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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Simply Images: July 2018

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet

Juliet’s famous words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet come to mind as we are in the middle of the season for roses to bloom.  We like to know what things are called, to be able to name them and this obsession with nouns starts early in our learning of language.  Children learn to recite a series of nouns before they speak in actual sentences.  As we grow older, we learn to make associations with those nouns, linking them with adjectives that define them as ‘good’ or bad’. These judgements might end up almost subconscious, applied without thought, our immediate reaction.

In meditation we might start to unpick these judgements, to question our habits and innate reactions.  We might start instead to see shapes and forms and light, to see that things just are, much as a camera does.  The camera applies no judgement, all images are of equal value.  The beauty and ugliness are in the eye and mind of the photograph’s beholder.

 

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How is photography a meditation?

If you look up ‘meditation’ online you will find myriad methods, all claiming to provide you with great benefits;  find peace of mind, relax, de-stress, solve all your problems.  All this choice is hardly calming; where on earth to start?

Essentially, meditation involves paying attention.  In the yoga tradition set out by Patanjali, there are there are two inward-looking practices.  The first of these is dharana or concentration and the second is dhyana, meditation.  Dharana is binding the consciousness to a single spot, whilst in dhyana there is a deep sense of unity with an object or activity.

These qualities can be found in a formal meditation practice, usually sitting, but also whenever we are totally immersed in an activity to the exclusion of everything else.  Meditation is a non-doing.  We are training the mind to be less reactive and more stable, developing patience and practising being non-judgmental.  The Buddhist tradition has the wonderful idea of the ‘monkey mind’, bouncing all over the place and never still.  Meditation is taming the monkey.

Some people take easily to a seated practice and find it easy to focus the mind.  For many of us however, the moment we sit still and aim to focus on one thing, such as the breath, the mind seems to become more active than ever.  It may just be we are now noticing the thoughts, but whatever the reason it can be very frustrating!

For this reason, it can be helpful to have a stronger ‘anchor’ to keep the mind from wandering.  More to engage the mind, to draw it into the present and give it less opportunity to wander elsewhere.  The complete absorption in the subject at hand frees the mind of unwanted thoughts by providing a more attractive alternative.

And this is where photography comes in.  Photography becomes meditative when our whole being is immersed in the practice and we take the time to observe carefully, to align body and mind before receiving the image onto the camera’s sensor by pressing the shutter button.  It helps us to cultivate the habit of seeing more clearly, becoming more awake to each moment and really exist in the here and now.

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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.

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Quality of attention

Meditation can be seen as a combination of mindfulness with awareness.  We are training the mind to be less reactive and more stable, developing patience and practising being non-judgemental.  Meditation is frequently practised as a formal activity; a specific time, posture and focus might be allocated to this. We might also watch thoughts that arise and practise letting them go.  Studies have shown that this meditation can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive emotional states, even if only practised for short periods each day.

I like to use photography to bring mindfulness to an everyday activity, helping to direct our attention to the extraordinary in the ordinary around us.  I consider that photography becomes meditative when our whole being is immersed in the practice.  We take the time to observe carefully, to align body and mind before receiving the image onto the camera’s sensor by pressing the shutter.

This gives us a more active practice, with more to engage the mind.  It can help us to be attentive without relying on a strained approach to concentration.  We may all remember being criticised for not paying enough attention at some stage in our lives.   In an effort to appear attentive we may demonstrate typical physical reactions;

  • Shallow breathing or holding the breath
  • Tension in the face or jaw
  • Screwing up our eyes or staring hard
  • Tension in/lifting the shoulders
  • Gripping with the hands

Perhaps we even accentuate them to demonstrate that we are actively concentrating.  Over time, we begin to associate strain with attention.  If that has become our habit, we may show these signs when we are trying to be mindful or to meditate.  As a result, we ‘do’ meditation, just as we ‘do’ everything else.

Concentrating in this way is hard work, its tiring, and doesn’t necessarily make it easier to keep your attention on whatever you are meant to be focussing on. You may have noticed the tendency for the eyes to grasp at things outside of the physical self, rather than being receptive to what is.

The alternative is of course to relax the body and mind and be receptive in the midst of our current experience. We learn to receive instead of take.  We learn to just ‘be’.

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Anatomy of a yoga class

If you have ever wondered what to expect in a yoga class, or have been plenty of times but still wonder why we do what we do when we do, this post is for you!

The class will invariably start with a few minutes of lying down, preferably in semi-supine (more of that another time!), focussing on becoming more aware of the body and the breath.  This opportunity to centre ourselves brings our attention to the present moment and allows our breath to settle into a steady rhythm that will guide our practice.

We are then ready to begin our physical practice of the postures, or asanas.  This starts with gentler movements and postures aimed at warming the body up in preparation for the main posture.  We might revisit postures covered in recent weeks or others that are directly relevant to the main posture.  The choice of postures will ensure that the spine is moved in all directions, helping to keeping the spinal column healthy and well-nourished.  The main posture is different each week and more time will be allocated to introducing and practising this posture.  Afterwards we will do one or more counterposes, which ease the body after the work of the main pose.

The physical practice helps to both concentrate our mind and to relax the body, preparing us for breathing and relaxation or perhaps just enabling us to go home feeling calmer than when we arrived.  In a one hour class we may move on directly to a few minutes of relaxation, or else sit for breathing or meditation first.  In a longer class this quiet practice will last up to half an hour.  And thats it! til next week…

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Checking out the Chakras

This autumn in the Tuesday class we are taking a look at the chakra system.  The chakras are part of the body’s energy system, pranamaya kosha.  Chakra means ‘wheel’ and in this case it refers to wheels of energy or prana at the conjunction of energy channels in the body.  There are said to 72,000 of these energy channels or nadis, and they can be considered as akin to the energy channels targeted by practitioners of acupuncture.  There are varying school of thought regarding the number of chakras, and as these are part of our energy body rather than the physical one, it’s not as if we can ask surgeons to dissect them out and do a definitive count!

The most commonly recognised ones are located along the central energy channel sushumna, which itself is aligned with the spine, at the pints where the two other main energy channels, ida and pingala, cross over.  Coincidentally, their locations correspond to nerve plexuses along the spine and also to the position of key endocrine glands, so there are some links to the workings of the physical body too.  Each chakra is associated with certain characteristics and may have an impact on our psychological make-up.

In yoga traditions the chakras are represented as lotus blossoms with varying numbers of petals and may be open, allowing the energy to flow freely, or closed, in which case the energy is blocked.  When this energy system is working well we are considered to be healthy and well-balanced.  In the same way the nerve plexuses of the body ensure communication between the different body parts and the endocrine glands serve to balance the body’s functions through the release of hormones into the bloodstream.

Whether or not you believe in this energy system is a matter of personal choice, but the chakras can be useful to us as a point of meditation, when we might visualise them using the colours of the rainbow, as glowing points of light in the body or through consideration of their associated elements. You might like to try this one at home:

Begin as usual, settling the body and breath.  The take your awareness to the base of the body and imagine this area being filled with the colour red, for muladhara chakra.  Spend a few breaths with this colour. Keep this in your mind as you work upwards, repeating this with each colour in turn.

  • Orange in the pelvis (swadisthana)
  • Yellow at the navel (manipura)
  • Green at the heart (anahata)
  • Blue at the throat (vishuddi)
  • Indigo between the eyebrows (ajna)
  • Violet at the crown of the head (sahasrara)

Maintain all the colours for as long as you wish before letting them fade away.

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Exploring elemental nature

I have spent the last few days teaching at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.  Our course was entitled Exploring Elemental Nature.  According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, the four elements of earth water, fire and air arose within the space element and everything is comprised of these four elements.

Over our time together we explored the elements through yoga practices and mindful photography,  looking at our connections with the different elements in the context of nature. The gardens at Woodbrooke were as beautiful as ever and mother nature blessed us with the full spectrum of weather from torrential rain to blue skies and sunshine.  The heavy rain swelled the brook to a miniature torrent and it spewed forth in bubbly foam at the lake’s inlet. The gardens were adorned in crystal water drops and reflections abounded. All in all we were given plenty of opportunity to channel the water element in our pictures!

Although i didn’t have much time for photographs myself, here are a couple that I took over that time, using my mobile phone.

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I couldn’t resist the morning display of water droplets on this alchemilla leaf.  I love the way the surface tension creates a container for the water molecules within.

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That same morning we used this lovely bowl as the focus of a meditation on the water element.  When a shower turned into a downpour later, I was inspired to take the bowl outside, to photograph it in the rain. The bowl seemed to represent a large water droplet, built up of the energies of all the smaller ones within, whilst nature provided new droplets to join the greater whole.  Each was complete in itself, yet blended perfectly with the others, separate yet connected as is all of life.

I shall be teaching again at Woodbrooke in August next year, when our course will be ‘Looking, seeing; doing, being.’ It would be lovely to see you there.

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Reduce stress with mindfulness

In yoga class we often talk about bringing the body and mind into balance, in order to find the calmness of mind that allows us to ‘be’ yoga.  It is easy for events or thoughts to send us into over-activity, forever rushing to get even more done in less time, or alternatively pinning us to the sofa under the force of the inertia created by having so much to do that we don’t know where to start.   Patanjali’s yoga sutras describe a number of obstacles to achieving the calmness of mind and body that is yoga, attitudes which can lead to stress if we are not careful. To combat these, they then go on to suggest that meditation can be of benefit.

For many years now, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been teaching Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in his Stress Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  His approach combines a body scan (a form of relaxation or body awareness practice), a physical yoga practice and a seated meditation.  His clinics have helped patients suffering from extreme pain, stress and illness which have not been managed by more conventional approaches.  His book Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, first published in 1991, abounds with stories of those with myriad health conditions who have been helped in ways.  Since the publication of the book, research studies have further demonstrated the positive impact of mindful meditation on the body’s ability to heal and to resist infection.  MBSR has also been demonstrated to be of benefit to those who are suffering from lesser levels of stress than the medical patients treated at the Stress Clinic.

Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or thinking about the future.  By spending time living in the moment we may worry less about what has or may happen.  This can lead to greater acceptance and a reduction in stress.  This can be surprisingly difficult to begin with and we may be surprised at just how busy the mind is for so much of the time.  It’s a good idea to start small, practising for short periods at a time.  This could be as simple as giving our full attention to the washing up or making a cup of tea, or really focussing on the body and breath as we do a particular posture in the yoga class.  Once you get started mindfulness can become a way of life, an ‘any time, any place’ practice that you always have with you when you need it.

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