Month: August 2014

The Many Benefits of Ujjayi Breathing

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Via Heidi Rockeon Jun 3, 2014


Ujjayi prana breathe man sit

Yoga teachers are forever reminding us to breathe. But is it really thatimportant?

I mean, when I’m busy trying to gut it out in Warrior 3 or finally push up into full wheel, why is she going on aboutbreathing? I’m already trying to think about all four limbs, my drishti, my bandhas, my balance, my back, my hips, my shoulders… now I gotta breathe too!

In short: yes

Breathing and the act of breathing is the place where the mind and body truly meet. It is the one dictator of our external world that we can actually control. Try this: slouch, constrict your chest cavity, restrict your breathing and stare at the floor. See if your mood doesn’t become gloomy and sad. Now sit up, look up, take several deep breaths and watch as your mood, your perspective and your entire experience of the world around you changes.

The physical practice of asana and the breathing that goes with it has a long and growing list of conditions it has been shown to alleviate.

The integration of the body and mind that the practice requires produces measurable effects in several areas.

Slower, deeper breathing calms the nervous system. According to the Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by D. Coultier, quiet breathing influences the autonomic circuits that slow the heart beat and reduce blood pressure, producing calm and a sense of stability. Abnormal breathing patterns can stimulate autonomic reactions associated with panic attacks, anxiety, and chronic over-stimulation of the sympathetic [fight or flight] nervous system.

In a panic situation, the response is often to take many rapid shallow breaths, an activity that actually delivers lessair to the alveoli (the point of exchange for oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and lungs). According to Yoga as Medicine by T. McCall, a 1998 study, published in the Lancet, followed patients with restricted lung capacity due to congestive heart failure. After practicing full (deep) yogic breathing periodically for one month, the average number of breaths taken per minute dropped from 13.4 to 7.6.  Their exercise capacity increased as did their blood oxygen saturation.

Anatomy and Physiology by Thibodeau and Patton states that increased oxygen in the blood coupled with improved circulation brings more oxygenated blood to the extremities. Studies show asana practice measurably increases levels of hemoglobin (the carrier of oxygen in the blood) and red blood cells. The exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide (co2) happens through a delicate balance of pressure gradients between the blood and alveoli or the blood and cells. When the co2-rich blood reaches the lungs, the body’s perpetual quest for balance demands the transfer of co2 for oxygen and respiration is achieved.

If—as during shallow breathing—we lose too much co2, there is less transfer both at the alveoli and at the cells themselves. The blood will retain what oxygen it has to maintain proper blood pH levels, leaving a build-up of metabolic waste at the cells and effectively starving the cells of fresh oxygen.

The magic of an asana practice is found at the union of the mind and body.

The physical expression of that meeting point is the breath. It is the one survival function over which we have voluntary control and to which we have involuntary submission.  It is the expression of our existence and the circumstances under which we perceive that existence. Let your yoga practice be not about the next shape or cool trick, but instead be about extending the consecutive moments in which we can maintain the steady rhythmic breathing that shapes the physical and emotional experience of our world.

From Moksha Yoga Studio’s May 2011 Newsletter (adapted excerpt from full article published in Hippocrates Health Institute Quarterly, January 2008)

The Top 5 Reasons Old People Need Yoga. ~ Niki Saccareccia

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older woman doing yoga

I recently befriended two people in their 80s that are intelligent and enthusiastic about their lives.

One runs a non-profit for underprivileged children and the other is a gender-equality activist. One is a yoga student of mine, and the other a fellow comrade of personal-empowerment and authentic living. What I am coming to learn from each of them is the importance of a physical discipline that benefits mental faculties.

Here are my top five reasons why our elders need to practice the physical discipline of hatha yoga:

1. Cognitive Resiliency

Yoga’s process of drawing distinction between body parts, sensations and degrees of effort supports increased self-awareness, proprioception (the mind’s GPS) and balance. By coordinating different and often contrasting regions of the body, both sides of the brain communicate better, which could be linked to improved memory and decision-making skills.

Engaging in new physical routines builds and strengthens brain pathways. This action of neuroplasticity has been shown to ward off Alzheimer’s symptoms and also increase intelligence.

2. Improved Circulation

Breathing practices alone will help to increase movement in the upper back and chest at a time in the aging process where this region is often stiff, dehydrated and compressed. Regular yoga practice can also act as a preventative measure for pneumonia in older populations that are especially vulnerable to this sometimes fatal condition.

When gravity has been pressing down on the sphincters, vessels and cavities of our bodies for decades, the fullness of circulation can deplete and pulmonary issues are more likely. With age and habit, connective tissues harden, leading to discomfort and inflammation.

The dynamic movement sequences in a typical yoga class cause pressure and release for the organs and connective tissues that hold the body together, thought to work like a gentle massage for these areas. Whenever we increase blood flow to an area of the body, that innate healing intelligence activates, improving our odds to fit off stress and its consequences.

3. Sustained Strength and Flexibility

With age, our joints and bones become more vulnerable to fractures and inflammation, but yoga’s signature method of low-impact, resistance training builds muscle tone and strength. Even a gentle practice with just a few weight-bearing poses can help retain strength and stave off issues related to arthritis. That adage about “being set in their ways” isn’t so far off in this case. Habits and a more sedentary lifestyle will atrophy muscle tissue, causing weakness and poor circulation. But, hatha yoga encourages the body to lengthen muscle fibers that are often short and stressed, increasing flexibility and also resiliency.

4. Improved Focus and Willpower

Concentrating is difficult enough in our busy, over-stimulated modern world and the elderly feel the effects, too. When that kapha influence of laying low and keeping cool are the signature influences of this stage of life, willpower and the motivation to exercise or meditate can be daunting (especially if regular exercise and mindfulness work isn’t part of the daily routine). A regular hath yoga practice can quell the stiff inertia of immobility without the over-exertion of more athletic exercise programs.

5. To Maintain Well-being

All my elderly friends and family often share with me how they enjoy being around younger people. Getting into the healthy habit of a regular yoga practice promotes socializing, sharing and community building. Mindfulness, resiliency in the body-mind, and honoring the aging process for what it is, all help to maintain wellness. Living a healthy, active life aids in increasing the feel-good hormones in the brain that elevate mood. Also, having cross-generations mingle together in the supportive environment of a yoga class sets a great model for younger generations who have outdated ideas about what it means to grow older.

Like every wise-elder archetype ever, my friends dole out some pretty wonderful insights about growing up and getting closer to death. They joke about being “old” and how yoga makes them feel young and strong.

If we are really only as young as our spine is healthy, could you imagine what our world would be like if our oldest tribe members were backbending their way to the grave?

Are there physical benefits of mindful awareness?

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July 16, 2014


Practicing mindfulness is its own reward, since it helps you enjoy life bybeing fully present instead of just going through the motions. But did you know it can actually improve the effectiveness of your flu vaccine? From The Four Virtues.

Awareness practices, such as meditation, have long demonstrated a direct impact on stress, from lowering blood pressure to altering brain wave activity. Practices based simply on noticing or watching our inner sensations rather than resisting or getting lost in them have demonstrable effects on pain management and increase the production of antibody titers to the flu vaccine (meaning simply that the immune system works better as a result of these practices in presence). Neuroimaging even suggests that contemplative practice may not only change how the brain is functioning but over time may also change the very structure of the brain itself, specifically increasing cortical thickness. (Thinning of the cortex is associated with brain disorders like Alzheimer’s.)

Beyond its utility as a natural performance and health enhancer, the ability to focus can also help us open to joy and deep satisfaction. The state described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as flow involves being fully absorbed in the activity at hand, whether working on a math problem, building a chair, or running rapids in a kayak. This state of mind and body is characterized by high concentration on a particular activity, the merging of action and awareness as we lose our sense of self and, along with it, our usual sense of time. This immersion is typically deeply satisfying, and the effort seems almost effortless. We and it are flowing; we’re in “the zone.” The capacity for being absorbed is also associated with deeply satisfying, deeply beautiful experiences, including peak or mystical moments. Attention opens us that deeply. Developing the capacity for focus gives us the power to direct and steady our minds intentionally, and this essentially helps us get out of our own way in order to tap both ourselves and the world at a greater depth. (from Tips on Healthy Living)

Recent Article Regarding Mental Health Benefits of Yoga

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A new review of studies has confirmed yoga’s benefits on mental health conditions such as depression and ADHD.

Researchers from Duke University analyzed the results of 124 trials on how yoga can benefit people with certain neuropsychiatric disorders, and pinpointed 16 that met their criteria.

Of those studies included in their review, published in the journal Frontiers In Affective Disorders And Psychosomatic Research, they found evidence that yoga provides a benefit in depression, schizophrenia (when done alongside drug therapy), ADHD and problems with sleep. However, researchers didn’t find clear evidence showing yoga had a benefit on people with eating disorders or cognitive disorders.