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.


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!



…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.


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.



The power of meditation

Meditation is a centuries old practice, intended to bring a stillness to the mind that allows us to experience our inner self away from the many distractions of life.  The earliest records of yoga demonstrate that this was yoga’s original aim.  It is only in more recent times that the physical practices have become more dominant.  Sometimes it seems now that yoga is more about the body than the mind, and the deeper importance of the practice is lost.

I think in the light of the explosion of yoga body Instagram accounts and stories about celebrities doing yoga, there is still a need for a quieter, more meditative practice.  We know that regular meditation can improve our state of mind, so we feel less stressed and more able to cope with life. It has been shown to bring physiological changes in the body that are associated with feeling calmer, such as a slower heart rate and lower blood pressure.

Now research has shown that in addition to the reported improvements to how we feel, meditation has been shown to lead to physical changes in the structure of the brain.  This study at the Max Planck Institute looked at the effects of different methods of mental training on the brain, body, and on social behaviour.  They were able to demonstrate that participants in the study showed greater compassion, linked to physical changes in the area of the brain controlling this response.  They also found that previous mental training could result in a reduction of 51% in the production of the stress hormone cortisol and participants reported a reduction in the perception of stress.  The authors of the study suggested that working to develop a sense of social connectedness would help society as a whole, through the enhancement of compassion and empathy.

The culture of ‘I’ is a strong one but this research confirms what many who have followed a meditative path probably already know.  It is only by supporting each other that we all can grow and reach the best of our potential, taking one small step at a time.


Listening to your gut feeling

I think it’s fair to say we don’t pay a great deal of attention to the organs of the body unless something happens to make us uncomfortable.  All that digestion, absorption and excretion just happens naturally.  The organs are more than capable of carrying out a myriad of processes with absolutely zero input from our thinking brain… which is actually hugely valuable, as if we had to manage their functions we would never get anything else done.

In fact, there is now building evidence that the digestive system is involved much more widely in the functioning of the healthy body, rather than just in processing what we eat.  The foods we consume have an impact on our thoughts and emotions, and can be linked to a variety of disorders.  In fact, Michael D. Gershon goes as far as to suggest that “the gastrointestinal system is equipped with a brain. The unpleasant bowel is more intellectual than the heart and could have a superior “emotional” capacity. It is the only organ to contain an intrinsic nervous system capable of mediating the reflections in the complete absence of input from brain or spinal cord.”

For example, take serotonin, the feel good factor that keeps us in a happy mood.  Over 90% of it is produced in the gut.  According to Gershon, serotonin is produced in relation to the experience of external stimuli such as colours or sounds, as well as the consumption of food.  Serotonin also helps us stay in balance by supporting our cycle of sleeping and wakefulness, feelings of hunger and sexual desire.  Its role in digestion can affect our appetite…and leave us reaching for the chocolate and cookies when we feel down.

Yoga and meditation are thought to support the production of serotonin.  Working with body breath and mind trigger can trigger the relaxation response in the body, thus reducing stress naturally by calming the parts of the brain which are active when we are stressed.  The rise in serotonin levels improves our mood and our sleep patterns, which in turn allows the body to heal itself as we rest.


Not so bendy!

It is not uncommon for prospective students to tell me, sheepishly, “I’m not very flexible”.  Of course, I can understand their concerns. When social media and books are full of images of very bendy people in extreme poses, it’s not surprising that people might be worried about an inability to touch their toes.  However, I am firmly of the belief that flexibility can be a bad things as well as a good thing.  Just as in the winter our transport systems are disrupted by ‘the wrong sort of rain’ or ‘the wrong sort of leaves’, there is also ‘the wrong sort of flexibility’.

Let me explain.  All joints in the body have a recognised ‘normal’ range of movement.  The restriction in range of movement comes from communication between the brain and the surrounding muscles, which controls the amount of lengthening that is possible and therefore the amount of movement available at the joint.  If the muscles are naturally tight, we might train them to stretch more and become more flexible as a result.  This is a good sort of flexibility, and one that people with stiffer joints might aspire to.

Problems arise when the stretchiness is due to an inherited laxness in the collagen or connective tissue, which means that joints can move much further than the typical range.  This can lead to injury and may be extremely painful.  At its worst, there are medically recognised conditions related to this problem, and whilst we might marvel at someone’s innate flexibility, it can be really quite debilitating.

When this laxness is present to a lesser degree, a person would be classed as hypermobile.  This can occur in a range of joints, so you might be hypermobile in some parts of the body but not others. There is a test known as the Beighton score, which is used to evaluate your degree of hypermobility based on the movement possible in specific parts of the body.

More recently, scientists have linked a diagnosis of hypermobility to a range of other chronic conditions such as chronic fatigue, postural orthostatic tachycardia, bowel disorders, hormone imbalances and endometriosis. These conditions might be present in addition to the typical issues of joint pain and fatigue.  Researchers suggest that the symptoms are all linked to a cluster of genes on chromosome 6, which links to the formation of collagen.

If you find yourself to be hypermobile, yoga can be of great benefit as a gentle way of building up muscle strength around the joints.  Using controlled movements means there is less risk of overdoing it without realising at the time.  You can learn to recognise when the body is slipping into the ‘abnormal’ range of movement and work to minimise it in your postures.  This is especially important in weight-bearing poses, as the bones are designed for the weight to fall through the joint in the strongest place.  If you allow the joint the hyperextend in this situation, you will place unnecessary strain on the soft tissues surrounding the joints.

A typical example is in Majariasana, or cat pose. Think of lowering your shoulders away from your ears and keep your arms relatively straight, to avoid locking out your elbows in hyperextension.  A slight bend at the joint is often preferable to hyperextension, as it will help you to keep the muscles engaged.  Of course, this means there is even more to try and remember in each posture, but if you persevere, the muscles should strengthen.  Eventually, you may form new postural habits that minimise the strain on your joints and will become your new ‘normal’ in everyday life.


Creating balance

This term in the beginners/returners classes we are looking at different aspects of creating balance and inner space.  Mindfulness is central to this, as it allows us to become more aware of how things are now and whether we might want to change this.  Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, without judgement.  We frequently act on autopilot, as we are busy with thoughts of either the future or the past at the time.  This often happens when we are preoccupied with something and doing activities that we do every day, or many times a day.  Practising being mindful of small activities can help with your memory as well.  If you find yourself regularly hunting for your car keys/ chequebook/ reading glasses then you may improve your chances of remembering when and where you put them down!

On a larger scale, mindfulness allows us to experience life more fully as it unfolds, one breath at a time.  Try noting the topics you think about over a set period to get an idea of how much time you actually spend in the present.  It can be surprising how much your flow of thoughts concerns plans for the future or reliving past events.  If you are bored, ask yourself how much of the present experience you are actually aware of.  It is easy to belittle the everyday and long for the unusual – but when it arrives it can be over before you know it, leaving you already planning the next big event as your everyday moments flash by unnoticed.  If life comprises only the wonderful bits it is very short indeed!

With mindfulness we are more aware of the messages brought to us by the senses, such as touch, taste, smell and sight.  We can fully appreciate simple pleasures; the smell of cut grass, an ice cream on a summers day, a fantastic sunset.  We can also increase our awareness of the impact of our lifestyle on our health. Early recognition of changes in the body gives us more opportunity to address a health issue before a problem develops.  Reflecting on the impact of both our actions and our inaction can break a cycle of habitual behaviour, potentially opening doors to future actions that can help live our lives more as we would like to.

All this mindfulness can be hard work!  The mind likes to ramble and daydream, it may not be used to the discipline you demand of it.  Start small, for a few minutes at a time, by giving your full attention to something you are doing or to the breath. You can gradually increase the length of your practice until being mindful becomes the habit rather than the exception.


Time to get moving

Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with what is best to eat if you want to stay healthy.  It now seems that the perceived wisdom on what to eat is changing yet again.  Apparently eating saturated fat doesn’t lead to atherosclerosis after all, but eating carbohydrate could well do.  Of course, the food industry is now making big money out of products promoted as ‘low fat’ and may well be no more enthusiastic about changing their messages than they are about addressing the issue of sugar content in processed food.  I read just this week that a popular cereal company has spent a lot of money trying to dispute the evidence that eating a diet high in processed sugar is unhealthy.  It really becomes very hard to know who to trust!

However, one thing seems to stay constant in this ever changing sea of alternative facts.  Moving more is beneficial.  In fact, according to a recent review of research, it was noted that “in sedentary middle-aged adults, just 30 minutes of moderate activity in a day, more than three times per week, significantly improves insulin sensitivity and helps reverse insulin resistance within months”.

So, with the warmer weather arriving and spring well and truly on its way, now is the ideal time to get moving.  With the lighter evenings is perfect for taking a walk, and even better if that walk is en route to a yoga class!  While yoga might not be a high intensity work out (as least not the way I teach it!), a yoga class will still aim to move all your joints and quite possibly exercise muscles you didn’t know you had.  If you have done yoga before, why not try my Tuesday evening class in Weoley Hill Village Hall, or else there are still a few spaces left in some of my other classes for the summer term, suited to all levels including beginners.


Born to move!

Much has been made in the press over recent months about the health disadvantages of being sedentary. The bottom line (pun not intended!) is that the human body is designed to move, and lack of movement brings a host of complications.

Take the circulatory system for instance.  The heart beats to send blood around the system but alone it cannot defy gravity.  Once the blood reaches the legs and feet, the body relies on the squeezing action of the calf muscles to push the blood back up again, with a series of non-return valves to stop it running back down again.  Likewise, the flow of lymph around the body relies on muscle action to keep it moving. Even gentle movement boosts circulation of blood around the body and helps prevent the lymph from pooling in the legs and ankles.

Likewise, many of our muscles operate in pairs, so when one is working the other is resting.  If they all have to work at once (as when we maintain a strong, stationary posture), they become tired very quickly.  This is particularly noticeable in seated postures.  If we manage to align the body vertically before we begin a breathing or meditation practice, we are harness gravity to help our posture and are much less likely to be disturbed by muscles demanding a rest.

There is mounting evidence that slow and mindful movement is effective in counteracting conditions associated with pain that doesn’t respond to typical treatment, such as pain from cancer, non-specific low back pain or fibromyalgia.  It might be that we focus on slow, rhythmic breathing, which can trigger relaxation in the body.  Or perhaps the gentle movement is sufficient to ease some of the tension that accumulates around a painful part of the body.  I know that it’s quite common for someone to come to class and say that afterwards the pain in their shoulder/knee/wrist/neck has eased, even though we didn’t focus particularly on that are of the body.  It just needed to move.

Movement also has a positive effect on our mental well-being.  Regular exercise can boost our mood and aerobic activity (ok, I know we don’t do much of that in class!) can improve our tolerance to the symptoms of stress by making our ‘flight or fight’ response less reactive.  On the plus side for yoga, mindful movement can also make us feel more positive and a study conducted in 2014 found that moving in a coordinated way with others can improve the way we feel about ourselves and generate more charitable feelings towards the other people as well.

So, with all these benefits, it’s a no-brainer to make more time for movement.  However small, we are designed to move!