We all get stressed. In stressful situations our body protects us by releasing stress hormones to help us cope with the pressure. This is called a stress response. The stress response is a positive thing because it helps us deal with whatever it is we need to deal with, keep us motivated and focused to solve the problem or give us extra strength to run away from danger.
The problem with stress starts if we activate this stress response too often or stay in it for too long. In that case stress is not a good news any more because it affects our whole body and puts pressure on both physical and mental health.
Our respiratory system feels the stress very quickly. You may notice that your breathing becomes fast and shallow when under stress. You take less oxygen into your body. If you suffer from asthma or anxiety this may be a big problem for you.
Immune system doesn't work efficiently under the effect of stress on the body and it becomes much harder to fight away illnesses.
Digestion process is not seen as a priority in stressful situations and that's why we may experience problems with our digestive system if the stress response is activated too often. Symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhoea or constipation are common.
Cardiovascular system is also affected. Increased heart rate and blood pressure leads to higher risks of stroke, hypertension and heart attack.
We can't forget musculoskeletal system. As a massage therapist I can see the effect of stress on people's bodies every day. Muscles tense up to protect the body from injury. Repeated muscle tension leads to chronic pain, bad posture and can affect the skeletal system and joints. Tension headaches and migraines are very common symptoms of tense muscles of the neck and shoulders.
It's obvious that our mood and our ability to cope with everyday responsibilities will be affected as well. We may struggle to sleep at night and our concentration and focus will be lacking during a day. As a compensation we may end up having too much sugary treats and caffeine drinks to keep us going. We may even increase our alcohol intake or look for other drugs to help us cope as well.
What is the way out?
The number one step is to cultivate self-awareness and mindfulness in your life.
Yoga and regular massage will help.
Two lovely ladies had the giggles last week in my yoga class. Great giggles. Your eyes started watering just watching them. When did you last laugh so much that your belly hurt, eyes watered and you just couldn't stop? I reflected on my laughs to trace the really uncontrollable one but it was hard work. My brain took me all the way back to high school and showed me that some great laughs with my friends are still stored there. But what about the recent ones?
I'll return to the giggling ladies above. After the class someone else said - can I please have a bit of what you two are on? Ah! That's another way our brains work. They look for quick fixes. Magic bullets. We start new diet and think that our whole life will improve. Or new clothes, shoes, another self-help book maybe will do it?
From my experience nothing lasts except investing time and energy into getting to know ourselves a little better. Consistently and regularly. In fact consistency IS the magic bullet! Whatever we work on consistency will get us there - one step at a time. Looking after our health and wellbeing one step in a time will have us bursting into laughter spontaneously in no time. So all that is needed is to relax and take it one step in a time - book a massage, go to yoga, sleep longer, drink more water, meditate.... Just one step at a time.
'Every human is an artist. The dream of your life is to make beautiful art.' ~Don Miguel Ruiz
I would like to recommend you a wonderful little book by Don Miguel Ruiz which is called The Four Agreements. It's based on traditional knowledge of the Toltec from southern Mexico. I would really say that is a yoga book as it gives us valuable steps on our way to self - discovery and development.
Generally speaking yoga is an inside job. It teaches us how to bring self awareness into our body, breath and mind and from within it influences how we relate to the outside world. There are some yoga sutras that talk about yamas or the right conduct and also some to advise how to relate to particular groups of people but mostly we are diving deep within us in our yoga practise.
In Ruiz's little book I found very simple yet powerful guidelines that gave me great tools on relating to others and the world around me. He offers four agreements for us to make with ourselves and stick to them. These simple yet powerful agreements have the power to dramatically change your life in a positive way. Just like meditation clears your mind from the inside, these agreements clear your mind from the outside or through your actions.
So what are these agreements exactly?
1. I am impeccable with my word. Impeccable in a sense that I don't hurt myself or others with my word.
2. I don't take ANYTHING personally. Whatever 'unpleasantness' is coming from the other person it's more about them than about you. Always.
3. I don't make assumptions. Why waste time by making assumptions and get our thoughts and emotions running wild? Ask for clarification if you need to.
4. I do my best. Every time I try to do my best even though my best will be different on different days and in different situations. I won't always be impeccable with my word, I will probably take some things personally and I most likely will make assumptions but as long as I tried my best I am fine with that!
Nice and straight posture is not only great for the body but also for the soul and mind. It shows that we are open and proud to to be who we are and happy to face what life brings.
It is not easy to maintain perfect posture if our upper back feels tight and sore. All the computer work that needs to be done, driving, not enough exercise and on top of that its winter and the cold further encourages us to hunch the shoulders forward. What to do?
Take a little bit of time for yourself everyday and practise simple yet effective yoga pose - the Cat.
Start in a comfortable sitting or lying position and take a few breaths to focus. Then move onto your all fours with your hands underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips. As you inhale open your chest look in front of you or up and allow your abdomen to drop towards the floor. As you exhale arch your back and look towards your belly button. Synchronise your movement with your breath. Repeat about 10 times. Stay in the same starting position and rotate your upper back now. On inhalation lift your right arm as high as you can and look towards the right hand. On exhalation return the arm back on the mat. Do the same to the left and repeat 5 times to each side. Still in the same starting position 'thread the needle' - put your right arm underneath the left till the right shoulder and right side of the head are on the mat. Stay for 5 full breaths before repeating the same to the other side. Once more return onto your all fours and move into the Puppy pose - without changing the position of your knees and hips, walk your hands as far forward as you can and rest your forehead on the mat. Stay for five full breaths, return onto all fours then move to the Downwards facing dog for 5 breaths and finish in the Child pose. Enjoy and remember that regularity is the key component of your yoga practise.
Do you remember that beautiful feeling of wellbeing and walking on clouds just after a massage treatment? But within a few days it's gone and you are thrown back into the reality of stress, pain and tension.
There is a way how you can help to feel on top of the world for longer and eventually stay there. The way to wellbeing starts with proper breathing. Yes, we are back talking about breath. You cannot live without it so why not to do it properly and feel amazing? One of the main breathing muscles - the diaphragm is linked with the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system and thus promotes relaxation response through the body. We cannot possibly keep our muscles relaxed and in good posture if our body is under the spell of the stress response. We automatically move into defensive posture and our muscles tense up ready to run or fight. Even unconscious thoughts in our mind can produce stress response within the body. We need to actively and regularly activate the relaxing response to keep our muscles and the rest of the body and mind well. How do we do it?
Practise deep diaphragmatic breathing at the least once a day. Remember to always have your spine straight when practising your breathing. At the beginning you might find it easier to lie down with your knees bend one hand on your abdomen and the other one on your chest. Breathe into your abdomen feeling your lower hand to rise up with your abdomen on inhalation and drop back down on exhalation. Your upper hand stays nice and still. Practise for a few minutes, the very least 10 breaths and hopefully you hear your stomach making noises which is an indicator of your relaxing response 'kicking in'.
Stability and balance are the goals of yoga practise. As yoga practitioners we are not overly concerned with the look of our abdomens as we are with their proper function. Strong abdominal muscles are essential for our good posture, for protection of our spine, they assist in the breathing process as well as in the process of digestion and elimination.
Let’s have a look at few abdominal muscles that are the deep stabilizing muscles of the lower spine and which are the focus of our yoga practise.
Transverse abdominis is the deepest abdominal muscle. It is the ‘corset’ muscle and runs from the bottom of the sternum all the way to the pubic bone. It is the quardian of the spinal joints, ligaments, discs and nerves.
Multifidus are very short muscles of your spine. They don’t allow too much movement as their main function is stability.
Pelvic floor muscles and diaphragm complete the deep stabilisers of the lumbar spine. Diaphragm is very important muscle as it is the main breathing muscle and is responsible for 2/3 of our inhalations. Apart from breathing it is also very important postural muscle helping us stand verticaly and functionally is connected to other abdominal muscles which means that if they are weak our diaphragm and thus breathing will be also affected.
As always in yoga even in the case of our abdominal muscles we are striving for balance. Weak muscles won’t assist our proper posture and spine protection but overly tense abdominal muscles might negatively affect our flexibility. But yoga has you covered as strengthening poses are followed by stretching ones.
The most popular yoga poses for abdominal strength are the Boat and the Plank. Both offer huge number of variations to accommodate your ability.
Breath focus is not forgotten in these stronger positions either which further assist in stimulating our core region.
There are a lot of styles of physical yoga practise you can choose from. It is common that more physical and dynamic styles are recommended for people who are active, sporty, extroverts, doers. And more gentle styles are recommended for introverted and calmer people. But where is the balance in this logic? Wellbeing comes from balancing our energies, tendencies and characters. Too much of a good thing, one thing in this case, is never the answer.
Imagine looking at the well known yin and yang circle. It is black and white divided by wavy line in the middle with a dot of the opposite colour in each half. These dots symbolise dependence on each other. There is no yin without yang, day without night, joy without grief.
Now lets think about typical characteristics of today's society and all of us individually. Aren't we just a little stressed, tensed and living our lives very quickly and busily? All this activity and stress activate sympathetic nervous system which then activates and keep us in the fight or flight response. But what about the other part of our autonomic nervous system the parasympathetic nervous system often termed as the rest and digest response? How do we activate that?
Many of us share similar daily routine. Alarm gets us out our beds early, we race to the bathroom, kitchen, organise children, drop them off to school, race to work, then race to make it for school pick up and drop kids off to sport activities, make dinner and if your partner manages to get back early enough you might be lucky to run to yoga class. And what class do you choose? Of course you don't want to be lazy, you want to achieve something so you pick some dynamic style of yoga after which you run home trying to catch up on few jobs and then you fall into bed staring into the ceiling with your mind racing still and you are unable to fall a sleep.
But what if you choose yin yoga instead to balance your busy lifestyle? You might find calm and peace on your yoga mat which will last all the way home, helps you to sleep better and even makes the following morning a bit calmer.
Being able to stay in a yoga pose for up to 15 - 20 minutes while your body is supported with props such as blankets, bolsters or blocks, with eyes closed or covered and breathe in nicely scented air with essential oils with relaxing qualities and listening to soft, relaxing music or the sound of Tibetan bowls is a wonderful experience. You can truly experience your inner quietness which is behind the everyday chaos and stress. Don't fight it. Enter!
During Restorative Yoga your body finds the most comfortable position, stops fighting with gravity and accepts that it is time to relax. Relaxation is not limited to muscles but affects bones, joints, spine, fascial network. And slowly your brain and central nervous system rest as well.
Restorative yoga as well as every other yoga style is based on the concept of Pancha Kosha which states that we have three bodies (gross or physical, subtle or energetic and casual or blissful). During Restorative Yoga you are instructed to be aware of your body first and adjust the position if it is not comfortable for you and feel your body relaxing. Next you are instructed to notice your breath and watch it without controlling it, flow with it and let go on each exhalation. Afterward you are encouraged to notice your body touching the mat, your clothing, the air 'touching' your nostrils and let go further. And then you are encouraged to bring awareness onto your mind. There will be thoughts, they are always there, but you can leave them and just notice them as a not very interesting movie and let them be. That is when you arrive to your inner silent sanctuary.
While practising Restorative Yoga don't use strength to get into positions. Look for the most comfortable positions. Give your body time to adjust and relax in the poses.
Stay for 3 - 20 minutes, beginners 3 - 5 minutes. Visualisations can enhance your relaxation.
Orange Massage and Yoga runs regular Restorative Yoga workshops. Get in touch!
Sun Salutation is one of the most known yoga sequences. On first sight it may look just like series of burpees but this practice has deep roots in working with the energy of the Sun. With every individual asana in this sequence you honour the sun's gift of life, warmth and light. It is a very powerful technique in developing gratitude towards the creative energy around and within us. If you manage to keep your awareness on this essence during practising Sun Salutation in the morning you will recharge your body, mind and spirit with the Sun's energy which will carry you through the day with ease.
As we are moving into the cooler months of the year we may need some warming yoga practices. Sun Salutation gives you the opportunity to reconnect to your inner 'Sun' or light, the energy that keeps you going and governs everything within you. It stimulates all the chakras or energy centres in our bodies but especially the third Manipura chakra. This chakra is connected to everything that is fiery and energetic within us - creativity, inspiration, joy and enthusiasm.
Sun Salutation can be practised on its own or followed by other yoga asanas. The best time for practise is in the morning but whenever you feel like it - do it! If you practise Sun Salutation on its on it is still nice to finish in Savasana on your back and take a moment to relax.
Sun Salutation has a lot of benefits. Some of them are:
When our body and mind work as they should and are healthy we can observe natural rhythms repeating within us. Every organ has its time for activity and rest, every body system expands and contracts regularly. In order to support our body systems which vibrate continuously it is helpful to maintain its natural rhythm. Rhythm creates an order and a ritual. Our rituals make our life.
Relaxation in shavasana [the corpse pose] is the gem of yoga practise. Try to find few minutes just for yourself every evening. Treat yourself. Get your comfortable place ready so that you can recharge your batteries after the long day.
Lie down on your back and bring your full awareness onto your body. To start with, try to lengthen and stretch your whole body as you breathe in and relax it as you breathe out. Repeat three times.
Watch the natural rhythm of your breath and let everything that comes to your mind, either from outside or inside, flow. Let it go. Don't dwell on any thought. You can watch them, be aware of them but let them flow.
Work with visualisation. Imagine your body and mind being filled and covered by light bringing vital life energy.
At the end, rub your palms together, feel the warmth and place them anywhere on your body where it is needed - for warmth, support and relaxation.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.