Tick tock! Body clock!

The changing of the clocks for the winter brings a sharp reminder that summer is long gone and winter is just round the corner.  I always struggle to adjust, as there is no public service announcement for dogs, to inform them that we will be getting up later each morning. As a result, my days start an hour earlier and as I work evenings, bedtime cannot come any sooner.

I don’t think I am alone in this, it is recognised that the body is quite finely tuned to the time of day and this sudden change can take a while to adjust to. In 2017, scientists researching the genetic basis for the body clock were awarded a Nobel prize. Their research explored “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”

We experience problems if our internal body clock is misaligned with the environment, most classically in the case of jetlag but on a smaller scale we can feel it when the clocks change.    All living organisms are aligned to the cycle of day and night created by our planet’s movement around the sun, even to the extent that the timing of a surgical intervention or taking a drug can be affected by the time of day.  IT should come as no surprise that people working strange shift patterns or at night can experience higher levels of ill-health, which could be linked to the disruption to their body clock.

At times like this it is more important than ever to listen to our body.  A mindful yoga practice is the perfect way to learn to recognise how we feel on a physical and emotional level.  Maybe we need a more restorative practice for a few weeks, perhaps we need to do more relaxation and fewer asanas. Yoga is about honouring the needs of all parts of our being, so that we can be as well as possible.

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A trip down memory lane

This summer marks 10 years of teaching yoga for me. Where did the time go?!  Under the circumstances, I thought I would indulge in a little introspective on how I got from there to here – so here goes!

The path to training as a teacher with the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) actually starts three years before the course, or at least it did 10 years ago.  I chose to attend a Foundation course at the Botanical Gardens in Birmingham, having been going to a regular class with a BWY teacher there for the previous 2 years.  This was a pre-requisite for doing the Foundation, which in turn was recommended for those planning to do the Teaching Diploma.  So you can see, the path actually starts 3 years before the Diploma becomes an option.

The Foundation course lasted for a year, with weekly classes and homework covering all aspects of yoga as a practice.  Being the impatient sort, I actually enrolled on my Teaching Diploma just before I completed the Foundation, as a course was starting in Warwickshire that autumn.  And so began 3 years of monthly  meetings, lots of homework and annual study weekends.  As much as it teaches you to teach, the Diploma is also a personal journey and not everyone on the course was actually planning to teach afterwards.  I found that previous time spent in a teaching environment was a great bonus – instead of worrying about the teaching aspect, I could focus my efforts on the actual yoga.  There was much to learn and we spent a lot of time teaching classes to each other as well as studying philosophy, anatomy and the various practices of yoga.

You are encouraged to start teaching during the first year of the course, so you gain experience while still benefitting from the supportive environment of the Diploma.  My first forays into teaching for real were as a cover for other people’s classes; in gyms, leisure centres, the mac and at Birmingham University.  This soon led to some regular cover work and I soon managed to get my own classes at some of these places too.  I also set up a couple of classes locally and advertised around the Bournville Trust noticeboards.  For these first few years I worked in a variety of places, with my goal always to move more towards building my own independent classes rather than being reliant on the somewhat risky contracts offered by employers.  Over the following years I gradually changed the shape of my work, as opportunities for hiring rooms came up and interest in my own classes grew.  Alongside this I developed this website to promote my growing business – a steep learning curve in its own right!

Now, after 10 years, I am pleased to say that I have been able to move to being fully self-employed, having replaced my last contracted class (at the mac) with a new class in Selly Oak last autumn.  I now really do sink or swim on my own merit!  Looking back, these 10 years have really flown by.  I am not sure if that is because of the nature of the work, or because I am getting older and time does seem to shrink before your eyes.  Since completing the Teaching Diploma I have focused my continued studies on meditation, having completed two further courses with the BWY on this subject.  This really seems to be topical at present, as meditation and yoga are really the underpinning of the various mindfulness practices that are becoming so popular at present.  Who knows what will happen next?

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Picking up the pace

With our summer term of yoga coming to an end now, many of you will be taking a break from yoga for a few weeks.  Although yoga has been shown to confer many of the benefits of other forms of exercise (but without the grunt work!) maybe the summer is the time to build some of these into your daily routine.

A recently completed study of 4,500 adults over 20 years has shown that brisk walking combined with a more moderate lifestyle in other areas (ie drinking and eating sensibly!) can have a significant impact on the risk of developing heart disease.  Apparently walking at 2 mph or faster should be the goal, if you wish to get some of these benefits for yourself.

While walking meditations are generally done extremely slowly as we pay very special attention to the process of walking, it is also possible to treat a brisk walk as a meditative practice.  Even at a fast pace we can seek to be fully present to the experience.  Notice how it feels in the body, your connection with the ground, perhaps the sensation of the air moving over your skin as you walk.  Pay particular attention to your breathing.  I always find I settle into a rhythm of breathing in over a certain number of steps and then exhaling over the same number.  This rhythm then helps me to keep up a good pace as I walk, as well as keeping me focussed on what I am doing.

Walking briskly is great for blowing away the cobwebs and the physical activity can help to clear the mind as well as wake you up if you are feeling lethargic.  Why not take advantage of the long nights and warm weather and get yourself out in the fresh air for a mindful walk?

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Simply Images: June 2015

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Gulls are one of my favourite birds.  They often get bad press, especially when they congregate in large numbers and make a lot of noise and mess.  However, it is often the action of humans that has attracted them in the first place.  This image was taken at Weston-super-mare, where I am often surprised to find fewer gulls than we have in Bournville!  Whilst you might find them raucous, the sound of their cries as they fly around their miniature sea (AKA the boating pond) takes me away from the city on a brief but welcome memory tour to the seaside.    They present endless opportunities for photography.  Whether you want to try and capture their earnest expressions, comical behaviour or play around with different techniques, they are invariably happy to oblige.  If you are looking for some time out of the rat race, try watching the gulls.

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Alignment issues

We started class a little late this morning.  Deliberately late, as our session coincided almost exactly with the peak of today’s solar eclipse.  A delay of 15 minutes allowed us to experience this amazing phenomenon before we began our practice.

In 1999, I went to Cornwall to see the full eclipse and it was the most incredible experience.  Although this time it was a partial eclipse, approximately 90% in Birmingham, it was still pretty amazing.  It takes the best part of an hour for the moon to move completely across the sun, and it is testimony to the sun’s power that there was only a dimming in light for a few minutes around the maximum at 9.31am.  And for that short time, nature and humans responded.  There was a calm and quiet rarely experienced in a city of so many people.

Events such as these are a humbling experience, a reminder of the sheer enormity of the universe and our tiny part in it.  Mother Nature smiled on us with the perfect sky this morning, and I feel honoured that I was able to watch the spectacle she provided.  The combination of an eclipse, a supermoon and the spring equinox this year seem like a powerful boost to carry us forward into the warmer months with renewed energy and vitality.  Who knows where it will take us?

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Thoughts for a new year

As always at new year, I have spent part of the time having a bit of a clear out.  Sorting through all my stuff and trying to pare it down at least a little.  This always brings me to a reflection on the sticky tentacles of attachment which keep me from  sending more items on their way to a new home.  Some of my possessions can often be categorised quickly as ‘keepers’ and ‘chuckers’.   I am reminded of old friends as I put books back on the shelf and once more make a resolution to re-read them, or read them for the first time in some cases.  My wardrobe is scrutinised for clothes that haven’t been worn in a year or two and I vow to ring the changes more often and give those little-worn items an airing once in a while.

By fair means or foul, a series of piles appear on the bedroom floor. Charity shop, giveaways, recycling, rubbish bin.  Yet despite my efforts I always spend the year bemoaning the lack of space and the desire to have fewer possessions to my name.  Then why do I have them still?  Attachment.  She’s a hard one to beat.

I came across this article during my clear-out which included a series of videos of people forced to leave their homes in a hurry.  They talked about the few things they were able to take with them.  If that happened to me, what would I take?  It’s worth considering next time you can’t close the wardrobe doors.

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Setting time by the body clock

The twice-yearly changing of the clocks always messes me up.  My meals are at the wrong times, in the autumn I am not ready for sleep at the new bedtime and in the spring, the struggle to get up an hour earlier leaves me exhausted.  Perhaps it’s just old age, but each time it happens I am reminded of how finely-tuned an instrument the body is.

The body clock is just another way in which we are finely tuned in to life on our planet, with its cycle of darkness and light over each 24 hour period.  In mammals it is connected to the optic nerve and much has been published recently on the perils of exposure to blue light from electronic devices late at night if you want to sleep well.

It is said that regular exercise helps to strengthen our body clock and to keep it synchronised as we age.  An evening yoga class provides a double whammy or exercise and relaxation.  Students often comment that they get a good night’s sleep afterwards!

Ayurvedic medicine takes the concept of the body clock one step further.  The oft-quoted phrase from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac “Early to bed, and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” puts Ayurveda’s advice into a nutshell.  Each day is divided into two 12 hour periods.  Within each of these, the three different energies (doshas) are dominant at specific times:

  • Vata is dominant from 2-6.  This is the key time for mental alertness and creativity, which can make it good for working but also a time to get stressed.
  • Kapha is dominant from 6 to 10.  This is a time of feeling relaxed – ideal for being in bed!
  • Pitta is dominant from 10 to 2. This is a physical time, for eating or exercise.

So Ayurveda would suggest that we need to be in bed and asleep by 10pm.  If not, you may find you get your ‘second wind’ and become engrossed in all manner of activities, with thoughts of sleep far from your mind.  I know I do!  And then of course if you sleep in, dragging yourself out of bed before 10am can be a nightmare to be blamed on kapha.  I always try to adjust my daily routine gradually when the clocks are changed and give my system time to adapt to the new regime.  If anyone has any answers, please let me know!

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Drowning in sound

This week in one of my classes we practised a listening meditation.  It had been a particularly difficult session for noise, with road sweepers and leaf blowers featuring heavily.  As we sat and attended to sounds (luckily at that time, somewhat less overpowering ones!) my mind was drawn to how this has changed in recent years.  Before road sweepers, we had…road sweepers.  But then it was a worker with a broom, out in the air, exercising muscles to create a gentle swishing noise as the paths were cleared.  Now we have a noisy machine, made of metal, plastic and goodness knows what else, consuming fossil fuels and belching exhaust fumes. And not necessarily making a better job of it than the more active roadsweeper of yore.  Add to this the potential cacophany of lawnmowers, strimmers, leaf blowers, power saws, drills…you get the idea.

And in the so-called peace of our home, there is still plenty of noise even when the television, music system and radio are turned off and our myriad domestic appliances are silent.  Even as I type these words, I am listening to the hum of my computer, whilst in the kitchen the refrigerator emits strange mooing sighs.  Next door’s boiler grumbles away and something in their plumbing system precipitates a weird droning noise with steady regularity.  I hear cars passing along the road, the ‘rag and bone man’ call out for any old iron, and the afternoon is regularly interrupted by the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles.  In our modern day existence we are surrounded by sound.

Sound is recognised to have an effect on our health, from the positive effects of listening to uplifting or motivating music to the more insidious side-effects of sounds we cannot get away from.  It is considered that low-level sound can be a factor in stress, perhaps contributing to raising our baseline stress levels and making it harder to concentrate.  According to a study at Sheffield University, even urban robins have been found to adjust their singing patterns in recent times to sing more at night as they can’t make themselves heard during the day.  For more on the ways in which sound impacts on our health and well-being take a look at this article from the Franklin Institute.

Being without the intrusion of the noise of modern life is becoming something of a luxury.  I certainly find it very hard to deal with on-going levels of noise, particularly when they are outside my control.  Being in a quiet situation is something I treasure and I suspect it may be one of the reasons that I, like those urban robins, enjoy being up at night; it is so much quieter then.  We may often notice the presence of noise and I try to be mindful of its absence as well, relishing those moments, however brief, when the man-made noises are in remittance and nature’s voice can be heard.  It might be the singing of garden birds or the buzz of a grasshopper.  Perhaps the crunch of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf, or the sound of rain on the roof.  Closer still and ever present, the sound of the breath and even the heartbeat, connecting us physically to the eternity in every moment.

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Thoughts on a gluten-free month

Well, after four weeks of my gluten-free diet I thought it was time to reflect on how it’s going.  I am already noticing that my digestion is happier.  Maybe I have more energy – or could that be psychological, now the longer days and sunshine have finally arrived?  It’s pretty hard to be objective with a test sample of one and no control group!  So what has changed in my diet? Main meals are fine, but breakfast and lunch without cereals or bread require a little more creativity.  However, the aspect which has caused the greatest deliberation has been how to deal with those snack situations which (in my case) invariably revolve around wheat-based products.  I’m sorry, but carrot sticks with a cuppa just don’t cut it when you fancy a biscuit!

It’s interesting the way challenging one habit prompts you to consider yet more changes.  In the case of biscuits, they go very nicely with a cup of tea but if you are not going to have biscuits it then raises a bigger question; do you just replace them with gluten-free biscuits or do you swap to an altogether healthier alternative?  Once you challenge the habit it opens you up to consider a whole variety of options that have previously been side-lined.

My cupboards are now bursting with rice cakes (not so healthy) and other nibbles such as mixed nuts and raisins (better).  And there is of course the option to not have the nibbles at all and save quite a few calories over the day…

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change Charles Duhigg spends quite a lot of time looking at how habits form, and the way in which once we have made the conscious decision and formed the habit, we carry on with it without thinking about it twice.  This is a case where mindfulness can be really useful – causing us to pay attention and to question our everyday activities; are our actions (and non-actions!) a wise and beneficial choice?  Or could we change some of our habits for a better, healthier life?  If we hadn’t paid attention we might never have reconsidered the suitability of the behaviour and changed it for the better.

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Simply Images: May 2013

Aren’t clouds just amazing?  I never tire of looking up to see the amazing ever-changing patterns and shapes they form in the sky.  Even on an overcast day there can be subtle tones of colour and hints of texture in what at first appears totally uniform cloud cover.  I love watching clouds build and dissipate, and the way in which cloud layers move at varying speeds due the changes in wind speed and direction at different levels in the atmosphere.  If you ever need reminding of the fundamental nature of change in our lives then take a look at clouds. Growing, building, dissipating, reforming, the endless dance of billions of water droplets across our skies provides a daily entertainment for a spare moment.

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