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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Take a deep breath: Part 3

A great way to learn more about how your body breathes is to spend some time using the hands to feel the movement of the body with the inhalation and exhalation. Using your hands in this way helps to bring your awareness to the relevant part of the body and the touch can also enhance your breath into this area.  This simple practice can be enjoyable and relaxing to do at night just before you go to sleep, or a way of recharging your batteries if you have a spare 10 minutes at any time in the day.

Start by lying in semi-supine and place your hands on your belly so your fingers are barely touching in the middle.  As you inhale, the breathe moves down into the lungs and there is a gentle rise in the belly.  You may feel your hands lifting, perhaps the fingers will move further apart.  Focus on this movement, feel the sensation of the body breathing beneath your palms.  If you don’t feel much (or anything!), don’t worry, just imagine the subtle movements taking place.

After a few minutes, when you feel ready, move your hands a little higher so they are now resting on the lower ribs.  Again, aim to position them comfortable to they can rest with the middle fingers touching if possible.  Now focus your awareness on the movement of the rib cage as you breathe.  You may feel the fingers move apart as you did with the belly.  In addition you may feel a sideways movement under palm of each hand.

The final stage is to move your hands to rest on or near your shoulders or collarbones, to sense the movement in the upper chest.  Find a position that allows your arms to relax, ideally with your elbows touching the floor.  The movement here may be more subtle, as the breath moves into the uppermost part of the lungs.

And that’s it.  After this final stage, you might like to rest the arms beside you and relax for a few more minutes before you get up.  Stay with an awareness of the body inhaling and exhaling, imaging the breathing moving into each of these parts of the lungs as it brings new energy into the body.

Enjoy!

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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 has a lot to answer for

As I child, I was regularly told off for fidgeting.  No-one wanted to share the sofa with me, because of my endless wriggling and shifting position.  Looking back, I wonder if my body was trying to tell me something even then; sitting down is bad for you!

Yesterday, I made a note of how long I spent sitting down during the day and, to be honest, it was pretty scary!  What with meal times, working on my computer, reading a magazine, having a regular ‘sit down and a cuppa’; it all added up to rather a lot of hours spent resting on my laurels.

And what is wrong with that, I hear you say?  Well, sitting down tends to slow our metabolic processes, so that fat and sugar are not metabolised as effectively, as well as limiting our movement by spending prolonged periods of time in one specific posture. Research has shown that excessive amounts of time spent sitting can contribute towards a myriad of ailments, including back pain, bowel cancer, obesity and high blood pressure, even increasing the chance of death!

As well as these more significant complaints, spending time in a seated position means the muscles in your legs tend to shorten and weaken, and there is a tendency to round or hunch your shoulders.  When we spend so many hours reinforcing these postural shapes it becomes increasingly difficult to counteract the effects they have on our body.

Over time, increasing tightness in the muscles in the legs can affect our ability to move freely when we walk or run and can affect the position of the pelvis, in turn causing problems with back pain or discomfort higher up in the neck and shoulders.  Furthermore, the effect of gravity compresses the spine over the day, reducing the cushioning effect of the discs.

Unfortunately, it appears that spending time working out doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.  The answer is to stand up more and move more frequently.  Here are some simple yoga movements from the Joint Freeing Series (Pavanmuktasana) that can help you to counteract the effects of too much time spent sitting.  Some can be done surreptitiously in the office, others are a little more obvious!  Repeat each a few times whenever you get the chance.

  • Neck: turn to face one shoulder and as you exhale draw your chin down across your chest to the other side. Face out over the other shoulder to inhale.
  • Shoulders: start with arms down beside you and keeping them parallel, inhale to raise them up in front to point towards the ceiling.  Now bring back down and continue sweeping backwards as high as is comfortable as you exhale.
  • Feet and ankles: point and flex toes and ankles, circle ankles in each direction.  Coordinate with your breath to make your movements steady.
  • Spine 1: place your hands on your knees and arch backwards as you exhale, looking towards your belly button.  Lifting your elbows at the same time gives extra movement to the shoulders.  As you inhale, reverse the movement and lift up through the crown of the head towards the ceiling, coming into a slight backbend.  Be careful to keep the back of the neck long as you do so.
  • Spine 2: Practise a simple spinal twist to each side, turning as you exhale.

 

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With this body…

We tend to think of our body as a permanent thing, yet when we consider this more carefully we have to accept that it is constantly changing.  The change from birth to adulthood is immense, and even then there are ongoing changes as we age.  Many of the body’s cells are programmed to die after a certain period of time.  For some cells in the gut, this can be a short as a few days, whilst red blood cells may last 4 months.  We only have to watch the inevitable fade of a summer tan to be reminded of the turnover of our skin cells.

In 2005, a Swedish research group led by Jonas Frisén used carbon-14 techniques to measure the lifespan of different cell types in the body by analysing their DNA.  He found that whilst some cells in the brain are with us our whole life, many other cells have a much shorter life span. On average, cells in the intestine last just under 16 years and skeletal cells may last some 10 or more year. And whilst the cell and its DNA lasts this long, there is a constant exchange of molecules and even smaller particles, both between cells and between our body and the environment around us.

From this it’s clear that our precise physical nature changes moment by moment.  Which makes things somewhat complicated if our sense of self is tied up in our physical being.  If we become attached to our physical appearance we suffer varying degrees of dismay as these inevitable changes creep up on us.  Old age may seem like a dream when we are young but eventually the wrinkles and gravity catch up with us, however much we still feel like a teenager inside.  In some ways I find this turnover quite reassuring.  It reinforces the idea that there is something enduring beyond the physical being and whilst my brain cells can benefit from the wisdom of age the rest of me is justified in acting my (youthful) age!

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Movement and breath

A characteristic of many yoga practices is the co-ordination of movement and breath.  We can use the breath to help us to move in and out of postures and to work more deeply whilst we maintain a posture.  Breathing involves the movement of the spine as well as the ribcage and diaphragm and it is this movement that we can enlist to help us with our posture work.

Inhalation involves a lifting and opening of the ribcage and is associated with a straightening of the thoracic spine.  Conscious use of the inhalation during movements that require these changes will allow the breath to help our movement and the movement to help our breath.  For example, we might inhale as we move into a backbend, as we lift the arms or as we straighten the spine from a forward bend.  Conversely, during exhalation the ribcage lowers and the thoracic spine becomes more curvy, as in spinal flexion.  The exhalation can, therefore, help us to move out of a backbend or into a forward bend and links naturally with a lowering of the arms.

During the exhalation the pelvic floor lifts and the abdominal region contracts.  This can be used effectively to move us into a spinal rotation or a side bend.  Whilst in the side bend, we can focus on breathing onto the uppermost side of the ribcage, helping to open out this area.  During a spinal rotation, you may notice how the exhalation can help you to move deeper into the posture, whilst the twist tends to unravel slightly as you inhale.

Co-ordinating the movement with the breath into short sequences helps us to slow our movements down, fitting in with our own natural rhythm, and the concentration needed to co-ordinate movement and breath in this way also focuses our attention on what we are doing at that moment in time. By becoming more aware of how we breathe, we soon begin to notice more subtle changes in our breathing pattern which could be indicative of working too hard or in an inappropriate way. By responding to these signals we can learn to work in a way that is healthier for both body and mind.

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The miracle of the human hand

Earlier this year I damaged my thumb, and was astounded by the extent to which it limited me.  The simplest of tasks required a different approach, or the use of the other hand to complete.  The human hand really is a marvel of engineering, combining strength with fine dexterity that is easy to dismiss unless we no longer have use of it.

Fingers are some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. As the sense of touch is so sensitive in the fingertips, their nerve connections use a substantial part of the brain.  The hands have the greatest positioning capability of the body and our sense of touch is closely associated with the hands.

Each hand has 27 bones, meaning that the hands contain one quarter of all the bones in our body.  We may be familiar with the arches of the foot, but did you know that your hands have arches too, and making use of these makes a big difference to how we experience postures where we take weight in the hands. They help distribute the weight more effectively and give us the same energy we can find through using the arches of the feet.

By spreading the fingers, we can engage the finger pads and the resultant arch creates space between the palm of the hand and the floor.  Likewise, if we engage the muscles of the thumb and the pinkie side of the hand we raise the arch arch where the palm meets the wrist.  This prevents us from resting on the wrists bones and pressing onto the medial nerve.  These are often causes of wrist pain in postures such as downward dog.  Flexibility in the hands is related to flexibility in the rest of the body.  Tension in the body shows up as tension in the hands.

Each hand is dominantly controlled by the opposing side of the brain.  This means that a preference for using our left or right hand reflects individual brain functioning.  It also means that asymmetric postures or movements in yoga help to coordinate the two sides to function together, increasing our union on the journey that is yoga.

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