I am always thrilled by the sight of gannets nesting on the cliffs at Bempton, in Yorkshire. The sheer size of these birds and the close proximity to the path makes it an amazing experience. The breeding season is a hectic time, with huge numbers of birds visiting the area to raise their young. For me this is one of the most incredible times of the year, full of hope and energy for the new season which is fast approaching, a sign that summer is well and truly on its way.
When you are waiting for a bus in the pouring rain, how endless can each minute seem? Yet when we go to the fairground, the rides are always over too quickly. In the past I have attended aerobics classes which have seemed agonisingly endless, yet when I am doing or teaching yoga the time flies by. Our perception of time seems to bear an inverse relationship to the pleasure gained from it; the worst experiences seem to last forever and the best ones are over ‘in no time at all’.
It can be easy to succumb to the habit of spending much of our time on autopilot when doing routine activities. If you have ever got half way to work and wondered if the door is locked, you were probably on autopilot when you turned the key! We can tend to fill our time with activities that may numb rather than stimulate. How many hours spent are browsing online/watching sitcoms/eating or drinking too much as a way of passing time? These things can all be distractions from the reality of each moment. We all need time out, but sliding automatically into these activities on a regular basis is not always restorative for body or mind.
When we become totally engrossed in whatever we are doing or watching, time appears to stand still. This is the experience of time I hope to encounter when practising photography as a meditation. I become so involved with my subject that time is no longer of any importance, far away from the restrictions of minutes and hours, days and weeks, times to be places and times to leave. It is these moments out of time that become recorded in my images and these moments that give the practice meaning for me. This sense of spaciousness is remarkably calming. This feeling can be found in any hobby or interest that absorbs your full attention. Whatever it may be, try it out today!
As the blossom heralds another spring, so the wilder weather of April arrives to blow it away. Although not the first of the spring flowers, to me, the cherry blossom says that winter is behind us and the promise of spring and summer are just around the corner. The ephemeral nature of the delicate flowers reminds us that transformation is moving apace. The blossom in my garden lasts just a week most years and bears a stark message to enjoy things while they are with us. Take time out to have fun and make the most of life as the opportunities arise!
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!
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.
Water is just the most amazing stuff. The surface tension of the liquid form allows these beautiful droplets to form on the leaf surface as it rains, too much water and all will be washed away. Yet the same element can form the gaseous steam or solid ice, evidence of the change all around us even when things seem to stay the same.
Despite the harsh weather of recent weeks, spring is definitely in the air! My daffodils have been out for a couple of weeks and I couldn’t resist buying some primulas and hellebores to brighten up the back yard. The spring flowers are my favourites, and of course out comes to camera to record them in their full glory.
There is a lot of truth in Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted saying, ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ And while I am in favour of approaching life with a pretty relaxed attitude, sometimes we can become so relaxed about it that nothing actually gets done. While it may not be wise to have so much ‘discipline’ that we fill all our time with activities, neither is becoming too laid back about things a good way to go either.
I’m thinking here about all the excuses that pop into our minds when we are thinking about starting something new, or doing something our mind has decided will be unpleasant. I am the world’s worst prevaricator; I have never baked so many cakes or cleaned the house as much as when I was a student approaching exam time, with piles of revision to work through. My logic was that there was plenty of time for culinary experimentation before I knuckled down to re-reading tedious revision notes. In reality I was putting off the evil moment when I had no excuses left to avoid opening my books. Welcome to Prevarication 101!
It’s so easy to do. You know you should make the effort, but the comfy sofa is calling loudly. When it comes to any activity (not just yoga!) that takes us out of our comfort zone, there is always an excuse to put it off. It’s raining, I’ll wait another week, til the nights are lighter, til the weather is warmer, til the barbecue season is over, til after the holiday, til the kids have settled back into school, til after Christmas…Oops, where did the year go? And now it’s cold outside so I’ll wait til…and here we go again.
Yet when we make the effort to go out and do whatever it is we have been mentally avoiding, we often find that its really quite fun, and before long we can’t imagine how we managed without it. It’s become a habit, and discipline has become a pleasure. Why not make this the year of building new and better habits for a new and better you?
How often when we are moving through our life do we stop to actually look at the small details of the world that is around us? This image shows a close up of a beach. I was fascinated by the variety of shapes and textures in the stones, as well as the detail of the drift wood. The tiny piece of green stem on the branch added a spot of colour in an otherwise neutral palette. Walking briskly along, none of this would be noticed or remembered, yet a closer look reveals a world of intrigue beneath our feet.
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?