Recruiting the Vagus Nerve – Take a step back

This is the second in the series Recruiting the Vagus Nerve: the best friend you didn’t know you had.

Self-distancing is a powerful intervention – some people call them hacks or manoeuvres – to recruit the Vagus Nerve, that wonderful friendly nerve that controls the relaxation response of our Autonomic Nervous System. This is the tend and befriend ground or circuit of safety and connection. When we activate the vagal pathways of the Parasympathetic System, we reduce stress, anxiety and anger, as well as reducing lethargy, low motivation, and inflammation. We improve immune response, breathing, cardiac health, digestion, and lots more. The activity of the Vagus Nerve is measured as vagal tone, so the better we get at recruiting the Vagus Nerve the more we improve what our ‘vagal tone’. You can think of it as a singer toning the voice.

These interventions that target the Vagus Nerve also do something quite remarkable and unexpected – they reduce egocentric bias, that is, the tendency to over-emphasize our own personal view and experience at the expense of a broader perspective. Vagus Nerve activity reduces our tendency to over-analyze and ruminate on our emotions and reactions, hopes and fears. The Vagus Nerve helps us to be less self-conscious, which is always a liberating trend.

A number of scientific research studies have shown that techniques that involve a practice called self-distancing actually reduce this egocentric bias and improve vagal tone – our ability to self-regulate through recruiting the Vagus Nerve.

What is ‘self-distancing’? Self-distancing is developing an observer part of our consciousness. It’s getting out of our story – of predictions or fantasies about the future, if I do this then this might happen. Equally, it releases us from raking over the past which often keeps us trapped in negative thought-loops or obsessive nostalgia. Self-distancing is the opposite of self-immersion. Self-immersion always keeps us from experiencing the present moment because it involves thinking about the self instead of being the self.

According to research, when people adopt a self-distanced perspective while discussing a past difficult event or imagining a difficult future event, they make better sense of their reactions, experience less emotional distress, and display fewer physiological signs of stress, which is reflected in healthier cardiovascular activity. They also experience reduced reactivity when remembering the same problematic event weeks or months later, and they are less vulnerable to recurring thoughts (or rumination).

You can do this consciously, but this tendency can also begin to emerge as a side-effect of mindfulness and yoga techniques which train us to practice observing the body.

TECHNIQUES FOR SELF DISTANCING:

In one study, participants were put into one of three groups. One group performed a traditional “expressive writing” task, with instructions to wear their heart on their sleeve and write freely about their “strongest and deepest emotions.” Another group was told to engage in “narrative expressive writing”, in which they created a “coherent and organized narrative” of their marital separation with a storyline arc with a beginning, middle, and end. The third group given an emotionally neutral writing task. Participants assigned to the “narrative expressive writing” group showed the greatest reduction in cardiovascular markers for stress as well as an increase in heart rate variability (HRV). They found that people who had the best results used the question what instead of why did because why questions encourage a lot of fantasizing.

  1. TAKE THE PERSPECTIVE OF AN OBSERVER: It’s hard to stop this mental chatter altogether, so a technique that people have found useful is to imagine a stressful future or past event like a fly on the wall. This is a step towards developing what is called ‘witness consciousness’ in yogic traditions or ‘observer consciousness’. A number of studies have shown that people feel less anxious when they imagine a future stressful event – like public speaking or an upcoming interview – as an outside observer.
  2. USE THE THIRD PERSON WHEN SELF-REFERENCING: Saying your name out loud, or even in your head, when self-referencing can have the effect of encouraging a less emotional response to events. If you’re have a tough day getting motivated, you can talk yourself through the steps you need to take – like getting in the shower, making breakfast, and so on as if you are your own coach. You can even give yourself encouragement, like “Don’t worry, you can do this.” Positive self-talk in the third person can help to transform negative thoughtform loops by replacing self-criticism with self-care. In other words, we talk to ourselves the way we would talk to a friend.
  3. NARRATIVE EXPRESSIVE JOURNALING Research shows that just 20 minutes of “narrative expressive writing” over a three day period can trigger a physiological chain reaction that was found to improve Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals that indicates cardiovascular health and is how vagal tone is measured.

Self-distancing helps us to maintain that BIG PICTURE – viewing our prospects from a third-person perspective helps us to notice things that we might easily miss when we’re all tangled up with it. We miss the wood for the trees, as it were. Self-distancing helps us to be MORE OBJECTIVE which in turn, helps us to take things less personally. And perhaps the greatest gift of self-distancing is the effect of SELF-FRIENDING. Developing this observer self brings in a kinder and less judgmental point of view. It is often easier to have a calm and wise perspective on a friend’s problems but less easy to have that same perspective towards our own.

With the gentle art of self-distancing, we can finally be that friend to ourselves that we try to be for others.

Featured photo by: Angela Hogg

1. The art of self-distancing https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201901/the-art-self-distancing

2. Regarding stressful events as an observer https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0019205

3. Third person self-referencing. https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/self-talk-using-third-person-pronouns-hacks-your-vagus-nerve

4. Narrative expressive journaling as a tool for self-distancing https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201705/narrative-expressive-journaling-could-help-your-vagus-nerve

The lower back pain secret: Sacroiliac Joint Instability

One Sunday morning, I got up out of bed and felt a groaning ache radiating from my lumbar region, around the hips and down the outside of my left thigh. Fast forward to ten days later, and I am now an ecstatic 90% better! I’m writing this blog post to let you know how I self-diagnosed my problem and learned to heal in only 10 days.

Youtube is an amazing resource for back problems. A heartfelt thank you goes to Dr. Brant Peterson, a sports chiropractor at Positive Motion Chiropratric, for sharing the information that helped me the most to get through this. The bonus was that I was able to help to pass his advice on to my friend Steven who had, coincidentally, been suffering from the same debilitating condition for several months. Months?? I could barely handle a week! But I’m a wimp when it comes to pain and being a bit of a yoga geek, I also love to research problems.

SO WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM?

Turns out I was suffering from an often-undiagnosed condition called SACROILIAC JOINT (SIJ) INSTABILITY. SIJ issues are tricky to diagnose. The problem is often missed on an x-ray, CT scan or MRI even though SIJ issues cause up to 15% of lower back problems. And it is not something that can be fixed with an ‘adjustment’, which will offer temporary relief at best and might well make the condition worse. This is because the problem is not that the joint is too fixed or rigid but that it is TOO UNSTABLE.

There is a (controversial) process of diagnosis that involves injecting an anesthetic into the joint but you obviously need a medical professional for that. Also, there are many other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of SIJ problems such as a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis or bursitis of the hip. The good news is that this problem responds very quickly to some very simple interventions.

SO WHAT IS THE SACROILIAC JOINT?


I always started to nod off in anatomy class. Nothing like a personal injury to get you fascinated by the subject! The SI joints lie between the sacrum and the ilia (singular: ilium) bones of the pelvis – hence the name sacroiliac joint.

The ilea are basically the hip bones, the large ones that look like the ears of an elephant. The joint we’re talking about connects the elephant ears of the hip bones to the sacrum at the base of the spine. The sacrum is a bony structure that looks like a shield from Game of Thrones. It’s located just above the tail bone at the base of the lumbar vertebrae, which itself is connected to the pelvis. Remember, everything is connected.

These joints carry the entire weight of the body, so the ligaments that connect need to be super strong and stable. In fact, they are the strongest ligaments in the whole body. The joints they attach to act as SHOCK ABSORBERS, protecting from stress on the pelvis and spine, and they are key to LOAD TRANSFER from the upper to lower body when upright.

WHAT IS SACROILIAC JOINT INSTABILITY?

SIJ instability occurs when the ligaments that connect these joints get stretched from overuse or trauma. Dr. Dan Tuttle explains: The joint becomes hyper-mobile. In an attempt to stabilize the joint, the body will activate a multitude of muscles and people will experience this as a multitude of symptoms. Since the SI joints are so key to stabilizing the body, when they are not working properly, the whole system can get out of whack.

WHAT DOES SIJ INSTABILITY FEEL LIKE?

For me it felt like my body was being slowly crushed from both ends. It was a dull, grinding kind of pain. But it’s not always just around lower back. The pain can be felt in the hips, the buttocks, where the hips and thighs meet at the front of the body, down the side of the thighs, even around the shoulders and neck. If left untreated, it can even lead to sciatica. Since there are so many muscles from the rest of the body that attach to the pelvis (being able to run away is of paramount importance to survival) SIJ PAIN CAN TRANSFER ALMOST ANYWHERE, including the neck and shoulders. It can even cause headaches, which it did for me.

Some people can pin-point a very specific area as the central point of the pain region. This is classically on one side of the rear-most point of the pelvic bone above the buttock, a couple of inches to the side of the centre line of the upper sacrum. It can be felt as a small bony protrusion.

Pain sucks our milkshake dry. Leaving us tired, grumpy, restricted, and vulnerable to more injury. The pain of SIJ instability can be dull and throbbing, but it can also be sharp and stabbing. The back can feel tight or stiff. The pain can come on suddenly or creep up over time. Mine was always worse in the mornings and improved throughout the day and then got worse again in the evening.

WHAT CAUSES SIJ INSTABILITY?

Trauma to the area can be caused in several ways, often from a simple motion that combines bending forward, tilting the pelvis and twisting the torso. Steven knows exactly when his trauma occurred. He was on a ladder fixing a roof and he twisted around while carrying some tiles, combing classic SIJ damaging moves.

One common trigger is misjudging a step down and banging the heel heavily causing a sudden, hard impact. Activities where this impact is repetitive, such as tobogganing can also be culprits. SIJ problems can affect women in late-stage pregnancy, where the weight is being carried forward, and people like myself who have one leg a different length to the other are more prone to this problem. (It was due to a motorcycle accident in my more exciting youth). And, like everything, you need to take care of this area more as you get older. I’ve always had a really strong back, but at 58, this was a wake up call to pay more attention.

In my case, I’m pretty sure that I destabilized my SIJ while leaning forward while pouring large plastic bottles of kerosene into my kerosene heater container. I could tell at the time this was not a very smart position and a couple of times my back felt tweaked afterwards, but I didn’t think much of it because the pain didn’t last very long. But this winter, when I was filling my kerosene heater almost every day, it was a step too far. Needless to say, I now use the hand pump when filling the bottles. Takes twice as long, but it’s well worth the wait!

WHAT MAKE SIJ ISSUES WORSE?

Some activities that can feel really bad when you have this condition are: prolonged sitting or standing, walking upstairs, turning in bed, leaning forward, twisting.

YOGA POSES to avoid with SIJ ISSUES

Here’s a red list of yoga poses for SIJ issues. All forward bends, especially asymmetric bends and/or those where the legs are wide like Upavistha Konasana; all side bends. Also problematic: Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana); Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana); all postures that spread the thighs wide apart (abducted poses) such as Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II) and Baddha Konasana; and spinal twists such as Marichyasana III as well as any side bends. Janu Sirasana is one of the worst since it combines all the moves known to aggravate this condition: twisting, abduction, and forward bending. There’s a very informative article in the Yoga Journal that goes into all of this and more.

Many of these red list poses were included in my daily practice. I was doing warrior like it was going out of style as well as lots of forward bends and extended side bends. Looks like I’ll have to create another practice sequence for a while. A good opportunity to change the routine.

YOGA POSES THAT HELP

Many sites that claim to show helpful poses for this condition include poses that actually AGGRAVATED my SIJ instability. The two poses that I CAN recommend without hesitation are: Boat Pose (Navasana) and Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana). I’d love to hear from anyone who has helpful suggestions based on experience rather than speculation. However, there are a LOT of EXERCISES that CAN help, as you’ll see.

Boat Pose is a good yoga pose for SIJ issues

WHAT ARE THE BEST INTERVENTIONS FOR sij ISSUES?

There are 4 main interventions that worked like a charm for me.

  1. REST
  2. SIJ SPECIFIC EXERCISES
  3. TARGETED COLD WATER THERAPY
  4. SACROILIAC BELT

I also took 400 mg of ibuprofen once a day for the first 3 days. It seemed to help the muscles to relax and be more responsive to the exercises.

REST REST REST

Learn from Wise Rest Dog

As Dr. Dan Tuttle points out, physical therapists tend to think in terms of mobilization for resolving joint and muscle issues, when actually what this joint needs is to be STABILIZED—in other words held together better. This is why REST can be so important. I don’t mean bed rest. But actually, stopping your daily routine for a while – and certainly stopping the movements that could have caused or exacerbated the condition like lifting weight, especially while turning, twisting, bending forward, etc. Rest can be one of the toughest things for bodywork enthusiasts to do, but you need to take time to reset, figure out what you’ve been doing that has caused this problem to arise, and give your body a break from all unnecessary stress. I stopped all yoga and my 1 hour daily walks for a week. Walking on flat ground for up to 15 minutes is fine though. You can start the suggested exercises right away, since they address the problem instead of exacerbating it.

SIJ SPECIFIC EXERCISES

Most importantly of all DON’T’ STRETCH! I know it feels like this is what you need, but it’s not. My friend who didn’t know that he had SIJ instability, kept coming to me for private yoga lessons for his back pain. Sometimes he would get temporary relief, but that was the rub. It was always only temporary. There are specific exercises that can radically improve your SI joint stability, but they do NOT involve stretching. They involve horizontal hip-stacked leg lifts, clamshell exercises, core work and isometrics.

Dr. Brant Pederson of Positive Motion Chiropractic has some very helpful exercises here.

Dr. Joe DeMarco of OcraMed Health has some cool core-building exercises designed especially for people with SI joint issues.

My SI joint healing routine (morning and evening) involved 3 rounds of 10 the horizontal leg lifts, 20 or so clamshells each side, and a couple of isometric exercises. The key to the horizontal leg lifts is to STACK THE HIPS and even to roll the top hip slightly forward. If it’s hard, you’re probably doing it right. Later, I included Dr. Joe DeMarco’s knee-raised crawl which was fun as well as stabilizing. How I love that word – stabilizing.

TARGETED COLD WATER THERAPY

Cold water is a natural pain reliever. Cold water causes the blood vessels to restrict, reducing blood flow and so bringing down swelling and inflammation.

Cold water is a natural pain reliever

Since cold therapy has several other benefits, I normally take a 3-4 minute cold rinse after my hot shower every morning, so staying in a bit longer to target my SI joints wasn’t a big deal for me. I know that many people have a huge aversion to cold water (as did I before I got used to it) but it has an amazing effect on pain. After my hot shower, I use the spray nozzle for 1 minute I on my front pelvic region, 1 minute each on my hips and 1 minute on my lower back. It is simply AMAZING how good this feels afterwards.

SACROILIAC BELT – MY NEW BEST FRIEND

When I put on my sacroiliac belt my first feeling was – gratitude and relief. It just feels so, so good, like this is EXACTLY what my body needed. “I can finally start to heal” Steven texted after the first day of trying it out. The belt costs about 30 USD. You can run a test by tying a scarf or any long narrow material around your hips. If this feels good, then a sacroiliac belt might be what you need. You can hide the belt under clothes but I tend to wear mine on top. It feels a bit action hero, like it should be hung with high tech weaponry. I might never take it off.

Here’s a video from the wonderful Dr. Brant Pederson on how to wear it, because it’s a bit tricky. It needs to be below worn on the hip to be effective.

OTHER SIJ INTERVENTIONS

There are more extreme interventions such as SI joint fusion – a surgical procedure that involves placing a bone graft over the joint with screws and rods to keep it in place as it grows. There’s only about a 50% success rate though and spinal surgery seems an extreme and risky option.

There are also SUPPLEMENTS that help some people. Dr. Pederson recommends a product called Ligaplex 1. Glucosamine and Chondroitin formulas are also said to help, especially if your SIJ problem is linked to other underlying issues. I encourage you to work with your own chiropractor or health professional for proper diagnosis and resolution.

I hope that you found this helpful and are soon pain free.

And as always, respect yourself, explore yourself.

Powerful 5 minute meditation for re-friending the Self

I love this little meditation. I first learned it from a teacher in Varanasi, India. I love that it is that it is so simple, so universal ,and doesn’t require any philosophical preparation or cultural trappings. The visualization exercise doesn’t require you to be an accomplished meditator or engage in a lot of mental gymnastics. It is very gentle – exactly the gentleness that it encourages in ourselves. You only need a mind and a body and 5 minutes of time. I find that shorter meditations can be very effective, especially for us beginners

This meditation helps us to accept ourselves as we are, without judgement. When we treat ourselves with respect and acceptance, we find that we respect and accept others more easily. It’s a truly magical formula! Tell your inner critic to take a holiday and enjoy this beautiful act of self-friendship.

1. Sit comfortably on a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Take a moment to observe your body and adjust your position if need be. Slow down your rate of breathing a little, extending and refining the inhalation and the exhalation, breathing only through the nose if you can.

2. Mentally scan your body starting from the feet and moving upwards, relaxing any muscles that you discover are tense, all the way up to the head. Feel the connection between your body and what you are sitting on. Relax the stomach and bring the breath more into the stomach, noticing how it rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation.

3. Close your eyes and imagine that in front of you is a full-length mirror. See your reflection in that mirror, just as you are right now, with the same clothes. Take a minute or so to really stabilize this image of your own reflection in your mind.

4. Mentally offer a greeting to this mirror-self, with a sense of goodwill, understanding and encouragement. Feel these sentiments around your heart, like a warm energy, and continue to offer these positive feelings to your mirror self. Gently lift the corners of your lips into a half smile. Do this for a few minutes, returning to the visualization every time your mind wanders off, which it most probably will! Gently bring your attention back to the visualization (without berating yourself for wandering off to the garden or your plans for the day or wherever it went), and continue to extend these feelings of warmth and good will to your mirror self.

5. Now feel that your mirror self has fully accepted these sentiments with appreciation.

6. Then imagine that the mirror dissolves leaving only the mirror self which then merges into you and dissolves into the area around your heart. Feel that all these sentiments are now operating beautifully inside you. Warmth, goodwill, understand and encouragement. Sit for a while, bathed in all these good feelings.

Move out of the meditation slowly, taking your time, and move through the rest of your day with a more positive outlook.

Contact me for information on individually tailored breath coaching and yoga available online: lavieenyoga@gmail.com

Accept yourself, respect yourself.

Rebecca

Putting your yoga foot down

How we stand, and how we engage our feet with the earth informs and responds to our fundamental interior attitude. Do you step into a room tentatively like a you’re worried about intruding? Or do you step like someone with a right to be there? Doit dans ses bottes (right in your boots) as the French saying goes. Do you walk lazily with a lack of direction or do you walk confidently with purpose? This 5 minute exercise will tell you a lot about how you hold yourself in space.

The practice of yoga increases proprioception (also called kineasthesia)‑‑the awareness of position, movement, force, and effort of the body in space. The greater our proprioception, the more we are able to conduct our bodies in ways that keep us injury-free, balanced and resilient. Proprioception is also key to the conservation of energy which lies at the heart of any yoga practice. It is sometimes called ‘the sixth sense’ the implications of which become increasingly apparent as we deepen our practice.

A great place to begin to increase our powers of proprioception is with the feet, since the placement of our feet affects our entire body, from our knees to the pelvis and spine, all the way up to the neck and head. When we wear closed shoes, or even socks, we block our ability to develop this awareness, so I highly recommend that you practice barefoot. First of all, discover your own habitual foot stance with the following exercise.

Stand tall but not stiff, arms relaxed to the sides, with a lifted straight spine. Don’t bend or lock the knees because this turns off the core and hip muscles. Your feet can be together or slightly apart but make sure that the toes of both feet are in line. Bring your awareness to your feet. Roll them a little inwards onto the inner arches and then outwards onto the outer arches a few times. What feels more natural? What do you notice?

Now bring the weight back into your heels as far as you can while keeping the toes on the floor, and then forward towards the balls of the feet keeping your heels down. Again, check what feels more natural to you and what you notice happening in the legs, hips and back. Place most of your weight on the heels and notice how you lose the natural curve of the lumbar spine and the core muscles become disengaged. This is how most people stand.

Now lean forward onto the balls of the feet and notice how the increased pressure on the lumbar forces it to curve more and the core muscles engage. Standing on the inner feet will internally rotate the hips, which can, over time, lead to ‘knock-knees’. Standing more on your outer feet will strain the outer knees and can lead to bowed legs. Place your fingers gently across the hip bones and roll the feet first to the outside and then to the inside and feel the external and internal rotation of the hips as you do so. Notice how even a small adjustment of the feet affects the position of the hips.

Now take a few moments to divide your weight evenly between the heels and the balls, then between the inner and outer arches. Gently spread and then lengthen the metatarsals by spreading and lengthening the toes. Press your toes firmly down and grip them a little. The toe gripping is a temporary step to help you to connect with the next part of the practice.

Now lift up through the inner arches of your feet keeping the three points of the triangle of each foot (the two ends of the transverse arch across the balls of the feet and the heel) on the floor. Feel a suction lifting sensation right in the centre of the foot. You can imagine your feet like two toilet plungers creating a suction on the ground (excuse the image!) Feel how the lift of inner arches travels all the way into the inner ankles. You might notice a subtle lift of the thighs and the backs of the calves as well.

Now, relax the grip of the toes without lose the lift around the central point of the suction. This takes a bit more concentration and effort, but it will be worth your while. Engage the legs and ankles to maintain this lift in the arches. This is pada bandha or ‘foot lock’ in classical yoga. It enables the yogi to draw prana (vital energy) up through the ground.

Now, walk around the room for a minute or two while trying to retain all the following points:

1. The weight of each foot spread evenly between the upside down triangle made by either side of the transverse arch and the heel connected through the inner medial arch and the outer lateral arch.

2. Maintain a lift of the inner medial arch of both feet

3. Spread the toes apart

4. Feel a suction and lift at the very centre of the foot

With a bit of practice you can develop your “Yoga Foot”, heighten the sensory feedback through your entire nervous system, get that prana flowing more freely and learn how to hold your ground. Literally!

Respect yourself, explore yourself.

10 reasons NOT to do yoga today

We all suffer from occasional bouts of procrastination, especially when it comes to something that’s actually good for us. (Go figure).We don’t tend to procrastinate about that third glass of wine, or flopping in front of Netflix for the evening, but we do put off going for a bike ride, changing our diet, or yes, doing our yoga practice. There are still days (though they are becoming fewer and fewer) that I don’t do yoga. And, of course, there is always a great reason. So, this month, I thought I’d make a list of TEN REASONS NOT TO DO YOGA TODAY.



I’m sure many of you will recognize some of these and can add your own favourites to anything that you procrastinate about in your life!

1. I’M TOO TIRED. Yoga gives us energy and vitality. Also, it’s highly unlikely that we will feel less tired as the day goes on. Try it and see.

2. I’M TOO BUSY. I’LL DO IT LATER. Funny how that ‘later’ never seems to happen no matter how well-intentioned we are. Being busy means keeping our priorities straight. We are actually more efficient with the things we have to do when we spend time to do our practice because we feel better while we’re doing them!

3. I HAVE TO CLEAN THE HOUSE. This one’s a personal favourite. Obviously, the house cleaning police are going to ring the doorbell at any moment and demand an on-site inspection! Anyway, if you clean your house after a spot of yoga, you’ll have more energy and enthusiasm for it.  

4. I DON’T HAVE A YOGA ROUTINE. Get one! There are several yoga teachers in the Deux-Sévres who, like me, would be happy to work with you to develop a personal daily practice.

5. I DON’T HAVE SPACE TO DO YOGA. So make one! You only need somewhere the size of your yoga mat. And, as the weather starts improving, consider doing your yoga outside. It is even more beneficial to do yoga in nature.

6. YOGA IS FOR SKINNY PEOPLE. This is one of the biggest misconceptions and is driven in large part by yoga types who emphasize a physical stereotype of the ‘ideal’ yoga practitioner. Actually many of the ancient yogis of India were quite tubby! And in any case, yoga helps to improve your digestion and regulate metabolism which will help to balance your body to keep the weight off.

7. I’M TOO OLD. I began teaching yoga at the age of 53. A yoga teacher recently died at the age of 101. She was teaching almost to the end. End of argument.

8. WHAT IF I HURT MYSELF? You are more likely to hurt yourself cleaning the stairs or leaning over the bathtub without preparing your body fist? Doing yoga under guidance will increase your body-awareness which will, in turn, protect you from injury as you go about your daily routine.

9. I’M NOT FLEXIBLE. No one is flexible at every part of their body. Yoga is not gymnastics. Flexibility is over-emphasized because of the images of extreme yoga postures that we see as examples of the ideal yoga students. Flexibility is just one part of the many benefits of yoga, which include improved strength, endurance, resilience, balance and body awareness.

10. I NEED TO TAKE CARE OF SOMEONE ELSE. Whether a spouse, kids, grand-kids, friend or animals, if you take care of yourself, you will be in such a better state of both mind and body to take care of someone else. Even 15 minutes will make a difference.

FEEL FREE TO ADD: It’s too hot, it’s too cold, my yoga pants are in the wash, and my dog ate my yoga mat!

In truth, we all need a break now and then, even from yoga. But there is a difference between a conscious break and an excuse. Because whatever your reason for not doing yoga today, it will stop making sense the moment you step onto your mat and you remember why you were there in the first place.

Getting better all the time



My yoga teacher and good friend, Surinder Singh ji of Swasti Yogashala, Rishikesh, is not fluent in English, but somehow, the fact that he is forced to keep to a simple vocabulary, helps to drive home the salient points of his teachings with a straightforward clarity that often gets lost in the kind of lecturing style that some teachers adopt. But one thing that I heard him say every day of our training had me a bit perplexed.
“You are doing better and better, every day in every way.”
This was, as far as I was concerned, demonstrably untrue.

Even back then at the start of my yoga journey, some days I could perform the tree without a wobble, other days I felt like a drunk on a skating rink. Some days I could hold the camel pose for a full minute, other days I’d collapse into a heap after only 30 seconds. Certain mornings could be so dramatically different from the previous one often with no clear rhyme or reason. Was it the gluten in the pizza I’d had for dinner? Had I slept funny? You realize after a while that on some days, well, things just don’t work as well, and the body is no exception. But there he went, my dear Surinder ji, every day the same mantra “You are doing better and better.”
What on earth was he on about? I was beginning to think there was something wrong with him.

Fast forward to a full two years later, when Surinder ji began offering lessons via Zoom because of the pandemic. It was so lovely to see him again. I had missed him terribly and particularly that bond of respect and trust that comes with working with someone over a long period of time. But at the end of the lesson, there he went again with the you are doing better and better every day. And then it hit me.

He wasn’t saying that every day the nuts and bolts of your yoga practice is going to improve. He was saying that we are always becoming a better student of yoga. And that includes learning to accept the days when our thighs wobble or our shoulders stiffen, or we just feel tired or unmotivated or frustrated or irritated. It means getting better at not regarding every development (good or bad) as a trend. It means getting better at doing things when you just don’t feel like doing them, not doing them when you simply can’t, and understanding the difference. It means getting better at being honest with where you are at any point in time. It means getting better at enjoying when you improve and having patience when you don’t. It means getting better at befriending impermanence and imperfection. In short, It means getting better at responding to whatever comes up in the moment. Oh, I thought, in that ‘it’s been staring in your face the whole time’ kind of way, that’s what he means! And now, like the Beatles song goes, “It’s getting better all the time.”

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For more information email: lavieenyoga@gmail.com

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Respect yourself, explore yourself.

Here comes (and goes) the sun



As the Winter is firming its grip upon those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, I find myself contemplating the centrality of the sun in our lives. How all life, animal and vegetable, depend upon it. How it provides us with Vitamin D for healthy bones and resistance to respiratory illnesses, and now the growing evidence that the sun improves the health of our heart and even lowers blood pressure. And then there is that whole soul-to-toe gratitude we can feel in its presence that sometimes borders on bliss, especially when we’ve been deprived of the warmth and caress of sunlight for long periods of time.

Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is the perfect yoga sequence to add to any morning routine, or to do on its own. It involves a flow of forward and backward bends together with hip and shoulder openers. It’s a sequence that engages the entire body, both the right and left sides in equal measure. It can be performed at various speeds in a flow of balanced movement, offering the same time to each posture. Traditionally, it is performed at dawn facing an easterly direction, but if this isn’t possible, you can imagine the rising sun in your mind’s eye.

At the start and end of each round, we perform ‘namaskar mudra’ — bringing the hands together with the backs of the thumbs gently pressing the sternum at the location of the heart (Skt. anahata) chakra. Anahata translates, poignantly, to ‘unhurt’. This in itself is worth a few moments of reflection. The mudra is a tactile reminder of our deeper identity. Just as the sun is the heart of our solar system, the heart—not the brain—is where eastern wisdom traditions place the seat of the mind as the centre of our conscious experience. The mudra is also a reminder of the powerful connection between the sun and the heart that wisdom traditions have long known about and cardiovascular clinicians are presently discovering.

Some say that Surya Namaskar originated two and a half millennia ago, but as tempting as it is to evoke ancient mystical origins, this seems rather doubtful. The sequence is not mentioned in any text on Hatha Yoga, nor in the ancient Vedic texts, not even by Patanjali, considered the father of yoga and the author of the Yoga Sutras. As much as it might be tempting to mystify its origins, it appears that Surya Namaskar, at least as we know it today, was developed as a military exercise as late as the 17th century as part of physical preparedness training for the army of a powerful Indian warrior-king named Shivaji Bhonsle I (pronounced bhoh-slai). Yoga actually fell out of fashion in India in the modern era, but since 2016 the Indian army has begun incorporating Surya Namaskar this sequence into its training exercises.

There is a meditative effect that you can experience on your own as you deepen the practice. Coordinating the movements with the breath activates the regulatory capacities of the nervous system. Delicate, slow, conscious nasal breathing, especially exhales, calms the mind by shifting awareness from the external to the internal landscape. Each posture counter-balances the preceding one, so that the distribution pattern of load bearing on the limbs ensures that none of the joints are over-stressed. A common practice sequence is 3 full rounds, which means 6 half rounds, but even one full round will make you feel more alert and more ready to face the day. Different yoga traditions teach different variations of this sequence and if you search on Youtube you can surely find a sequence that feels right for you. In this way, you can keep a little sun within you even during the dark days.

What the body wants: the muscle of survival and why it deserves your attention

Psoas_Tenderpoint

One of my first introductions to the power of the mind-body connection was through a set of muscles called the ‘psoas’. These are the muscles that attach our lumbar spine to the legs. They’re often called the ‘fight or flight muscles’ since they are a first responder to conditions of threat, allowing us to high kick, bring our knee towards our stomach in defense–or run.

Several years ago, I was in a traumatic relationship with a man with all the traits of narcissistic personality disorder. Although the relationship only lasted a few months, the experience had left me terribly depressed and anxious and my self-confidence in tatters.

As I gradually gained the strength to end the relationship, something very strange happened to the tops of my inner thighs. They began to throb with a kind of pain I had never before experienced. I hadn’t done any demanding exercise to explain it, but it felt as if these muscles had been massively over-worked. It felt incredibly uncomfortable, like a cry for help that I didn’t understand. It was particularly concentrated in the dip below my hips, half a finger length towards the pubic bone, which later, when I became more familiar with anatomy, I learned was exactly where the psoas muscles connect with the tops of the thighs across the hips. No matter whether I was sitting, walking or lying down, this part of my body kept on screaming as if for attention. The feeling was like being trapped in burning building without begin able to find the EXIT. I listened to calming music on Youtube, tried to meditate (impossible!) and went for walks by the sea. Probably the latter helped more than anything else, but what I actually needed was not so much to calm down but to RELEASE the huge stores of built-up tension as I had continually ignored my body’s signals to remove myself from the abuse.

What I didn’t know then was that my psoas muscles had become trapped in a chronic sympathetic nervous system response. They were communicating something very important to me. GET AWAY. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been able to release this trauma response much more effectively and saved myself days of agony. (Literally running would also have helped but I’m a lousy runner and I generally end up injuring myself).

The psoas muscles are engaging when our legs quiver or shake during an episode that we experience as threatening. Those of us who have had to work to overcome a fear of public speaking know what it’s like to stand with fight or flight neurohormones flooding our system with a neuro-chemical scream of “run!! while we are forced through external pressures to continue to stand still. The audience members may not look like saber-toothed tigers, but this is how our nervous system is experiencing them. Our psoas muscles tense, sending neural signals to our brain to gear us up for a motivated response to a threat to our safety. Our brain responds by sending cortisol and adrenalin to help us to mobilize away from the threat (flight) or towards it (fight).

When we don’t move in response to the brain’s SOS signals our legs can begin to shake uncontrollably, because our bodies are trying to discharge excess energy that is not being discharged through mobility. Although this can feel embarrassing, it is actually our body’s way of protecting us. What happens this protection protocol fails i.e., when faced with a perceive threat we can’t expel this urge for motility, this energy becomes trapped as emotional tension. The psoas muscles are a prime target for this tension to reside since it is the psoas muscles that recruit the movement that signals to the nervous system that we are responding to the perceived threat. When the nervous system doesn’t receive this message, it continues to put out a cocktail of sympathetic system chemicals that keeps our body’s on high alert. This becomes quickly exhausting, physically and mentally, since we will certainly sense this tension psychologically as a dis-ease, a relentless and deeply embedded anxiety.

I wish I had known two things while lying in bed with my psoas muscle chain on red alert but without much of a clue how to calm myself. One is TRE or Trauma Release Exercises and the other is what Marlysa Sullivan, assistant professor at Maryland University of Integrative Health calls “constructive rest”. It’s a term first introduced by Mabel Todd in 1937 in her book, The Thinking Body. Sullivan describes constructive rest as ‘…a position of complete rest in which the spine is relieved of the weight of the arms and legs, and the major joints are free to release into gravity and fall into rest. The goal is to distribute the weight of the body so that no work is required in order to maintain equilibrium.’

If we feel tension in our psoas muscles, it’s logical to think that we need to stretch it more, but this isn’t necessarily helpful and can cause a counter-tension to occur. Sometimes we need to encourage the psoas to relax and release by creating an open resting space around it. Lying on the back with a folded blanket under the shoulders, legs elevated, perhaps up on a couch, a couple of bolsters or a deep-seated chair is one such position.

TRE followed by a position of constructive rest is a very effective way to relieve tension.

I like Charlie Maginness’ explanation but your can run a search and find a session that works for your temperament. Some people call it Tension Release Exercises because not everyone identifies with the word ‘trauma’. It looks far more dramatic than it feels. Most people find that TRE feels very natural and is not frightening at all. On the contrary, it feels oddly soothing. Having said that, it is of course possible that someone might experience anxiety with this practice, so take it slowly and stop and take breaks if you need to. Or if it seems like too much right now, simply put it aside for another time. I would recommend watching this video a couple of times before trying it yourself. One thing that Charlie Maginness leave out is the TRE ‘break’ which allows you to stop the tension release shaking by straightening your legs and pointing your toes. I will be doing my own video on this topic soon, but in the meantime if you’re feeling stable and curious I recommend you give it a go. Just be gentle with yourself and don’t overdo it.

You might find, like me, that you want to lie down for a while afterwards in bed or on a couch. When I’m going through a period of restless sleep, I find it helpful to do these exercises just before bedtime.