Saturday, 29 August 2015

Yoga boosts brainpower!

Research students at the University of Illinois have shown that just 20 minutes a day on the yoga mat stimulates brain function.

The findings described below were originally published in the 'Journal of Physical Activity & Health' (here)

Participants were asked to complete a range of cognitive exercises before and after a short yoga session. They compared this with after aerobic exercise and no exercise at all.

"Participants performed significantly better after the yoga than after aerobic exercise for the same amount of time," said lead researcher Nehe Gothe.

The yoga improved their focus, helped them process the information faster and with more accuracy. Plus the brainy-benefits kicked in faster than after the aerobic exercise (approximately 30 minutes after completing their last pose).

We've known for a long time that yoga reduces stress and anxiety (which in itself improves brain function). Yoga is not simply a physical activity. Mindful breathing is practised alongside the physical poses, and this calm, focussed breathing plays a huge part in reucing stress and aleviating anxiety.

So, in addition to mindful breathing, which poses are the best for boosting brain-power? Inverted poses which can be maintained for a few minutes, such as headstand, shoulderstand and halasana, increase the blood supply to the brain and have a profound effect on sharpening memory and enhancing brain function.

The next time you have an important meeting, presentation or exam, roll out your yoga mat to make the very best of what you've got!

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Pregnant Pause

I became pregnant for the first time at the age of 30. I felt so lucky, responsible, unprepared and excited. To have another living being growing inside of you is a miracle. 

I had been practising and teaching yoga for a decade by this stage, so I knew my body pretty well. But this unfamiliar body, constantly changing, was new to me in so many ways.

Like many first timers I gave up anything unhealthy (for a week or two ;-) and wanted to be in the best physical and mental shape I could be. I wanted to make the best possible 'home' for that baby for those 9 months.

Of course my yoga practise changed. I knew it was safe to continue to do yoga right up to (and during) labour. But I also knew that certain poses needed to be modified, some would be excluded until after I had had the baby and some would feature more frequently to aid an easier birth.

I attended two unhelpful sessions of Prenatal Yoga, where I felt nothing but frustration. Halfway through the first class we were warned, 'This is quite challenging, so just do what you can'...


But no.

We copied the teacher as she rose onto her tip-toes and stretched her arms up to the ceiling.


How that was going to prepare me for labour I couldn't fathom!

And so I trusted myself. I had years of experience, had worked under the guidance of numerous senior teachers and attended countless Iyengar Yoga Pregnancy workshops.

As my tummy grew, so too did the number of pregnant yoga students under my care. Pregnancy yoga classes are unique in that the women bond pretty quickly. Everyone has lots in common, questions to ask and things to share. 

We've all heard extreme labour stories, but these stories need to be balanced with the many positive ones. Pregnant ladies need to hear how labour can be the most sublime experience. Yes, it hurts a lot, but it is within each of us to make labour a more manageable experience, of which we feel we have some control.

The prenatal yoga class is a time for women to prepare themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. It is a time to hear positive labour stories, to know you can feel empowered, to learn tools to help you achieve a positive birthing experience.

A good Pregnancy Yoga class needs the following ingredients:

1) First and foremost the teacher must be highly qualified and experienced. I am shocked at the downright dangerous advice some students have been given by some 'yoga' teachers. Check their credentials! Iyengar yoga teachers undergo annual professional development and assessment to ensure their teaching is current, appropriate and safe! 

2) The yoga is varied. It will strengthen your body and mind to prepare both for the arduous nature of labour and delivery. You wouldn't run a marathon without training for it. Labour is (possibly) the most physical thing you will ever do. Holding poses a little longer, with your thighs aching, you will be guided through breathing and feel better prepared to tackle what lies ahead. It also helps you to enjoy a pregnancy with minimal discomfort.

3) You will learn to breathe. There are different breaths to aid the different stages of labour. I cannot express how crucial the breathing is. If you cultivate a strong practise the breathing and movements will kick in automatically. My preparation helped me move with the energy, using it, rather than fighting it. 

4) To give you confidence. I think it is common to feel unprepared and fearful at the beginning of a pregnancy. We feel we should somehow know how to do it, and yet, in this first-world that we live in, we are so far removed from our instincts that we lack faith in ourselves. Prenatal yoga should weave together mind, body and spirit, giving you an insight and awareness that provides confidence in yourself.

5) Shared information and experiences happen naturally, as women meet and chat with one another, bonded by this experience. Some women find it difficult - how pregnancy changes their body - and talking things over with others can reduce anxiety and stress.

6) At the core of all yoga is acceptance and surrender. Prenatal yoga will not guarantee you the birth you want, but it will grant you the grace of acceptance and surrender. You cannot control certain events in life, but you can be in control of how you react and respond.

Benefits of Prenatal Yoga:

Boosts circulation - less likely to suffer from varicose veins
Relieves aches and pains - including back pain
Reduces fluid retention
Strengthens abdominal and pelvic floor muscles - helping you get back into shape afterwards
Lowers stress
Reduces inflammation
Eases depression
Increases stamina, strength & flexibility of muscles needed for childbirth
Improves sleep
Decreases nausea

My favourite quote regarding prenatal yoga is from the fantastic 'Yoga Journal':
"The process of birth is not a Hollywood script with harp music, diaphanous robes, and sweetly smiling cherubim. It is work made of muscle, sinew, sweat, blood, and love. By toning the body, mind, and spirit, yoga can help a mother be present for the miracle of birth."
Experts agree on some general rules for practising yoga during pregnancy:
If you have never practiced yoga or have practiced very little before your pregnancy, you should practice only prenatal yoga while pregnant.
If you already had a strong yoga practice before your pregnancy, you may be able to continue a fairly vigorous practice-with modifications-after your first trimester.
During the first trimester both beginning and experienced yogis should only do a gentle practice or none at all, as the fetus is still implanting and the risk of miscarriage is highest.

Prenatal yoga with Sarah starts September:

  • Fridays 11am (starts 25th Sept) at Stansted Quaker Meeting House, Chapel Hill, Stansted, CM24 8JL (beside Linden House) (map)

  • Wednesday evenings (starts mid-Sept) in Dunmow - venue tbc

Friday, 14 August 2015

That's the way I roll

Every once in a while I am asked why we roll to the right after Savasana, at the end of a yoga practise.
I have read, and been told, many reasons why this may be. Some of these reasons make more sense to me than others...but who am I to judge?
1. The heart
The heart is slightly left of centre in our body. When you roll to the right the heart 'sits' on top of the other organs, resulting in less pressure on the heart. Yes, I sleep on my left side too and don't seem to suffer! On a subtle level, most people* report the heart feels like it is working harder when they lay on their left.
*I am a huge sceptic, especially when I read most people. As such, I think we should carry out this little study in class over the next couple of weeks ;-) Lets' see how we feel and what we think!
2. The East
In the East it is considered more auspicious to enter a holy place with the right foot, it is the right hand that is extended in greeting in many parts of the world. The right represents the east. So rolling to the right - towards the rising sun - symbolises asking for grace, blessings and bliss.
3. The energy
I have talked about prana and nadis many times before, during class. Quite simply, prana is life force, energy and nadis are energy channels. There are Yin and Yang nadis that flow either side of the spine and swap sides at each chakra. Laying on your right, with your right arm extended under your head triggers the sinus reflex and opens the left nostril. Ancient yogis declared the left nostril to be of Yin energy (cooling, soothing, calm, gentle, moon). Therefore, after a Yang (physical, warm, sun) yoga practise it is balancing to activate the Yin nadi, cool and calm energy.
4. Blood pressure
Laying on your right side allows your blood pressure to reach it's potential homeostasis.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Feel the fear, and refuse to give in

Last week I took my eldest son to 'Go Ape'in Enfield. If you're not familiar with it, it is like an adventure playground above the trees. Great! How exciting! My son is a fearless adrenaline junkie who was chomping at the bit. 

I, on the other hand, am a wimpering jelly on the escalators in John Lewis. 

Example A) I arrived at the Reception of a posh hotel on my hands and knees once - in my defence, it was a glass escalator that scaled the outside of the building!

Example B) I have been up the Eiffel Tower (albeit on my hands and knees. And my eyes were mostly shut...does that still count?)

Back to 'Go Ape'...the day arrived and I was excited about spending time with my little man (and secretly congratulating myself for prising him away from his PC). I wasn't nervous at all. I tend to not think about things until they are in my face.

However, once it was 'in my face' and I was above the tree canopy, on a tiny creeking platform, faced with a rope and a skateboard on wires...then I will admit to shaky hands and muttering to myself, "You can do this, you can do this."

And guess what? I did it. My emotions and instincts were screaming, "Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" But the intellect won. I breathed. I was harnessed. I was safe. I was okay. I went for it.

And I'm so glad I did! We had a funny, happy, exhausting day together.

There have been, and will be, many times when I will feel the fear, and refuse to give in.

However horrible it is to speak up in public / tackle a difficult issue with someone / change something fundamental, it is always worse to live in the shadow of the fear and the darkness of regret.

Change happens because you make it happen. Big or small. Stand up. Fight for it. Make it happen. One life. Live it well. Be happy.