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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Bring balance to your posture

Hatha yoga is all about bringing balance to the pairs of opposites within us; the name itself brings together the opposites of sun (ha) and moon (tha), the warmth, energy and fire of the sun balanced by the cool calm of the moon.  We aim to balance strength with flexibility and bring the mind to a calmer, quieter place.  Many of the postures in our physical practice of hatha yoga are asymmetrical, and need to be ‘done’ on either side.  These postures can serve to highlight the asymmetry inherent in our physical body and offer a way to improve balance between the two sides.

We all have a dominant eye, one ear higher than the other (though a surgeon may be required to change that one!), we are left- or right-handed, we tend to lead with one leg in favour of the other when moving down awkwardly spaced steps.  Our posture can be affected by these tendencies; using a particular hand to write with will affect our seated posture as we write, perhaps we will lean to one side, holding the other shoulder a little higher. Slinging a bag over the same shoulder each time can cause a similar change in the way you stand, how you hold your shoulders, neck and head.

When you sit, on a chair or on the floor, you may have a preferred way to cross your legs, leading to differences in the movement required in each hip.  The chances are you tend to cross your arms a particular way, link your fingers a particular way.  We do these things without thinking, guided by our subconscious mind which gets things done while we are busy thinking about other things.  And after a while these patterns in the body become literally set in, as the body adapts to these positions and ways of carry weight.

Our asymmetrical yoga postures offer a chance to recognise where these patterns of movement and preference exist, and working each side of the body separately allows us to explore each side in turn, to feel the differences, to allow each side to have its full range of movement in the posture.  We become more aware of our posture, how the body feels and moves.  Perhaps this awareness may then extend outside the class, as we start to make simple changes that can re-balance our posture.

These days, if I carry a shoulder bag I move it from one side to the other regularly.  Carrying shopping I always opt for two bags even when one would do, so the weight is even on each side.  Sitting cross-legged I make sure each leg takes its turn to be in front and even linking fingers I alternate which thumb goes on top.  In these little ways we can become more mindful of our physical self in a positive way, perhaps realising the root causes of discomfort or imbalance and taking steps that will help to reduce it in the future.

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Cold feet?

Our feet are essential for balance, grounding, forming the foundation of many postures and helping us to work into even more.  With bare feet we can spread our toes and the proprioceptors in the foot can send more accurate messages to our brain regarding our balance and position in space.  As the weight shifts from the inside to the outside edge of the foot so the effort required of the different toes varies.

Our feet are meant to be triangular in shape, with the toes splaying out so the foot is widest at the tips of the toes.  Unfortunately wearing shoes tends to bring the toes inwards, however careful we are, changing the shape of the foot over time.  Even socks can restrict the movement of the toes, particularly when they contain lycra, as so many do nowadays.  When did you last let your toes out for a good wiggle?

All this means that in our yoga practice it can be beneficial to work barefoot. It helps us to see how we are using the feet in our different postures and gives our toes a break from wearing shoes and socks.  These days we generally work with a sticky mat, but the benefits of this can be lost if we wear socks.  Relaxing into a posture is that much easier if you are not trying desperately to prevent your feet from slipping inside your socks.

If you are wary of removing your socks for fear of getting chilly feet then treat yourself to a pair of yoga socks, shaped for individual toes and with little rubber grips on the bottom for traction on your mat or the floor.  My Yoga-Mad Half Toesox have become the one piece of kit I couldn’t live without.  You can get fun brightly coloured ones or more sedate black, with peep toes or enclosed toes.  Why not give them a try?

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Learning from injury

When our body is working well we may not pay it much attention, but even the slightest injury can increase our awareness of the role of the injured body part in our overall well-being and state of mind.  I once managed to break (I think) my little toe, right at the start of the autumn term.

The next few weeks gave me a great learning opportunity. When part of the body is injured, other parts will try to compensate and may be hurt themselves along the way.  Depending on the injury, we may need to rest or perhaps movement will help the healing process.  Either way, there is invariably something to be learned from the experience.

For such a tiny part of the body, the little toe has a major role to play in balance, as the weight shifts across the foot during balancing postures.  Being unable to stand comfortably on one foot really made me appreciate how important that little toe is!  It also made me reach for a support…which led to my second realisation.

When we do our balances using a support, the work needed in the foot is significantly reduced and as a knock-on effect, less effort is needed higher up, in the core muscles that help to stabilise the body.  By continuing to use a support for balances, the foot will not be encouraged to develop the strength and flexibility needed to provide a good foundation for our postures and as a result, our ability to balance will not improve.  If we struggle with standing balances this is indeed a catch 22 situation!  For this reason, I always encourage people to try and balance without a support, however wobbly they may be.  It is only by being prepared to move outside our comfort zone that we can grow and develop in our practice.

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A modern dilemma

Last week my email decided not to send.  I thought it was a temporary glitch and if I ignored it the problem would go away.  This does sometimes work, so it was worth a try!  However, by Tuesday the error message was getting rather lengthy, including unsent emails dating back to the previous Friday.  Head in the sand was not working so I resorted to the technically inept’s best friend, Google.  What was Server Authentication Error 530?  It appears that Virgin have been changing their requirements around and I needed to adjust my settings.  Thankfully, a few tick boxes later the issue was resolved and business, as they say, was back to normal.

So, if I have taken longer than usual to reply to email recently, apologies!

Its hiccups like this that serve to remind us of our modern reliance on technology.  The vast majority of the enquiries I receive come via the Internet, to the point where I wonder if it’s worth putting up posters any more.  How different that was just a few years ago!  In an incredibly short space of time we have come to rely on the Internet as the modern font of all knowledge, available at our fingertips 24-7. We expect to be able to communicate at any time of day or night and responses may pop into our personal device almost immediately.

However, the immediacy or it all seems to add a pressure to life, a speed and urgency that pursues us into every corner of life.  So often I see people who are busy interacting with people who are not there at the expense of those they are with.  At the start of one recent class, I noticed that half the students were checking up stuff on their phones while we waited to start.  We are using every scrap of time to be busy in some way, and sometimes it comes at the expense of experiencing the moment we have now.

I have to wonder how good this is for our mental well-being.  Does the ability to be busier than ever fuel our need to be busy to avoid confronting the reality of each moment as it unfurls?  Is it a coincidence that as modern technology has extended its grasp on every moment of our day that the demand for yoga, meditation and other relaxing practices has grown immensely? Whatever the reason, more people in the west than ever before are doing yoga.  I hope that this practice gives us back some of the precious space that is being encroached upon and allows us to spend more time just being.

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A look at the eye

We are very visual creatures, and the direction of the gaze is usually followed by our awareness as we gather information via the sense of vision.  The human eye is considered to be the most complex organ of the body.  The light is focussed by the cornea onto the back of the eye, where the rods and cones receive the light particles and create an image for the brain.  If the eye were a camera, it would have a 120 million pixel sensor.  Your cell phone maybe has 8mp if you have a good camera…

The gaze is important in balance.  Although our sense of balance relies on huge numbers of proprioceptors, to sense touch and internal changes to muscles and joints, and the vestibular system of the ears, we rely substantially on our sense of vision when it comes to maintaining our balance.  The visual information received by the brain updates it on the body’s physical orientation in space and it is able to make rapid, minor corrections so that we can stand more or less still.  Close your eyes and it’s an entirely different matter, even standing on two feet.  Try standing on one foot and close your eyes to find out just how important our sense of vision is in this context.

In some styles of yoga, the practice of each posture includes a specific place to look.  This is referred to as drishti, of the gaze.  The gaze should be relaxed and soft, avoiding unnecessary tension in the muscles around the eyes.  Drishti may often be towards a specific part of the body, a hand or foot, the navel or the tip of the nose.  It may draw you into a posture, as when we follow a hand into a twist, or it may be a point to focus on during the posture to maintain our awareness in the practice.

In meditation there is also a place to direct the gaze. If the eyes are open, this may be directly ahead and slightly lowered, or else towards a specific object of meditation.  Alternatively the gaze may be inwards, to the breath or the third eye.  The quality of the gaze may reflect the quality of our thoughts, being focussed to a single point within or external to the body.

Our sense of vision is the only one that we can choose to close.  Meditating with the eyes shut can deepen the experience by shutting out visual distractions.  Practising postures with the eyes closed can deepen the inner experience of the asana as well as making us more aware of the importance of vision in our everyday movements.

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The height of fashion

I had my hair cut yesterday.  My hairdresser was padding around in canvas pumps with a bandaged foot, having ‘fallen off’ her towering heels at the weekend.  While she, like myself, is not a veteran stiletto addict, I am sure there are plenty of people out there for whom high heels are a regular part of their daily attire.  Apart from the risk of injury from falling off them, the inability to run and the crippled toes, there is also the longer term effect on our posture and internal structures from realigning the feet to stand on tiptoes for hours at a time.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Actually, scrub that, as the answer could form the subject of a Ph.D thesis!  My interest is more in how yoga can help to ameliorate the after-effects of tottering around.  Here are some suggestions:

  • The toe and ankle movements from the joint-freeing series are great for loosening up your feet at the end of the day. Flex and bend the toes, circle the ankles and point and flex the feet.
  • Any of the standing postures with an assymetric foot position will stretch out the calf of the back leg. Try warrior I or the side angle.
  • Moving between cat and child’s pose will help to release tension in the lumbar spine, typically caused by overarching the lower back to compensate for the heels tipping your pelvis forwards.
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Your guide to sitting comfortably

 

Patanjali doesn’t say much about asana in his Yoga Sutras.  But the little that he does say is in the context of finding a seated position for meditation and breathing practises. The ability to sit comfortably is vital if we are to benefit from these practices. He suggests that the position should have 2 qualities.  The first of these is sthira, which we generally understand to mean ‘steadfast’ or ‘stable’.  It implies an alertness and strength.  The second quality is sukha, which translates literally as ‘happy’.  In the context of sitting we mean see this as ‘ease’ or ‘comfort’.

Sometimes it may seem that it is easier said than done to achieve these qualities in your sitting position.  However, by paying attention to a few basic aspects of the pose you can enhance both the stability and the comfort of the posture so that your breathing or meditation become more effective.

Some sources will tell you that the body must be in a certain position.  Well, that’s fine and dandy, but if it hurts like hell it won’t be much use.  Instead, I suggest you focus on these few specific areas and adapt the rest to make them possible.

  1. Pelvis.  Our pelvis naturally has a slight anterior (forwards) tilt and this is important in order to maintain the natural curves of the spine as you sit.  This frees the spine and allows it to move naturally as you breathe.  For many of us, used to western style sitting in chairs, it is helpful to raise the seat bones a couple of inches by sitting on a block, firm blanket, or a rolled up yoga mat.  Check yourself in a mirror or get someone to look for you.  Sideways on you should see the S-shaped curves of the spine clearly.  If it looks more like a ‘C’ you need to make some adjustments.
  2. Knees.  If your knees are higher than your hips there will be a lot of strain in your leg muscles to maintain the position.  Again, check the mirror or ask your helpful friend.  You have a few options here.  It may be that raising your seat bones allows your knees to relax down.  Result!  If not, try different leg positions.  For those who are comfortable kneeling, sitting on two blocks placed between your knees can be the answer.  Alternatively try having your legs out in front, either together or wider.  Check your pelvis and spine in each option to see what is best.  If none of them give you a good result the best way for you to be comfortable is likely to be sitting on a chair.
  3. Head.  If we balance the weight of the head on the neck we can harness gravity to minimise strain in the neck and shoulders.  This in turn will relax the chest and make it easier to breathe fully.  To do this, imagine the back of the neck lengthening towards the sky.  The chin comes in slightly towards the throat, so your gaze will rest on the floor about the length of a yoga mat ahead of you (if you are sitting on the floor.  Your ears and shoulders should be level.  Resting your hands into the support of your knees or lap will help your shoulders relax.  Ask someone to check for you; it’s hard to use the mirror for this!

Remember, the most important qualities of your sitting posture are stability and ease.  Being uncomfortable will make it hard for you to focus on the breathing or meditation practice, which is our main reason for being in this position.  As always, appearance is not everything, consider how it feels!

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