Stress - Begin Where You Are.

It only has to take one event to trigger a complete change in your breathing habit. You might always have breathed in your belly (although you were probably not aware of this), then one day you were traumatised by a major stressor. This could be anything that put you into an immediate stress response, from a traumatic event to being yelled at. How your body responds is what is important here.

Commonly with the stress response, your breath shifts from belly to chest. You want to pull air into your lungs so that oxygen can be sent to your heart rapidly, enabling you to fight or flee from the threat. In a healthy system, once the threat is over, the stress response is switched off and breathing returns to the belly.

In modern society where we are constantly under threat on a psychological and physiological basis, the stress response can be triggered again and again in a single day. So what happens? The breath gets stuck in your chest and whether you feel stressed or not, your body thinks you are and keeps you in the stress response.

With so much threat around us, how do we know that we are stuck in the stress response? There are too many signs to list, but here are some things to look out for:

  • Being easily startled.

  • Constant doing - restlessness.

  • Eyes darting around.

  • Constant chatter.

  • Rushing.

  • Low pain tolerance.

  • Consistent tension in the back of the skull, jaw, neck or shoulders.

  • Feeling regularly overwhelmed.

  • Sensory overload - sensitivity to light and sound in particular.

  • Over-thinking and spending too much time in the head.

  • Consistent chest breathing and pulling of the breath.

  • Mouth breathing.

  • Difficulty with concentration and focus.

  • Listlessness, exhaustion or fatigue.

Sound familiar? Whatever you do, DON’T carry on as you are! Stress is not your friend. The stress hormones that are constantly rampaging around your body can do serious damage to your health. Now is the time to implement self care.

If you find that your mind is busy, busy, busy, you might need to begin with movement. A simple routine like the cat sequence I frequently teach can be a good place to begin. Don’t worry about the breathing but do notice the contact your body has with the floor.

If you are overwhelmed, begin at your feet. Notice them, feel them on the ground and if that is difficult, massage them so that you really feel the sensations in your feet. Squeezing the arms and legs can be useful if you feel disconnected from yourself.

If you can cope with stillness, concentrate on your breath. Sound is the easiest way of making the shift from chest breathing to belly breathing. It doesn’t matter what it is but you could try, sss, fff, ahh, brr. Sound that can loosen a tense jaw is brilliant!

Practice breathing through your nose as often as possible. It took a single event to alter your breath; it is possible to change it back within 24 hours. It just takes practice. Mouth breathing or shallow breathing reduces the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) you take in. CO2 is necessary for vaso-dilation (dilating your blood vessels) which allows for oxygen uptake. Without this, blood vessels constrict which means the flow of blood is slowed leading to potential complications. Red blood cells hang on to oxygen when CO2 is low, therefore the body’s cells are not receiving enough oxygen to thrive.

If after reading this you start to panic, STOP! This is life and you are not alone. Stuff gets in the way of self care. But now you understand the importance of taking time for yourself and addressing the issue, begin where you are.

If you need support on your journey, do get in touch.

Yoga, Pranayama or Mindfulness?

Is it exercise you are after? Yoga then. But if you are seeking a particular state of mind, which practice is going to give you the desired affect? Let me tell you about my experience of both yoga and mindfulness and then I will offer some facts.

At the time I first experienced a Scaravelli inspired yoga class, I was suffering from mental illness. I had been dissociated from parts of my body for many years. Tina, the teacher gave us time to explore and experience the gentle movement, the stronger poses, the challenges. So focussed was I on my body and breath that I felt a different person by the end of a class to the one who had arrived on the mat 90 minutes earlier.

When I practice now I am present to sensations in my body and deeply focussed on the movement of my breath within me; the flow of the breath, those moments when it feels right to move with the inhalation and with the exhalation. For the most part, my mind is quiet. And surely this is what we want isn't it? To quiet the mind. 

Well yes and no. Sure there are times when we just need a moment of peace; to escape the business of the mind. And for me, this was vital in the past. Movement enabled me to be with my body as it switched off any anxiety or suffering. It gave me pleasure to be able to feel my body and to be left with a feeling of such calmness. To be honest, it was probably the only time when I truly relaxed.

When I began training in Scaravelli inspired yoga however, I had to practice pranayama; breathing practices. This meant sitting still, being with my breath, being quiet. Pranayama was not for me. I wanted to leap of the mat. I felt vulnerable and afraid. I didn't like the sensations that arose. They made me super anxious and I almost redeveloped the dissociative patterns I felt I had been leaving behind. If someone else was guiding me, I could practice. In class the practice was short and relaxing but at home, alone, it was terrifying. 

How did I overcome this? I had to practice pranayama in order to teach it. So I integrated it into my yoga practice. I would begin moving gently; say in cat pose. Using Ujjayi with the asana I could tune in to the wave of the breath and begin to feel relaxed. Maybe I could sit for a few minutes after some movement and practice Ujjayi alone for a couple of minutes. Then I might do some more asana and try Kapalabhati. Further asana and perhaps I could sit for a brief period practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing or Viloma and so it went on. It was an asana, pranayama sandwich situation!

It was when I trained with the Minded Institute that the challenge of Pranayama became greatest for me. We were to practice pranayama every day. Initially this was horrendous and once again anxiety reared its ugly head. I hadn't realised that Kapalabhati stimulated the Sympathetic Nervous system. No wonder I hadn't enjoyed it before. But sandwiched between two pranayama that stimulated the Parasympathetic Nervous System; Ujjayi and Alternate Nostril Breathing and I began to cope. I even managed Khumbhaka which previously virtually brought on a panic attack!

Finally I could use Ujjayi during my Yoga practice and sit at the end for pranayama without any uncomfortable feelings and this made me feel great! What do I mean by that? Well, calm, relaxed, still, balanced, grounded, stable. But how was my mind? Well, it still chattered. It was still critical at times and frequently very busy.

I found that in spite of a daily yoga practice I could not switch off the guilt or the shame or the worry or anxiety, particularly around money or that constantly going over a situation I felt I had not dealt with well. Sound familiar?

Now I practiced mindfulness during this time, but in short bursts and not consistently. The practices I had learned with the Minded Institute were and are fabulous for the short term; to alleviate symptoms.

I began to practice Mindfulness as a stand alone practice, on and off. More off than on! I need discipline; a reason for doing something even if it does make me feel better. I wrote a mindfulness journal on Facebook which helps apart from the fact that rather than truly being with my experience I was considering how I might put it into words!

In 2016 I trained with Clear Mind Institute in Mindfulness for Yoga. In other words I learned and practiced the Mindfulness techniques used in a Mindfulness Based Intervention programme (MBI) but only to the degree that I could teach them within a yoga class; not as an actual MBI.

It wasn't until this point that I realised the true potential that a daily Mindfulness practice can unlock. I would consider my yoga journey to have been remarkably healing. However it was the mindfulness that really allowed me to unlock my true self. I had to learn to sit with the uncomfortable. And whereas previously I would leap off the mat and run away from it; now I could remain with it. I could widen that container of experience to be with the side of myself that I did not like. To learn to recognise when that side of me arose and to do something about it. To silence the critical mind. To let go of guilt, shame and worry.

Now I am not going to pretend to be perfect. None of us are. I find myself believing that I have too much to do and cannot afford the time to sit for 30 - 45 minutes a day. But boy do I notice a difference when I don't practice! 

When I maintain a regular mindfulness practice, I am calm. I can deal with difficult situations. I can cope with stress in a rational manner. I can even pause before I speak which is a huge leap forward for me. Although I still can't do this consistently with my family. What is it about family? They are the hardest to be mindful around because they know which buttons to push. But over time and with practice, even this will be easier. Even I will be able to pause, remain calm and consider the right way of speaking my mind.

Mindfulness has been the cherry on the cake for me. Yoga is a lifestyle now. I cannot live without it but nor can I live without Mindfulness. I really need it in my daily life whereas I don't feel terrible if I haven't practiced yoga for a few days. So Yoga, Pranayama or Mindfulness? Well it has to be all three. I couldn't have made this transition without the journey. Sometimes we do need to quiet the mind. Sometimes we do need to make physical changes to the way the body feels and we can practice yoga with mindful awareness. But in order to change the way WE feel, the SELF; it has to be mindfulness. When I maintain a daily mindfulness practice I feel I am my true self. And I like myself!

What's the buzz? Bhramari Pranayama.

Bhramari, also known as buzzing or humming breath is a wonderful, soothing pranayama practice. Bhramari is a Sanskrit word derived from bhramar, which means “humming black bee.”

By generating a soft buzz or hum we elongate the exhalation. By now you will know that elongating the exhalation puts our bodies into parasympathetic nervous system dominance; meaning we are able to rest and digest and feel calm.

How to practice

Sit comfortably with your spine elongated. When first practicing bhramari, making an actual buzzing sound helps; 'bzzz'. You might then try softening the buzz into a hum by gently closing the lips half way along the buzzing breath so that they are softly resting together but with a space between the teeth. This gives you the impression of how the hum can be created in your final practice by keeping a space between the teeth, the jaw relaxed and the lips lightly touching. Try to control the exhalation; maintaining a steady, smooth, even and continuous sound and energy. Each inhalation should be taken slowly and steadily between rounds rather than being sucked in.

You can play with the pitch and volume. My preference is for a deep sound in which I find the vibrational quality is enhanced, whilst a higher pitch takes the vibration into the skull but for some reason offends my ear! We are all different, so have a play and see what you prefer. You can even practice silently by imagining that you are creating the hum.

Mudras

This beautiful practice can be done using hand mudras or gestures. The bhramara mudra requires one to fold the index finger into the base of the thumb and to rest the tip of the thumb onto the edge of the middle finger nail. In this mudra, that hands can be rested on the belly and the base of the throat or chest which can enable one to feel the vibrational quality of the breath.

Bhramara Mudra

Bhramara Mudra

A second mudra suggests placing the index fingers in the ears; lightly closing the cartilaginous flap at the base of the ear, rather than inserting them into the actual ear canal. The thumbs can rest against the lower jaw and the elbows rest downwards for comfort. This shuts out sounds from outside of ourselves. It deepens the sound within and really enhances the vibration in the head. This mudra can cultivate a deeply relaxing and comforting practice.

A third position is called Shanmukhi mudra and is used to reduce sensory input. This can be challenging and less comfortable, particularly if you feel vulnerable in any way. The thumbs are pressing the cartilaginous flap in the ears this time, the eyes are closed with the index finger resting on the upper orbit of the eye and the middle finger on the lower orbit (the orbit referring to the orbital bone surrounding the eye). The ring fingers rest between the nose and the top lip and the little fingers under the lower lip.

Shanmukhi mudra

Shanmukhi mudra

Benefits

As practicing bhramari shifts the autonomic nervous system into parasympathetic dominance, the practice reduces stress, anxiety and anxious depression in particular. The sound helps to shut out mental stimulation, switching off the ruminating mind. A lower pitch can be more calming or a silent practice that can be done at any time; even on your commute to work or in the office when you are feeling stressed!

When the sinuses are blocked, the vibrations from bhramari help to clear the head. It can help to create a higher pitched sound for this.

If suffering from insomnia, practicing at night using shanmukhi mudra and a lower pitch can be useful.

Whilst there is no scientific evidence, bhramari is thought to help stimulate the thyroid especially if practiced in conjunction with jalandhara bhanda (throat lock) as this directs the vibrations to the throat. Try a medium pitched sound.

During pregnancy, Bhramari can be a wonderfully soothing breath. One client I had practiced often during her pregnancy so that when her baby was born, she could use it to sooth the baby; no doubt because the baby had also benefited from the vibrations within the womb.

When practicing a particularly challenging stretch, bhramari can help to relax the body and therefore soften the stretch. I find it particularly beneficial during king pigeon but it is not advisable to practice bhramari when lying on your back.

If this is your first exploration of Bhramari, I recommed 5 to 10 rounds initially, building this up to 10 to 15 minutes per day; particularly if you wish to use it to good effect. Have a play and enjoy!

Namaste.

NATURA APIS by J.R.R. Tolkein

The night is still young and our drinks are yet long,
The fire's burning bright and here brave is the throng,
So now I will sing you a sooth little song
Of the busy brown bee - with a ding and a dong.

Mindfulness? Easy? No!

Recently I achieved Level 1 in Mindulness with the Clear Mind Institute (CMI). This gives me the title of a Mindfulness Yoga Teacher which enables me to integrate some of the practices into my yoga classes. In January 2017 I will be offering a Therapeutic Yoga class which will do just that. We will include mindful movement,  breathing practices and formal mindfulness practices.

What's mindful movement I hear you ask? Well it's yoga but with really focused attention on the sensations of movement. We slow things down to notice. Mindful movement included in the Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR) course is based on research; the movements practiced are considered safe for all. However in the therapeutic yoga class we will include other movements as this is not a short course but an ongoing lesson.

I personally have been practicing mindfulness now for three years. I began with a Mindful Living course based on the MBSR course. I then practiced during the Yoga Therapy for the Mind training after which I found an online course through www.soundstrue.com. This amazing course with the fabulous Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield took me to a new level of practice. It was the first time this course had been run. We had online mentoring in groups which opened my mind to ways of communicating with my yoga therapy clients.

I found the formal sitting practices immensely challenging. When I first began yoga I was unable to sit for pranayama without feeling threatened and panicky. So the steady movement of yoga helped me immensely. In my yoga practice it is possible to slow things down so much that one develops such self awareness moment by moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn's famous definition of mindfulness is “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Well yoga certainly offered the opportunity to do just that. However looking back, I didn't experience the same sense of calm and serenity, the change in my being or my behaviour that formal practice did.

I wanted to continue along the mindfulness path and delve deeper, so this year I undertook the first British Wheel of Yoga Mindfulness Module with Cathy-Mae Karelse of CMI followed by a conversion course to Level 1. I now practice nearly every day and feel enormous benefits from it. My mind has slowed down. I am able to pause before reacting (well most of the time; there are always some people who know how to press my buttons but I am getting better at pausing even with them). I am so much better at taking care of my needs. And I have many more moments in my day when I just notice.

The hardest thing for me along this journey has been finding a regular time to practice. I initially practiced straight after lunch but found it too easy to say 'Nah, I'm too busy'. At the moment I practice as soon as I wake up. I sleep in a pretty cold room so I don't feel like getting out of bed. Sometimes I fall back to sleep, I probably needed to and I will try to fit a shorter practice in during the day. But often I don't and I get up feeling better prepared for the day ahead.

I plan to continue training with CMI.

Research on mindfulness-based interventions is growing and now includes neuroimaging studies and more sophisticated research designs.

Effects include:

  • Reductions in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, stress and pain.
  • Increased immunological response, reduced blood pressure and cortisol.
  • Increased psychological well-being and enhanced cognitive functioning.

(Halzel, Lazar et al, 2011)

Invest in nature. Invest in yourself.

birchwood yoga studio

 

I don't know about you, but I always feel better after a walk in the countryside, both physically and mentally; particularly when surrounded by such stunning colours as we have been blessed with this autumn. This was one of the reasons why I chose to situate my studio amongst nature.
Birchwood Yoga studio is nestled into a copse from where it has a beautiful view of trees and flowers changing with the seasons and a multitude of wildlife that comes and goes. During the day the birdsong is delightful and at night we are often serenaded by tawny owls. I was interested to read in this article that much research has been carried out to discover whether there is any scientific basis for the sense of wellbeing that nature offers us and was delighted to discover that there is! Practicing yoga at Birchwood Yoga studio may be better for your mental health than you realised!