Is something cramping your style?

One of the things I have noticed since I started teaching yoga is the frequency with which people seem to suffer muscle cramps during a class.  A muscle cramp is defined as an involuntary contraction of the muscle that refuses to relax.  It may last anything from a few seconds to several minutes and once a particular muscle has cramped, it may be prone to doing so repeatedly during the same session.  I have found that in yoga cramps often seem to affect muscles that are passively shortened.  A good (and frequent!) example of this is the sole of the foot, where the muscles are shortened as the toes are pointed in postures such as cat (majariasana).

Muscles contract as a result of electrical stimulation and relax when this is deactivated.  Obviously, during an episode of cramp this system is not working as it should.  Cramp is also more common if the muscles have been overworked.  If you are prone to cramp it is helpful to make sure you drink plenty of water and base your diet around healthy fresh foods that maintain your electrolyte balance.  Sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium are all important in the body to ensure the muscle fibres respond properly to the exercise you are doing and make you less prone to suffering from cramp.  Taking magnesium supplements may be beneficial for some people, as studies have shown that a lack of magnesium can make things worse.

Age and genetics also contribute to your risk of getting cramp and of course these are not things we can do much about.  It can however be helpful to make a point of regularly stretching out the muscles that tend to be prone to cramping.  For example, if you tend to get cramp when you point your toes, get into the habit of stretching the soles of the feet by flexing the ankles and toes.  You might also encourage the area to relax by massaging it with a tennis ball – or golf ball if you are feeling brave!

Want to know more?  Try this useful article here.

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Do your prep!

Back when I was doing my British Wheel of Yoga Teacher Training course, I remember our tutor commenting that there was a feeling in the British Wheel that teachers were offering lots of prep but not so many postures in their classes.  “Where have all the postures gone?” became a bit of a catchphrase at the time.

It’s true to say we do need to warm the body up before performing more challenging postures in order to avoid injury.  We also need to do counter-poses after the main posture so that we relax the effects of the main posture.  For example, a strong main posture that is a backbend might be followed by a twist and then a forward bend as counter-poses.  So each class is going to consist of a mixture of movements and postures that prepare and counter-pose for the main posture.  We also benefit from some quiet time at the end, when the body can absorb the benefits of the practice before we move on.  That doesn’t always leave a lot of time for ‘proper’ postures.

According to the ancient wisdom of the Gheranda Samhita (translated by Ian Mallinson);

“All together there are as many asanas as there are species of living beings.  Shiva has taught 8,400,000.  Of these, 84 are pre-eminent, of which 32 are useful in the world of mortals.”

It would be a pretty tall order to include even these 32 in a daily practice, let alone 84!  So, why not try another way of looking at the issue?  By doing plenty of preparatory work we can aim to maintain the body in a state where a variety of postures can be successfully practised if we choose to, even if we don’t do them daily.  For example, I rarely do boat pose (navasana) but I do prep work for it each morning.  So when I do want to do this posture, there is no struggle.  That prep work also serves me well for any of the standing balances and strengthening poses such as plank.  This way I get all the benefits and save time too!  Can’t be bad!

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“I want to become more flexible”

This is a common response to the question “What attracts you to doing a yoga class?”  I don’t think anyone has ever told me they want to come to yoga to get stronger.  However, you might be in for a surprise!  Sadly, our muscular strength declines as we age and personally I don’t think our modern lifestyle helps a great deal.  So many more of us have sedentary jobs these days and exercise becomes another thing to be fitted into the week, rather than happening as a matter of course.

It’s been suggested that building strength should actually take priority over becoming more flexible.  Improving muscle tone helps us to maintain our body weight as muscles consume more calories than fat, even when resting (Yay!).  Muscle strength helps us to improve our posture.  We have greater endurance and are less prone to falls because we have better balance.  Ideally we should focus initially on building core strength and then look to develop the major muscles in the body i.e. arm and leg muscles.  This stops us from relying on smaller weaker muscles that are not up to the job.

A physical yoga practice helps us to build muscle strength in all the key muscle groups.  Our arms and shoulders are worked with weight-bearing postures such as bowing cat or downward-facing dog.  The standing postures build leg strength and balancing postures help develop the core.   By making slow movements we can exercise all the fibres in the muscle, whilst by maintaining a posture we use isometric contraction of the muscles to stay in position.  Another benefit of weight bearing postures (i.e. any posture that uses the body’s weight) is that is strengthens the muscles around the joints, helping to protect them from arthritis in later life.

What’s not to like?!

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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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It’s not a competition

Yoga is very much a personal practice, even when we are working in a group in class. But don’t we all find ourselves looking round the room at times? It’s so easy to make judgements about ourselves based on how good or bad we appear to be at something relative to the others in the room.

It would be easy to be put off if we found that we were regularly struggling to do things that others seemed to find a breeze.  This is when it’s good to remind ourselves that yoga is about more than making a series of physical contortions, it’s about our attitude of mindful awareness to the practice, our breathing, and our ability to focus on the matter at hand.  And I would like to suggest that there can be more to learn – and more to gain – when things don’t come that easily, when we need to dig into our reserves of dedication and persevere, to keep coming back and trying again.

At this point I could also say that the only person you are competing with is yourself, but I am not sure that this is true either.  When you see yoga practice as a competition, even with yourself, you can be tempted to push too hard, to ignore the messages from your body and your breath, to lose sight of what is realistic or even desirable at that moment in time.

The idea of discipline in yoga is referred to as tapas.  And no, this doesn’t involve little plates of yummy nibbles that you snack on whilst sipping a glass of wine in a Spanish bar!  The tapas we are talking about here comes from a Sanskrit verb with the meaning ‘to burn’.  It refers to the discipline and commitment to overcome the obstacles that prevent you reaching that inner calm and connection that is yoga.

This could be the discipline of attending class each week or undertaking a regular home practice, of taking time each day for yourself in mindful meditation, of reading something educational instead of randomly surfing the net.  These achievements are much more about your inner world than the outer world of appearances.  It is these little steps of commitment that move us closer to finding our goal of wholeness through yoga.

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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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