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.

Finding Space in a Frantic World - Part 2

Following on from last month’s post when you were invited to practice the 3 step breathing space as a way of ‘checking in’ to your sense of self, we are going to continue by looking at further areas where self awareness can make a big difference to our sense of space.

Posture. When life gets on top of you, physical tension builds up in the body. Most commonly, the shoulders protract in an effort to protect your heart; your emotional centre.

Over time, the more protracted you get, the more the body has to compensate in order to be able to look straight ahead. You are likely to develop tension in your neck that may cause headaches. I often see a permanent crease in the neck after years of compensation. Alternatively, the head is pushed forwards and the curves of the spine become exaggerated. These physical changes result in a decrease in lung capacity as you are literally restricting their ability to expand. The breath becomes shallow, often in the chest, which sends a message to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that you are stressed. The pattern of lacking mental, emotional and now physical space perpetuates. Shoulder protraction may begin with poor posture which still sends a message of stress and even depression to the brain and body, culminating in actually feeling that way even if you were not before.

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So what can you do about it? When sitting, raise your hips slightly higher than your knees. This allows the hip flexor muscles (at the top of your thighs) to switch off and enables your pelvis to sit in ‘neutral’ so that the natural curves of your spine are supported by gravity. It helps to support the lumbar curve so that this part of your back can rest and you can maintain length throughout your spine without creating tension. Any deviation to this and you have to compensate as you can see in the first two images above.

Whatever table or desk you are sitting at, it is important to make sure that your chair is at the correct height so that you don’t have to hunch your shoulders to use your keyboard or write or even eat. Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level. It might be a good idea to purchase a separate keyboard if you use a lap top for hours every day. The worst thing of all for posture, is to sit side on to your desk. Do what you can to be able to face your monitor squarely. If you regularly have to turn, turn your whole body not just your neck or spine, otherwise you risk developing a scoliosis by only ever rotating in one direction. Sitting with the legs crossed will in time create an imbalance in your pelvis which will carry on up the spine, so uncross your legs and sit with your heels under your knees instead.

Try this exercise daily to maintain mobility in the shoulders and relieve tightness across the chest.

Emotions You are probably aware that negative thoughts such as worry and doubt cause the sensation of anxiety in the body; butterflies in the tummy or the literal feeling of adrenaline surging through you. Negative thinking therefore, causes stress. The brain and nervous system only understand stress as threat and will essentially do what is natural to support you in escaping the threat. You will be forced to take shallow breaths into the chest in preparation to run or fight. So in order to relax the nervous system we need to move the breathing into the belly so informing the brain that you are in fact in a state of rest. Thoughts are not facts. So write positive affirmations and post them around you! ‘I am confident’. ‘Overcoming challenges builds strength’. Or as I saw on the final of The Great British Bake Off; ‘I have won’ (the great British bake off). Making affirmations in the present tense, as if they have already happened, helps us to think more positively.

Breath Lying on your back with your knees bent, or sitting upright with your lumbar spine supported, breathe into your belly as if you were inflating a balloon both upwards and width-ways. This may feel alien to begin with, especially if you are used to chest breathing. You may have to imagine your rib cage expanding first and then bring the breath down to the belly.

With practice this action will inform your ANS that you are relaxed. If you are familiar with Ujjayi breathing, this pranayama will slow your breath down and help you to relax more. You should aim to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. Initially however, you may need to keep the ratio equal and gradually lengthen the out breath. This is particularly important if you are depressed and/or suffer from lethargy, as lengthening the out breath makes us more relaxed and as a result, for some at least, a little sleepy.

I like to start my day with this breathing practice while still lying in bed. It is also a helpful practice to lull you to sleep and to give you mental space at the end of your working day.

Do you ever get home with the feeling that the last thing you are ready for is your family pouncing on you and demanding your attention? One of the biggest gifts you can give your family is time to yourself first. After all, I’m sure they would rather enjoy your company when you are relaxed and jovial, than when grouchy and snappy! Let it be known that before you spend time with them, you need 5 minutes to lie down somewhere quiet and focus on your breathing.

In addition to the breathing practice, you can use the out breaths to visualise your back, neck and shoulder muscles relaxing; melting like butter into the ground beneath you. Stay for as long as you need to so that you relieve some of the tension of the day.

If this sounds like your life, you might find the Stress Busting Yoga on the first Sunday of each month a helpful lesson to take. During the two hours from 10.00 - 12.00, we practice some strong asana to rid the body of stress hormones and include some restorative poses, deep breathing and relaxation or meditation to help you feel restored.

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!