om gam yoga

Melbourne yoga instruction by Sophie Langley

Tag: yoga Melbourne

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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The Fortnight of Full

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself slumped in my chair at my office job, heavy limbed, unable to concentrate on the sentence I was trying to construct on the screen in front of me. I desperately wanted to crawl under my desk and go to sleep. Instead took myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a cubicle, and sat on the closed toilet, folded over my legs for five minutes. I let my breath slow down. Let my exhales become longer than my inhales. Kept my focus firmly on the cracks between the grey floor tiles so I wouldn’t drift off. I could feel my slow pulse in my arms and legs, that feeling like the very beginning of pins and needles.

When I made my way back to my desk, I wasn’t really any less tired, but I had realised I couldn’t ignore the fatigue anymore.

This last fortnight (and a half, really, since today is Thursday) has been full. I use the word ‘full’ instead of ‘busy’ quite consciously, and not just because this article from last year about the ridiculousness of ‘busyness’ still plays on my mind. I use the word ‘full’ because the last few weeks have involved so many things that require some level of mental or emotional processing from me, and not very much time to attempt that processing.

I can hardly complain, because most of what I’ve been doing, seeing, saying, hearing has been hugely positive and I’m incredibly grateful for all of it. But it’s possible to be overwhelmed by great stuff too, isn’t it?

I think often of this blog post by yoga teacher and writer Bernadette Birney, where she talks about the balance between work and rest (although she refers to work instead as ‘play’, which I love — especially now that much of my work is stuff I really love doing). The basic premise of her argument in the post is that there’s a limit to how much each of us can do, to how long we can be continuously active, and beyond that point we just feel overwhelmed. And really need to rest.

Some of the wonderful things I was involved in over the last fortnight included running a Yoga and Writing workshop at the Emerging Writers’ Festival this last weekend, and sitting on a panel for a discussion called ‘Keeping Active in the Arts’. So it’s probably not surprising that I’m more conscious of the interplay between activity and rest just at the moment, given that both those events touched on these ideas.

For me, that relationship between activity and rest, and how I attempt to know when to move between the two, essentially comes down to energy. I mean that in the least hippy-dippy way possible — I’m really talking about levels of fatigue. I took a yoga class (as a student) late last week that had been designed to support a flagging immune system, or for periods of heightened stress, and the teacher talked about learning to notice the difference between stress that gives you the strength and vitality to get things done, and stress that is masking deep fatigue.

Thinking here of a ‘stressor’ as anything that makes demands of the body and/or the mind, it shouldn’t really surprise me that today I’m feeling deeply fatigued. Overwhelmed. This last fortnight or so has stretched me in a few different ways and forced me to consider a number of different aspects of my life from a new perspective. And maaaan, as amazing and helpful as it is, that stuff takes up valuable energy.

One of the outcomes of not having a thyroid and instead taking a dose of thyroid hormones each day, is that I’ve only got so much energy each day. (The thyroid hormones are rather directly linked to the body’s energy levels — they control the metabolism, that is, the release of oxygen in the body, or the way the body distributes energy.) Grave’s Disease, which is an autoimmune disease, is the cause of my thyroid issues, and I gather that most people with autoimmune diseases deal with this battle with energy as well. I can’t really hope to outdo this wonderful explanation about the kind of decisions people with chronic illness need to make about what to do with whatever energy they have each day, but suffice to say that the notion of having to ration it out really rings true for me.

Rest is something I’ve been historically and consistently bad at (which ultimately could have contributed to my getting the Grave’s in the first place, but then Grave’s also causes a big spike in thyroid hormone levels and metabolism, so it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument, really). For instance, I walked the hour home from work yesterday, instead of catching the tram, despite the irrefutable evidence of exhaustion from earlier in the afternoon. I’m an active person. I like to move. Moving is how I deal with the normal mental angst of being human. Plus, I have so many things I want to do! All of them right now! So rest is something I’ve really had to work hard at learning how to do, because when I don’t, I end up collapsing in a heap anyway. Which is rarely fun.

Strangely though, the collapse can be useful too. I’ve given a lot of thought these last few years to what it is that different emotional states can give us. For me, an exhaustion collapse usually involves anger or tears or immense anxiety (told you it wasn’t much fun), as well as the physical tiredness. Because I’m not very good at letting myself rest, sometimes this is what it takes for me to realise I’ve reached breaking point and that maybe I should just lie in bed and read rather than replant the garden and make a loaf of bread and ten litres of lemon marmalade and write those three essays and do all those hours of yoga I’ve been thinking about for the last month. Sometimes those emotions are what make me realise that something else is wrong, or that something bigger than just my activity level needs to change. At times, my periods of great activity are not imposed by anyone other than myself; they’re a way of distracting myself from something that’s troubling me. It’s definitely unpleasant, but I certainly get the message when one of the collapses occurs: look here, stop running away.

Other times, the busyness is really just accidental, or at worst, a case of poor time management. But even then, being overstretched usually highlights something I’ve been pushing away instead of facing, even if avoiding that thing is not what’s caused the busyness in the first place. What makes me really grumpy/sad/fuming when I’m exhausted often surprises me. If I manage to stay observant during an inner (usually) tantrum about the washing up, there’s frequently something other than sheepishness I can take away from it.

Tea and pyjamas

That said, I definitely do not consciously seek out these collapses. Trying to avoid them, useful though they may sometimes be, is what’s helped me begin to learn how to rest.

So this time I’m going to listen to that feeling of being overwhelmed, to that tingling tiredness in my limbs, and I am going to rest these next few days. I am going to be quiet and spend a lot of time in my pjyamas and potter about the garden and reflect on the wonderful fullness of the last fortnight or so, because I’m sure there’s enough I can take from that without the need for a meltdown.

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This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

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.

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This is cross-posted on my writing blog.

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.