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.

 

How I Escaped My iPhone For 3 Whole Days

By accident, that’s how. I left my wall charger in Hermanus on a recent weekend away and then The Band took my car charger with him to Afrikaburn. And it has been the most wonderful accident, learning experience and eye-opener.

Day one was just a huge adjustment – it felt as if I was walking around without my knickers on. It was half fun and half filled with anxiety – I kept having these happy moments when I realised that I hadn’t checked my phone for hours, followed by a sense of ‘what if I’m missing out on Stuff and don’t even know about it’ anxiety.

Day two was my chance to go out and buy a charger – I got to the fabulous Buro store in Stellenbosch (go there if you ever want amazing, personalized service – they never cease to impress me) and it was closed, since it was Workers’ Day, which I had forgotten about. I was surprised that I felt really relieved to see the doors locked and the sign telling me to return the following day. It felt like someone had just given me an extra day’s holiday. And by now I was really relishing the silence and the fact that I was solely responsible for what information I was consuming – and when. I had completely lost that feeling that perhaps someone was trying to reach me and getting offended that I wasn’t responding. My dearest friends know that I sometimes need to go underground and that it’s nothing personal. And since I had both my kids with me all the time and The Band was without signal of his own in the desert, I realised that there was no need for me to feel any obligation or need to be available at all.

Late afternoon on day three saw me returning to Buro and purchasing a charger. I arrived as they were locking up for the day but being the awesome people that they are, they ushered me in and allowed me to make a quick purchase. I plugged in as soon as I got home and have just switched on my phone to find the following waiting to be consumed by unsuspecting old me, either on Twitter, Facebook or by email:

  • The One Thing You Should Be Doing For A Bloat-Free Belly
  • 6 Reasons To Start Using Coconut Oil As Toothpaste
  • Drinking enough water is vital to good health & when you do is just as NB
  • The 6 Mental Steps I Took to Manifest A 6-Figure Salary
  • 3 Ancient Ayurvedic Rituals To Rock Your Mornings
  • Here’s what gluten really does to your food
  • 10 Ways Moms Can Balance Home and Family
  • Seven tips for purposeful parenting
  • 5 Prenatal Yoga Moves Every Mama-To-Be Should Try
  • How to Overcome Anxiety and Depression Without Medications

It’s pretty clear from the headings what sort of newsletter I subscribe to, what pages I like and who I follow on Twitter: things that are supposed to uplift, inform and empower me; things that are specifically designed to help me reach my full potential – as a working mother, a yogi, a woman, someone who has to continually watch myself to make sure that my emotions are in check (more about that in another post) so that I can maintain my balance… as a human being on this planet. And when I saw all these things waiting for me, instead of feeling supported, I felt a cold, small but vice-like hand of panic tightening around my heart. I felt my breath becoming instantly sharper and shallower, and I realised why I have been feeling so relaxed the past few days: I have been in control of my thoughts and my feelings. I have been entirely able to dictate what information I consume, when. I have not had to second-guess what I have been doing, thinking, eating, wearing, cooking, or how I’ve been disciplining or what I’ve been feeding my children, not for one second. I had eaten my morning oats with gusto and no concern about the ghastliness of gluten; I have let my kids have what we call ‘piggy night’ last night because I just did not feel like going through the rigmarole and soap opera that is bathtime can be at times; I have used normal toothpaste and I have washed my bath out with Handy Andy (gasp) because I ran out of my natural cleaning products and just did not feel like driving to the shops to buy more. I have read actual books – fiction, not self-help – and I have been a total rebel and slept for 11 hours one night and for 7 the next because I was excited about clearing out my linen cupboard and didn’t want to go to bed until it was done.

And I have felt happy about it!

It has been interesting for me to see the amount of pressure I allow these sites to exert on me. How sensitive and suggestible I am in terms of feeling that I could / should be doing (everything) better. How I really am a work in progress when it comes to being more gentle on myself and not doubting myself. How you really don’t miss out on anything unmissable if you are out of radio silence for a while.

Moving forward: I am going to unsubscribe from a bunch of these newsletters; I am going to unfollow a whole flock of tweeters and I am going to unlike a horde of Facebook pages so that I have fewer sources of unsolicited advice waiting to ambush me every time I log in / on. And I am officially banning my phone from my bedroom in the evenings. It is going to charge in the kitchen while I sleep and I am going to use my old-fashioned alarm clock to wake me up.

So my love-hate affair with my phone continues, but I look forward to this continued awareness and taking control of its dominance in my life. Give it a try – switch yours off for a weekend and see how you feel, and let me know!

“How do I know when I’m getting better at yoga?”

This is something that I am asked fairly regularly by people that come to my little Stellenbosch yoga studio. Another question is: ‘How often should I practice ideally, in order to get the maximum benefits?’

There is no one or simple answer to either of those questions, and they are both worth asking. At the risk of being one of those annoying people who doesn’t give a straight answer but rather launches into a long-winded anecdote, allow me to tell you a quick little story…

I took a few days off work (my day job, not teaching) this week so I could go with my family to the gorgeous coastal town of Hermanus for a short break. It was such a treat to give my kids the undivided attention that they deserve and thrive upon, and I specifically didn’t take my laptop with me because I felt I needed to switch off and relax and recharge after a couple of pressurised weeks in the office . I was introduced to a lovely little studio in Hermanus called Yoga Heart by my dear friend and fellow teacher Leli Hoch a few years back and whenever I am nearby, I make a point of dropping in for a class. So, I was extremely excited about fitting in a ‘still’ class yesterday morning, at 10.30am on Wednesday. I elected to walk along the magical cliff path, my favourite thing about the town, rather than drive, and ended up hopelessly underestimating how long it would take me to get to the studio – I would have been almost half an hour late.

And this is where the answer to the above question started becoming clear: although I was initially annoyed with myself – really pissed off actually – at having got my planning so badly wrong, swiftly followed by a real sense of disappointment at the fact that I was going to miss my class that I had looked forward to for a while, both those feelings were gently wiped away by a real, deep-seated sense of ‘oh well, that clearly wasn’t meant to be; I guess that means I’m supposed to be doing something else then’. And to cut a long story short, I ended up finding a lovely secluded bench along the path where I rolled out my mat and did some fabulous breath work and meditation instead.

It was one of those really lovely moments where I really, genuinely felt that I have made progress in my yoga practice. At a time that I’ve been pulled away from my mat a lot, what with work pressures and family commitments, and through which I’ve been aware of a little voice in the back of my mind nattering on about how long it’s been since I tried out a new arm balance, for example, or why I haven’t taught a workshop for a while, or why I’m not meditating for as long as I would like to each day, it was almost a relief that find that I actually have come to a place – after all these years of practicing yoga – where I am finding a growing flexibility. And I’m referring to a flexibility in my mind and heart, rather than my body.

I am a bit of a control freak. I like things to work out, especially when I have taken time to plan well. I have often felt that people who say ‘it wasn’t meant to be’ are subtly making excuses for not having got out of bed early enough or who are just sugar-coating real disappointments because that’s what they think that they should do or say. And sometimes I need to think carefully when I find myself saying yogic cliches, like ‘everything happens for a reason’ (I say that a lot) as to whether I really think that or if it’s just another platitude. So, it was a wonderful, liberating, uplifting and reassuring feeling to find that I really didn’t mind missing the class after all. And that I didn’t beat myself up about not making the class. And that I really, genuinely, felt in my heart of hearts that I was supposed to be on the cliff path on my own rather than in a studio with a bunch of other people.

So, I guess the short answer to the question is you know you’re getting better at yoga when not just your body but your mind starts showing distinct signs of increased flexibility. The ability to go with the flow. When you find that you are having a real shift away from the negative ways and thoughts and habits that hold you back and keep you trapped. They can be big or small. They can change. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost twenty years and this is the first time I’ve really felt this particular shift. Made the entire trip to Hermanus worthwhile.

As for the question about the ideal amount that one should practice, I’ve always said that it’s whatever you can manage. Some folk say you should aim for at least 2 classes a week… I say that there’s no point in stressing yourself about getting to a class if it’s not working in your life. Do as much as you can, but by that I don’t mean as many classes a week as you can: just do whatever you can – even 5 minutes a day is good (my go-to home pose is Cat Cow) so that it’s a pleasure in your life and not a chore. If it works for you, you will probably find that you start gravitating towards making more time for yoga in your life. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t force it – but that’s probably a good indicator that there’s something that you may want to have a little look at, to figure out why there is resistance towards getting on your mat. We all have it sometimes. Nothing to freak out about, just a little flag that pokes up and says ‘hey, you may want take a deeper look at this’…

More about that in my next post!

Using Yoga To Get You Through The Festive Season

Arniston arniston3 arniston2I wouldn’t say I’m a Grinch but I’m certainly not one of those people who whole-heartedly embraces Christmas and the whole festive season and feels sad and deflated when it’s over. On the contrary, I have to work hard with myself to stop getting stressed at how much waste the whole season involves –  waste of money, waste of energy, waste of paper and food… and I admit to breathing a long sigh of relief once the 25th is over and everyone and everything seems to start settling down.

I appreciate that the holiday season can be joyful, a time to share what we have with family and friends. However, there’s no doubt that it can also be a stressful time if we allow hectic schedules and commercial pressures to drive us. Which is why this year I persuaded my husband that our family needed to spend 2 weeks at the beach. I found a beautiful house in Arniston and after just a few days we have already settled into a gloriously easy rhythm of breakfast, beach, snooze, pool, more beach, braaing, reading, playing, and of course my precious yoga practice. The main bedroom happens to be huge with a deck overlooking Kassiesbaai and I have practiced under the rising full moon as well as the rising sun. And I have found that my practice has never felt sweeter. I’m sure it’s a combination of the sea air, the turquoise water, the easy routine and especially the fact that there is no shopping mall in sight and certainly no queues, no piped carols being played over a sound system in a mall, no gaudy decorations and no pressure to buy or acquire anything other than the odd piece of snoek or new set of beach bats once the old ones gave up the ghost after a particularly competitive volley between the husband and I (yes, I’m still working on losing my competitive streak).

It’s not all peachy. My in-laws are out visiting from Northern Ireland for 6 weeks. 6 WEEKS. Which is one of the main reasons I begged my husband for us to go away – I love them dearly and am very lucky to have them, but I am a fiercely private person who needs her own space and I figured that if we were in a neutral environment where I wasn’t having to be hostess the entire time, I would also be able to have a bit of a break and have a better chance of remaining marginally pleasant for a longer period of time. Well, that remains to be seen, but at least I’m getting a tan while I’m losing my ability to make small talk.

I’ve been pondering a lot what this time of year means to me. Whilst I consider myself a deeply spiritual person, I am not religious and don’t believe in Jesus Christ which is why I suppose I don’t feel a deep resonance with the whole ‘birth of Christ’ side of things. Sometimes I actually feel like a bit of a fraud that I’m piggy-backing on the Christmas theme even though I haven’t been to church in pretty-much all my life, other than funerals, christenings and weddings. I do, however, feel a huge amount of empathy for my fellow man at this time of year, especially because a number of my nearest and dearest have lost very special loved ones recently and it seems that a lot of folk are battling their own demons at the moment. It’s well documented that depression is one of the most commonly reported and treated illnesses at this time of the year, with people acutely aware of the sense of loneliness and alienation that can be felt when you think that everyone else is having a big family fun time.

I find that at this time of year I really do need to protect my yoga practice. The commercial pressure, holiday shopping, family visits, the logistics of planning and traveling, managing food and alcohol consumption, getting enough exercise and down-time whilst remaining a good mum, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, friend, employee at the same time… it can all get a bit much. And then I get onto my mat and start to breathe and then start moving through (typically) a slow, sweet and gentle practice, and everything falls into perspective again. As corny as it sounds, it’s true!

So I find that the holiday season is a golden opportunity to practice yoga outside of the classroom, actually applying all the skills we have been honing over the year. As Dr. Swami Shankardev says, managing the holiday season is like the exam, the real test of how much we have learned and embodied over the year.

How do we maintain a calm centre in the storm of the holidays?  The first thing to do is to dedicate some quiet time for contemplation and meditation. Just sit still wherever you are, breathing quietly to practice any calming, grounding process. Once you have settled in, why not contemplate what a particular holiday means to you, maybe asking yourself what you really want to get out of this period, and what will best support you and others.As you develop a sense of that meaning, perhaps focus on disentangling commercial pressures from the essence of the holidays. This may be able to help you plan strategies that will make this period meaningful and fulfilling.

It sounds paradoxical but stress can be the biggest issue for a lot of people during the holidays. Stresses come in many forms and it can be helpful to contemplate what yours is likely to be. For me, it’s the fact that there is always someone is my house, in my kitchen, in my garden, just in my space. The fact that there is a lot of chit-chat and I am not very good at that. I need to dig deep to remain calm, adult and hospitable when the revolting teenager in me is jumping up and down and shouting ‘JUST GIVE ME SOME &***%% SPACE!!!!’

During my early morning meditation, I find it helpful to playfully visualize what may lie ahead on any given day. I have also looked back at past holidays and considered what I’d like to do differently – which is why we are having Christmas at the beach this year. To give myself the best possible chance of remaining calm, focused, grounded and friendly, I actually have to contemplate strategies that I can actually apply outside of the practice space. This meditation, then, is mental rehearsal for the actual event. So far, so good.

I have to continuously remind myself that yoga is more than technique; it is a way of being. Breath is the best tool we have to remain conscious and calm; any time is a good time to practice moving and breathing more slowly and consciously. It’s my way of keeping that sulky teenager that lurks within me under control, especially when my children are bickering about who’s got the biggest glass of milk or whose turn it is to pull the plug out of the bath. I’ve taught them to breathe deeply too when they get overwhelmed, so if ever there’s a stressful moment in our house, you’re likely to find me (40), Isla (3) and Daniel (5) all lying on the ground and taking deep, slow breaths as we calm each other and ourselves down. It works, even though it looks funny and my in-laws think I’m a hippy-freak.

If you do plan to keep your practice up whilst you’re away from your usual studio, it’s probably worthwhile being realistic about what’s actually going to be achievable in terms of getting on your mat. When we first got to the coast, I had planned to be up at 6am every morning for 45 minutes asana practice and at least 15 minutes meditation. As it turned out, the first day my kids woke up at 5.30am (at home I have to drag them out of bed at 7.30am or even 8am – but here the excitement was too much) so there went my practice. The second day I just felt too pooped to get out of bed and instead had a glorious lie-in as the sun rose gently over the sea. The third day I got on my mat at 7am and all I did was balasana and halasana, and breathed and let go and allowed myself to just relax. Yes, I did fit in my practice later in the day but it was so lovely to just let go of any plan or goal and to rather do what I always encourage my students to do: listen to your body and your mind, and tune into what you really need from your practice. This morning my practice took place in the comfort of my bed, and it consisted of legs up in the air, the full yogic breath, and then supta baddha konasana as I drifted off to sleep again. Perfect.

I find that my real and ongoing challenge is keeping yoga in my life and mind when I’m off the mat: practicing empathy, non-judgement, equanimity, forgiveness, losing my ego, letting go of any semblance of control and surrendering to what is, without losing the essence of who I am. I also find it helpful to remember that asana, pranayama and meditation practices are not ends in themselves, but means to an end. That end is to develop a greater inner resilience and a more stable mind that can handle the difficulties of life with greater calm and poise.

Even if you don’t practice at all over the next few weeks before our Stellenbosch yoga studio re-opens, don’t feel guilty! Take some time out, do something totally different, have a break! And then when you come back to your yoga practice I’m sure you’ll get back into formal practice with renewed enthusiasm and a clearer direction of what you need to work toward in the New Year.

Higher Yoga (with thanks to Dr. Swami Shankardev)
If you wish to practice some form of higher yoga to nourish your spirit during the holiday season, you may wish to focus on how you can support others less fortunate than yourself. It is an excellent time to practice selfless service and giving. It is a time when we can learn from and support others, especially those going through difficult times.

Here are a few tips for practicing higher yoga so that you can fill your life with peace and joy:

1. Honour yourself, your relations, and the planet by choosing a noble and virtuous intention for the New Year. Practice ahimsa, a yama of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, which means nonviolence toward yourself and others.

2. Follow your own heart. Learn to listen to yourself, your own higher intuitive inner voice, through meditation practice.

3. Practice contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of Patanjali. Contemplate just how much you already have and what you really need. Is there some

thing that you think you need in your life to make you happy, and/or do you already have plenty? Cultivate gratitude for all the things you have.

4. Before you indulge, bring consciousness into the moment. For example, before eating, be aware of what you are going to eat and perhaps say a simple prayer or thanks. Prepare to really enjoy what you are about to eat, to take it deep into your tissues so as to fully nourish yourself.

5. Be flexible in body, mind, and spirit. Learn not be constrained by plans but to go more with the flow. There is an old Indian saying: “Man proposes; God disposes.”

With great thanks to Dr. Swami Shankardev for the backbone of this post. Dr. Swami is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. Contact him at www.bigshakti.com.

Trying to conceive? Already pregnant? Give yourself and your unborn baby the gift of prenatal yoga.

If you are reading this, the chances are good that you are either pregnant (congratulations!), or hoping to be soon. Even if you’ve never done yoga before, starting it when you are pregnant can be one of the best things you could do for yourself and for your baby. When paired with a cardiovascular exercise such as walking, yoga can be an ideal way to stay in shape during your pregnancy. This age-old practice keeps you supple, tones your muscles and improves your balance and circulation, with little, if any, impact on your joints.

Another reason that yoga is beneficial is because it helps you learn to breathe deeply and relax, which will come in handy as you face the physical demands of labour, birth, and motherhood. In fact, one of the first things I will teach you in a pregnancy yoga class at my Stellenbosch yoga studio is how to breathe fully.

Different breathing techniques (pranayama) can help to prime you for labour and childbirth by training you to stay calm when you need it most. When you’re in pain or afraid, your body produces adrenalin and may produce less oxytocin, a hormone that makes labour progress. A regular yoga practice will help you fight the urge to tighten up when you feel pain, and show you how to relax instead.

Medical experts at the Mayo Clinic have even touted prenatal yoga as “a multifaceted approach to exercise that encourages stretching, mental centering and focused breathing.” Along these same lines, according to a report in the April 2009 issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, rigorous studies have found scientific proof that yoga helps the body deal with stress by slowing heart and breathing rates and lowering blood pressure –  which can benefit new mums after the baby’s born, too.

The benefits of yoga aren’t limited to your physical well-being. Taking a prenatal yoga class is a great way to meet other pregnant women — to become part of a community of like-minded people who are going through a similar experience. Being in a positive, supportive environment with others like you can give you a regular emotional boost and keep you motivated to continue exercising.

Whether you have been practicing yoga for a while or are a beginner, it is extremely important to seek out a yoga instructor who is specifically trained in prenatal yoga, someone who knows what asana are safe and what to avoid, and how to advise you to modify your practice according to your own pregnancy.  As far as I know, I am the only yoga teacher in Stellenbosch who is qualified to teach pregnancy yoga, having completed my advanced PTT module at Ananda Sanga in 2011.

I kept going with my regular yoga practice with both of my pregnancies but only once I had done a one-on-one prenatal yoga class with Anne Combrinck at Ananda Sanga  where she taught me how to adapt my practice to pregnancy. For those who have never done yoga before, I strongly advise that you attend the prenatal classes that I offer at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch (once you are past 12 weeks), but for those of you that already have a strong practice, you are also welcome to join the regular classes, but be prepared to adapt and modify when we are doing twists, belly work etc. I also offer one-on-one classes  just to show you the basics of how to do this, if that’s what you’d prefer.

“Nicci completed her Yoga Teacher training with distinction, in 2011. She has subsequently gone on to complete a Pregnancy Yoga Teacher training also and is a confident, competent and wonderful Yoga Teacher. ” Anne Combrinck – Principal Educator at Ananda Sanga.

Please contact me for more information and / or class times.

For more information about why prenatal yoga can be so beneficial, read on…

Five excellent reasons to do pregnancy yoga at my yoga studio in Stellenbosch! (Source: Amy Lynch, MindBodyGreen.com).

Looking specifically at a pregnant woman’s body, yoga can specifically work the areas with the most need in a class geared toward pregnant women. Below are some of the most important pains, areas of interest and common pregnancy issues yoga can safely and gently alleviate and improve.

1. The Breath: Breathing is not something we often think about throughout the day. It is a mechanical function of the body. We never really have to remind ourselves to breathe, but we should, especially to prepare our body for the process of labour. Breathing is a very important part of delivering a baby, it helps to relax the body and take your mind from the pain and strain.

2. The Pelvic Floor: The pelvic floor is a hammock of muscles that form a bowl attached to the pelvis. This muscle supports the vital reproductive and digestion organs, as well as the baby during pregnancy and plays a vital role in sexual intercourse for both men and women.

During pregnancy it is especially important to exercise your pelvic floor muscle as it has to support a greatly increased load at this time. Although pregnancy is not the only factor for a weakened pelvic floor, aging and inactivity can play a role; it can weaken from pregnancy and childbirth. Although not the cause, a weak pelvic floor can be the start of some health problems. That is why it is very important to work with these muscles, especially after childbirth. Like any other muscle in the body, the pelvic floor can be re-strengthened. The symptoms of a weakened pelvic floor include urinary or stool incontinence, constipation or incomplete bowel or bladder emptying, diminished sexual satisfaction, painful intercourse, inability to reach orgasm, sagging or prolapse of the uterus, bladder, or rectum, and low back or lower abdominal pain.

A strong pelvic floor muscle can enable a woman to carry a baby more comfortably during pregnancy and will help both the mother and baby during labour and delivery. Stimulating blood flow in the pelvic area after childbirth quickens recovery from any stitches or episiotomy. Women who have had Caesareans also need to strengthen their pelvic floor muscles as it is the gravitational pressure of pregnancy that weakens the muscles, not the physical event of birth.

3. The Posture: As the babies and bellies grow and change, so does the centre of gravity. One of the things that allow humans to walk upright is the balance between the lower back muscles and our four abdominal muscles. However, when our abdominals are weak, this can cause our lower back muscles to over compensate and over work, causing pain and strain in the lumbar area. When the belly moves more forward with growth, this stretches the abdominals beyond their original shape, weakening them and this causing lower back pain during pregnancy when none may have ever been experienced before, especially in the third trimester. Although pregnancy is not the time to do major core work, it is recommended to gently work all four abdominals to keep them a little strong. After your baby is born, it is common for women to find some separation has occurred between the right and left side of the abdominals, exercises that bring the belly toward the spine can help bring the abs back to pre-pregnancy shape.

Yoga can also help alleviate the pressure the lower back is under during the shift in gravity. By stretching the upper leg muscles and the lower back, tension will start to release. Partnered with the smart abdominal work, your body will feel less pain as it goes through the journey of pregnancy.

4. The Feet: Surprising to most, the foot actually has 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. And although our feet get us around the entire day, we rarely take the time to take care of them, or check how we are using them, especially as that centre of gravity moves over the nine months.

With the shift of the centre of gravity in your body as your pregnancy progresses, this changes our stance and pressure in our feet and joints. The two most common problems become over pronation and oedema. These problems can lead to pain at the heel, arch, or the ball-of-foot. Correct alignment and awareness taught in a yoga class can help to alleviate these problems.

5. The Hips: Prenatal yoga can help bring back flexibility and comfort to the groups of muscles and bone structures in the front and back of the hips. Hormones released during pregnancy soften and relax joints and cartilage between bones in our pelvis to prepare it for child birth. However, getting the muscles ready is good to facilitate an easier birth for mom and baby.

In front, we have our hip flexors, which work to flex, or bend, the hips. This brings our knee and thigh up and in line with our hip joint and toward our chest. Lunges are a great example of the work of the hip flexors. It is imperative to keep these flexible so we can easily open our legs without too much strain for delivery, as well as bend the knees close to the chest to assist with birth. Yoga can also stretch the ligaments in the pelvis, hip and leg areas, all making the positions and pushing in labour easier.

Our muscles are, however, antagonistic, which basically means when one works, the other does the opposite to allow the action. So, in order for the hip flexors to contract, the back of the hips need to relax. This is why it is essential to work the front and back of the hips in stretching, relaxing and strengthening to find balance. Again, low lunges are the perfect way to stretch the hip flexors while contracting them on the other side and the same for the muscles in the back of the hips. However, your yoga teacher can give you many poses for this area of the body.

What else can yoga do?

Research suggests that prenatal yoga can have many benefits for pregnant women and their babies. Studies have suggested that practicing yoga while pregnancy can also improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, increase the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth.

It can also decrease nausea, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches and shortness of breath, and decrease the risk of preterm labour, pregnancy-induced hypertension and intrauterine growth restriction — a condition that slows a baby’s growth.

But don’t forget, yoga is also a perfect workout after you have your baby as well. When you feel ready to move, starting out with gentle yoga, simple breathing and stretching is a great way to start your body moving again. As you may have already guessed, or experienced, finding time to practice as a new mum is hard. A good time to start is take 15 minutes while your baby is napping to work with a gentle yoga sequence each day can work miracles for energy and body strength. Also, as your baby feeds, try practicing pranayama, the relaxation from deep belly breathing and action of the muscles helps to speed up the recovery time.

As always, check with your physician before you begin any new exercise practice.  Please feel free to contact me for class times or if you have any questions. I hope to meet you soon!