om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: Asana

Stress hormone linked to frailty

More reason to do yoga: reduced stress linked to greater stability in old age

More reason to do yoga: reduced stress linked to greater stability in old age

Reducing stress levels is possibly part of the reason you go to yoga, yes? It certainly is for me. A new study into the long-term effects of the stress hormone cortisol has found that lower morning and higher evening cortisol levels contribute to frailty in older individuals. Another good reason to get on the floor for a yoga practice — or meditation or anything else you can do to reduce overall stress levels, I reckon!

Frailty confers a high risk for institutionalisation and increased risk of mortality and is characterised by unintentional weight loss, feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, physical inactivity, slow gait speed and low grip strength. Neuroendocrine function, including cortisol secretion, is thought to be involved in the etiology of frailty, but until now the underlying biological mechanisms have not been well understood.

“Cortisol typically follows a distinct daily pattern with the highest level in the morning and the lowest basal level at night,” said Karl-Heinz Ladwig, PhD, MD, of Helmholtz Zentrum München in Neuherberg, Germany and an author of the study. “Our findings showed dysregulated cortisol secretion, as featured by a smaller morning to evening cortisol level ratio, was significantly associated with frailty status,” he said.

Study method

In this study, researchers conducted a cross-sectional analysis of 745 participants between the ages of 65 and 90 years. Cortisol levels were measured using saliva samples at three points: awakening, 30 minutes after awakening and evening. Participants were classified as frail if three or more of the following criteria were met: exhaustion, physical inactivity, low walking speed, weakness (measured by grip strength) or weight loss (loss of more than 5 kilograms in the past six months).

“Our results suggest a link between disrupted cortisol regulation and loss of muscle mass and strength, as the underlying pathophysiology of frailty,” said Hamimatunnisa Johar, a PhD student at Helmholtz Zentrum München and an author of the study. “In a clinical setting assessment of frailty can be time-consuming, and our findings show measurements of cortisol may offer a feasible alternative,” she said.

Other authors of the study include: Rebecca Emeny, Barbara Thorand, Annette Peters and Margit Heier of Helmholtz Zentrum München, German Research Centre for Environmental Health in Neuherberg, Germany; and Martin Bidlingmaier and Martin Reincke of Klinikum der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in Munich, Germany.

The study, “Blunted Diurnal Cortisol Pattern is Associated with Frailty: A Cross-Sectional Study of 745 Participants Aged 65 to 90 Years,” has been accepted for publication in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) and will appear in the March 2013 issue.

~

Article based on materials provided by the Endocrine Society. Founded in 1916, the Endocrine Society is the world’s oldest, largest and most active organization devoted to research on hormones and the clinical practice of endocrinology. Today, the Endocrine Society’s membership consists of over 17,000 scientists, physicians, educators, nurses and students in more than 100 countries. Society members represent all basic, applied and clinical interests in endocrinology. The Endocrine Society is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Advertisements

Yoga, writing and keeping active

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be involved in some sessions at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, which I’m really excited about.

This year, the second weekend of the festival will be held at the beautiful Abbortsford Convent, which is one of my favourite places to wander around on a weekend anyway. That weekend, The Writers’ Retreat, is focused on wellbeing for writers, and the program includes events on parenting and writing, health and writing, balancing writing with life, and nature writing. You can view the full list of events here.

I’ll be involved in two events on the weekend.

Workshop: Yoga and Writing
11am-12.30pm, 1 June 2013
The Salon, Abbortsford Convent
Tickets $15, $12 concession

I’ll be running a workshop on yoga and writing on the Saturday morning. I can’t even begin to articulate how excited I am about running this. For me, yoga is an absolutely vital part of my writing practice. I use it in all sorts of ways, from a remedy for the physical ills that come with sitting hunched over a desk, to supporting and enhancing (I hope) the intellectual and emotional wrangling necessary to get words on a page.

The workshop will be an opportunity for me to share some of the ways that I use a yoga practice to help my writing, but I also want it to be a pretty open format. I’ll be running the class through some of the yoga postures and other practices, but questions and discussion will be most welcome.

I always hope in my yoga teaching to help people develop sovereignty with their own bodies (and minds, for that matter), so that they can begin to use on their own the tools yoga offers for whatever it is that they need. This workshop is no exception. So come along and ask me as many questions as you like!

Seriously. I love it when people ask me questions about yoga.

Symposium: Keeping Active in the Arts
2.30-4pm, 2 June 2013
Rosina Auditorium, Abbortsford Convent
Admission is free

I’ll also be involved in a symposium-style event on the Sunday called ‘Keeping Active in the Arts’. In this session we’ll be talking about the benefits of staying active, and how to actually do that.

Having recently gone back to a job that keeps me at a desk three days a week (as opposed to teaching yoga full-time, like I was in Sydney), I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks mulling over exactly these questions. I’m really looking forward to discussing some of the ideas I’ve had, and getting some new ones from others.

But honestly, the whole weekend sounds like it’s going to be wonderful, so even if you can’t make it to my events, do come along. Here are some pictures I took on a recent visit to Abbortsford Convent — it’s worth coming just hang out in the place.

~

This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

EWF blog post ~ Move it or lose it: exercise and writing

This week my next Emerging Writers’ Festival CAL Digital Mentorship Program blog post went up. This one’s on the way exercise changes our brains and how that, for me, relates to writing.

~

When I was a teenager I loved to run. We lived on the edge of town, not far from where the road turned from bitumen to gravel. Every afternoon I’d head for the gravel, and often I’d close my eyes as I ran, just to listen to the sound of my feet crunching, the sound of my own breath, sometimes the sound of my heartbeat.

I ran for physical fitness, in part. But mainly I ran because it made me feel good mentally, because it calmed my mind.

On days when I was particularly anxious, or even angry, I’d sprint the section between where the bitumen ended and the end of the street. While I caught my breath after those sprints, I’d stretch my legs on top of the white wooden reflector poles, gaze out over the paddocks and feel the tension — the anger, the anxiety — loosen and drop away.

I was one of those angry teens. I was angry for reasons I didn’t understand, prone to outbursts where things were yelled, doors were slammed and where I lashed out at my family. Running calmed me. I didn’t know how it worked, all I knew was that it did. I knew that when I got home I’d be better equipped to do my homework or study, less likely to blow up at the antics of my younger brothers.

My relationship with anger is still one of the strongest driving forces in my life. Anger motivates me to do things, to write things. Expressed in a helpful way, anger can carry passion and fascination, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing. But it can also become a (rather terrifying) hindrance too — it can cloud my judgement, it can leave me full of energy but with no idea where to direct it, rendering it and me effectively useless. None of this is particularly conducive to working or writing or living well.

Anger is why I’ve always been a highly active person; exercise helps me to turn anger into something useful.

Read more here.

The brain, connectivity and compassion

Recently, on a day when I’d taught an early morning class on very little sleep, and was feeling a little muddled, I found myself watching* this astonishing TEDTalk by brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor. Initially, Bolte Taylor moved into brain research to try and better understand conditions like the one her brother lived with: schizophrenia.

Then one day she had a massive stroke.

In this talk, she describes experience of having a stroke as only someone who knows a lot about the brain could. She explains how she was conscious of moving back and forth between the two sides of her brain — the right side, which she affectionately refers to as La-La Land because it’s the part of our brains that experiences sensation, and that feels connected with the energy of everything around us; and the left side, which is thought to be where more of our more logical and linear thinking takes place.

The experiences she describes, and the way she describes them, are absolutely incredible. But perhaps even more incredible is that the experience made her realise how much kinder and more compassionate we all might be if we spent regular time in the La-La Land part of our brains. That is, the part of our brains that allows us to feel connected to everything around us.

Yoga is, at its essence, a philosophy and practice that tries to promote that very idea. The practices (hopefully) allow us to experience, as Bolte Taylor did, the workings of our bodies and minds as purely sensory experiences. They’re an opportunity to get to know ourselves as living things, and all the mess and wonder that comes along with that. The philosophy tells us that everything is connected — the word yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’.

Of course, the thinking and reflecting part of our brain is important too. It’s the part of us that allows us to actually function in the reality we share with other people and things. Bolte Taylor, of course, acknowledges the importance of both parts of the brain. But this is something that I worry is often not clearly articulated in the way yoga is often talked about. Not acknowledging the importance of the logical part of our brain is perhaps one of the reasons that yoga and other related practices sometimes get dropped into the hippy-dippy-fairy-land basket. You know, this kind of stuff:

Yes, yoga might feel blissful at times, and you might find yourself feeling connected to the universe (imagine me saying that in a deep, ethereal, uber-relaxing yoga teacher voice), but we’re supposed to be able to take all that love and compassion and heartfelt goodness off the mat. The idea is supposed to be that the sense of connection and peace we sometimes find in yoga in some way begins to inform the part of our minds that lives in the real world. It’s supposed to be bringing those two parts of our mind into greater balance, to be creating more and stronger links between the two.

In the end, this is exactly Bolte Taylor’s point. She’s not arguing for endless bliss-out. That’s not real life, and it’s far from realistic. Real life is often stressful, and often requires logic and thinking. In real life sad and bad things happen. What Bolte Taylor is suggesting is that if we had more direct experience with that blissful, sensory part of ourselves, perhaps we’d respond to the stresses of real life with more compassion, for ourselves and for others, and less fear, and that this would ultimately make the world a better place. And wouldn’t that be nice?
~
*When I say ‘I found myself watching’, I mean that a lovely yoga teacher friend of mine happened to link to it on Twitter that day. So really I was just lazing about looking at Twitter.

Yoga and tendonitis in the shoulders, elbows and wrists

Over the last few years, I’ve had a few students with varying degrees of tendonitis in their shoulders, elbows or wrists. It’s painful, and has the potential to really restrict what you can do with your arms. But you can still do yoga with tendonitis, and it can, in fact, help to relieve the symptoms and prevent it from occurring.

What is tendonitis?
Tendonitis is an inflammation of the tendons. Tendons are strong tissues that join muscle to bone and help to keep a joint stable. Typically, tendonitis is an overuse injury. If the tendon is repeatedly strained, small tears can form and the tissue inflames. Shoulders, elbows and wrists are particularly prone to this type of injury. Symptoms include pain, swelling, stiffness or restricted movement, and muscle weakness in the area. Often, mild tendonitis will heal itself, but there are some simple yoga exercises you can do to encourage this process. Of course, if your symptoms persist, or if they are very painful to begin with, it’s a very good idea to see your doctor.

Causes of tendonitis
But before we get to the exercises, let’s take a look at what causes tendonitis. These are some things you should either avoid or be careful with.

  • Overuse through repetitive actions
  • Any activity that requires lots of running, jumping or other sudden impact movements
  • Lifting weights that are too heavy
  • Not warming up properly before activity, exercise or sport
  • Poor technique, like holding a tennis racquet incorrectly (which is where the term ‘tennis elbow’ comes from)
  • Exercising in the cold
  • Holding awkward positions for a long time

Essentially, relying too much on the joint, without making proper use of the muscles that surround that joint, puts pressure on the tendons, and can lead to tendonitis. In yoga, poses like Downward Facing Dog, Plank, Chaturanga (and any other poses where you’re holding your weight in your hands) can leave you at risk of tendonitis if you’re not conscious about using the muscles in your hands and arms to hold you up. I often see students who dump all their weight into their wrists in Down Dog, and don’t use their hands at all. Take a quick look at your hands next time you do Down Dog — if your fingers are lifting up off the floor, you’re probably not really using your hands.

Simply pressing the whole hand into the floor and lightly gripping the mat with your fingers really helps to build up the strength of the muscles in the hands and arms, and that strength will protect take the pressure off your joints and tendons, thereby reducing the risk of developing problems like tendonitis.

Relieving tendonitis
The first and most important step is to stop whatever activity triggered the pain or swelling. If that’s a particular yoga pose, then stop doing it, at least for now. More generally, resting the area is also important. But total immobilisation can actually aggravate the problem, so carefully maintaining at least some normal movement in the area is vital.

Suffering from tendonitis in the shoulders, elbows or wrists does not necessarily mean you can’t practice yoga at all, but it does mean you need to be careful. You will probably find you need to be especially careful with weight-bearing poses. As a general rule, if it hurts, then stop. Some discomfort is probably okay (and inevitable), but pain is a sign of acute distress.

Exercises to help relieve (and prevent) tendonitis
Again, with each of these exercises, it’s important to be patient with yourself, and stop if the exercises prove painful.

  • Stretch for tendonitis of the shoulders, elbows and wrists: Interlace your fingers and reach your palms away from you, out in front, lengthening out your arms. Moving slowly, begin to lift your hands up towards the ceiling. Keep your shoulders relaxed down, and your arms lengthening out. Go only as far as you can without pain, and make sure you can still breathe. Hold for a minute or so. Interlace your fingers the other way (with the opposite forefinger on top) and repeat.
  • Strengthening to relieve/prevent tendonitis of the shoulders, elbows and wrists: Stand about thirty centimetres from a wall and place the palms of your hands on the wall, shoulder-width apart. Spread your fingers. Relax your shoulders. Press your fingertips into the wall, as if you’re trying to get a grip on it. To go further, you might also begin to push into the wall with the palms of your hands, as if you’re trying to push the wall away from you. To go further still, you might also begin to bend your elbows, keeping them tucked in line with your shoulders, then straighten them again — essentially Plank and Chaturanga against the wall. This exercise is especially good if you find it difficult or painful to hold yourself in a regular Plank on your mat.

Further treatment
If your tendonitis is severe or if your symptoms persist, see your doctor. Severe pain might need to be managed with painkillers, and in some cases, very severe cases of tendonitis will not heal on their own, and might require surgery. And, as with any injury, make sure you tell your yoga teacher about it before class starts, even if you feel the injury is only very minor.

Saying Goodbye

This is my last week teaching in Sydney. In fact, this is my last full week in this city full stop. Next week, I’ll be leaving Sydney to have a little holiday, and then moving down to Melbourne. Leaving a place is always strange and sad and exciting and scary. I’ve written here, here and here about some of the emotions I’ve come across in knowing that I’m about to leave a place. Transition creates such an odd frame of mind.

These last two weeks I’ve really started saying goodbye. I’ve started teaching last classes in places I’ve taught for some years, and saying goodbye to students I’ve known for as long. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s been exhausting. Every class I teach lately is tinged with sadness — my own, mostly. And it’s take a great deal more effort to stay focussed on the class.

The goodbyes themselves are always odd. Strange and sad and really very surreal. It just doesn’t feel quite real that I will not see these people next week. I will miss each and every one of them.

The student/teacher relationship is a surprisingly intimate one. The intimacy, I suppose, is surprising because it’s not always very obvious. As a yoga teacher, you spend a lot of time watching your students. Watching how their bodies respond to your instructions, to your sequences. You look out for minor (usually) alignment issues, you look out for signs of distress (physical or otherwise), and you come to care a great deal about how what comes out of your mouth affects the people in the room. When I plan classes, I keep in mind the make-up of regulars in my various classes, and think — sometimes in great detail — about how a particular shape or sequence might affect certain students with injuries or off-centre bodies. (Well, all of us have off-centre bodies, but some of us notice it more than others.) If there’s one thing that being a yoga teacher develops in you, it’s a really profound sense of tenderness and compassion for other people’s struggles.

Saying goodbye to my students is upsetting in a way I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with. It’s a sadness I’ll carry with me for some time, I’m sure. I’ve been trying to practice sitting with those emotions, just letting them be, letting them work themselves out. There have been tears. It hasn’t been easy.

But that sadness also makes me feel incredibly lucky. I’m lucky to work with people in the way that I do, to introduce them to tools that will help them through tough times. But, as is the case with any kind of teaching, I’m lucky because teaching others also shows me things about myself. I’ve learnt an incredible amount about my own strengths and limitations these last few years, and I hope I’ve become a better teacher — and indeed a more resilient person — as a result.

So, to any of my Sydney students reading this, thank you. And keep in touch.

Saying goodbye to Sydney, of course, means saying hello to another place. I’ll be teaching yoga in Melbourne, but I’m not sure yet of the details. When I’ve got a better idea, I’ll be sure to update things here.

~

This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

Restorative Yoga in Redfern, Sydney

A while back, I was going to a restorative yoga class every Wednesday evening. I remember trying to explain to a friend of mine that I often left that class feeling rather drunk—the lovely floaty, happy kind of drunk. I’d walk home, my legs feeling almost fluid, like they were moving with no effort on my part. I slept like a baby every Wednesday night (and never woke up with a hangover!).

Sadly, my schedule changed, and I was no longer able to attend that class. I’ve missed it enormously. So I was really excited to hear that a lovely Twitter friend of mine, Kat Selvocki, is running a restorative yoga series at House of Yoga in Redfern, starting tomorrow. I’m not going to be able to get to all the classes, but I am determined to make it to as many as I can.

As someone who is very bad at taking time out to just refresh, a restorative yoga class provides a structure that helps me do that. If you’re looking for a relaxing way to end your weekends, and a way to start the week feeling refreshed, I can’t recommend this series enough. Details are here.

Yoga & body shame

“Yoga is really trying to liberate us from shame about our bodies. To love your body is a very important thing. The health of your mind depends on your being able to love your body.” ~ Rodney Yee

From: Garden of Yoga (reblogged from geeky-yogini).

Yoga: Changing The Brain’s Stressful Habits | Psychology Today

This is perhaps the most accurate description of why, once I started, I continued to practice yoga. Physical exercise, sure, but mainly because it’s helped me manage better my stress reaction. Think calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

via Yoga: Changing The Brain's Stressful Habits | Psychology Today.

Shake, shake, shake

My leg muscles almost always start to shake when I hold uttanasana. Standing, folded forward, pressing my feet into the mat to encourage my legs to straighten a little more and my tailbone to move closer to the ceiling, my legs inevitably start to wobble.

In uttkatasana (chair pose) that wobbling is even more pronounced, and usually accompanied by a burning in my thighs. Uttkatasana and I have a love-hate relationship.

I often have students ask me quietly and sheepishly after class what’s happening to them when they get the shakes in class. The first thing I tell them is that this shakiness is not uncommon. It happens to almost everyone at some point. For me it’s in uttanasana and uttkatasana; for others it could be the warrior poses. Usually, it seems to be poses asking for strength from the muscles.

Yoga Journal has an excellent explanation for what’s going on anatomically.

Muscles are made up of many fibers. When a muscle is used, not all the fibers contract at the same time. Some rest while the others work, and then they trade places. When the muscles are really challenged, the changeovers can get a little ragged.

A little bit of shaking is okay — it’s a sign that you’re challenging yourself — but really shaking could be a sign to take it a little easier. Use the breath to decide how much shake is too much shake. If you’re shaking but you can still breathe slowly and fairly calmly, then you’re probably okay. But once the shaking starts to affect your ability to keep the breath slow it’s time to back off a little. And remember that point will be different for everyone — and will probably depend on the pose.

If you’d like to read the rest of the Yoga Journal article, you can do so here.