As the world continues in lockdown you might find yourself with a little bit of extra time to pause and reflect. I recently wrote about how traditional yoga practices can bring us closer to nature in Bloom magazine (spring issue), timely to share today for Earth Day.
Practices from classical and integral schools of yoga involve daily postures, meditations and breathwork exercises that focus on sharpening the senses and honing an all-round awareness of ourselves and of the world around us.
I wrote this post a while ago, long before Coronavirus kicked in, but it’s been sitting in my drafts until now, when suddenly it seemed more relevant than ever to post it.
More than a few friends recently have talked about their stress and anxiety, with levels ranging from I can’t get dressed in the morning without crying, to I feel so overwhelmed at work I can’t sleep properly at night.
Yoga nidra is an old yogic practice that takes you to a deeply relaxed state between waking, sleeping and dreaming, and can be quite transformative. I’ve been doing yoga nidra as part of my yoga practice for over ten years now and as more of today’s teachers and studios are talking about and offering it, it seems fitting to share the benefits of yoga nidra and how it’s helped me.
Translated from Sanskirt, yoga nidra means yogic sleep. It’s a guided relaxation technique that leads to a light withdrawal of external senses while connecting to internal awareness and still maintaining full consciousness. Through a systematic sequence of verbal instructions, it helps to release physical and mental tension, relieve stress as well as help with issues such as insomnia and anxiety.
My teacher, Swami Pragyamurti at the Satyananda Yoga Centre in London treats the advanced classes to a monthly session and beginner classes to one a week, so I’ve experienced firsthand how amazing the practice is. Now that I’m teacher training and learning to deliver yoga nidra myself, I can share its incredible benefits and see how much people really do love it.
Every year I have a few big fitness goals to focus my time on. For a goal-orientated person this is what gets me out of bed (usually at 5:30AM to train!).
Last year I ran Snowdonia Trail Marathon in July which was an amazing ultra event on really challenging terrain and where we summited Snowdon (around mile 23) and then hobbled downhill to the finish line. I’ve done many marathons but this required specific work on muscle endurance and to get comfortable on hills and elevations so I spent the first six months of the year training for that with running and endurance coach, Luke Tyburski.
After a lovely long summer break with almost no running, the rest of 2018 was spent doing Park Runs (although not sure what’s harder, running fast 5Ks or marathons!) and enjoying being back at my CrossFit gym building strength and working on my olympic lifting skills.
The snatch is my nemesis so I’ve been really trying to crack that with coaches at Royal Docks CrossFit as well as oly-lifting coach and ex-British champion, John McComish, who I’ve been training with at Peacock Gym in east London for the last few months and will continue next year.
I’ve always liked working with coaches for the expertise and accountability they bring so that’s something I highly recommend if you’re serious about a goal.
What’s in store for 2019?
The 2019 goals are in place. I usually start thinking about these in the last few months of each year so I have enough time to mentally prepare and plan ahead.
This quote bySeth Godin which is one of the ways I approach goal setting. It has to be something difficult and scary enough to keep you on your toes but not completely out of reach. I also like it to involve a mix of physical and mental.
From January to July I’ll be spending most of my time and energy on my yoga teacher training course, which finishes with two weeks of assessments in July. The coming months will involve lots of practice teaching friends and family, assignments and homework and a big end of year project.
To squeeze this in to my already packed schedule (and because I don’t want to cut back on my training) I plan to basically cull my social life for a few months to carve out the extra time I need. It’s only temporary so I’m sure my friends and family will understand and won’t mind. I did the same last year for the marathon training so they’re pretty used to it now!
To keep making improvements I have booked a CrossFit competition in May – a pairs fitness competition called Inferno Series, which I did last year. It will be great to try and beat our 2018 scores and ranking and give us something to work towards. After that I’d love to do a singles CrossFit competition (Rainhill Trials in Manchester is one of the most popular ones) but as this is is a ballot entry I’ll have to wait and see.
I’m trying something different this year so instead of one big event I’ve signed up to do the 1000KM challenge with Pow Virtual Running, which simply involves running 1000KM within 12 months, from January 1st. I chose this for the aim of being more consistent with my running rather than doing a massive push for six months and then nothing for a few months.
I’m definitely motivated by numbers so by splitting the challenge into weekly and monthly goals (it’s around 20K a week or 80KM a month) I will have something very tangible to keep me on track provide me with a more regular running habit. Plus you get a really fun-looking medal at the end of it :)
So there we have it. Three key focusses for 2019 which should definitely keep me busy, motivated and excited. What are yours??
Yoga is one of the cheapest and most effective means of releasing trauma, stress and emotions from the body.
Symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic stress-disorder (PTSD) include anxiety, nightmares, sleep disturbance, withdrawal, loss of concentration, stress-related physical ailments, anger and aggression. These issues can easily impact a person’s ability to function in society.
Here’s why simple techniques from classical yoga are powerfully therapeutic.
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma psychiatrist, advocates yoga as one of the foremost means to quiet the brain and regulate emotional and physiological states. ‘Ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to medication or to any other treatment.’
Experts have in recent years shown how traumatic stress rearranges the brain’s wiring, and sets it on high alert. A key to the treatment of psychological trauma is soothing the nervous system and inducing the relaxation response.
For traumatised people, strengthening the relaxation response allows them to reengage in the present.
Through regular practice of simple yoga techniques, developing awareness of body and breath, the nervous system’s relaxation response gets stronger and the body’s stress responses calm down.
Bessel van der Kolk has spent three decades trying to understand how people recover from traumatic stress. He views awareness as the first step toward healing in his book, The Body Keeps the Score.
He says: ‘Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience’ – because yoga is fundamentally about developing awareness, research has proven it can help improve mental health.
Yoga develops awareness, first of the body and the breath, and then of our thought processes, emotions and behaviours. Through developing self-awareness, we can access our feelings, observe them, and eventually release them.
Read more about how we’re using yoga to help the refugee community recover from PTSD and other mental health issues ontools4innerpeace.org.
“Peace is the happy, natural state of man. It is his birthright.
Many are working today for the promotion of world peace without having peace in themselves. You can elevate others only if you have elevated yourself. This world can be saved only by those who have already saved themselves.
Remove the hatred, greed, delusion, selfishness and jealousy, deeply ingrained in human society and spread the message of inner peace.
Only inner peace can lead to world peace. That alone is true service to humanity.”
Anyone sticking to just one form of exercise may soon experience the impact of over-training the same muscle groups and the potential risk of injury.
I only became a stronger runner after taking up CrossFit (almost ten years after I’d first laced up) and I quickly discovered how functional workouts and barbell training improved all-round body strength and cardio fitness. Not only that, the Crossfit workouts also helped build a strong midline and core – essential for running – and propelled my hip power and mobility, particularly useful for the trail and hill-races I’ve been doing recently.
In a similar way, integrating yoga into a weekly routine can be just as beneficial. Runners are notoriously stiff and this can cause strain on joints, muscles and tissues. Flexibility and mobility can help prevent injury and help runners perform better.
I’ve also valued my weekly yoga class for the last gazillion years for its deeply calming effects. It’s the one time in the week I can stop and let my breath, mind and body settle, which work its own kind of magic too.
Here are three tips from yoga teacher, Jaime Tully, on how yoga can help runners with a few tips from my own experience:
‘Just five to ten minutes of yoga before and after your run will improve both your mobility and recovery.’
TRY: sun salutation to warm up your whole body and loosen all the key muscle groups before you run.
‘Spinal poses such as twists are a great way to ease the lower back which gets impacted by tight hamstrings and glutes.’
TRY: A simple pose such as Meru Wakrasana (spinal twist) can help relax the spine. With eyes closed and breath awareness in the spinal pathway for five rounds of breath can enhance the practice.
‘Swap a run for a Vinyasa class. It’s the best style for those who crave movement and can still have the intensity of a run. You’ll burn calories, get lost in the movement and restore the areas of your body that could be perhaps damaged by repetitive strain.’
TRY: For an alternative to a Vinyasa flow class, you can incorporate a more gentle and relaxing yoga session into your weekly routine as I have done. This can help calm the nervous system and act as an antidote to any high energy workouts you do.
It’s a common misconception that yoga is an exercise. When people hear or talk about yoga it’s almost always referred to and understood as a form of exercise. But is it? Well, not really. So what is the difference between yoga and exercise?
While exercise and yogic postures (asana) share similarities in that they both involve movement, (most) exercise works on the sympathetic system and yoga (when done correctly) works on the parasympathetic system which is why it can be useful for people suffering from stress and anxiety. Both contribute to physical health but yoga relates to so much more than the physical.
Evolving slowly by ancient sages all over the world, yoga has it roots in early civilisation as people developed an awareness of spiritual capabilities. Its origins are also found in the Vedas, the oldest collection of Indian spiritual scriptures for personal and spiritual development.
This ancient discipline works on all aspects of the person: the physical, mental, vital, emotional, psychic and spiritual self. This is done through a practice of asana (posture or pose), pranayama (control of breath), mudra (hand gestures), bandha (energy locks), shatkarma (cleansing and purification of the body) and meditation. These are a few of the Eight Limbs of Yoga written in the scriptures that help to remove mental and physical obstacles.
Today, mainly in western cultures, yoga classes tend to embrace asana more than any other aspect of traditional yoga which may result in a one-sided development. Engaging with all ‘limbs’, can help to expand our connection and understanding of inner ourselves and outside world.
Physical asanas are usually people’s first experience with yoga. Not just movement though, asanas tap into energy points in the body with the potential to release energy blocks from wherever energy flow is suppressed, which is why people can feel good after a yoga class.
Moving on from the physical, yogic practices can help develop an awareness of connection between emotional, mental and physical body and how an imbalance in one of these can affect the others.
We are a combination of body, emotions, intellect and psyche and through the practices and experience of yoga – by actually living it, not just reading about it – we can develop and balance all of these, to become a happier and more integrated person.
Last year I spent a week in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley refugee camps on a yoga for refugees project with Tools for Inner Peace, a new charity which I’m now a trustee on, in collaboration with a local charity, Salam LADC
Tools for Inner Peace is a long term project set up by Minna Järvenpää to enhance mental health and well-being among refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley through simple, gentle yoga and relaxation techniques. I became involved as one of the charity’s trustees in 2016 and visited Lebanon in April 2017 to see some of the projects in action.
A few months ago I attended the launch of Ten Health & Fitness’new class, Yoga for Hormone Balance. Designed to support and strengthen natural hormone function as well as to relax and rejuvenate the body and mind, after trying it out it seemed like the perfect antidote to a fast-paced life that puts a strain on the nervous system and hormones.
“When the sympathetic nervous system is constantly over-active, the adrenals are churning out adrenaline and cortisol to keep us going” says Dr Annaradnams of The Marion Gluck Clinic in London.
A little bit of this is ok when we need to kickstart ourselves into action but when the body is constantly in red alert mode there’s a knock on effect. Without sufficient downtime health and hormones will suffer.
The Ten Yoga for Hormone Balance class is two hours long and created by yoga teacher and movement expert Danielle Willemsen. It focusses on poses that open up the hips, elongate the spine and encourage the four key hormonal glands – pituitary, thyroid, adrenal and ovaries – to behave more harmoniously.
So much of modern yoga is fast-paced and dynamic and on top of an already stressful day and hyped up nervous system the results can be over-stimulating on the body so this new hormone-balancing class is a welcome change of pace.
Yoga was not originally designed to be a workout – in my opinion, if you want to sweat do a cardio class and choose to do yoga to slow down your breath, soften the mind and create more balance, physically and mentally.
Hormone doctors even agree that slow movement can benefit hormone function as it taps into the parasympathetic nervous system to settle the body and in turn, the nervous system.
After trying this Ten Pilates class at the press launch it inspired me to check out what classical yoga says about hormone balancing. For the last seven years I’ve been practicing a classic hatha yoga (Satyananda yoga) which is super slow and meditative and calms everything right down – mind, body and breath. My weekly Wednesday class is like a natural tranquilliser – there’s nothing quite like it – and I leave fully grounded and deeply relaxed.
The Bihar School of Yoga which I’ve been reading recently has an extensive library of books and in Yogic Management of Common Diseases I found a whole chapter on thyroid function. Here are a few extracts if you’re looking for more inspiration on yoga for hormones:
Yoga for the thyroid gland
“Long before medical science knew about the existence of thyroid glands, the yogis had devised practices that maintained healthy glands and metabolism. The good health of the neuroendocrine system was understood to be vital to higher awareness.” (pg. 24-45)
“Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) is the most well recognised asana for the thyroid gland. An enormous pressure is placed on the gland by this powerful posture. As the thyroid has one of the largest blood supplies of any body organ, this pressure has dramatic effects on its function, improving circulation and squeezing out stagnant secretions.”
“The most effective pranayama (breathing work) for thyroid problems is ujjayi breath. It acts on the throat area and its relaxing and stimulating effects are most probably due to stimulation of reflex pathways within the throat area which are controlled by the brain stem and hypothalamus.”
“One of the most prominent precipitating factors in states of thyroid imbalance is long-term suppression and blockage of emotional expression. Balancing the emotions and giving a suitable outlet for their expression is an important part of yoga therapy for thyroid disease. Kirtan (signing of mantras collectively) is one of the most useful means. Another is ajapa japa meditation in conjunction with ajjayi breath.”
I didn’t mean to put meditation to the test but last January I signed up to an eight-month meditation course and thought I’d better get a head start with some practice.
I’d already done a Vipassana (10-day silent meditation retreat) a few years ago but I thought the lessons were quite unsustainable, extreme and far removed from the realities of the everyday. This new meditation course promised to touch on different techniques so I was looking forward to it.
Also, at the start of the year I remember feeling utterly frazzled from too much work, strung out from a relationship breakup and tired of not getting enough rest.
Lucky me, I’ve just returned from a beautiful few days in the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy on a Divine Retreats yoga holiday. The setting was unbeatable – a 16th century estate restored but still seeping with history and original antique furniture, with several villas and farmhouses, vineyards and 200 acres of land. Welcome to Fattoria Mansi Bernardini.
My visit was brief but it was enough to enjoy the fantastic food whipped up from the family kitchen every night as well as local cheese, biodynamic wine from the neighbouring vineyard and olive oil from the estate’s own olive trees. Amazing.
Look out for a more in-depth review in Natural Health magazine next year.