om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Category: yin yoga

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Yoga and the balance between self and other

A few weeks ago I went to a workshop run by US teacher, Sarah Powers. Aside from being an incredible physical practice, what I really took away from the workshop was a sense that perspective is really important in a yoga practice (and, let’s face it, in life). At the very beginning of the practice, Powers talked about how many people think of the idea of self-improvement as a selfish act. She suggested that it needn’t be, if the improvements in self are also then used for the betterment of society as a whole in some way. That is, if we improve ourselves in ways which are beneficial to our relationships with other people, and indeed with other creatures and life forms. Ultimately, that kind of practice is more beneficial for us as individuals too.

Perhaps it sounds a bit namby-pamby to talk about realising and improving our connection with everything else. But I mean that in the most realistic and maybe even boring way possible. Every organism on this planet depends in one way or another on something else. We depend on other human beings, we depend on other species even, both in ways that we’re able to identify and perhaps quantify, and in ways that we’ve no idea about. We eat other species (even vegans and vegetarians eat other species — sentience is a whole other discussion and not one I’m going to have here just now), they eat each other. We rely on other human beings for friendship, but also to build the roads we drive on and the buildings we live in. For the most part, we rely on other human beings to manage our eating relationship with other species by growing our food for us.

My lovely friend and fellow yoga teacher (based in Seattle) Kat Selvocki, brought my attention to this article by Matthew Remski on how the ‘social good’ aspects of yoga are missing in the way most of us practice it. The idea of connectivity, both within and beyond ourselves, is certainly present in the philosophy of yoga, but it’s yet to take off in any concrete way in the way we practice yoga in developed countries. He writes about going to a church service and finding out about all the social services that church has on offer, and about then wondering why those sorts of services are not part of the way yoga generally manifests itself in our society.

I don’t think it’s a problem with yoga, per se. I think it’s symptomatic of broader issues of isolation and fading of community that can come with an increased emphasis on individual empowerment. I write about and do a lot of research into food systems, and I see the same problems there. In food systems there’s a huge disconnection between most people and the actual growing of their food — that is, most people don’t grow their own food, and have no idea who does grow it.

What buoys me as I do this research is the fact that there seem to be plenty of other people who are already aware of how problematic this is, and who are trying to do something about it. In the same way, pieces like Remski’s give me hope that some of these issues in the way yoga is practiced are being or will be addressed. The concept of ecological systems, which, essentially, are a way of examining the relationships between things in the non-human world and between the human and non-human worlds, is one that could easily be applied to the relationships between humans themselves. After all, we are actually our own walking ecosystems, made up of a community of our own genes and microbacterial life. (For a really interesting, if a little icky, examination of the bacterial make-up of human beings and how important it is to our health, have a listen to this short podcast about the medical practice of ‘poo transplants’. Gross, but really fascinating.)

But how does all this relate to a yoga practice? How might we keep a sense of perspective when we’re up close and personal with our bodies and all the physical, emotional and mental issues the practice might bring with it? Sarah Powers offered in her workshop a simple exercise that might help here.

As we held an uncomfortable but relatively supported and passive pose (you might do the same just lying on your back on the floor, or sitting upright on a cushion), Powers asked us to allow our awareness to travel around the body until we found the most uncomfortable sensation, and then to watch that sensation. To notice everything we could about it — where it was, how strong it was, whether it was tightness, whether it affected our breath etc etc. After a minute or so, she asked us to keep that point of discomfort as the centre of our awareness, but allow the edges of that awareness to expand out to the edges of our mat. Then after another minute, again keeping the original discomfort as the centre of our awareness, to expand the edges out to the sides of the room. After another minute, to the streets that enclosed the block the building sat on, then out to the suburb, the city, the region, the state, the country, and on and on, perhaps even out to the knowable universe. Once we’d expanded our awareness out as far as we could — still with the centre point being that discomfort in our own body — she asked us to notice how small our discomfort looked when compared to the rest of what we were holding in our awareness. Very small indeed.

This exercise was not used to try and eliminate that discomfort, or to suggest it wasn’t valid; it was merely an exercise in perspective that hopefully helped us to suffer less from the discomfort. And it worked. The discomfort was still there, but it didn’t feel quite as bad. I think it’s really important to remember that yoga isn’t supposed to just be exercise for the physical body. The physical poses are about realising that there’s more to life than what’s going on your head, and to see the connections between your body and your mind.

Additionally, the exercise certainly helped me to remember that there is more going on in the world (solar system, universe, whatever) than just what’s going on for me, even beyond my physical body. And this is hopefully what yoga is about, at least eventually. A big part of the way that Sarah Powers teaches yoga involves the Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving kindness, and an exercise like this one at the very least shows that we have an emotional capacity beyond our own experiences. The trick then, perhaps, is what we do with that capacity, how we put it into practice beyond an exercise on our yoga mats.

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This post is cross-posted on my writing blog.

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?
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*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.

Lying on the floor

Walking home from teaching one night, on the phone to my Mum, I rounded a corner to find a woman and her tiny dog, waiting to cross the road.

That dog’s on a long leash, I thought.

“Watch out for my dog, lady.” the woman said.

“It’s okay, I can see him.” I said, probably impatiently.

“Yeah well, how would I know? You’re looking down.” She snapped, and crossed the road.

“Yes,” I said, “Down. To where the dog is.”

And all of a sudden this woman and I were yelling at each other across the street, until she stormed into her apartment building and the door slammed, and I became aware of my Mum, on the phone I still held to my ear, saying “Sophie, who are you talking to?”

As I told her the story, and as is often the case for me, my indignation turned to guilt. “I can’t believe I yelled at her,” I said to Mum.

“Don’t worry,” she said “You’ll never see her again.”

And it’s true. I’ll probably never see that woman with her tiny dog on a stupidly long leash again. But it’s highly unusual for me to yell at strangers in the street. If I am, it’s a pretty good sign that there’s something not so great going on for me. Anger, frustration and grumpiness are usually an indication that I’m feeling overwhelmed by or stressed about life—often I don’t even know why.

I’m pleased that this is something I know about myself. It means I can make some little adjustments to how I organise my days, so I get enough downtime or rest. Because rest is usually the answer to stress. But it’s not always easy. In this recent piece, one of my favourite yoga writers, Yogi J Brown, discusses the ways we should (and usually don’t) deal with stress. Intimacy with ourselves, he says, is the best antidote—that is, spending time with ourselves in a way that allows us to see what’s going on. Noticing the anger or frustration is the first step.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time lying on the floor or my bed, just listening to music. One afternoon, my Mum came into my bedroom to find that I’d actually fallen asleep on the floor, my head just centimetres from a speaker that was blaring music. It’s easy to be dismissive, to say that I could afford to do that then because I didn’t have the responsibilities I do now. But that’s a load of crap. Yes, I do have more responsibilities now, but surely that just makes it all the more important that I get some downtime, so I’m able to deal with those responsibilities… well, responsibly.

In my essay for The Emerging Writer, I explored some of the benefits for writing of doing nothing (well, almost nothing—listening still counts as something, really) with the physical body. To briefly summarise that part of the essay, doing nothing allows the body and the mind to process stuff, and potentially to make links between things that might not be immediately obvious, or that the brain might not have made otherwise.

Obviously, this can be good for writing. But it’s also just good for us on a more general level. Rest—waking rest, as well as sleep— is really important. (And ‘rest’, by the way, is just as metabolically active as activity—it just uses energy in different ways.)

In this piece on the benefits of the yoga pose savasana (which translates as ‘corpse pose’ and basically involves lying on the floor doing nothing), Sydney yoga teacher Brooke McCarthy writes in detail about what happens when we relax deeply—and how to do it. After reading this piece I decided I needed savasana to make an appearance in my life every day. I haven’t quite managed that yet, but on the days when I do get to it, everything seems just a little calmer. Honestly, lying on the floor for ten or fifteen minutes when I’m really busy makes the world of difference to my state of mind. And, really, if I’m feeling overwhelmed anyway, what am I really going to get done in those fifteen minutes?

And while I’m on the subject of ‘busy’. That words makes me cranky. I’d never really thought about why until I read this piece about the trap of busyness (interesting: my eyeToy autocorrects busyness to business). Writer Tim Krieder suggests that being busy is an avoidance tactic—if we’re busy, we don’t need to face ourselves, and all those things that are worrying us or upsetting us. And the more I teach yoga, the more I realise that everyone has at leat some of that kind of baggage. Facing it is hard, so makes sense that we don’t want to do it. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away. For me at least, avoidance often makes the worry warp into something else—like yelling at a woman and her dog on the street.

My response lately to the question ‘how are you?’ has been ‘busy’. And after I’d said it a few times, I realised that it, along with the crankiness I was carrying around, was an indication I was doing too much.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that, once again, I’m returning to that teenage habit of lying on the floor listening to music on a regular basis. I’m trying to get some nothing into each if my days. It’s amazing. I feel instantly less busy.

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.

Promising Scientific Studies on Yoga & Health | Alison Hinks Yoga

I love Alison Hinks‘ infographics. Her latest shows some of the results of scientific studies into yoga and health.

(See Hinks’ original post here)

Relax and restore

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Resting and relaxing is really important for your overall health and wellbeing — especially at a time of year as busy as December usually turns out to be. My birthday is in December, so as well as the usual plethora of Christmas parties and catch ups before the holidays, I often also have a birthday celebration (or two) thrown in there as well. Combine that with all the organisational parts of the festive season — shopping, food, travel — and my schedule becomes very full very quickly, despite my work time slowing down. And I know it’s a similar story for most people around this time of year.

This year, in Sydney at least, we’ve also had the weather going back and forth between cold and hot, which can be very tiring for the body, as it works to try and keep our body temperature and other systems at some sort of equilibrium.

Around this time last year, I wrote about my housemate and I pausing our cooking marathon to lie with our legs up the wall. It’s really a brilliant exercise, and can be used at any time of the year — I think hardly a day goes by where I don’t find a quiet spot and a wall, actually — but it’s especially helpful during busy periods. It helps the body (and the mind) slow down, take a breather. It’s fantastic for your nervous and immune systems, and helps reinvigorate your circulation.

Here’s how:

Sit with your right hip close to the wall. If you are quite flexible in the backs of the legs, you can sit quite close to the wall; if you are less flexible in the backs of the legs, sit further away. Using your hands behind you on the floor to support you, left your feet up off the floor and bring them up onto the wall. You’ll need to roll to your right as you do this and wriggle around a little so that you come to be lying on your back with your buttocks close to the wall, and your legs up the wall, with the backs of the legs resting on it.

It’s okay to feel a very mild stretch in the hamstrings, but if you feel anything more than a very mild stretch, wriggle the buttocks further away from the wall. If your hips or lower back are uncomfortably pressing into the floor, you might like to use a neatly folded blanket underneath your lower body.

Let your hands rest wherever they feel comfortable. Now let your attention come to your breath. Allow your physical body to completely relax (your feet may go to sleep – don’t worry, this is normal, and you will get feeling back when you come out of the pose). Close your eyes. Focus on your breath. See if you can encourage your breath to slow down, and your exhales to be slightly longer than your inhales.

Stay for 2-10 minutes. You might set a timer, or you might pick a nice relaxing piece of music, and stay in the pose for the full length of the track. I have a selection of piano pieces that I use for this purpose – they’re usually between 3 and 10 minutes long.

To come down, slide the heels down the wall so the knees come towards the chest. Roll onto your right side and rest here for a breath or two as the blood flows back into the legs. Then use your hands to help you slowly get up. Take your time, as you might be feeling a little sleepy, and your legs might take a little while to feel normal again.

Legs up the wall is honestly one of my favourite poses. When I’m really stretched for time, I might only stay in the pose for a minute or two, and even that tiny amount of time makes a huge difference. There are also all sorts of ways you can more fully support the physical body in this pose, if you’ve got access to props. The idea is really just to give yourself space to pause and do nothing at all.

If you’ve got any questions, either before or after you try the pose, please feel free to contact me. I’m always happy to offer more suggestions.