Deep Breathing Exercises for Sleep

Sleep Deep Breathing.jpg

One of the biggest obstacles to getting to sleep is effectively shutting your mind down for the evening. Deep breathing exercises serve two purposes: They calm the central nervous system and act as a meditation to quiet the mind. While deep breathing works well on its own, it is doubly effective when combined with other relaxation techniques. Always do sleep exercises at bedtime, when you are already in bed. If you have to get up and move to the bed, you’ll wake yourself up and undo your work.

Normal Breathing

To feel a proper breath, lie on your back, and place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe normally, and feel your stomach and lungs expand and contract with each breath. Try only letting your stomach expand. Then try only letting your chest expand, and explore how your lungs feel with each breath. Practicing a normal breath fosters awareness of your breathing patterns and will better prepare you for other breathing exercises.

Nose Breathing

Although some individuals are mouth breathers while sleeping, breathing through your nose is beneficial to falling asleep. Unless you are congested, practice deep breathing using your nose for inhales and your mouth for exhales. According to Dr. Marcelle Pick, breathing through your nose stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system and induces relaxation. Nose breathing also conditions your breath, filtering the air and adding moisture to your breath before it enters your lungs.

Breathing & Relaxing

Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, is a technique in which you contract and relax different muscle groups, starting with your feet and moving up to your head. By exaggerating, then relieving, tension, you can feel when the muscle is relaxed. This exercise is best done lying on your back, but if you are congested or uncomfortable, lie on your side. Start with your toes and do one full inhale through your nose. Hold the inhale for three seconds and squeeze your toes. Release your toes and exhale through your mouth at the same time. Inhale again while flexing your feet. Hold the breath for three seconds. Continue breathing, flexing and releasing as you move up your body to your calves, thighs and so on.

Breathing With Visualization

Lie on your back with your arms relaxed at your sides. Take one full inhale through your nose, and hold it for three seconds. Slowly release your breath through your mouth. As you release your breath, imagine that the pull of gravity has increased by 1 percent, and let your body sink into the bed.

Inhale again and, with each release, let your body sink deeper into the bed. Focus only on your breath and the heaviness in your limbs. If you start to drift off to sleep, do not fight it; just let go of the breath and start breathing normally.

If you have nasal congestion, lie on your side and breathe through your mouth.

Do any of these work for you? Have any questions? Please feel free to comment below – I would love to hear your thoughts.

Click here for original article and image which appeared online at Livestrong.com.

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Looking back: Intro to Meditation Workshop 

Yesterday I held a repeat “Introduction to Meditation” workshop at Riverside Studio, and I was struck once again by how, even though everyone is so completely different, our reasons for wanting to start, or grow, a meditation practice are so similar.

“I want to find a ‘happy place’ that I can go to when I am feeling stressed out”

“Life is so rushed and can be so hard, and I need to find a way to slow down”

“I have a very close family and sometimes it’s hard to know what is my voice and what is their collective voice – I want to try and hear myself speak, or think, and find my own voice”

“There are so many demands on me as a working mother, I find it impossible to find time to look after myself”

“I often react so quickly and in the heat of the moment often say or do things that I regret – I need to find a way to be more mindful about my actions and reactions”

“I am struggling to sleep at night”

These, and so many more, are the kind of things that people cite when they sign up for the workshops. I try to make it as user-friendly and accessible as possible, because what I’m realising more and more, is that people are less interested in the potential of a meditation practice to deepen their spirituality or to help them figure out the meaning of our very existence, but desperate for a way to help them cope with the here and now of their busy lives, to find a way to slow down, to reduce stress, to find a way of relaxing and of switching off their overactive minds.

So my short workshops have changed slightly to move a fraction away from all the spiritual reasons we meditate, and to really focus more on empowering people in the short term to just begin – to just start along that potentially transformational journey of meditation – to start the very day after the workshop, for 20 minutes a day, for 21 days, and to see how it goes for them. For many people, this is all that is needed to get a taste for the potential power of this ancient practice, and for them to start feeling the benefits (more self aware, less self-critical, reporting feeling slightly less stressed, sometimes sleeping better or feeling like they can breathe better). And THEN – perhaps weeks, months or years after that, there is the potential to start tapping into the spiritual benefits of the practice. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – you can’t start trying to self-actualise if you are so stressed out you can’t even breathe! So we start with the basics, and grow it from there.

Here is a lovely message I received this morning from one of the yesterday’s attendees:

“You will be very proud of me: I had a lovely meditation this morning and am for the first time ready to do this and will keep doing it for 21 days and look forward to many more from there”.

What a champ!

Next post will be about why we avoid, don’t start, or don’t continue with a meditation practice.

 

My name is Nicci and I OM. 

Judge me if you wish but, without fail, the yoga classes I teach at my small yoga studio in Stellenbosch end with the chanting of three OMs. I always give people the option of staying silent because I know that many would rather crawl naked over broken glass than make weird yogic mooing sounds, but I love it and here’s why. 

Everything in the universe is pulsating and vibrating – nothing is really standing still! The sound Om, when chanted, apparently vibrates at the frequency of 432 Hz, which is the same vibrational frequency found throughout everything in nature. It is a mantra, a vibration and an intention all rolled into one. 

As such Om (pronounced AUM) – as I understand it – is the basic sound of the universe; so by chanting it we are symbolically and physically tuning in to that sound and acknowledging our connection to all other living beings, nature and the universe.

In addition the vibrations and rhythmic pronunciation also have a physical affect on the body by slowing down the nervous system and calming the mind similar to meditation. When the mind is relaxed, your blood pressure decreases and ultimately the health of your heart improves.

Finally it is also a way to delineate the time of our practice from the rest of our day and signify that this is a special time in which to care for ourselves and practice being mindful.

All in all, beginning and/or ending a yoga practicing with Om helps to connects us to our practice in a deeper way than just with physical postures.

So tell me, do you love to Om or does your heart sink when that time comes around? Do you join in with gusto or do you clench your jaw and pray for it to be over? I’d love to hear. 

Source: Sam Sanders, Mindbodygreen.com 

Mantras vs Affirmation

The question came up in a workshop I taught yesterday: “what is the difference between an affirmation and a mantra?” and whilst I could give my own interpretation of how they differ, it prompted me to go and do some further reading so that next time I am asked the same question, I’ll be able to give a more concise answer. Read on for more on this topic.

Mantras and positive affirmations are two unique ways to cultivate self-care and nourish our mind.

In the Eastern world, it is believed that words – whether thought or stated out loud – can affect our physical vibration and over time impact our perception or circumstances in a positive way. The approach – which has been used in Buddhism for thousands of years – is to repeat “mantras” in accordance with meditation.

Mantras are words, sounds, or invocations either in Sanskrit or any other language, that aid the individual in focusing concentration and deepening meditation while also uniting him or her with a higher power. Mantras are associated with mysticism and spirituality and aim to liberate the mind from thought in order to facilitate inner peace.

Examples of mantras include single words such as “Om” or “Shanti” or Sanskrit phrases such as “Om Namah Shivaya” which can be interpreted as bowing to our true highest selves.

shanti

On the other hand, a positive affirmation is a term often used interchangeably with mantras; however, the two have vastly different origins and applications. Positive affirmations were developed in the 1970’s by neuroscientists, incorporating a modern understanding of psychotherapy and linguistics in order to consciously rewire thought patterns towards more desired outcomes. Affirmations can be stated anytime and tend to be complete sentences addressing something we wish to have or be as if we already have it in the present moment.

Examples of positive affirmations include phrases such as “I am whole and perfect the way I am,” “I am overflowing with abundance,” or “I am radiating with love and compassion.”

affirmation

While you’re likely to hear anecdotal evidence on whether one or both of these methods are effective at creating the positive results we seek, it is interesting to note that some research has been done in the realm of both mantras and affirmations, most notably indicating that results vary depending on the individual and how much he or she actually believes them and what resonates.

When they are effective, both mantras and positive affirmations can help with problem solving, reduce stress and anxiety, increase positive emotions, improve relationships, create inner clarity and increase confidence.

It’s true these methods work better for some than others – we are all unique and should honour what feels most nourishing on an individual level. I would encourage you to give both mantras and affirmations a try and see if they impact how you feel or approach your daily life. If they help you feel better in some way then keep practicing. If they don’t and you feel like a fool muttering to yourself and don’t find any benefits from the practice, stop. It’s great to try out all different kinds of tools and eventually you should find something that really sits well with you. Happy exploring!

Source:

5 Ways Self-Compassion Promotes a Healthy Body Image

When it comes to appearance, we’re often too hard on ourselves.

In this age of social media, we’re surrounded by idealized images of beauty more than ever before. These images can create expectations that are impossible to meet, leaving us feeling inadequate and ashamed about our own looks. It’s no surprise, then, that a majority of young women and many men feel insecure about some aspect of their appearance.

As “normal” as body dissatisfaction may seem, it can have serious negative effects. For some people, it can lead to eating disorders or other mental illness. But even if it doesn’t reach those extremes, it can detract from quality of life in other ways. For example, research has shown that body image concerns can impair academic performance and reduce sexual pleasure in both men and women.

One way to address body dissatisfaction is to change the way we think about our bodies, shifting the focus from evaluation and critique to care and appreciation. Recent research suggests that self-compassion may be particularly helpful for easing appearance-related concerns and promoting a positive body image. Here are five ways it works.
1. It puts media images into perspective. One major source of body shame comes from taking media images of beauty to heart and feeling compelled to live up to them. In one study, self-compassionate women were less likely to internalize media pressure to be thin or to engage in disordered eating related to media exposure. But self-compassion goes beyond simply turning the tables on which body types are valued and which ones are disparaged. Instead, it involves acknowledging that beauty comes in many forms, and that no one is perfect.

2. It helps us stay in tune with our physical states. Attention is a limited resource: When we’re focused on how our body looks, we’re often less aware of how it feels—and therefore less in touch with signs of hunger and fullness, feelings of pleasure and pain, and even the sensation of our heartbeat. Research suggests that self-compassion is associated with lower levels of self-objectification, the tendency to habitually take an observer’s perspective on one’s own body rather than experiencing it from the inside out.

3. It makes us appreciate what our bodies can do. Because self-compassion is rooted in a genuine sense of care and concern for our psychological and physical well-being, it should lead us to view our bodies as precious and motivate us to be loving and kind to our physical selves, rather than harshly self-critical. Consistent with this idea, one study found that participants who completed three weeks of self-compassion meditation training reported an increase in body appreciation, which involves feelings of body acceptance and respect.

4. It reduces self-punishment. Being compassionate about perceived body flaws doesn’t necessarily take away their sting, but it can minimize the extent to which feeling unattractive makes people feel worthless or undeserving. In one study, exposure to a self-compassion intervention reduced the extent to which participants based their self-worth on their appearance, and in another, participants who were more self-compassionate about a perceived body flaw were less likely to report that they turned down a chocolate candy (offered by the experimenter) in order to punish themselves.

5. It makes other people allies, not competition. One of the key components of self-compassion is common humanity, which refers to the recognition that other people struggle too. That friend who seems to always look perfect on social media is probably spending a lot of time behind the scenes setting up their shots and deleting outtakes—and might have plenty of insecurities of their own. When other people become targets of social comparison and competition, we might miss what’s really going on with them under the surface, and we might berate ourselves for failing to live us to standards that aren’t even real.

Specific practices for increasing appearance-related self-compassion are described in this article and are available here under Practices. Research suggests that making a habit of these practices can lead to lasting improvements in body image. 

Source: Juliana Breines Ph.D for Psychology Today 

Don’t Ask Me About Mudras…

Victoria Mudra.jpg
… because I have a complex relationship with them.
I’ve had a number of questions about the subject of mudras, and as it’s not something I use a huge amount in my teachings or my personal practice, I’ve been doing a bit of reading up about it. The reason I don’t use mudras beyond the basics (one or two that you will all recognise, like anjali or gyan – see below for definitions) is because I don’t know enough about them to teach them with confidence or authenticity. And what I do know about them, I’m not 100% convinced that they resonate with me. I recently wrote a post on my scepticism about hand gestures and how they could possibly accelerate my rather stop-start path to enlightment (my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write that).
Before I leave you to read on (and I quote directly from Isha Sadghuru), let me end with this: I believe firmly and wholeheartedly in the power of intention, focused awareness and directing energy in a certain direction. About energy following attention. So my take home from what I’ve read about mudras is about the potential benefits any focused energy and mindfulness can bring to our practice. It is with genuine humbleness that I say I obviously have a lot more to learn about this area and I look forward to the journey, because I still need a whole lot of convincing before I can genuinely warn people not to practice a certain hand gesture on a hot day because of the potentially catastrophic consequences it may bring about, for example. I can’t teach something I’m not convinced about, so let’s see where it takes me / us moving forward.
Your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!
Over now to Isha Sadghuru – a remarkable mountain mystic and teacher who has devoted his life to the study of how our human hands can transform our lives:
The word mudra literally means “a seal.” It is a certain position of the hand. Mudras are a subtle science of arranging your body in a certain way. The thinking is that the way your systems functions can be altered just by changing the positions of your palm. This is a whole subject by itself which essentially involves the geometry and the circuitry of the body, and its postulated that by holding a certain mudra, the energies tend to move in a particular way; that there are systems where you can regulate your breath in a certain way, with certain counts and proportions, and that by doing this, you can pinpoint your energy to any cell in the body if you want.

Mudras

Mudras are easy to perform anytime, although sitting in the lotus position and focusing on the healing can be an advantage. Although mudras can be used for healing certain ailments, regular practise of mudras will contribute to your overall good health and can be used as a preventive measure. Continuous practice of the mudras will create minute changes in your body using pulse centres on parts of your hands, which trigger certain healing processes within the corresponding body part.

Hasta Mudra (Hand Mudra)

The physical body is made up of five elements namely, Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Sky. A mudra is a gesture or positioning of the hands intended to direct energy flow and to connect parts of the body to the brain as life force energy flows through the body. Certain yoga mudras are believed to instigate particular energy flows and stimulate different emotions, spiritual reactions and reactions in the body. By pressing together, curling, touching or pointing different fingers or parts of the hands in different ways, you can stimulate reflexes from the hand to the brain.

Mudra Therapy: Hand Alignments for Holistic Health

Believe it or not, your health is in your hands! Our hands are particularly blessed with virtues of wellness. The four fingers and the thumb represent the five major building blocks or the ‘Panchamahabhootas’ of which the entire universe is made viz. Sky (Ether), Air, Fire, Water and Earth.

According to natural sciences, disease is nothing but a limitation that emerges in the continuity and balance of these five elements.

Philosophy of Mudra Therapy

The natural sciences of Mudra therapy believe that the five fingers correspond to the five basic elements viz. Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth.

  • Thumb – The fire (Agni)
  • Index finger – The air (Vayu)
  • Middle finger – The ether (Aakasha)
  • Ring finger – The earth (Prithvi)
  • Small finger – The water (Jala)

In order to bring back the balance in the five elements, there are some specific methods of touching and aligning the fingers with each other. These are referred to as ‘Hast-Mudras’ and this easy and doable therapy may be practiced anytime as an augmented relief from your malady as well as a handy tool for restoring your wellness.

Type of Mudras

The 10 important Hand Mudras are explained below:

1. Gyan Mudra or the Mudra of Knowledge

Touch the tip of the thumb and the tip of the index or 1st finger together. The other 3 fingers have to be kept straight.

Benefits:

  1. It helps in meditation and concentration and reduces negativity of the mind
  2. It improves memory and with regular practice students can improve grades and intelligence
  3. It aids in alleviating headache, insomnia and hypertension and reduces anger

2. Vayu Mudra or Mudra of Air

In this Mudra, the tip of the index or 1st finger is touched to the base of the thumb and the thumb comes over the finger with a slight pressure of the thumb being exerted. Rest of the fingers remain straight.

Benefits

By the practice of this mudra, all vayu ,that is, air related affections, like Arthritis, Gout, Sciatica, Knee pain, and Gas are relieved. It especially benefits in neck pain and spinal pain.

3. Shoonya Mudra or The Mudra of Emptiness

The tip of the middle finger is put at the base of the thumb and the thumb comes over the finger with slight pressure of the thumb being exerted on the finger. The other 3 fingers are kept straight.

Benefits:

  1. Regular practice of this Mudra helps in reducing ear pain and watering of the ears
  2. If this Mudra is done for 1 hour daily it can benefit in hardness of hearing
  3. The bones become strong and is beneficial in heart disease
  4. It strengthens gums and is helpful in throat problems and thyroid disease

4. Prithvi Mudra or the Mudra of Earth

In this Mudra, the tips of the thumb and the ring finger are touched together. The other fingers are kept straight.

Benefits:

  1. Regular practice of this Mudra is helpful in body weakness, thinness and also obesity
  2. It improves the functioning of the digestive system and reduces the deficiency of vitamins
  3. It gives energy and lustre to the body

5. Prana Mudra or the Mudra of Life

In this Mudra the tips of the thumb, ring finger and the little finger are touched together while keeping the other 2 fingers straight.

Benefits:

  1. It awakens the dormant power of prana, gives energy, health. It is beneficial in diseases of the eye and improves eyesight, raises body resistance to disease, reduces deficiency of vitamins, removes tiredness
  2. During fasting it reduces hunger pangs and thirst
  3. In insomnia, doing this hand posture, along with Gyan Mudra, helps in bringing on sleep

6. Apan Mudra or the Mudra of Digestion

This mudra is made by joining the tips of the thumb, the middle finger and the ring finger keeping the other fingers straight.

Benefits:

  1. Toxins are removed from the body and the body becomes pure. It also relieves constipation, piles, diseases caused by vayu or air, is helpful in diabetes, stoppage of urine, kidney defects and dental problems
  2. It is beneficial in stomach and heart diseases and brings out perspiration

7. Apan Vayu Mudra or the Mudra of Heart.

This Mudra is a combination of Vayu Mudra and Apan Mudra. The tips of the thumbs, the middle finger and the ring finger touch each other while the index finger touches the base of the thumb with a slight pressure. The little finger remains straight.

Benefits:

It gives the benefit of Apan Mudra and Vayu Mudra as explained earlier.

  1. It is helpful in Heart and Vayu diseases and gives health. People with a weak heart should do it daily. It is very beneficial for people who have suffered a heart attack in the recent past
  2. It removes gas from the stomach, aids in asthma, headache and high blood pressure
  3. If it is performed 5 to 7 minutes before climbing stairs, it aids in easy climbing

8. Surya Mudra or Mudra of the Sun

This Mudra is performed by touching the tip of the ring finger to the base of the thumb and exerting pressure on the finger with the thumb.

Benefits:

  1. It balances the body, reduces body weight and obesity. It increases body heat and helps in digestion
  2. It reduces hypertension and cholesterol and builds strength
  3. It is beneficial in diabetes and liver defects

Precautions:

Weak persons should not perform this hand posture and DO NOT do this hand posture for a long time in hot weather.

9. Varun Mudra or Mudra of Water

This Mudra is made by touching the tips of the thumb and the little finger.

Benefits:

  1. It reduces dryness of the skin and improves skin lustre and softness
  2. It is useful in skin diseases, acne and blood defects. It improves facial beauty

Precautions:

Persons suffering from Asthma and respiratory problems should do this Mudra for a short duration only.

10. Ling Mudra or the Mudra of Heat

Clasp all fingers of both hands together keeping your right thumb erect. Put a little pressure and sit relaxed. Practice it for 20-30 minutes every day.

Benefits:

  1. This mudra increases heat in the body and can cause sweating even in winter if done for a long time
  2. It helps in cold, coryza, asthma, cough, sinus problems and low blood pressure
  3. It dries phlegm

Precautions:

When doing this Mudra please increase intake of water, fruit, fruit juices, clarified butter (Ghee) and milk.

 

Note: I would like to add Anjali mudra which is the one we all know and love – hands to heart or ‘namaste’ – read more here.

Source:Yoga JournalInternational Day of Yoga Isha Sadghuru

Image: Riverside Studio manager Victoria Albreksen as captured by Idla Photography 

The Hips Don’t Lie – or do they?

The jury is out whether hips really are the ‘junk drawer’ for negative emotions, as a lot of yogis are known to say, or whether it’s all a load of fluff and actually is just due to physiological tightness.

I imagine that it’s a bit of both.

I come from a family of scientists; we love facts, research, and proof. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of some of the more fluffy stuff that us yogis spout on about (myself definitely included), and the hip issue is one of them that I treat with care for that very reason. I used to have a little internal chuckle when my teachers would warn us that the hip opening class could make us emotional. There are even jokes along the lines of ‘sorry for what I said while I was in pigeon pose’. I found it frustrating that everyone would carry on about these magical, invisible dumping grounds that coexisted with me in my hips, and wanted hard evidence of where all this esoteric stuff was coming from.

Over time, and with softening, and with letting go of the need to have everything scientifically proven (although there is still healthy scepticism that will always be there), and through seeing many students reactions to asana specifically focused on the hips, that there is definitely something way deeper than just the physical going on with people’s reactions to hip work. I’ve long ago ceased to be surprised when people snuffle their way through hip opening classes, or when grown men / women come to me after class to apologise for crying (usually noone even notices except them and me), often looking really bewildered and confused as to what on earth actually happened in there.

Yes, of course, our sedentary lifestyle and the amount of sitting we do for long periods can cause our hip flexors to shorten up and become tight, leading to problems with posture and back pain. The flip side (too much movement, or movement of a certain kind) can also cause pain and tightness – runners frequently suffer from hip soreness and inflammation due to overuse of certain muscles, impaired gait or poor running posture (which is why core strengthening and flexibility can help control posture when running to further reduce the workload of the psoas – but that’s for another post). So it makes sense that there can be a certain level of discomfort when doing hip work. 

My conclusion (and I reserve the right to change my mind at any point as I continue on my journey of learning – see, there’s another of those yogi cliches right there!) is that it’s probably a bit of both. Going with the slightly fluffy suggestion that the hips are said to be where we store emotion – often the kind we keep hidden down like anger, anxiety, sadness and frustration, it stands to reason that working on the deep tissues in hip opening asanas can release both physical and emotional tension.

Here’s what makes sense to me, the explanation that I can work with: on a physiological level the muscles of the hips have a relationship with the fight or flight response –  we are born with the reflex action of activating the hip flexors to bring us into the fetal position when under threat. One of the hip flexors, the psoas, is connected to the diaphragm so tightness here can lead to restrictions in the breath. So often in hip openers, we feel a sense of discomfort and so we instinctively tighten up – hold our breath, and essentially protect ourselves from this nasty feeling that we don’t like. And this is where the magic of the breath kicks in, and in my humble opinion, this is where the emotional stuff can be triggered, or brought into the light.

As we allow ourselves to surrender – or even start surrendering – letting go little by little, becoming softer, becoming even slightly more open to seeing what it is that we are so fiercely protecting ourselves from, it can be bloody scary, because sometimes we feel unbelievably vulnerable. Often it’s only at this point that we realise how tightly we’ve been holding on, and keeping ourselves safe – from whom or what is largely irrelevant at this point, it’s the fact that once that self-love starts, and you can hold yourself with compassion, you can almost allow yourself to let go. To realise you’re safe. You’re okay. You’ll be caught, even if you fall. The breath keeps us safe.

And here we can take it back to the practice on a psychological level – how we approach hip openers (and other strong poses) can be a mirror for how we approach other challenges in our lives; hip openers require a softening and surrendering into the pose, staying present and staying with the breath. This can be tough but ultimately worth it as our awareness grows.

Many of my students have heard me quote one of my heroes before – Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” So the option is there to view hip work as a chance to observe the stimulus (possible aversion to the pose, possible pain or tenderness, possible resistance) and then expanding the space before you choose your reaction – possibly asking some questions as to why on earth you are holding on so tightly, why you are so scared to let go, and then honouring it with your chosen response – to get out the pose quick smart, or to maybe stay and soften. That’s where the growth and the magic and the healing can happen.

Source: http://www.fitness.mercola.com; http://www.livestrong.com; http://www.ekhartyoga.com; Hatha Yoga Illustrated – Kirk/Boon/DiTuro; Yoga Anatomy – Kaminoff/Matthews