Positive affirmations, positive mind

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln

Are you wearing rose-tinted spectacles?  I believe that we develop our outlook from quite a young age, perhaps influenced by those around us.  Some of us see life’s adventures in a positive light, the proverbial ‘glass half full’.  Or perhaps we see the same glass, half empty. Whatever life brings, it serves a purpose and we can learn from it.  You may believe that someone ‘up there’ is dishing it out, you might believe in karma, it might just be the way the cookie crumbles.

Whatever the source, we all have good days and bad days, exciting experiences and unpleasant ones.  And therein lies one of the problems; labelling it as good or bad, categorising and pigeonholing.  I seem to remember reading somewhere that the mind keeps a better hold on the ‘bad’ things than the ‘good’ ones, so looking back we may be more inclined to recall what went wrong rather than what went right.  Maybe there were good bits sandwiched in between.  Perhaps we don’t remember them.  Maybe we were too caught up in the bad to even see them in the first place.  Little wonders like a sunny day, a spring flower, the smell of grass after the rain.

Scientists at the National Institute for Mental Health have now shown that a positive attitude really does help us to stay motivated and in a good frame of mind.  This is linked to the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin in the brain.  Positive thinking as a concept has really mushroomed in recent years, and while it is important that your positivity is realistic rather than rose-tinted, having a ‘can do’ attitude is more likely to help you achieve your goals than out-and-out pessimism.

In the Tuesday class we are currently using positive affirmations at the end of our meditative practice to help develop an optimistic outlook and attitude towards ourselves.  Positive affirmations are short positive statements, such as ‘I feel relaxed’ or ‘I am strong enough to do this’.  Used in the present tense, they help you to believe it’s already true.  If our thoughts can become self-fulfilling, better that they are positive ones.  Repeat your affirmation several times, to reinforce the message.  You can use them at any time; try it as a daily practice when you have a quiet moment, or as first aid when those negative thoughts start creeping in!

 

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Sweet Stuff 2: Stressing about sugar

Stress is commonly considered to be the modern evil, plaguing us in our busy 24-7 lives.  You may have first-hand experience of the way in which stress plays havoc with your self-control.  Perhaps you take more risks, drink more or make one too many visits to the cookie jar when stress has the upper hand.

In the short term, feeling stressed may cause us to lose our appetites.  However, in the longer term the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands will cause us to feel hungry again and motivate us to eat.  And it’s not usually a bag of carrot sticks we reach for is it? Nope, the chances are that our snacks will feature plenty of sugar or fat – or maybe both – as stress reduces the levels of serotonin in the brain and sends us seeking sugar and caffeine as a pick-me-up.  Doughnut anyone?

Scientists now believe that stress is one of the risk factors which can lead to the development of Type 2 Diabetes, a metabolic disorder in which the body is unable to regulate blood sugar.  Emotional stress may lead to the types of behaviour that challenge our body’s ways of managing blood sugar, such as overeating fatty and sugary foods, or drinking too much alcohol combined with a lack of regular exercise.  Eventually the body is unable to cope with the stress of the constant flux, and diabetes is the result*.

Mindful awareness and meditation are known to reduce stress, making us less likely to fall prey to these urges in the first place.  They can also make us more aware of the actions we take when stressed, and may allow us to see that sliver of an opportunity to step in and break the habit of automatically reaching for the cookie jar or heading for the chip shop when it all starts getting a bit much.

 

*Interestingly, it has also been shown that eating a diet rich in animal fats (meat, eggs and dairy) also increases the risk of diabetes by raising acidity levels in the body.  Perhaps it’s time to experiment with Meat-free Monday and Doughnut-free Friday as well as getting plenty of daily exercise!

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Sweet Stuff 1: Serotonin: the feel-good factor

Maintaining the body’s blood sugar levels is a delicate balancing act and I, for one, am very grateful that my body takes care of this for me.  Scientists have found that when our blood sugar levels fall, the production of stress hormones is increased, boosting with it the chance that we will overindulge in sugary treats rather than settling for a healthy plate of salad.

Eating sugary foods causes insulin to be released to remove the sugar from the blood stream.  Insulin removes all of the amino acids except tryptophan at the same time.  Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is generally thought to contribute towards feelings of well-being and happiness.

This sudden availability of tryptophan can lead to increased amounts of serotonin in the brain and we get the feel-good factor that comes from eating our sugary treat.  We experience a similar effect when we drink coffee or other caffeine-laden drinks, as these cause the body to produce cortisol.  More serotonin is then produced to balance the cortisol out.  Either may result in a short-term high of energy and efficiency, but this is invariably followed by a slump that leaves us craving another fix, in an endless cycle of ups and downs.

Sugar and caffeine may not be healthy ways to boost our serotonin but there are other ways, ones that are much better for us.  The first of these can be a little tricky at this time of year, when the days are short and dull.  Yes, you guessed, sunlight boosts serotonin production so it is always a good idea to get some time out of doors in the middle of the day.  And the second one is exercise.

Taking exercise has the same effect on the blood as insulin, removing all the amino acids except the tryptophan, which can then be converted to serotonin in the brain.  So, feeling good after exercising isn’t just to do with knowing you made the effort, there is a chemical basis for it as well.  So when the weather stays grey and the cookie jar is calling, it is even more important to keep up with your yoga practice. Your body will thank you for it!

For more ideas of healthy ways to boost your serotonin levels check out this WikiHow article.

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Find your freedom…of movement

Many prospective students contact me in the hope that yoga will improve their flexibility, or in other words increase the range of movement they have in their joints.  Restrictions to joint freedom are often due to the muscles, ligaments and tendons that surround, support and work on those joints, not the joint itself.  Each joint has a medically recognised range of movement and it is possible for our movement to be restricted so that it is less than the typical range, or in the case of hypermobility, it may be more than is typical.

Under anaesthesia, muscles relax and the stiff patient regains their full range of movement.  However, once the patient wakes up from the anaesthetic, the old limitations resurface.  While this is not necessary helpful to potential yoga students with stiff joints(!), it does have a medical application as some conditions of stiffness in joints, such as a frozen shoulder, may be treated by manipulation under anaesthesia, allowing the therapist to move the joint in ways that would not be possible under normal circumstances.

Sometimes it is only during the yoga class that we notice that stiffness exists.  You might notice it when working in asymmetric postures that allow you to compare one side of the body to the other, or perhaps feel stiffness in a muscle when attempting a particular stretch.  These revelations only serve to remind me how little of our possible range of movement we use as a part of our normal daily lives.  And the old saying ‘Use it or lose it’ is so very true in this context.

All our muscles have a certain resting tone and a length that they comfortably stretch to.  Unfortunately, when we only use part of our range of movement in a joint, the connective tissue or fascia will ‘set’ that length within the muscles surrounding it and the signals sent by the nervous system serve to ensure we then stay within the new accepted range of movement.  Ever decreasing circles come to mind…

In order to stretch the muscle further, and thus gain greater movement in the joint, we need to increase the maximum length by working to ease out restrictions in the connective tissue or fascia that supports the muscle.  The Joint Freeing Series or Pavanmuktasana in yoga helps us to become familiar with the flexibility we have at each joint and if practised regularly, attempts to move all the joints through their full range of movement.  Enhancing joint mobility can relieve pain and stiffness, moving the joint helps to circulate the synovial fluid.

Easing tension in muscles around the joint also helps to create more space within the joint so its movement can be smoother and more comfortable.  Although I never do the whole series in any one class, most classes include some parts of the series that are relevant to that session.  This means that each class has an underlying theme of joint mobility and I would hope that through regular practice you would see improvements in how you can use your body.  So tell me, has it worked for you?

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Sparkle little stars

We have all heard of the major body parts, but what about the glands which comprise the neuro-endocrine system?  These glands are the hidden heroes in our bodies, helping to maintain our internal balance.  We may not be aware that these little glands are there but they have a significant impact on our experience of each day through their effects our metabolism, growth, sleep habits and mood.

When stimulated by the nervous system, endocrine glands release hormones directly into the bloodstream, to be circulated around the body.  For example, the neuroendocrine system is involved in balancing your blood sugar.  If you eat a big slice of cream cake (or a chocolate bar, or a bag of chips) your pancreas produces insulin, which causes your body to reduce the sudden excess of blood sugar back to a more acceptable level.  In the case of diabetes, there may be insufficient insulin produced or your body may not respond to it as it should.  Either way, the result is an imbalance which can be life-threatening.

Another part of the neuroendocrine system regulates our pattern of sleep and wakefulness to coincide with the day and night cycles of the planet.  Once it becomes dark at night, the pineal gland in your brain is activated to release melatonin into the bloodstream, causing you to feel sleepy and to think about heading off to bed.  It’s quite common for students to comment that attending their yoga class helps them to sleep better that night.  While it’s unlikely that the class is affecting your production of melatonin, I suspect that taking time out from your usual busy lifestyle allows you to feel relaxed enough for the melatonin to have its intended effect that evening.  While insomnia itself may not be life-threatening, it can certainly feel that way at times! For some good tips on how to improve your chances of a good night’s sleep, take a look here.

The glands which form this system are aligned centrally in the body, roughly along the line of the spine.  Their locations correspond to the accepted locations of the major chakras in the energy body system, spoken of by the ancient yogis.  Each chakra is said to relate to the energy of specific parts of the body and to correspond to different aspects of our development and behaviour.  Much as the endocrine glands bring balance to the physical body, so the activities of the chakras bring balance to our energy body.  An excellent summary of the chakra system is provided here.

You might like to try this simple meditation to support the health of your endocrine glands before you go to sleep at night.  As you inhale imagine you are directing the energy of the breath into the endocrine glands.  As you exhale, imagine them glowing like little stars along your spine, sparkling with energy and vitality.  Give thanks for their role in bringing balance to your body while you sleep.

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…and yoga to exercise your brain

Many yoga students comment on the calming effect of a yoga class; perhaps they feel more relaxed at the end or get a better night’s sleep afterwards.  Personally I think these benefits come about because yoga is a whole-being workout involving your brain as well as your body.   By bringing body, breath and mind together we create some mental space and nagging problems can take a back seat for a while.

The relaxing effect of yoga on the body comes through maintaining this focus as we move through our different postures.  As the body gets a physical workout, the brain gets a workout in concentration.  Just like a muscle that’s been working hard, when it’s time to let go the brain relaxes and takes a rest.  I think this is one of the reasons that students often comment on how quickly the time has gone in class; they have been so engrossed in the lesson that, for them, time has flown by.

It might be the need to coordinate breath with specific movements or to remember a short sequence of postures.  Either way, it requires an effort from the brain that leads to a sense of relaxation later.

And it seems that medical science is starting to demonstrate that the positive effects of yoga on our minds don’t stop there.  Studies have shown that 3 sessions of yoga a week can boost levels of the amino acid GABA in the brain. This amino acid is associated with the function of the central nervous system and affects our mood.  Low levels can result in depression and anxiety so it’s good to know that yoga helps to keep us feeling positive, especially as we move into the shorter days of the coming winter.

Another study, at the University of Illinois, showed that 20 mins of hatha yoga results in greater improvement in reaction times and accuracy in cognitive tasks than 20 mins spent on aerobic exercise such as walking or jogging.  They also found that after the yoga session, participants in the study were better able to focus their minds and were more effective at learning.  Although the sample group was small, these results all suggest that yoga helps keep more than just your body in good shape.

All good reasons to practise on a regular basis!  But then I guess, if you are a regular to yoga classes, your body already knows what the scientists are now proving to be true.

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Yoga to exercise your body…

We’ve all heard about 5-a-day; in fact it’s become quite the modern mantra.

But what about your 150 a week?  Eh?

Standard advice at the moment seems to be that we aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.  Apparently you can do this however you choose; in one gruelling 2 ½ hr session, or 22 mins a day.  I did also read that doing a really intense 3mins a day can take the place of your 150…but that sounds like seriously hard work!

Sadly for keen yogis, our practice doesn’t count towards this goal at all (sighs).  Moderate activity is defined as that which raises the heart rate and speeds up your breathing.  As we aim to keep the breath rhythmic and even during the class that is not really part of our yoga practice.  We might find it happening for brief periods during the class, but certainly not for the whole hour.  I wonder how many vigorous sun salutations you would have to do to check off 150 mins a week?

As a result, yoga is not that effective at burning calories either (scientists found that you use only 144 calories in a typical session) and even dynamic forms of yoga fall short of being classed as an aerobic exercise.  So, keep taking the stairs and running for the bus!

However, the aspect of our weekly recommended dose of exercise that seems to be less frequently mentioned is muscle strengthening, and the good news is that this is where yoga can help.  According to the NHS, you should do muscle strengthening exercise on 2 days each week.  In fact, the NHS actually recommends yoga as one way of boosting muscle strength.

Most classes support muscle strengthening by working with our own body weight in postures that challenge the lower body, upper body, back and core muscles.  Strengthening is an important aspect of the class, helping to support joints and contributing towards our ability to move the body gracefully and with control.  The variety of postures in each class makes sure that all of our muscles get a work out.

So here’s to stronger muscles! However, if you want to build in some government-approved moderate exercise perhaps it’s time to leave the car at home and take a brisk walk to class.  Just a thought!

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Take a deep breath: part 2

When we lie down at the start of the class, I might suggest that you sense the movement of breath in your belly.  Feel it rising during your inhalation and falling during your exhalation.  This is called abdominal breathing, as the majority of the breath’s movement is felt in the belly.  This is a very relaxed way of breathing, quite the opposite to the ‘chest breathing’ pattern that I mentioned last time.  The movement happens because the chest and the abdomen are separated by the diaphragm.  During inhalation, this flexible sheet of muscle is able to move down, allowing the lungs to fill with air, and the result is that the belly appears to expand as the abdominal organs are moved to accommodate this expansion.

Having learned to feel this movement, we now need to harness it for our yoga practice.  If we maintain a slight (and I mean slight!) tone in the abdominal muscles, just enough to limit this expansion of the belly, the diaphragm is unable to move down as far.  The downward movement is accompanied by a lifting and opening of the ribs, giving a sense of widening at the bottom of the ribcage.  There is still some movement in the belly, but much less than when you were laying down doing your abdominal breath.  This diaphragmatic breath is not just used in yoga, but in martial arts and by performers such as musicians and public speakers.  Using this diaphragmatic breath is helpful when doing yoga postures as the tone in the abdominal muscles helps to support and protect your back as you practice.   When the body is upright the abdominals may tone naturally, but in many postures we may need to think about it consciously to begin with.

Lying down and breathing into the belly at the start of the class is a good place to experience the smooth, even breath that we want to use during the practice.  You may notice a subtle pause between the breaths, but they flow smoothly in and out with a quiet, even rhythm.  We want to apply this to our diaphragmatic breathing as well, allowing the exhalation to flow seamlessly into the inhalation.  Paying attention to your breath during the class will help you to notice any changes as they arise and work with them.

If this all sounds very complicated, don’t worry!  You may need to think about it for a while, but like riding a bicycle and driving a car, once you have become used to it, diaphragmatic breathing will become second nature and you will wonder how you ever breathed any other way.

In part three we will look at a simple way to connect to your breath.

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Take a deep breath: Part 1

One of the key differences between a yoga class and many other forms of exercise is that in yoga we generally aim to be aware of our breath as we work into the different postures.  In addition, classes may often include a specific breathing practice.  Co-ordinating movement with breath helps us to move in a slow and controlled manner, whilst the way we breathe as we maintain postures can deepen our experience of their benefits.

Although breathing is a fundamental part of our experience each moment of each day, we may not normally pay a great deal of attention to our breath or how we are breathing at any given time.  That’s all well and good, as if you had to remember to breathe the chances are you wouldn’t have much time to think of anything else! However, despite this, it is possible for habits to develop that affect the body’s capacity to breathe effectively.  For example, the urge to look slimmer can make us pull the belly in, restricting the flow of breath to the bottom of the lungs.  This can lead to a ‘chest breathing’ habit, where the belly is actually pulled in during inhalation to resist the natural expansion of the belly at that time.

The lungs extend from the bottom of the rib cage right up behind the shoulder blades, enclosed for protection by the rib cage.  As we inhale, the rib cage needs to lift and open to accommodate the breath.  Flexibility in the muscles around and between the ribs will enable this to take place more freely.  The shoulders rest on the rib cage, so tension in this area may limit the expansion of the lungs in the upper part of the chest. Tension here can spread to the shoulder blades, neck, head and jaw, giving you plenty of reasons to use yoga to relax!

The various spinal movements incorporated into a typical yoga class help to bring movement to the muscles in the chest.  A side stretch or a twist can open out the muscles between the ribs and working with the shoulders and free up tension here too.  Tension in the hips can also lead to tightness in the upper body as it may not feel supported, so working to bring movement to the hips and legs can also free up the chest and shoulders.  In these indirect ways we can help the body to breathe is a more relaxed way, so our resting breath can be fuller and more comfortable.

In part two we will look at the natural diaphragmatic breath.

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Sitting flat? It’s not a competition…

In yoga classes, I have found that there can be a resistance to sitting with a support beneath the seat bones.  An assumption, perhaps, that it’s normal to be able to sit cross-legged on the flat surface of the mat for our breathing or meditation practice.  At a Buddhist meditation class, it would be automatic to sit on a small cushion called a zafu, which raises the seat a few inches off the larger square zabuton beneath.  Perhaps we don’t need the larger cushion (though I find that my ankles welcome some extra padding), but the habit of sitting with the seat raised a little is one that is well worth cultivating.

Raising your seat a few inches can have 2 main benefits.  The first of these has to do with the angle of the pelvis.  In the West we are generally unused to sitting on the floor once we reach adulthood.  There is often insufficient flexibility in the hips and hamstrings as we spend so much time sitting on chairs.  As a result, when we sit on the floor the pelvis is likely to tilt backwards and you will lose your lumbar curve.

The knock-on effect of this is that your ribcage may press down on your belly as you slump forward and there is a good chance you will round your shoulders as well.  In order to keep your head level you will now need to jut your chin out, which shortens the back of the neck and puts strain on the muscles at the front, which are effectively hanging on to all that weight now that gravity is no longer much use.  None of this is very helpful to your body as it tries to breathe!

Our body is generally more balanced when there is a slight anterior (forward) tilt in the pelvis.  This applies when standing or sitting.  It brings your spine into alignment in its natural curves, which in turn allows gravity to act on the spine in the way nature intended and minimises the amount of effort required to stay in this position.  By lifting your seat bones 2-3” you can encourage this anterior tilt and the rest may just fall into place.

The second benefit has to do with your knees and hips.  By encouraging the pelvis to maintain the anterior tilt, your knees are likely to get closer to the floor (or even rest on it!).  This will reduce a huge amount of tension in the legs, as the muscles here are no longer holding on to the weight of the legs suspended in mid-air.

So what’s the answer?  In a word, experimentation! The best options vary from person to person but you might want to try one or more of the following;

  • A yoga block.  You need to use a block not a brick, which is really not a good shape for sitting on.  The block is much the shape and size that the Yellow Pages used to be before everything went online.  There are two sorts in my store, the blue ones are harder and I find them less comfortable for sitting on than the recycled foam ones.
  • A folded blanket.  If your blanket will fold up into a firm pad of a similar size to a block, this would save bringing extra kit to class.
  • Rolled up yoga mat.  This is the option I find most comfortable but it’s less convenient if you want to use it for seated postures during class as well as for the breathing or meditation practice.  Roll your mat up tightly with a short section left for your feet and ankles, and then sit on this roll.
  • A firm cushion or pillow.  Not ideal for sitting on but perfect to put under your knees for support if they are still not down on the floor.

Exploring some of these options at home will mean that you that you can come to class with the right props to help you sit comfortably.  And if the answer is that nothing works, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sitting on a chair!

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