Practice: Astavakrasana (Eight-Angled Pose)

Ashta = ‘Eight’

Vakra = ‘Bent / Curved’

Asana = ‘Pose’

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Possibly in some people’s ‘crazy arm balance’ category, Astavakrasana takes patience and practice. It’s often something which people decide they ‘can’t do’ before they even try….. While it may look a little complicated, Astavakrasana is easier than it may first seem if you approach it in the right way.

The first step towards this pose? Something the Bhagavad Gita taught us; to let go of the fruits of our actions. That is, to work for the love of it, putting in our best efforts and knowing we did our best without getting attached to the outcome. To be honest, that is probably the most difficult part of any pose – sometimes you feel you’ve got it all nailed, other times you’ll feel like a wobbly mess…. Just go with it, it’s all a learning process…. 

Astavakrasana requires patience, a strong core, upper body strength, and flexibility in the hips – which is what we usually acquire after a lot of practice.

Good steps to work up to this pose include core strengtheners like Navasana and Trikonasana – which involves training our core to become both strong AND supple, so it’s actually functional instead of rigid and frozen like the superficial 6-packs tend to be – try plank pose, and side planks too.

You’ll also need arm and shoulder strength, which can be worked on with chatturangas, dolphin pose, planks and side planks.

Great hip openers to work with include standing poses like lunges and prasarita padottanasana to open the outer hips, and lizard pose and baddha konasana to open tight adductors.

Finally, get used to lifting yourself up with Utpluthihi, Bakasana, Parsva Bakasana, and especially Eka Pada Bhujasana. 

 

Keep practicing – without rushing yourself toward completing this pose, and enjoy the strength and flexibility you build along the way!

HOW TO:

  • From a seated position, take your [right] leg and hook it over the [right] upper arm as far as you can, somewhere between the elbow and shoulder – of you can hook it over the shoulder then go for it.
  • Make sure both hands are firmly on he ground beside you, fingertips facing forwards, creating hasta bandha** – Hasta bandha is the ‘hand lock’, similar to what your hands are doing in downward facing dog – pressing firmly in to the fingertips and knuckles, especially the knuckle of the index finger. This helps to strengthen wrists and hands so you’re able to hold yourself without any aching wrists. With hasta bandha, actively claw the hands in to the floor even more, imagining the centre of the palm of the hand like a suction cup, pulling the energy upwards.
  • Lift the body up and bring the ankles to cross.
  • The final part here is to extend the legs, sliding them out along the upper arm so they’re hugging around the arm above the elbow joint, towards the biceps.
  • To come out – draw the legs in by bending the knes and hugging the ankles in, and place your bum on the floor. Extend the legs out in to dandasana (staff pose) and try the other side – noticing the differences in strength and flexibility on each side of the body.

It doesn’t matter how far you get in any of these poses, the point is that we turn up and practice. (FYI – that’s why it’s called a yoga PRACTICE – if we could do everything perfectly from the beginning, there wouldn’t be a point in practicing….)

 

‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’ – Nelson Mandela 

The Real Meaning Of ‘Health?’

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 “Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit – BKS Iyengar

When we think of health, what comes to mind?: Sweating it out at the gym, eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking or drinking, or making sure we’re happy with what we see in the mirror or read on the scales?

Well, it turns out that physical health can only take us so far…. If we want to be truly vibrant and healthy, we have to take in to account the health of our mind – I don’t mean the brain, here – the mind. And what makes our mind happy? It has a lot more to do with the things we take for granted than it may seem….

While we know that the benefits of exercise, fuelling our bodies with healthy foods and drink, and getting enough sleep all keep us feeling good, we don’t often consider that things like our sense of purpose, relationships with friends, or ability to express creativity also has a big impact on our physical health….

We might think our DNA is our destiny – that genetics determine whether you may be diagnosed with cancer, suffer from hereditary heart problems, or that arthritis ‘runs in your family’ – and while some aspects of genetics are unavoidable, we can actually control things we may assume are pre-destined…. Things like our environment can alter the way our DNA actually expresses itself; pollution, the amount of sunlight we get, and the amount of time we spend in nature are some of the physical aspects which alter the way our DNA is expressed. Things like our relationships – are we surrounded by people we genuinely care about and who care about us? Our sense of self-worth, the amount of gratitude we express, and our life’s purpose, are all vital factors that have a big impact on our health.

The biological chemicals released in to our bodies when we are filling our time doing meaningful things, can literally save us from suffering. Studies have been conducted in which the effects of being primarily an optimist or a pessimist affected overall health; it showed that those who are considered to be optimistic recover better from surgeries, have stronger immune systems, and ultimately live longer than pessimists. Heart disease rates are halved in positive males, as is the amount of time taken to recover from injury.*

Blue zones:

Parts of the world known as the ‘Blue Zones’ have the populations who tend to live the longest and have the healthiest lives; these areas include Loma Linda in California, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, and Okinawa in Japan. These places are all pretty far apart, but they all have certain things in coming (some of which may be surprising) that means their populations are the most healthy in the true sense of the word ‘health’; The things they all have in common is known by the Blue Zones project as the ‘Power 9’, they include:

  1. Move Naturally: the people in these places don’t get their exercise from formal gym memberships or fitness classes…. Their lifestyles encourages them to just move more often!
  2. Know Your Purpose: These people felt they had a calling in their lives and they knew they were doing something meaningful with their time.
  3. Down Shift: Eliminating stressful situations may not be easy, but those who live the longest, healthiest lives manage to fit in a small amount of time each day to take time out for themselves to do something that relaxes them.
  4. 80% rule: These populations generally eat until they feel 80% full up, instead of rushing their meals until they feel like bursting!
  5. Plant Slant: The Blue Zone populations consume a mostly plant based diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and minimally processed products. Things like nuts are an important part of their diets, and eating just a handful a day has been proven to add 2-3 years to your life expectancy!
  6. Wine @ 5: One glass of wine for women and two for men has actually been proven to have a healthy effect on the body – the antioxidants in wine reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. (This only works with wine though – not pints of beer or cider or vodka!)
  7. Right Tribe: The healthiest people in the world are surrounded by people they feel safe with and supported by. Studies show that loneliness encourages depression, which has a detrimental effect on the body’s wellbeing – so surround yourself with people you love and who love you too!
  8. Community: Nearly all of the people in a study to determine the Blue Zones attended some sort of faith-based community gathering regularly. This doesn’t mean you have to join any sort of religion if you don’t believe in it, this could mean just being with people who believe in similar sorts of ideas that you too hold true, and realising that there is something bigger than all of us in the universe.
  9. Loved Ones First: The happiest, healthiest participants in the Blue Zones study put their families first, and being in a positive, committed relationship can even add 6 years to your life! **

 

Happiness directly effects our health, and it turns out it’s contagious:

A study at the University of California concluded that happiness is in fact contagious; if a friend of yours is happy, you’re 25% more likely to be happy yourself, and even if a friend of a friend is happy, we’re 6% more likely to be happy. So, we can directly influence the happiness of people we don’t even know, just by being positive ourselves!

If we’re able to widen our perspective of ‘health’ to include these aspects, we can prevent illness long before it occurs, and live as fully, healthily and happily as we deserve to.

*Research from Lissa Rankin’s amazing book ‘Mind Over Medicine’. You can watch her TED talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tu9nJmr4Xs

** To learn more about the blue zones, read Dan Buettner’s book ‘Blue Zones’ and watch his fascinating TED Talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100.html

Dhalicious Dhal….

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Dhal is a traditional indian dish, either served as a side dish with curry or – when served with brown rice – is a complete protein, so it makes a meal by itself.

 Plus, it’s cheap, filling, and good for you!

This recipe is adapted from one a friend gave me, and I have no idea where they found it either – so feel free to adapt it and play around with all sorts of variations to suit you too….

INGREDIENTS: 

1tbsp coconut oil

1 medium size mug of split red lentils

2 ½ – 3 medium size mugs of water

2 medium size onions

2 cloves of garlic (can use more if you like)

5 chillis (I use a mixture of small red and green chillis but you can use up to 10)

2 tsp turmeric

2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp mustard seeds

1” of fresh ginger chopped finely

A fistful of fresh coriander roughly chopped.

HOW TO: 

Wash the lentils well either in a sieve or in 5 changes of cold water.

Bring the 2 ½ mugs of water to the boil and add the washed lentils. 

Bring back to the boil, then turn down to a simmer adding the turmeric and chopped ginger.  This should take roughly 20 minutes until the lentils are soft and the consistency of porridge.  Stir frequently so it doesn’t burn on the bottom of the pan.  If the mixture gets too dry add another half mug of water during cooking.

Meanwhile, chop the onions and fry in the coconut oil on a medium-high heat until just browned.

Chop the chillies finely and add them to the onions.  Add the cumin seeds and mustard seeds to the onion mix and continue to fry gently until the seeds pop and the onion is nicely browned.  Turn off the heat and wait until the lentils are cooked.

When the lentils are cooked add the onion/chilli/spice mix and stir well.  Simmer for five minutes.  If at any point it looks too dry add a little water.

Lastly, add the chopped coriander and mix well.

 

This dhal is best left for a couple of hours for the flavours to infuse but you can eat it right away if you just can’t wait! 

Best served with brown rice or chapattis and a mixed salad.

 

Lentils are good for you!:  http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=52

Practice: Camatkarasana (Wild Thing)

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Camatkarasana or ‘wild thing’ is an expansive, energising and FUN backbend. If you’re planning on practicing Urdhva Dhanurasana (full wheel) then this is a good option to warm up with. Wild thing is also not-so-elegantly named ‘flip the dog’ sometimes….

You may need to open the hips a little before ‘flipping’ in to the pose, (try some warrior poses first) and perhaps move through some sun salutations or gentle backbends like cobra to get the spine ready.

Entering Camatkarasana from downward facing dog trains us to get used to doing things which may seem a little scary at first, in the beginning you have to learn to trust that your body will work with you here.

HOW TO:

  •  From downward facing dog, inhale as you raise the [right] leg.
  •  Raise that leg up high, and then begin to bend the knee, letting the foot come up and over towards your [left] side, so you’re opening out your hips.
  •  Continue to bring the foot over more and more, until you’re ready to (gently) drop the foot to the floor and take your right arm up and over head.
  • Stay in this backbend for enough time so you can really feel the opening in the front of the body, feeling a long line of energy and full stretch across the body.
  •  To come out of the pose, lift the [right] leg back up and gently ‘flip’ back over to downward facing dog. Then take it to the other side, lifting the [left] leg this time.
  • Backbends are generally ‘energising’ and can leave us feeling refreshed and a little more alert and positive. Give it a try and see how it works for you!

P.S…. play this song to get the full benefits….

MINDFUL MONDAY – Feet First

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Consisting of just over 25% of the human body’s bones, 2,700 nerve endings, and the power to influence the health of our whole body, the foot is much more essential to our wellbeing than we give it credit for.

 Our feet carry us around all day, and as we know – it isn’t just what we do that affects us – it’s how we do it.

 Consider the approach many alternative therapies are already using, and more traditional doctors are awakening to; that a problem in the body often arises somewhere else, other than at the point of pain. Knee pain, back pain and headaches can actually arise from moving our feet in an unhealthy way.

Supination of the foot (when the weight travels too much through the inner foot) causes the ankles to collapse inwardly, effecting the next vulnerable joint above – the knees. This misalignment of the knees then causes the hips to become tight and a little crooked, this then transfers to the lower back which has had to compensate for imbalance in the lower body, and this is where most people feel that familiar lower back pain. Next up is the neck and shoulders, which often become tight when we’re compensating for other problems within the body – plus, the tension from having backpain often makes us feel uptight and this shows up in how physically ‘tight’ our shoulders are. Finally, the problem in the foot effects us all the way up in the head with headaches usually caused by obstructed blood flow or tension in the surrounding muscles. So you see, our feet are actually pretty essential to how we feel.

The pathway of weight through our bodies runs from our head, through the neck and collarboes, down the spine to the sarum and through each pelvic half. It then travels down the legs, through the ankles, and finally through the heel, to the little toe side of the foot (the 5th metatarsle to be accurate) to the big toe joint (1st metatarsle). If our feet are able to move in a way that supports this healthy alignment; think ‘Heel – little toe – big toe’, then our weight is being supported equally, and the rebound effect of the feet moving in this way creates an upward thrust of energy, helping to propel us forwards when we walk or run.

 Keeping the feet in a healthy condition need not take a lot of effort, just a little more mindfulness!

 

Change up your shoes often: 

In defence of women who buy a lot of shoes, there is some logic to wearing a variety of footwear. Our bodies are a map of the way we move and live (there’s a whole other post to write on that subject, though) so over time, our feet actually kind of become moulded to suit the shoe we repeatedly put on it. Changing your shoes often (or not wearing shoes at all when you can!) ensures they’ll be able to maintain closest to their natural state without relying on support from a certain type of shoe.

 *FYI – high heeled shoes are pretty much the worst thing you could put on your foot; not only do they force the foot in to a completely unnatural position – they shorten and tighten the hamstrings and calf muscles and don’t support a healthy posture.

Before you go out and buy your next pair of running shoes, take a look at this short and fascinating video from the brilliant Leslie Kaminoff:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_FZdv_LJl0

Heel – little toe – big toe:

Next time you go for a walk, pay attention to the way your feet move – do they fit this healthy pattern? If you experience knee, hip, back or neck pain, then you might notice that you’re putting extra weight on to one particular side of the foot.

Luckily, you can change your habits with just a little but of attention.

 Your feet tell you a lot about your current state of health:

Cold feet, numbness or tingling could indicate a circulation, thyroid problem or even diabetes, while a sudden cramping in the foot could dehydration or that your diet is lacking magnesium calcium or potassium if it happens often. Plus, although no one particularly wants hairy toes, a lack of hair there is actually a big indicator of poor circulation….

If you ever experience sore feet, or pain in the joints above, try a short sequence of movements to help wake up your feet in the morning or relax them before you go to bed:

  •  Rolling a tennis ball underneath the foot can really help to relax the muscles and tendons of the foot after a long day on your feet or after a run. Doing this before you wake up is also brilliant for stimulating circulation in the foot.
  •  Standing with the feet about hip distance, lift and spread the toes, replacing them again one by one. Feel the pathway of weight traveling through the heel, little toe and big toe. We don’t often bring this much awareness to our feet, but taking care of just one part of ourselves can lead to total self care and long term health and happiness.
  •  Massaging the feet when you wake up or before you go to bed again stimulates circulation, and helps to stretch out and free up the foot if it’s been squeezed in to a shoe all day.

 

If we’re healthy, our feet will carry us around for our whole lives (that’s a looooong time). We rely on them a LOT, so taking care of them is one way to make sure we’re happy and healthy in the long run. Apply this little bit of mindfulness to a part of the body that often gets neglected, and over time you’ll notice a difference in your overall wellbeing.

 

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go”.

– Dr. Seuss

Healthy Homemade Hummus Recipe

After lots of requests, here it is! :

Originating from the Middle East – Hummus has long been used as a dip for flatbread, pitta, and vagatables like carrot sticks or celery. The primary ingredients, chickpeas, are high protein – which is especially useful for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet and is cleaner than most animal proteins. Chickpeas also help to maintain steady blood sugar levels and contain no saturated fat or cholesterol. Tahini is high in calcium, while garlic and lemon juice are good sources of antioxidants. The small amount of Olive oil provides healthy fats, and if you add a little pink Himalayan Mountain salt you’ll be adding in a ton of nutrients, including high amounts of iron – which around 34% of Westerners are deficient in.

The even better news is that if you make your own healthy hummus, you’ll be able to avoid all the additives, preservatives and general nastiness which supermarket brands generally include.

 

Healthy Homemade Hummus How To:

  • Sieve 1 can of chickpeas and rinse with cold water
  • Put the chickpeas in a blender and then add:
  • 2 big teaspoons of Tahini
  • 1 chopped clove of garlic – or  more if you’re a garlicky person
  • A pinch of good quality salt like sea salt or Himalayan mountain salt
  • 3 tbsp of water
  •  3 tbsp of cold pressed or good quality olive oil
  • Blend it all together – *you might have to stop a couple of times to scrape the sides of the blender then carry on mixing.

 Add a little more water if it looks or feels too dry or thick

 You can also add sundried tomatoes, pitted black olives, red pepper, lemon zest, or grated raw beetroot.

 

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“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food” – Hippocrates

Strength From The Inside – Out….

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A strong core offers so much more than an attempt to show off your abdominal muscles….. In fact, that tight, rigid 6-pack isn’t so healthy for us. It limits our mobility and doesn’t do much for our over all strength since many of us simply isolate this one part of the body to work on. A strong core protects us from injury (especially back pain), it allows the physical yoga practice to become more fluid and ‘easier’ because we’re stronger on the outside, and it allows challenges we’re faced with in our lives to become more manageable because we feel strong and powerful on the inside.

 Strength means different things to different people; for some it’s being able to lift heavier weights in the gym, for others it’s pressing up in to a handstand, and for others still, it’s having the strength and willpower to be themselves and meet any challenges life provides for them.

The thing about becoming stronger though, is that is doesn’t just happen by doing one particular thing…. Our muscles generally adapt to strengthening in the part we work them at; so you could be lifting weights at the gym or carrying heavy objects at work and still not find it easy to hold yourself in Bakasana, side plank or Utpluthi. To become stronger all over, we have to work all over, and the good news is that it takes no equipment whatsoever. In a physical yoga practice, you’re lifting your own body weight frequently, so depending upon the amount of practice you do, you’re likely to become stronger all over in a surprisingly short amount of time. At the same time as strengthening ourselves physically, we also need to be generating a sense of inner strength; the strength that allows us to listen to what we really want out of life rather than following the crowd, the strength to say ‘no’ when we know what’s best for us, the strength to let go of worrying about the outcome of a situation and doing things because you know it’s the right thing to do, no matter what happens.

For most people, delving in to the mind straight away isn’t an easy task, which is why we start with the most external part of ourselves first; the body. Let the rest follow!

*It could be a good idea to warm up with a few sun salutations just to bring a bit of heat and energy in to the body before practicing these poses.

Navasana

‘Boat Pose’

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 A little more difficult than it first appears to be; Navasana is especially brilliant for strengthening the abdominal and hip flexor muscles.

When you’ve been practicing with the knees bent for a while or you already feel very strong in this pose, only then straighten the legs – strength needs to be built up in this pose, otherwise you risk straining the lower back muscles.

 HOW TO:

  • Sit on the floor with your knees bent to your chest.
  • Find the balancing point between your ‘sit bones’ and your tailbone.
  •  Holding the thighs, extend the legs out a little so the shins are parallel with the floor and pull the navel in firmly.
  •  Make sure your back is kept straight and the chest is open.
  •  If you feel ok here, extend the arms out along side the legs, and if you’re still finding this easy, extend the legs fully, staying here for 5-10 breaths of however many you can manage.
  •  When you come out, gently bend the legs and pull the knees back in to the chest, feet to the floor.
  •  Practice this pose regularly to really improve your core strength and notice how much it effects your own yoga practice

Don’t forget that the ‘core’ isn’t just at the front of our bodies – we need to be strong throughout the whole mid – section to protect ourselves from injury, increase mobility, and really feel the benefits.

Salabhasana

‘Locust Pose’

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One of the lower back strengthening poses, Salabhasana requires focus and willpower to stay in the pose for any length of time. It is brilliant for strengthening the lower back, which is often a weak area that people feel discomfort in – mostly due to straining these muscles when lifting, or siting in cars or office chairs for long periods of time.

HOW TO:

  • Lie on the floor face down, with your legs and arms extended behind you.
  • For the first couple of times, it may help to interlace the hands and let this action help with some of the work, but in time you can keep the hands apart.
  • On an inhale – using the back and abdominal muscles, lift the upper body, and when you’re feeling good here, lift the legs too, reaching out through the balls of the feet.
  •  Stay here for 5-10 breaths or however many you can manage and on an exhale gently lower down to the floor.

To counter pose these strengthening actions, take a nice gentle Bridge pose (which also works on leg strength) and lie in Supta Baddha Konasana with the hands at the navel, breathing deep and feeling the strength and energy you’ve created in this area.

Mindful Monday: Sleep Well

ImageIf you find it difficult to get a decent night’s sleep, you’re not alone. Around 51% of the UK have problems sleeping, and over half of American citizens too – with about 10% having fully diagnosed insomnia.

It was Warren Zevon who said ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’, (after doing some research in to his health, I wouldn’t follow that advice….) but no matter how busy we are, there is no underestimating the importance of sleep to our health and wellbeing.

Our sleep cycle not only effects our mood, how much we retain of what we learn, our sex drive, and weight – but can also lend itself to much more serious health problems if we’re not getting enough…..

When you sleep, your body goes in to ‘repair mode’ and any damage caused during the day is restored with a good night’s sleep. The cells repair themselves and the hormones and immune system work differently when we’re asleep. Getting enough rest at night ensures our immune system stays strong and we’re less susceptible to both common and serious illnesses.

Not getting enough sleep obviously makes us feel worse off in the day time, meaning we make bad decisions for our health – grabbing the nearest sugary snack in the hope of a quick energy buzz, not going out in the fresh air because we’re ‘too tired’ and becoming irritable. This develops in to a vicious cycle until we eventually make ourselves very ill.

So, how can we help ourselves to get a better night’s sleep?

Can’t get comfy?: Sleep with a pillow underneath your knees if you lie on your back – this helps the spine and hips to remain in healthier alignment and helps the back muscles to relax. If you sleep on your side, place the pillow between your knees.

 

Breathe deep: Taking long, slow and deep breaths helps the nervous system to relax and the parasympathetic nervous system to set in. Lengthening your exhales allows for even deeper relaxation and should be a big help if anxiety is stopping you from sleeping.

Get moving: Research has linked regular exercise not only to better health, but to better sleep too. If you suffer from insomnia or are restless when it comes to bed time, consider doing something active in your day that you enjoy. (Enjoying the way you exercise is especially important!)

Turn it off: You’ve probably heard this before; turn your electronics off an hour before you go to sleep! Not only does the stress of social networking cause our nervous system to work overtime (plus, studies show that those who use social networking sites more often, suffered from much lower mood levels), but the blue light particles emitted from the screens suppresses the secretion of the hormone melatonin, which regulates the body’s circadian rhythms (the sleep-wake cycle).

Turn it on: If you find it very difficult to sleep in silence, playing some relaxing music (classical often works best) helps to calm the mind and body.

Get in to a routine: By going to bed and getting up and the same time each day, we train our bodies to recognise when it’s time to sleep and when its time get up. This not only makes getting to sleep and getting up in the mornings easier; but we feel more awake and alert during the day because the body knows its time to be awake!

Get outside: The morning is when the most blue light particles are emitted, and this is the best time to get outside and breathe in some fresh air. If we allow our eyes to absorb these blue light particles in the morning, our circadian rhythms work well and our levels of melatonin drop so we’re more refreshed and awake during the day.

Listen to the rhythm: It is important to understand and learn our bodies’ circadian rhythms. These rhythms effect our sleep cycle – governed by our internal body clock, which organises the production of the hormone melatonin that makes us sleepy.

Recognise when you are most awake and when you’re most tired throughout the day and start to live by these natural rhythms. If you’re tired at 10:30, then sleep – if you’re more of a morning person, then make the effort to get up early and you’ll feel a lot better off! (plus, you’ll get lots more done throughout the day). These rhythms work along side nature; as the sun sets, naturally we’d begin to feel tired, and as it rises we should feel awake and active (well, most of us should….). Try adapting to the cycles of nature and see how it affects your wellbeing the next day.

Bed time snacks: While it isn’t advisable at all to eat a large meal right before you sleep (your body needs to use sleeping time to re-build damaged cells and generate new energy for the next day, instead of digesting food) the body does need to keep working throughout the night while you’re asleep, and knowing which foods are most beneficial to help you sleep can be handy:

 Kiwis have been shown to be particularly helpful towards not only getting to sleep faster, but staying asleep for longer and with better quality sleep! They contain high levels of vitamin C, which works as an antioxidant and helps to repair cells and boost the immune system. Kiwis also contain high levels of serotonin, which is a powerful neurotransmitter and mood booster! Serotonin also interacts with melatonin, helping to initiate sleep onset and aids in maintaining sleep throughout the night.

Tryptophan is a natural sleep inducer, and is the precursor to serotonin. Eating something containing tryptophan before bed is likely to help improve your night’s sleep. Try: soy milk, chickpeas, lentils nuts and seeds. (probably not all at once though….)

Foods containing higher levels of melatonin include cherries, grapes, walnuts.

A warm drink can be comforting at night, and if you have any of these products, try warm almond milk mixed with fresh lavender, cinnamon, cardamom and a little honey before bed.

Contrastingly, foods that actually cause insomnia include: alcohol (if you’re drinking, try not to continue drinking right before you sleep!), spicy foods, sugar (you’re likely to wake up craving more sugar if you eat it right before bed, plus refined white sugar has so many detrimental health effects that it is worth looking in to), and chocolate (because it contains stimulants). Obviously, caffeine is on the list too! So next time you’re planning on heading out for a spicy curry and a few drinks, followed by a midnight snack of chocolate on the way home; do whatever you feel is best – but just be mindful that you’re probably not going to get the best night’s sleep ever….

Scents: We probably all know about lavender’s relaxing qualities; it helps to reduce anxiety and aids greatly in relaxing the nervous system. Jasmine though, might have beaten lavender to it when it comes to which is better before bed time though. Studies have shown jasmine to not only aid in getting to sleep, but improving the length and quality of sleep too.

Yoga: While a lot of people have reported sleeping better since they started practicing yoga, knowing what sort of movements to do in the evening can make a big difference to your sleep cycles and health. While a lot of us opt for a dynamic class in the evening, it may reduce our ability to calm down if we’re practicing too late in to the night. Before bed, take some gentle seated twists, viparita karani or legs up the wall pose, and supta baddha konasana. These poses will help to first neutralise, and then deeply relax the body and mind.

 Relaxation Response: This technique of tensing and relaxing muscles has been noted as having helped those suffering with chronic pain, serious illness and insomnia. To train your body to recognise the difference between feeling tense and feeling relaxed; begin by squeezing the feet and then consciously relaxing them, then move upwards through the body, tensing and relaxing muscles along the way. This action of tension encourages a deeper relaxation to occur when you let go, so give it a try next time you’re feeling too tense and uptight to sleep.

Tea Time: Well known blends such as chamomile, rooibos, jasmine and valerian root are known to help facilitate a sense of calm with their anti-anxiety properties and ability to initiate a sense of sleepiness, so consider sipping one of these teas before you go to bed.

Give any of these tips a go and see what works for you. Hopefully you’ll be getting a great night’s sleep and feeling good in no time!

‘Sleep is the best meditation’

– Dalai Lama 

Practice: Utpluthih (Tolasana / Scales pose)

utpluthih

Familiar to those who practice the Ashtanga sequence; Utpluthih or Tolasana builds upper body and core strength dramatically, but it also requires this strength to be able to hold the position. Utpluthih brings about an awareness of how much strength, discipline and balance is needed for other arm balancing poses, as well as cultivating focus. As with all poses, if the full and final expression isn’t available to you (yet!) then do whatever works for your body.

If you’re not practicing padmasana or lotus pose yet, then do this pose with the legs crossed as you would sitting on the floor – this isn’t the time to be forcing yourself in to lotus pose if you’re not familiar with it!

The hands lay flat to the floor here – if you need to at first, you could place them on blocks so that the whole body can be lifted up, pulling the legs to the core.

How To:

  •  Either take the legs in to lotus pose, or have them crossed in sukhasana (easy cross-legged pose)
  •  Make sure the spine is straight – it may be tempting to round the back, but keep reaching up towards the sky here.
  • Place the hands on the floor either side of the body and take a breath to prepare.
  •  Inhale, and on a exhale press the hands in to the floor, engage the abdominal muscles and lift the body up, pulling everything to your centre.
  •  Take 5-10 breaths here, or however many you can manage!
  •  On an exhale, slowly lower down to the floor. Notice how much the muscles relax after the strength you’ve just used to lift in to the pose!

*In the pose, make sure you’re clawing the hands in to the floor – pressing down through the finger pads and finger tips – similarly to the action in downward facing dog, so the weight can be taken out of the wrists.

Practice this pose regularly and notice the immense amount of strength you can build in such a short time!

Mindful Monday

Conscious breathing: The how, why and meditation of breath.

breathe

We know we need to breathe to survive… but just as with everything else in our lives; it’s not what we do, but how we do it.

Our modern daily lifestyle exposes us to all sorts of stressors, which have an impact on our breathing, mind and body, affecting our health in a big way.

Habitually living in a ‘fight or flight’ state of mind puts the body under constant stress, and in this state of mind the body can’t differentiate between something life-threatening, and something we just find ‘stressful’. Society may have come on leaps and bounds, but our minds and bodies are yet to evolve so quickly. If we’re under a lot of stress, the body still assumes it’s a life or death situation and this changes things biologically; hormones, cell communication and chemical impulses designed to help repair cells, strengthen the immune system and keep us in general good health are shut down – after all, if the body is dealing with life and death, preventing illness or recovering from pain is no longer an issue. The body’s first concern now is immediate survival on a primitive level.

So is it surprising then, that as stress levels rise, so too do the levels of serious illnesses and the dependency on prescription medication to keep us in balance? 

Not really, no….

But there are ways to change things and return to our natural, healthy state of being.

When we’re under stress, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. This indicates to the body that something is wrong, and the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response is heightened. This overrides the parasympathetic nervous system, which generally helps to keep us in a state of homeostatis and helps the body to repair itself. 

Habitual or ‘unconscious’ breathing tends to be closer to the way we breathe when we’re stressed than when we’re relaxed. The short, shallow breaths put the nervous system on edge, unsure of whether to put our energy into basic survival or healing and optimal health. Unconscious breathing (the type we do most of the time) is controlled by the primitive part of the brain – the medulla oblongata -, whereas conscious breathing activates the more evolved areas of the brain and the cerebral cortex. Stimulating the cerebral cortex has a big effect on our emotions, and helps to relax the nervous system and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. In essence, conscious breathing helps to not only calm the mind, but to also heal the body. Conscious breathing tells the mind and body that it’s ok to be calm, it’s ok to let go of unnecessary tension.

 Yoga focuses on conscious breathing – both with pranayama (‘breath control’ or ‘breath liberation’ depending upon your viewpoint’) techniques, and meditation. Physical yoga practice also goes hand in hand with conscious breathing; we move in co-ordination with inhales and exhales, which connects the body, breath and mind and allows us to tap into a deeper level of consciousness than that we may experience in every day life. The word yoga means ‘union’, and by moving with the breath, all areas of our being are connected or ‘united’.  

Conscious breathing is a meditation in itself; try focussing on taking long, deep, controlled inhales and exhales for a while … and feel the effects. Use conscious breathing to get through seemingly stressful situations and challenges and you’ll soon begin to witness how much the ‘simple’ act of breathing effects our whole state of being. 

“Breathe, breathe in the air. 

Don’t be afraid to care…”

– Pink Floyd