some distance between you and your reflexive thoughts. If yes, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, and by this very nature, you’ve experienced entering into a deeper level of awareness through the experience of yoga. One could even say you’ve dropped into a “meditative state”.

There are a couple aspects of yoga that assist in the process of experiencing this calm, more peaceful state. When you move your body and get the muscles warmed, stretched, and the circulation flowing, this eases tension and pain, resulting in less distracting sensations to attend to. It’s also the mindfulness aspect – paying attention to sensation in body and breath, from moment to moment. This keeps the mind anchored to the present moment, which stills the mind chatter.

When we drop into this more meditative-like state in the mind, we are not actually stopping thoughts from occurring. Rather we enter a different state of awareness where the thoughts feel more distant – we are less attached to them and their meaning.  A nice parallel is to imagine the reflexive thoughts of the mind to be like waves on the surface of the ocean. When we are swimming on the surface, the waves push us around, lifting us to their peaks and dropping us into their valleys. When we are connected and calm, we can drop into that deeper water space where everything is still and peaceful… And in this place, we are able to see the thoughts for what they are – surface waves.

I have always found the transcendence into this calmer level of awareness easier to access by doing a little yoga first. In fact one could say the very purpose of physical yoga is to ready oneself for meditation. So the next time you are on your mat, soak up the stillness you’ve created within – lay still and linger in this experience. This short few minutes will leave you feeling focused, connected, and calm.

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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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How Do You Move?

110203-154“Don’t move the way fear makes you move. Move the way love makes you move. Move the way joy makes you move.” -Osho

When I read this quote I thought about yoga, and the beauty I see when I watch a confident, expressive student move from one pose to another. Her body language seems to speak, “I am open, I am free, I radiate love and confidence.” Picture it: tall posture, open arms, open chest, and fluid, easeful movements – these are the postures of someone moving with joy and love.

Now imagine what it looks like to move from a place of fear. I picture staccato, hesitant, restricted, and closed movements. When you are afraid or doubt yourself, movement appears small or and sometimes even frozen.

It’s not just in our movements, when we move through life from a place of fear, we live carefully and avoid risks. We are afraid to fail so we don’t take the risk for the new job and stay put somewhere that makes us unhappy. We are afraid we won’t be good at something, so we never try that one sport or activity we have a curiosity about. So we stay complacent, comfortable, and never push ourselves to try new things. Essentially, we live our lives small.

What if we practiced moving from a place of love and joy, using the safety of our yoga mat to explore bigger more expressive movements? The next time you do yoga, try opening a little more and softening into your pose a little deeper into your poses. Don’t self limit – explore your boundaries and step outside your comfort zone. Imagine yourself emanating love for yourself and deep gratitude for the body you have. Don’t worry about how you look, just give it a try and notice how it makes you feel.

My guess is it that if you try this, even though it may make you feel a little awkward at first, you’ll get a sense of freedom, space and uplifting energy by pushing yourself to do this…And perhaps you’ll have a little awakening of realization that you can bring more love and joy to your movement.

Then consider, how could you move this way off the mat?

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Chronic Stress & Adrenal Fatigue

151110-007-2Many people have not heard of Adrenal Fatigue, but understanding this condition is important because some experts suggest that 80% of the Western world will be affected by it at some point in their lives.

The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys and are responsible for secreting more than 50 different hormones that are essential for life. Among these are adrenaline, cortisol, progesterone and testosterone. Because they regulate so many important hormones, their proper function is critical for many functions essential to life such as producing energy, balancing electrolytes and storing fat.

These glands also help you deal with stress. When you are under stress, the adrenal glands engage many different responses in your body to make it easier for you to handle that stress.

But during periods of intense, prolonged stress or chronic illness, the adrenal glands begin functioning below the level needed to maintain health and well-being in the body. They still function but at less than optimal levels. The result is adrenal fatigue.

Symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue:

  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Craving salty or sweet snacks
  • Morning fatigue
  • Mid-afternoon sleepiness
  • Increased energy in the late afternoon
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Mild Depression
  • Weight gain, especially around the waist
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low body temperature

Treatment: Treatment for adrenal fatigue should take a multi-faceted approach with whole-body wellness in mind.

Stress: One of the first things you should do is reduce the stress in your life. This may mean clearing your schedule, reworking some relationships or learning time management skills. In order for your adrenal glands to heal, the demands placed on them should be lightened.

Sleep: Sufficient sleep is also important. The main repair work on your adrenal glands takes place between 10 pm and 1 am. If you are prone to late nights, consider training your body to go to bed earlier. It is also a good idea to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet in order to help you sleep more soundly.

Exercise: Adrenal fatigue can also be helped by exercise. Exercise regulates cortisol, relieves depression and increases blood flow. Each of these benefits will contribute to your recovery. Try to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day. Yoga is especially helpful in this manner since it teaches breathing and relaxation techniques as well as the physical exercise.

Nutrition: Finally, by decreasing ‘junk’ food as much as possible and eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet, you can improve your nutrient intake. Sometimes adding supplements to your diet can speed healing of adrenal fatigue, check with your doctor, naturopath, or dietician for advice on this matter.

Emotional Hygiene: We seem to be good at recognizing our physical ailments and seeking treatment, but we tend to ignore or minimize our mental health ailments. However, it is just as important to take care of your emotional health as it is your physical health. Improve your emotional hygiene by truthfully acknowledging your emotional status and, when necessary, seek the support your need.

Remember the first step to any change is awareness. If you think you may be suffering from adrenal fatigue, consider these lifestyle tips as part of your self-care plan in conjunction with working with your health professionals.

*For some helpful information on using yoga to reset the body’s nervous system and decrease stress hormones click here.

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Yoga Flow Video for the Upper Body

Here is a short flow sequence I use to warm-up the upper body at beginning of classes. It gently stretches the upper back, shoulders, neck and chest. It also helps to draw energy and circulation into these area, and brings focus into the body and breath.

If you find yourself sitting at a computer for long periods, this sequence is great as a tension reliever for the upper body during your workday. Simply sit at the edge of a stable chair, and move through the sequence 5 to 8 cycles.

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Diving Board

A few months ago I read this:

divingboardshelsilverstein-1024x845You’ve been up on that diving board. Making sure that it’s nice and straight. You’ve made sure that it’s not too slick. You’ve made sure it can stand the weight. You’ve made sure that the spring is tight. You’ve made sure that the cloth won’t slip. You’ve made sure that it bounces right, And that your toes can get a grip—And you’ve been up there since half past five. Doin’ everything… but DIVE.              – Shel Silverstein

After reading this I thought, this poem pretty much sums up how I feel about my yoga career, at least, at this moment in time. For years I have been planning, training, preparing, teaching, waiting, saving, and constructing… such that when I finally got nearer to officially opening my own yoga studio, it seemed to me, well…there is only one last thing to do.

Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever done a big career change, or perhaps something else like move to a new country, quit work and travel, leave a relationship, etc.? Big life changes like these have a way of making you feel vulnerable as you leave the familiar, the safe, and the secure, and sometimes it takes a lot of nerve and planning to finally getting to the point to overcome our fears and obstacles to take the big leap.

For me, it was a slow and steady climb towards my goal. There was no running and jumping – I had bills to pay and kids to raise, so I chose a part-time path. This required more time and patience than I imagined, but I kept at it, and for this I give myself a pat on the back. Ultimately, this journey has brought me to this point, at the peak of my total career change, and now I can finally say, my studio is open for business.

So if you are facing a big change in your life and you’re wondering should I or shouldn’t I? Just remember it doesn’t matter how you do it or how long it takes, it only matters that you don’t stand still. I can honestly say, being at this pivotal point, it does make me feel nervous, but I know in my heart, no matter what is to happen in the time to come, it’s true that it would have been worse to not have tried at all.

We must walk consciously only part of the way toward our goal, and then leap into the dark of our success. -Henry David Thoreau

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What Does the Evidence Say?

What does the evidence say?

With nearly 22 million North Americans practicing yoga, there’s a lot of buzz these days about what the benefits, and harms, are of yoga. You will hear and read anything from yoga cures migraines, menstrual cramps, tight hips, insomnia, rid the body of toxins, backache, anxiety to my personal favourites – yoga to flatten the abs and tighten the booty… Needless to say, one can get a little wary and mockingly ask, “What can’t yoga do?”

As much as I love yoga and do believe it provides us with many health benefits, I still appreciate everything has it’s limits, and let’s face it, yoga is a business – so a little scepticism goes a long way. Yoga is also very difficult to define due to its ever-evolving westernization of techniques and myriad of styles, making it tricky to qualify in research. However, plenty of studies have been done, and many more are underway. I recently came across this article,“I read more than 50 scientific studies about yoga. And here’s what I learned” by Julia Belluz’s, which nicely summarizes what the evidence for us. Here’s what it said:

What we know:

  • Yoga is probably just as good for your health as many other forms of exercise, but it seems particularly promising for improving lower back pain
  • Yoga helps reduce inflammation in the body, which can actually help stave off disease.
  • Yoga enhances “body awareness,” or people’s sense of what’s going on inside themselves
  • There is evidence showing that yoga helps with stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders, although, the studies thus far are limited in design and inconclusive in what aspect of yoga is actually helping

What we don’t know:

  • Whether some forms of yoga are better than others
  • Whether yoga should be prescribed to people for various health conditions
  • How yoga compares with other forms of exercise for a good many specific health outcomes
  • Whether yoga is safe in the long term. The cumulative research so far shows yoga is as safe as any other exercise, but much is still to be learned about long term safety when considering different styles and specific poses.
  • There is no good evidence yet behind many of the supposed health benefits of yoga, like flushing out toxins and stimulating digestion

My take on all this:

I always feel great in my body and mind after a good yoga class, and that’s what keeps me practicing. I’m sure the millions of other yogi’s would agree, and for this reason, I think yoga is here to stay. But with its increasing presence in mainstream society, more questions will be asked and the natural progression is for more research to be done, helping us better understand more about the what aspects of yoga are giving us the benefits, and possibly harms. This will indefinitely lead to refinement of techniques and styles and tighter regulations of credentials. Personally, I’m excited about the next chapter of yoga; no doubt there’s much to discover.

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Work Stress?… Take 5 Minutes to Relax and Restore

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Can’t keep up? Getting sucked under? How does one fit 24 hours of work to fit into an 8 hour workday?

Many of my coworkers and friends have been expressing how the demands of their workday are so voluminous, there is no longer a feeling of completion at the end of their day. As we run out of time to “complete” our tasks and projects, things are left hanging, and as they carry over into the next day, the pile gets higher…and no one likes this feeling.

I’ve discussed in a previous blog, Overloaded and Overwhelmed, how high stress, sustained over a long period of time, can negatively affect our physical health. We need strategies and healthy habits to be resilient; we want to break through this “pile” and come through thriving on the other side. For most of us, this requires a break or a step back from the work pile in some way. Even short breaks can give us a sense of renewed energy, a shift in perspective, and better mental clarity.

Today, there is plenty of research indicating a regular mediation practice can be an effective strategy in creating this emotional/physical balance and resiliency in a complex and busy world. There are many types and various lengths of meditations to try. If you want to give it a try, but are unsure where to start, below you will find a very simple and quick (5 minute) relaxation meditation that is great to relax and restore – perfect for a workday refresher.

I hope you’ll find a few moments to plug in and take a listen. Sometimes even 5 minutes can help you be more relaxed and productive in your day.

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Why isn’t yoga just a stretch class?

iStock_000003388488XSmallThe other day at work I had a client ask me why we (yoga instructors) don’t just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer this question since one of my other clients spoke up for me (we will get to that part later). I work in a physiotherapy clinic where there are a lot of injured clients who have had very little experience doing physical exercise, let alone any yoga experience. In this clinic, I teach gentle yoga classes and relaxation meditations. Although, sometimes it takes a little convincing to get the clients to try the classes because they hold an assumption that they need to be some bendy, twisty super yogi to keep up; or, for the meditations, that there is some religious or “new-agey” spiritual practices associated with it. As a result,  I often advertise the classes by explaining the focus or intention of each class.  One might be a class designed to “help relax” or  another might be designed for “pain reduction,” and this usually gets a few individuals through the door.

It’s understandable that there are these assumptions and stigmas out there about yoga and meditation. We see ultra-fit and bendy individuals in the media’s portrayal of yoga and we see these Zen like poses with hands “just so” illustrating meditation. Even though yoga can be like this, it isn’t always, and doesn’t need to be. So when a newcomer to yoga asks me the question, “What is this thing called yoga?”, I tell them it is a lot of things, and that there are many styles and intensity levels out there to choose from, but one of the more important intentions behind most yoga in today’s culture is self-awareness building. That’s right, it’s not just about the physical benefits of stretching, strengthening, and breath (Pranayama) – although, all things being equal, yoga rocks in this department. It provides us with an opportunity to take a step back and be an impartial witness to ourselves.

Here is the secret that I and many other yoga instructors, and practitioners of yoga know. We teach classes intended to take you on a journey inwards. For an hour or so of your day, you are finally getting a break from your mind’s busyness of all your “to do’s,” future, and past thoughts, and instead you are transported into state where you notice your body and your breath, and are focused on the present moment. Whether you are moving or not in the class (in guided meditation you may not move at all), you are spending time experiencing what’s going on with different parts of yourself. You are discovering how you are positioned, where you are tensing your body, how you breathe, what it feels like to move or sit in a certain way, and where your mind goes as you do all this. In essence you are getting in touch with what’s going on inside – you are building awareness to your internal self and your patterns. In a yoga class, the opportunity is there for all parts of you to speak up because there is finally the space and break from the busy chatter of your mind to let them be heard. As a consequence you begin to learn about patterns of holding, and thought, which in turn can lead to a shift in perspective and how you approach the moments of your day.

So it was the best compliment ever when this client of mine spoke up for me when I was asked the question why we don’t you just call yoga “stretching” or “gymnastics”. This is what he shared: He had never done yoga before, nor had he even thought to do so, but was amazed at how it affected him. He explained how during the class his attention was drawn out of his thoughts and into noticing how he frequently tensed his shoulders and jaw in a certain way, and through the guided instructions to breathe and release he could relax these areas, which lowered his internal stress feeling. He told me how these awarenesses lingered with him well after the class was finished. Later that night, he was cooking his dinner on a grill and forgot about it, burning it. Normally he would tense up and get angry, but after the class he felt he could step outside himself a little more, notice the tension that was forming in his jaw, and by taking a couple deep breaths he released the stress of the situation rather than letting it escalate.

What this client explained so eloquently was how he exercised the use of his new awareness. This is what we do in yoga and meditation. We are teaching you, experientially, how to get in touch with your internal self, and then give you some skills of how to manage yourself in a healthier way to deal with whatever it is that you are noticing moment to moment. In yoga and meditation you learn how to pause and step outside of yourself and learn from the language of your body and breath. This is the yoga I know and love.

 

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