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Nourishing the Prana Body for Long-term Health and Vitality: A Q&A With Ayurvedic Doctor Charlotte Bech

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Charlotte Bech, M.D., is one of the many “traditional” health care providers who has embraced Ayurvedic medicine as part of their practice. She spoke to us about treating patients holistically, how our state of mind impacts our health, and her course Prana, Yoga and Ayurveda – Mindful Living for Self-Healing.

YogaUOnline: You’re trained as an M.D. in Denmark and you have had your own private practice focusing on Ayurvedic medicine for many years. What made you make this switch, and what do you feel Ayurveda has to offer that complements modern medicine?

Charlotte Bech: I worked for years as a medical doctor in a top hospital in Denmark, but I eventually switched to practicing Ayurveda because it is natural, holistic, and has no side effects when administered correctly. Ayurveda takes the whole human being into account—mentally, socially, physically, emotionally, psychologically. Simply put, it works.

YogaUOnline: In your practice, what are the reasons people seek you out?

Charlotte Bech: Most people come to see me because they are looking for a natural approach. Their doctor may have told them that there’s nothing really wrong with them, but they are just not feeling well. So they are very happy when they finally find somebody who understands that they are not feeling well, and who also can help them do something about it. I also see many people who have a specific diagnosis and have been treated with allopathic appraoches, but they are really looking for natural procedures, because they are concerned about side effects or worried about the chemicals in their body.

YogaUOnline: What results do you  see with your patients?

Charlotte Bech: The results are excellent. Ayurveda is not a quick fix, but it works over time with a regular and patient, constant attending to the body. Most of us know remarkably little about how to care propery for our body, and it is striking to see the results people get by simply changing elements of their lifestyle, diet, daily routine, and so on, following the Ayurvedic recommendations. Many people are able to reduce or even completely quit Western medications. So the patients are extraordinarily happy and that means that in my practice, I have six very long waiting lists. So now, I’m training other medical doctors to help me in the practice. I have a group of twenty medical doctors in training right now.

YogaUOnline: When most people think about abouts Ayurveda, they think about the three Doshas but you have pointed out in your teachings that the concept of Prana is just as significant. Tell us what is meant by the word Prana in Ayurvedia, and why it is considered so important.

Charlotte Bech: Prana is a key concept in Ayurvedic medicine. It is best translated as ‘vital force’ or ‘vital energy.’ It is constructed of the syllables, “pra” and “na”. Pra means emerging of impulse and na means movement. So it means a constant emerging movement of impulses.

You can imagine Prana like a river flowing through the landscape of the body and through all of creation. It’s the flow of life through the human physiology, the flow of life in nature. We can say that Prana is really the breath of the universe, it’s the breath of creation, the breath of life. In Ayurvedic philosophy, Prana is our essence, our own inner soul, and it’s the flow of our soul.

In other words, Prana is present everywhere. It’s in light, in air, in water, in plants; it is the life in all living beings. It begins life, sustains life and is the very basis of life. So that’s why Prana is most important.

The amount of Prana in the body determines our life span. It determines how much energy we have when we wake up in the morning, how much energy we have throughout the day, how happy we are, and how healthy we are. Prana is really the most important factor in our health.

Prana is also related to the Vata Dosha. The three Doshas—Vata, Pitta, and Kapha—each have five sub-Doshas. Altogether, we have fifteen sub-Doshas. One of the sub-Doshas of Vata is Prana Vata, and this is the most important of the Vata sub-Doshas, because it’s the first one, it’s the mover, it moves everything else. It moves all the other Vata sub-Doshas, all the other Pitta sub-Doshas and all the Kapha sub-Doshas. So by working with Prana, we can actually balance and pacify all the other sub-Doshas of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, i.e. all the fifteen sub-Doshas and all the three Doshas.

In other words, working with the Prana is the key to creating balance in the entire physiology. Prana is also the substance of the first layer in our subtle body, the body of light. Everyone knows we have a physical body, the physiology. But we also have different bodies of light, some people call them “aura” or we can call them bodies of light or bodies of energy. And the first of these is made of Prana. So we actually are living in an organism made of Prana. We’re living in an organism made of food, that’s our normal physiology. But then, the next one is really our physiology of Prana—Pranamayakosha. It’s our physiology of light, and this body of Prana is nourished by the flow of Prana, by the flow of the subtle life energy. And that is why it’s so important to focus on Prana in order to have good health, energy and happiness, and a long life span.

YogaUOnline: What are some of the things that would facilitate the flow of, or the amount of, Prana in the body, and what are some of the things that would reduce the Prana in the body?

Charlotte Bech: That’s a very good question. We come into this life with a certain amount of Prana in our body and through lifestyle and diet, we either increase it or we decrease it. Most people are simply not aware of how powerfully our daily habits and diet impacts us by either freeing or blocking the flow of life force in the body. This is one of the areas where Ayurveda really stands out.

There are two ways to increase Prana: one is internal and the other external. In the internal way, we can increase the amount of Prana by practicing yoga, pranayama, and meditation. We can also increase the amount of Prana via external means by eating very specific foods, drinking specific types of water, breathing specific types of air, specific types of herbal medicine, etc...

How do we inadvertently decrease Prana in the body? By never going outside in the fresh air and the sunlight or eating foods that are stale, old, full of preservatives or other additives. This would decrease the amount of Prana. Also, drinking water that is not pure, water that has chemicals added into it, or water that has fertilizers or pesticides in it as remains of agriculture chemicals. This is also definitely decreasing the amount of Prana. These are just a few examples.

But the most important point is really that our body of Prana, our body of light, is a body that is made out of this life force. And in this body of Prana we have 72,000 channels of energy, streams of energy called Nadis. These 72,000 streams of energy are flowing in our body of Prana and if we are performing pranayama practices, we can increase the flow of Prana through these channels. We can also increase the flow of Prana, for example, by walking in the early morning to a body of water (like a lake or a river or an ocean) just before sunlight and just being present at that moment when the sun is rising on the horizon. This is the time of the day and night where there is the maximum amount of Prana in the air, and in the light.

YogaUOnline: So what you are saying is that when looking at the universal life force from an Ayurvedic perspective, what we are within is the same as what is all around us and, if we can align ourselves with the force that surrounds us, it has a nourishing life-giving influence?

Charlotte Bech: Yes, and even more so, because Prana is also influenced by our emotions and our psychological and mental state. For example, negative thinking or negative emotions will decrease or deplete the amount of Prana. To the extent that we can be in the light, happy, positive frame of mind, to that extent, we are supporting the force of evolution. And to that extent we are really increasing the amount of Prana in our mind, in our thinking, in our feelings and also in our physiology.

YogaUOnline. That’s wonderful. Now you are also teaching a course on Ayurvedic principles for enhancing Prana in the physiology. Tell us more about what you’ll be covering?

Charlotte Bech: We’re going to focus on Ayurvedic guidelines for increasing Prana in the body through our eating and cooking habits as well as the kind of influences we surround ourselves with, particular in regards to the basic elements – water, air, and light. Ayurveda offers an enormous amount of important knowledge about different, small adjustments in how we eat, how we are shopping, how we are cooking, how we are thinking and feeling, and what kind of water we are drinking, what types of air we have in our surroundings, what type of air we are breathing, what type of light we are seeing. So thse are the things we will be focusing on.

When we are increasing Prana through all these different procedures, we are really increasing our own consciousness. It’s about consciousness, our soul connecting to the soul. Everything in Prana means we are connecting to who we are on the inside, we are being connected to our own inner nature, our own inner essence. And that is the main point. That is the secret to release the Prana. So Prana is there. We only need to find it and release it. 

Making Yoga Safer: 5 Tips on What We Should Do in Asana (A response to Matthew Remski)

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Preventing yoga injuries

By Chrys Kub, P.T., yoga therapist - 

Author, blogger and Ayurvedic practitioner Matthew Remski has recently started a project called WAWADIA (What are We Actually Doing in Asana?) which is creating lots of discussion in the yoga community. As a physical therapist and biokinesiologist, this question has been loudly blaring in my mind since I have started my yoga practice over 14 years ago. In the beginning, I assumed it was because I did not know enough about the practice, so I would just follow my teachers when they would confidently say things such as "this is the pure posture as taught to me by Swami What’sHisName when I was studying with him for the last 15 years, so just do it!" As time passed and I deepened my knowledge of the practice, doing the requisite 500 Hour Teacher Training and eventually studying yoga therapy, I realized the dirty little secret that Matthew so astutely reveals…we don’t really know What We are Actually Doing in Asana! And neither did Swami What’sHisName.

In a recent podcast,The Liberated Body hosted by Brooke Thomas, Matthew mentions that in addition to this question, he would like to ask "what can we do in asana to make it a safer, more efficient practice biomechanically for the body?” This response is to offer some suggestions, based on my 25 years in the field of physical therapy, the last 10 which have been working with persons on an individual basis using yoga asana as one of the tools to help them heal structural injuries, not just a few of which have been "because” of yoga. These are things you can do now, until the time comes when the majority of yoga instructors begin to understand that the in depth knowledge of how the body moves can only enhance their teaching and help their students keep coming back, without injury. 

Just to be clear, I love the practice of yoga. It has helped me become healthier and happier and I have seen this occur in the many clients who I have worked with who have embraced the practice. My livelihood is dedicated to spreading the practice of yoga to others, and helping them learn how to use it as a tool to help them in their lives, but it is only one tool. I am not condemning anyone who teaches asana practices, but instead challenging them to perhaps dig a little deeper, not to accept and teach practices that they don’t fully understand and to get in on the discussion and conversation that Matthew started.

We all know that asana is only one small part of yoga, but let’s face it, it is the biggest part that modern society is now practicing, and it’s the part that is causing the physical injuries that William Broad discussed in his now infamous article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body in the NY Times. This article got national exposure, and scared (maybe appropriately?) many people away from yoga practice. Below are some tips to address some of the things we can start today, things which on the cutting edge of modern research I might add, to help us prevent injury from the practice of yoga, as well as use it to maintain structural health and possibly heal a structural injury.

1. Stop practicing yoga to stretch tight muscles, it doesn’t work!

This radical thought will probably rock the yoga world. When the general yoga population is polled as to why they practice yoga, the majority state it is to gain flexibility. Unfortunately, the latest research is showing that stretching does not really change your flexibility and that flexibility probably does not help improve function or performance. Any changes you are seeing in flexibility are due to the changes in the nervous system, not how hard you pull on your hamstings or how deep you go into a backbend. For a deeper discussion on this particular issue, read a few blogs by my wonderful colleague Jules Mitchell, who spent the past two years investigating the research on stretching and yoga. She describes what stretching is and what is isn’t, and what we really need to do in asana to actually increase muscle stiffness to improve efficiency.

2. Get a one on one assessment of your body’s structure and weak links by a qualified yoga teacher, personal trainer, physical therapist or yoga therapist trained in structural assessment. This is probably the most important tip. You may think that I am just promoting my profession (which is true), but I have good reason. It is virtually impossible for your yoga teacher to know what your individual body’s’ needs are and address them adequately in a group yoga class. We all have our body’s history of lifestyle and trauma; emotional, physical and mental. This is held in our body and manifested through dysfunctional movement. When we practice yoga, we are moving the body biomechanically, with various levels of force and contraction through movement patterns. These movement patterns are affected by our individual alignments, weaknesses and strengths. In order to make your practice fit your body, you must know where you might be compensating, where your muscles might be overworking and learn to use the asana practice to create more efficiency and balance in your movement patterns.

3. Individualize your practice to address your needs.You may think that getting an individual assessment means you have to practice alone, and not attend a group class. But to the contrary, having this knowledge will transform your practice to one that is specific to your needs and instead of getting hurt, you will stay healthy or even begin to heal. Attend the group class after you learn from your yoga assessment session how to adjust the postures to meet your goals. Yes, they probably will tell you to do a short 15 minute home practice a few days a week to target certain areas more intensely, but you can take that knowledge into your practice, be it Bikram, Ashtanga, general vinyasa or restorative, and make that practice your own.

4. Consider adding foam rolling for myofascial release into your asana practice. Since we now know we don’t really stretch our muscles (i.e. change their length), we can use the foam roller to help improve mobility of the muscles and connective tissues to allow the nervous system to more efficiently activate your muscles. Research into foam rolling has found some wonderful benefits which will help you learn to release overactive muscles and activate those that need to awaken in order to improve efficiency and alignment. As described in the review by Chris Beardsley entitled Does Research Support Foam Rolling, foam rolling is beneficial pre exercise to reduce muscle fatigue and possibly improve exercise performance. It will improve the joint range of motion without decreasing performance. Post exercise, foam rolling can help decrease muscle soreness, possibly improving your ability to train again sooner and with less discomfort. Foam rolling is not utilized in order to improve flexibility, but to decrease the neural activation of the resting tone in the prime movers (which are usually the muscles you think are "tight”) Once you reset that neural tone of the tissue, the muscle is better able to release and relax, thus allowing an increased range of motion of the joint. This results in more efficient movement of the joint and allows one to begin to activate those muscles which may have been "lazy” and not doing their job. Those lazy muscles are what caused the brain to tell the compensating muscles to "tighten up” in the first place in order to perform the movement or protect you from injury. To learn how to incorporate myofascial release into your yoga practice, check out Yoga TuneUP and Rollasana.

5.  Finally, move through your practice with BAMA (Breath, Alignment, Mostility and Awareness)
a. Breath: the foundation of the asana practice. We all know it, it’s undeniable, yet I have been to many a yoga practice where I did not hear the students breathing or the instructor really cuing the breath. All I can say is please include this as the foundation of your practice.

b. Alignment: if your body is out of alignment, your movement is inefficient and you will create overuse injuries from repetitive stress. This is well established in the literature. Shirley Sahrmann, PT, PhD, FAPTA was a ground breaking physical therapist in the area of movement dysfunction. Her philosophy, if we move with poor initial alignment, we are setting ourselves up for failure and possible pain. If you are a kinesiology geek, her text, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes is a must read. If you aren’t, just trust me, alignment is important.

c. Mostility: Mobility and Stability are the keys to efficient movement. Since one is codependent on the other, I came up with a new term, Mostility. If you have decreased mobility of a joint, it is usually due not to a tight muscle, but to a combination of fascial restrictions and connective tissue from an injury or repetitive movement dysfunction coupled with poor activation of the prime movers as well as some muscles compensating for that poor activation with over activation. A prime example, the hamstrings in someone who is active in athletics tend to get what they perceive as tight. This tightness is actually increased contraction of the hamstrings to compensate for relative inactivity of the gluteus maximus, which is the primary hip extensor. Once the athlete learns to turn on the gluts as the prime mover instead of the hamstrings, his tightness miraculously decreases. This athlete could practice this in an asana practice by paying attention in poses like Shalambasana as to how he turns on his hip extension, activating the gluts before the hamstrings. This is just one example of how knowing what to activate and how can change your movement patterns.

d. Awareness: One word, Feldenkrais. What is it? The Feldenkrais Method is experiential, providing tools for self-observation through movement enquiry. It is used to improve movement patterns rather than to treat specific injuries or illnesses. Feldenkrais taught that increasing a person's kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness of functional movement could lead to increased function, reduced pain, and greater ease and pleasure of movement. Wow, that sounds like yoga with awareness to me.

So what is the conclusion? What We Are Doing in Asana is still being debated and investigated. It is only through the work of those who are brave enough to bring this issue to our attention that we can begin to address the impact of this practice in creating injuries. Purists may balk that this is taking the yoga out of the yoga practice. But to the contrary, what could be more in line with the practice of yoga than practicing ahimsa in our asana practice? That is…do no harm.

 

Chrys Kub is an integrative physical therapist who incorporates therapeutic yoga as a tool in her practice. She is also an educator in therapeutic yoga through teacher trainings and the yoga therapy program with Holistic Yoga Therapy Institute. She provides continuing education in yoga therapy online through YogaUOnline, HomeCEUConnection.com and PTCourses.com. She also travels throughout the United States presenting yoga therapy at conferences and to health practitioners to help spread the benefits of yoga to all who are willing to learn. You can contact Chrys at chryskub@yogaclub.us

How to Turn Worry into Wisdom by Admitting What You Don’t Know

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By James McCrae - 

“Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” ~Tom Petty

There was once a wise farmer who had tended his farm for many years. One day his horse unexpectedly ran away into the mountains. Upon hearing the news, the farmer’s neighbors came to visit.

“How terrible,” they told him.

“We’ll see,” the wise farmer replied.

The next morning, to the farmer’s surprise, the horse returned, bringing with it three wild horses.

“How wonderful. You are very lucky,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“We’ll see,” replied the farmer.

The following day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. The horse was untamed and the boy was thrown and fell hard, breaking his leg.

“How sad,” the neighbors said, offering sympathy for the farmer’s misfortune.

“We’ll see,” answered the farmer.

The next day, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“We’ll see,” the farmer said.

This Zen koan demonstrates the wisdom of not jumping to conclusions. Have you ever worried about something, only to later discover that your worry was unfounded and untrue? The ego is afraid of the unknown, so it jumps to conclusions in order to feel a sense of certainty.

In our ego’s need for certainty, we make assumptions. And when we make assumptions, we make mistakes.

We can never know how the future will unfold. Yet fear convinces us to believe in present circumstances and future outcomes that are totally untrue. This is the origin of worry. Worry is the ego’s way of satisfying itself with an answer—any answer, no matter how irrational it is.

I worry about many things, big and small. I worry about getting stuck in my career, being rejected in my relationships, not having enough money, and whether or not I will miss the next subway into Manhattan.

But worry is dangerous. When we worry, we make mistakes. For example, I might make an assumption about you, such as thinking you are angry with me. Then I act on this assumption.

The false premise of my actions causes me to become defensive. My actions then cause you to make an assumption about me. Since you are unable to see that I am trying to protect myself, you assume I am angry with you.

Soon we are engaged in mutual anger based on a false assumption caused by worry.

The truth is, I will never know fully what is in your head, and you will never know fully what is in mine. Therefore, acting under the ignorance of assumption creates a ripple effect of mistakes.

Imagination + Fear = Worry

It is common in our society to believe that more thinking is always better. This is not always so. Intelligence is an incredible tool, but over-thinking can be just as harmful as under-thinking. Over-thinking is a sickness that creates paranoia and worry.

When we over-think, we make up scenarios in our mind and convince ourselves that these scenarios are true.

Without enough data to make a proper assessment of a situation, our ego hijacks our imagination and jumps to fear-based assumptions. Imagination is usually a powerful creative force, but when imagination is applied with fear, it becomes worry.

The Universe works in mysterious ways. Embracing the mystery of life gives us a calm within the storm of uncertainty.

Instead of over-thinking and jumping to false conclusions, learn to relax your thoughts and say, “I don’t know.”

Trusting uncertainty gives us peace and confidence; and when we wait in stillness without the need for an answer, the truth will reveal itself. The end of fearing the unknown is the end of worry.

Worry is wishing for what you don’t want.

Thoughts are magnets that attract our reality. Peaceful thoughts create a peaceful reality. Fearful thoughts create a fearful reality.

A thought repeated on a regular basis becomes a habit. When a thought becomes a habit, it forms a belief. When a thought forms a belief, it attracts external events that align with your internal state.

Energy flows where attention goes. When you focus on what you want, it is more likely to come to pass. When you focus on what you do not want, it is more likely to come to pass. When you worry, you send a signal into the Universe that attracts your worry. Your focus over time forms your future.

Will a single thought of worry cause your worry to come true? Probably not. Will sustaining your worry with attention and focus over a long period of time attract the worry into your life? The more you focus, the more likely it becomes.

Because focus forms your future, it is important to only concentrate on thoughts you want to actualize.

Your reality grows from the seeds you plant. The seeds of your beliefs grow into your thoughts. The seeds of your thoughts grow into your actions. The seeds of your actions grow into your karma.

You are responsible for the seeds you plant, not the results. When you place your attention on the present moment, without attachment to the past or worry about the future, and plant seeds according to your highest intentions, the results will fall into place.

Worry is an irrational attachment to, or fear of, a specific result. While it sounds counterintuitive, the only way you can achieve a desired result is by not focusing on the result; you must focus on your effort—here and now.

You cannot change what is already growing. Instead, start planting different seeds.

We’ll see.

I still worry. But now, whenever my ego gives me something to worry about, I take a deep breath and meditate in silence for a moment.

I sit in stillness and reassure myself. “I don’t have enough data to understand how this event will impact my future,” I say. “Perhaps there is a plan in place that I cannot see. I don’t know what will happen next and that is perfectly okay. I will not jump to conclusions. Let’s wait and see what happens.”

This post was republished with permission from tinybuddha.com. You can find the original post here.

James McCrae is an author, strategist and creator of Sh#t Your Ego Says, a website with simple strategies to overthrow your Ego and become the hero of your story. An award-winning strategist and creative director, James helps businesses and individuals turn imagination into results and make work that matters. Learn more at shityouregosays.com.

Five Ways Music Can Make You Healthier

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By Jill Suttie - 

When I gave birth to my first-born, I listened to CDs of classical music in the hospital. I figured that music would help calm me and distract me from the pain.

You might use music to distract yourself from painful or stressful situations, too. Or perhaps you’ve listened to music while studying or working out, hoping to up your performance. Though you may sense that music helps you feel better somehow, only recently has science begun to figure out why that is.

Neuroscientists have discovered that listening to music heightens positive emotion through the reward centers of our brain, stimulating hits of dopamine that can make us feel good, or even elated. Listening to music also lights up other areas of the brain—in fact, almost no brain center is left untouched—suggesting more widespread effects and potential uses for music.

Music’s neurological reach, and its historic role in healing and cultural rituals, has led researchers to consider ways music may improve our health and wellbeing. In particular, researchers have looked for applications in health-care—for example, helping patients during post-surgery recovery or improving outcomes for people with Alzheimer’s. In some cases, music’s positive impacts on health have been more powerful than medication.

Here are five ways that music seems to impact our health and wellbeing.

Music reduces stress and anxiety

My choice to bring music into the birthing room was probably a good one. Research has shown that listening to music—at least music with a slow tempo and low pitch, without lyrics or loud instrumentation—can calm people down, even during highly stressful or painful events.

Music can prevent anxiety-induced increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure, and decrease cortisol levels—all biological markers of stress. In one study, researchers found that patients receiving surgery for hernia repair who listened to music after surgery experienced decreased plasma cortisol levels and required significantly less morphine to manage their pain. In another study involving surgery patients, the stress reducing effects of music were more powerful than the effect of an orally-administered anxiolytic drug.

Performing music, versus listening to music, may also have a calming effect. In studies with adult choir singers, singing the same piece of music tended to synch up their breathing and heart rates, producing a group-wide calming effect.  In a recent study, 272 premature babies were exposed to different kinds of music—either lullabies sung by parents or instruments played by a music therapist—three times a week while recovering in a neonatal ICU. Though all the musical forms improved the babies’ functioning, the parental singing had the greatest impact and also reduced the stress of the parents who sang.

Though it’s sometimes hard in studies like this to separate out the effects of music versus other factors, like the positive impacts of simple social contact, at least one recent study found that music had a unique contribution to make in reducing anxiety and stress in a children’s hospital, above and beyond social contributions.

Music decreases pain

Music has a unique ability to help with pain management, as I found in my own experience with giving birth. In a 2013 study, sixty people diagnosed with fibromyalgia—a disease characterized by severe musculoskeletal pain—were randomly assigned to listen to music once a day over a four-week period. In comparison to a control group, the group that listened to music experienced significant pain reduction and fewer depressive symptoms.

In another recent study, patients undergoing spine surgery were instructed to listen to self-selected music on the evening before their surgery and until the second day after their surgery. When measured on pain levels post-surgery, the group had significantly less pain than a control group who didn’t listen to music.

It’s not clear why music may reduce pain, though music’s impact on dopamine release may play a role. Of course, stress and pain are also closely linked; so music’s impact on stress reduction may also partly explain the effects.

However, it’s unlikely that music’s impact is due to a simple placebo effect. In a 2014 randomized control trial involving healthy subjects exposed to painful stimuli, researchers failed to find a link between expectation and music’s effects on pain. The researchers concluded that music is a robust analgesic whose properties are not due simply to expectation factors.

Music may improve immune functioning

Can listening to music actually help prevent disease? Some researchers think so.

Wilkes University researchers looked at how music affects levels of IgA—an important antibody for our immune system’s first line of defense against disease. Undergraduate students had their salivary IgA levels measured before and after 30 minutes of exposure to one of four conditions—listening to a tone click, a radio broadcast, a tape of soothing music, or silence. Those students exposed to the soothing music had significantly greater increases in IgA than any of the other conditions, suggesting that exposure to music (and not other sounds) might improve innate immunity.

Another study from Massachusetts General Hospital found that listening to Mozart’s piano sonatas helped relax critically ill patients by lowering stress hormone levels, but the music also decreased blood levels of interleukin-6—a protein that has been implicated in higher mortality rates, diabetes, and heart problems.

According to a 2013 meta-analysis, authors Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel Levitin concluded that music has the potential to augment immune response systems, but that the findings to date are preliminary. Still, as Levitin notes in one article on the study, “I think the promise of music as medicine is that it’s natural and it’s cheap and it doesn’t have the unwanted side effects that many pharmaceutical products do.”

Music may aid memory

My now-teenage son always listens to music while he studies. Far from being a distraction to him, he claims it helps him remember better when it comes to test time. Now research may prove him right—and provide an insight that could help people suffering from dementia.

Music enjoyment elicits dopamine release, and dopamine release has been tied to motivation, which in turn is implicated in learning and memory. In a study published last year, adult students studying Hungarian were asked to speak, or speak in a rhythmic fashion, or sing phrases in the unfamiliar language. Afterwards, when asked to recall the foreign phrases, the singing group fared significantly better than the other two groups in recall accuracy.

Evidence that music helps with memory has led researchers to study the impact of music on special populations, such as those who suffer memory loss due to illness. In a 2008 experiment, stroke patients who were going through rehab were randomly assigned to listen daily either to self-selected music, to an audio book, or to nothing (in addition to receiving their usual care). The patients were then tested on mood, quality of life, and several cognitive measures at one week, three months, and 6 months post-stroke. Results showed that those in the music group improved significantly more on verbal memory and focused attention than those in the other groups, and they were less depressed and confused than controls at each measuring point.

In a more recent study, caregivers and patients with dementia were randomly given 10 weeks of singing coaching, 10 weeks of music listening coaching, or neither. Afterwards, testing showed that singing and music listening improved mood, orientation, and memory and, to a lesser extent, attention and executive functioning, as well as providing other benefits. Studies like these have encouraged a movement to incorporate music into patient care for dementia patients, in part promoted by organizations like Music and Memory.

Music helps us exercise

How many of us listen to rock and roll or other upbeat music while working out? It turns out that research supports what we instinctively feel: music helps us get a more bang for our exercise buck.

Researchers in the United Kingdom recruited thirty participants to listen to motivational synchronized music, non-motivational synchronized music, or no music while they walked on a treadmill until they reached exhaustion levels. Measurements showed that both music conditions increased the length of time participants worked out (though motivational music increased it significantly more) when compared to controls. The participants who listened to motivational music also said they felt better during their work out than those in the other two conditions.

In another study, oxygen consumption levels were measured while people listened to different tempos of music during their exercise on a stationary bike. Results showed that when exercisers listened to music with a beat that was faster and synchronous with their movement, their bodies used up oxygen more efficiently than when the music played at a slower, unsynchronized tempo.

According to sports researchers Peter Terry and Costas Karageorghis, “Music has the capacity to capture attention, lift spirits, generate emotion, change or regulate mood, evoke memories, increase work output, reduce inhibitions, and encourage rhythmic movement – all of which have potential applications in sport and exercise."

Reprinted with permission from The Greater Good - Science of a Meaningful Life

Mindfulness, Yoga and Breathing—The Power of Counting Your Breath

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A new study shows that practicing mindfulness, and gaining the stress reducing benefits associated with the practice, can be as simple as breathing in and breathing out. In this, mindfulness techniques echo ancient yogic breathing practices from simple to more advanced types of pranayama.

According to a recent study led by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and published collectively this month in Frontiers in Psychology, a simple way to develop and practice mindfulness is to simply count your breath.

The practice of mindfulness has recently gained popularity in the U.S. Mindfulness involves a focus on the here and now through awareness of the present moment. It is parallel to yogic practices in that it offers an approach to develop the ability to stay present with what is and learning to accept and embrace, rather than react to or run away from difficult situations or emotions.

Studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce stress, improve student academic performance, and more. But researchers have lacked a scientifically rigorous way to measure it, sometimes hindering its credibility. In this, the field of mindfulness research has a similar problem as yoga research: If it’s being practiced in many different ways, it has to be measured in a scientifically conclusive way.

A new study at the University of Wisconsin seeks to address this issue by standardizing the way mindfulness is being measured and develop a behavioral measure of mindfulness.

The researchers focused on breath counting, a practice that dates back 1,500 years as a tool to train mindfulness, according to Daniel Levinson, lead author of the study and a graduate student at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior.

The researchers hope their findings will help continue to push mindfulness into the mainstream. It has long been seen as the domain of monks and mystics, but Levinson would like to see it become as common as yoga and running are today. He wants to see more physicians and others using it as a tool to promote well-being and to engage in common conversation around mindfulness. He is hopeful this measure can help.

"It's easy to answer self-report questionnaires in ways that are consistent with what a person thinks mindfulness to represent, the expectations about how a person highly mindful will behave," says co-author Richard Davidson, a UW-Madison professor of psychology and psychiatry, and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW's Waisman Center. “But when it comes to keeping track of breaths, people can't 'fake good.'"

Key to Mindfulness: Developing Awareness of the Breath

To examine the practice as a tool for measuring mindfulness, participants in the study were asked to keep track of nine breaths in sequence by striking one computer key at each breath and a different key on the ninth breath in each sequence. To do so accurately, a person must be aware of each breath as it happens.

"Counting isn't the main focus; it's the experiential awareness of breath," Levinson says. Breath counting is not mindfulness; rather, it's a tool for measuring it, much like a thermometer is a tool for assessing the season.

Of the more than 400 people studied, all completed breath-counting tasks. Some were asked to provide their mood prior to doing so. Other participants were trained for four weeks in breath counting and then compared to people trained in a memory task or not trained at all.

Yet others - including novice and long-term meditators - were trained in a distraction task where they were paid to correctly identify a colored object on a screen of objects, followed by testing where they were asked to identify a different colored object. During the testing, the subjects were no longer paid for their efforts, but they were "distracted" with the presence of the original colored object.

The findings showed that mindfulness as measured through breath counting is associated with more self-awareness, less mind wandering, better mood and less distraction caused by the "want" of financial gain.

And while it may seem easy, Levinson says that when people are off-count, they're unaware of it roughly two-thirds of the time. "The cool thing is we always are breathing, so we can do this anytime, anywhere," Davidson says.

Levinson sums it up a bit more succinctly: "Everyone has a breath."

India's Prime Minister Announces New Ministry for Yoga and Ayurveda

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently established a ministry to promote alternative therapies such as yoga and Ayurvedic medicine, as part of a wider mission to raise awareness of home-grown, natural therapies.

The ministry will focus on Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, designated by the acronym AAYUSH. In establishing AAYUSH, Modi inducted 21 ministers and appointed Shripad Yesso Naik as the new Minister of State who will head up the department. 

"This is our system and it has not received enough prominence. We will take it to the masses," Naik said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Prime Minister Modi, who begins his day with yoga, has long been an enthusiastic supporter and proponent of traditional Indian health and spiritual practices. He has often taken the opportunity to mention them in his exchanges with world leaders.

He has also encouraged the United Nations to observe an International Yoga Day, and so far, more than 50 countries including the US, Canada, and China strongly support the idea. In his speech at the UN, Modi praised yoga, saying it can change one’s lifestyle, raise one’s level of consciousness and even help the world deal with climate change.

On his recent world tour he had the opportunity to give a book on yoga to the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, after he expressed interest in the practice.  Modi is quoted as saying “Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.” 

In addition, Modi spoke about yoga and Ayurveda to U.S. leaders including Barack Obama and Joe Biden when he visited the U.S. in September 2014.  According to the Washington Post, Modi and Obama agreed to work together toward common goals. 

YogaGlo Forfeits Its Patent. What Comes Next?

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On October 27 this year, online yoga video service YogaGlo announced its decision to forfeit the patent issued for its mode of filming yoga videos.

The decision came seemingly out of the blue, leading many to wonder what lies behind the decision. Does this really mark the end of the story, or simply the beginning of a new chapter? In this article we update you on the developments since the YogaGlo patent was issued in December 2013, and speculate on what might come next.

When YogaGlo first declared its intention to patent its way of filming yoga videos about a year ago, it evoked widespread controversy in the yoga community.  It didn’t help that the patent application—even before it was approved—was accompanied by cease and desist letters sent to other yoga websites with online practices, which, according to YogaGlo lawyers, resembled the YogaGlo system of recording online yoga classes in a live classroom setting.

Among the recipients of the cease and desist letter was the Himalaya Institute’s Yoga International, which had created a number of videos with a set-up similar to the YogaGlo class format: A class of students filmed from a camera at the back of the room with the teacher visible through an unobstructed view through a wide center aisle.

Upon receiving the cease and desist letter, the Himalaya Institute’s editorial department took its case to the court of public opinion, and not surprisingly, quickly garnered widespread support across the blogosphere. For many, the patent application symbolized everything that’s wrong with the increasing commercialization of modern yoga, and was viewed as a step even further away from the kind of guiding values we’d like to think prevail in the yoga community. Also of great concern was the notion that something as obvious and common as the filming of a yoga class could be standardized and patented.

Shortly after the announcement, Yoga Alliance decided to get involved in the controversy, creating an online petition urging YogaGlo to withdraw the patent request, which eventually got more than 14,000 signatures.  Nonetheless, Yogaglo proceeded, and on December 10th of last year, YogaGlo’s patent (U.S. Patent No.8,605,152) was granted. Yoga International took down the videos, which supposedly violated the patent, and changed the format with which they were filming videos.

Then, out of the blue on October 27, YogaGlo announced that it had forfeited the issued patent in response to concerns raised “about how broad the patent seems to be and that it may prevent filming in general.” On October 31, the company officially filed a request with the PTO to disclaim its patent.

The YogaGlo announcement about the forfeiture came a few days before the nonprofit organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), named the patent as ¨October’s Very Bad, No Good, Totally Stupid Patent.”

Even though the patent had been withdrawn, the EFF went ahead with the story, stating that “Despite our familiarity with absurd patents and our concerns about cursory review at the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), we were still surprised that this one was issued. It seemed the so-called ‘invention’ wasn’t the kind of thing that should be patented at all—or at the very least, was not something novel or nonobvious.”

Why Did YogaGlo Give Up the Patent?

If you are curious about why YogaGlo decided to forfeit the patent less than a year after it was issued, you are not alone. The company spent tens of thousands of dollars on the patent process, and stuck to their guns during the uproar that followed when the patent was announced. So why give it up, and why now? There are likely several factors involved, and one can only speculate on a few.

The EFF, in its blog post, points to the yoga community’s willingness to speak out and take action against the patent. This may well have been one important factor in the decision.

Another reason may have been the growing realization that the patent would have been very difficult to enforce—in other words, worthless. After the patent was issued, Yoga Alliance compiled a Citation of Prior Art with examples of similar systems that were either claimed in other patent applications or that were in public circulation at least a year before the YogaGlo patent was filed.

“We believe these examples of prior art would have invalidated YogaGlo’s now-forfeited patent,” Yoga Alliance commented in a blog post about the patent forfeiture. The internet was replete with legal firms analyzing the patent and proposing a legal strategy to fight it, presumably in an effort to be retained in the case of future legal battles.

Following the YogaGlo announcement, Yoga Alliance applauded the company’s decision to give up the patent, stating in a blog post that, “This is great news for the yoga community and for yoga practitioners everywhere, because it means that individuals and organizations are now free to use any system and method of recording a live yoga class without fear of reprisal.”

Still, uncertainties remain about what’s really behind the move. In announcing their decision, YogaGlo founder Derek Mills wrote, “On balance, the majority of the concern [about the patent] is about how broad the patent seems to be and that it may prevent filming in general. In an effort to remove confusion and concern within the yoga community and beyond, we have decided to focus our efforts on narrowing our protections. To begin this process in earnest, we have decided to forfeit the issued patent” (emphasis added).

Mills is mum on what exactly is meant by ‘narrowing our protections’, but continues: “We still believe the look and feel of our classes are unique to YogaGlo and have become associated with high quality teaching,” Mills writes. “We will continue to protect that just as we would protect our logo or our name.”

So what exactly is the YogaGlo look and feel? A class of students filmed from the back with the teacher in front as the image of Patthabi Jois teaching a class? Or, a frontal view with a central camera, which—incidentally—happens to also be the best way to film a yoga class to capture correct alignment, as evidenced in the Youtube video above? 

Hopefully, the YogaGlo decision to forfeit the patent marks the end of the road.  But whether there’s the second shoe to drop remains to be seen.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

The underlying question in this discussion is really about the nature of competition as it interacts with the yogic values one might hope companies that are a part of the yoga community would strive to stand for.

There are two kinds of competition: Bad competition and good competition. Bad competition is based on a sense of scarcity and limited resources. Good competition, on the other hand, is based on constant renewal, innovation, and creativity, leading to a progressive growth of the services in the market.

Good competition, one could say, is like infill development in a city—while there are plenty of houses already, infill developers will find new, overlooked areas to build on and fill out. This is the equivalent of taking advantage of the unfilled niches that exist in all markets by innovating and improving existing services.

A case in point? YogaGlo itself. YogaGlo essentially copied the business model for online video subscription services first introduced by MyYogaOnline, improved it and developed it further by focusing exclusively on some of the highest caliber teachers around. As a result, it has brought the world of online yoga a huge step forward, and offered a great service to the yoga community.

In the world of good competition—there is no shortage of resources. Bad competition, on the other hand, instead of innovating and filling new niches, simply engages in a fight to control and dominate what is perceived as a limited market and limited resources.

As the old adage goes, a rising tide lifts all ships. There may be many online yoga video sites, but there are, equally, also many types of yoga audiences.  Creativity and competitive forces will eventually unite to create more and more opportunity for the many diverse niches within the world of yoga.

So, is there a second shoe waiting to drop? Let’s hope not. YogaGlo has a solidly established position in the market place, and it’s hard to think of anything that could conceivably hurt that position. Except of course, from the self-induced destruction of brand image that would come from turning to a business paradigm that is the antithesis of the values the yoga community holds dear. 

Which Muscles Are You Using in Your Yoga Practice? A New Study Provides the Answers

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By B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 - 

Have you noticed that your yoga practice leads to an increase in bodily awareness and greater efficiency of movement?  A groundbreaking new study shows which muscles you use during certain poses, and suggests that our ability to effectively recruit key muscle groups increases with time and practice.

The study, which was published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, is the first published account of the key muscles activated during the 11 distinct postures in the Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) A and B sequences. It not only shows you which muscles are activated, but also examines how novice and advanced students and yoga instructors use their bodies differently in the same pose.

Researchers at the University of Miami recruited 36, healthy volunteers who had practiced Baptiste yoga using “Vinyasa style” for 3 months or more or had yoga instructor certification. Participants included 9 male and 27 female adults ranging in age from 19-43 years. Each was required to have the ability to complete Surya Namaskar A and B independently, and to be free of musculoskeletal or neurologic injury or impairment.

Yoga participants were divided into 1 of 3 categories: novice (12, mean age 24 years), advanced (12, mean age 36 years), and instructor (12, 34 years). They were asked to come to a laboratory and to warm up by performing Surya Namaskar A 3 times and B twice. Electrodes were then placed on the skin over the identified muscles on the participant’s dominant side (27 right handed/3 left handed).

Each participant was then asked to perform a sequence of the 11 Surya Namaskar poses, and to hold each for a period of 15 seconds. The poses included:

Urdhva Mukha Uttanasana (“halfway lift”)
Uttanasana (forward fold)
Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog)
Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (upward facing dog)
Dandasana (high plank)
Chaturanga dandasana (low plank)
Utkatasana (chair)
Urdvha Hastasana (mountain with arms up)
Tadasana (mountain arms down)
Virabhadrasana (dominant side warrior 1 pose) and nondominant side Virabhadrasana

Each pose was digitally recorded, then evaluated by an independent sample of yoga instructors blind to the participant’s yoga history, who were asked to independently evaluate each participant’s skill level.

A total of 14 muscle groups were examined. They included:

Pectoralis major (PECS)
Deltoid anterior (DELTa)
Deltoid medial (DELTm)
Biceps brachii (BB)
Triceps brachii (TB)
Upper trapezius (TRAPu)
Middle trapezius (TRAPm)
Rectus abdominus (RA)
Erector spinae (ES)
Rectus femoris (RF)
Vastus medialis (VM)
Biceps femoris (BF)
Gastrocnemius lateralis (GL)
Tibialis anterior

The investigators then statistically analyzed each of the muscle activation patterns by group (novice, advanced and instructor), and by pose.

Fascinating results

The experimenters discovered a number of interesting patterns of results.

For the upper body, the upper trapezius muscle showed high activation patterns for chair, downward facing dog, and warrior. The biceps brachii were most active during chair pose, and engaged in high and low plank, and upward facing dog as one might expect. Triceps brachii were most employed during Chaturanga, and somewhat for chair, warrior, plank and upward facing dog.

The erector spinae muscles showed greater activation during chair, “halfway lift” (Urdhva Mukha Uttanasana), upward dog, and warrior as compared to downward facing dog, forward fold, and mountain pose.

Muscles of the lower body also responded in an expected fashion. Values for the rectus femoris were greatest during chair pose, downward dog, high plank, and warrior compared to forward fold, and elevated during up dog and warrior pose when compared to “halfway lift.”

The biceps femoris on the other hand, showed higher patterns of activation during chair, high and low plank, upward dog and warrior pose compared to forward fold.

Lastly, the tibialis anterior was most engaged during chair, downward dog, high and low plank and warrior compared to the more passive mountain and forward fold poses.

Skill is a factor

There was some evidence that the skill level of the yoga practitioner has implications for muscle recruitment and intensity of activation. In general, instructors were found to have higher levels of muscle activation compared to novices. This is to be expected as body awareness, proprioception and postural refinement evolve with practice.

A number of interesting patterns of muscle activation also emerged. There were significant differences in pectoral muscle use by skill group. Novices generally had the most pec engagement in chair when compared to instructors. Instructors showed markedly higher activation of the anterior deltoid muscles during forward folds and warrior pose. In general, instructors made greater use of their deltoid muscles than either novices or advanced practitioners.

There were no significant differences in core muscle activation between instructors, novices and advanced students. For lower body muscles, however, instructors showed greater patterns of activation for their gastrocnemius muscles for “halfway lift” and warrior than the other two groups.

Skill level, muscle use – What are the implications?

The authors drew a number of important conclusions regarding their findings. Most importantly, these data suggest that more advanced yoga practitioners are able to engage their trapezius and erector spinae muscles more readily during postures that require upper body strength rather than relying more heavily on shoulder muscles. It is likely that, with experience, yoga practitioners become increasingly more adept at retracting their scapula and engaging spinal stabilizers and middle trapezius muscles rather than relying on the shoulder joints for support. This is likely to reduce injury over time.

In addition to back strength and stability, the authors discovered that postures such as chair and warrior target the tibialis anterior, a critical dorsiflexor associated with foot and ankle stability and decreased fall risk, particularly among the elderly. This points to the tibialis anterior as a key target of intervention for programs intending to promote postural stability.

Lastly, the authors draw attention to the importance of the vastus medialis (VM). The VM is a critical knee stabilizer and of great importance in maintaining balanced force distribution between the upper and lower body during high and low plank, and upward and downward facing dog pose. Highest activation of this muscle was found in the instructors, who have likely developed their ability to detect and engage this muscle during strenuous postures.

It is essential that yoga teachers and students continue to familiarize themselves with core and spinal stabilizers in order to maintain a safe and integrated practice.

The great news

…. is that the patterns of muscle activation detected in this study are consistent with a lot of what we already know about these postures. These findings also speak to the benefits of practice for cultivating greater body awareness, and a heightened sensitivity to the patterns of muscle engagement that will result in greatest benefit and physical efficiency. 

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT, is the former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She is an author, intervention scientist and practitioner who has worked extensively in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings. Her research and clinical work explore the effects of integrating empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote health and wellbeing for children and their families. She was the recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

Yoga At Work: Fighting Workplace Stress

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yoga at work fights workplace stress

Americans are more stressed than ever, research studies find, and overwhelmingly, it’s the pressure of workplace stress that has escalated over the past few decades.

In one survey, seventy-two percent of Americans identified their jobs as the major source of stress in their life, citing heavy workloads, lack of job security, and difficulty striking a work/life balance as taking a serious toll. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported that they regularly experience stress-related neck pain, and 34 percent suffered from insomnia. Long-term stress, of course, is known to create a wide range of additional health problems, including high blood pressure, weight gain, and even cancer.

But it turns out that stress isn’t just bad for your health, it can also affect your job performance. Chronically stressed employees are less friendly, make worse decisions, and are more susceptible to “burnout,” a type of psychological exhaustion that leads to decreased productivity and a reduced interest in work.

In this environment, employers, not surprisingly, are looking for ways to help reduce workplace stress, and with a growing body of evidence supporting yoga’s stress-relieving benefits, employers are taking notice. More and more companies are offering yoga programs for their employees, ranging from huge Fortune 500 companies like Nike, Forbes, and Apple to small-and-trendy tech companies.

This is turning out to be a win-win for employers and employees alike: Not only are happier, more relaxed employees more productive, paying for yoga now can save employers a considerable amount of money in reduced medical costs. Case in point? After determining that its most stressed-out employees had higher medical bills, insurance giant Aetna began offering a corporate “wellness program” that included yoga and meditation. The result? The company slashed its health care costs by 7 percent

Yoga in the workplace takes many forms, depending on who’s offering the program. Some big companies sponsor free employee gyms with yoga and meditation classes, while other, smaller companies may whisk employees away for a subsidized early morning class or weekend retreat. The classes may be available to everyone in the company or only the employees who demonstrate interest or need.

Not only can the meditative effects of yoga help you manage stress and sleep better, but yoga has a slew of other cognitive and social benefits, too. Cultivating a yoga practice can improve your memory and focus, as well as giving you the peace of mind needed to face imminent deadlines and difficult coworkers with grace. 

Most likely, your employer doesn’t offer a workplace yoga problem, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate yoga into your daily life and use it to battle workplace stress. There are plenty of yoga poses you can do right at your desk or in your office.

Yoga for the Office – A Simple Routine

The most simple way to practice yoga for workplace stress is to practice deep yogic breathing. When things get stressful, sit up straight, place your feet on the floor, and inhale deeply through your nose. Allow your lungs to fill completely--you should feel your ribcage expanding--and then exhale through your nose. Repeat five times.

You can also try poses like the spinal twist, neck stretch, forward bend, or cat and cow stretches. All of these could be practiced (relatively) discretely and offer relief from some of the most common complaints from stressed-out employees: insomnia, neck and back pain, and poor posture caused by sitting at a desk all day.

For a simple office yoga routine, try the routine below, excerpted from our article on Chair Yoga at Your Desk. If you do this 3-4 times a day for five minutes, you will feel a big difference at the end of the day. Remember, the easiest way to fight stress is to develop coping strategies to prevent stress before it arises.


Deep breathing  

Deep yogic breathing centers mind and body and helps you get present and ready for your yoga practice. Deep breathing while seated is quite simple. Sit with your spine straight without using the back rest, feet on the floor (you can use a yoga block or book for your feet if they don’t reach the floor). 

The trick to encourage deep breathing, is to exhale more fully: While holding the hands over your ribs, take a deep breath in through the nose, then exhale slowly, focusing on drawing the navel to the spine as you expel the air completely. Then allow your lungs to fill completely from the bottom to the top. Repeat for five breaths or for as long as is comfortable.

Core Breath 

Core breath is a variation of deep breathing. Again, sitting with your spine straight, inhale and raise the arms straight out in front of you. Be sure to keep the spine upright and only allow the arms to move—this will cause your core muscles to engage, and offer gentle core strengthening. Exhale, and lower the arms back down. Repeat for five to eight breaths. 

Neck Stretch

During an exhalation, slowly tilt the head towards your right shoulder. Rest for two to three breaths, allowing the neck muscles to slowly relax. Repeat to the other side. Come back to center, turn your head to look out over your right shoulder. Hold for two to three breaths, allowing the head to slowly deepen into the stretch. Repeat other side. Neck stretches should not cause pain.

Cat and Cow Stretches

This stretch can be especially relaxing for those who spend a great amount of each day in an office chair. With both feet flat on the floor, round the back during an inhalation, dropping the shoulders and the head towards the chest. Keep both hands resting on the thighs. This is the cow stretch. On the exhalation, arch the back, pulling the shoulders as far back as possible. This is the cat stretch. Do this four more times.
 

Forward Bend

The forward bend, or Uttanasana, helps to relax the lower back muscles. As you exhale, move your chest towards the thighs, bending down as far as possible with your spine straight. Keeping the spine straight is more important than how far down you bend. As you inhale, slowly stretch back up while reaching the hands as high as possible over the head. Repeat this pose four more times.

 

Yoga Tips for Improved Posture Support: A Q&A With Julie Gudmestad

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yoga for good posture

Julie Gudmestad is a physical therapist and Iyengar yoga teacher dedicated to making yoga accessible for everyone, regardless of body type or age. She spoke to us about the importance of good posture for back health, and how yoga can slow or reverse the effects of aging on our muscles and skeletons. Go here for more information about Julie Gudmestad and her continuing yoga education courses on Yoga U Online.

Q: As we all know there are many things that change in the body as we get older, but there is one common change that we never hear discussed that much, i.e. the slow but sure deterioration of our posture. Is this loss of our natural posture support just a cosmetic issue or is it something that we really should be paying attention to?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, it is a cosmetic issue. Sometimes, I marvel when I see people that are beautifully dressed and every hair is in place and the makeup is perfect and the overall image they’re projecting is ruined by their bearing and horrible posture.

But even more importantly, there are many injuries and health problems that bad posture can contribute to. I think it’s partly due to the habitual ways that Westerners use their bodies—a lot of sitting by computers or tablets, which cause us to slump forward. Unfortunately, people can get away with bad alignment for decades, and not realize that they’re going to have to pay a big price later for this kind of posture misalignment and the uneven forces it puts on the spine.

Q: I would imagine that slumped-over posture isn’t the best thing in terms of the body’s functions either?

Julie Gudmestad: No, definitely. The stomach and digestive organs are right there in the upper abdomen, so they’re going to get compressed when people are slumped over. And the diaphragm, which is the major muscle for respiration, can’t move freely. The heart and the lungs, of course, are in the ribcage, so they get constricted too. Straightening people up, making more room for their heart, their lungs, their diaphragm, their digestive organs, will help every system in the body function better.

Q: We talked about how these posture issues are [caused by] our habits [like sitting at a computer]. But habits aside, there really also is a tendency, all things even, for our posture to deteriorate over time?

Julie Gudmestad: I don’t believe that there is a mandatory amount of muscle mass that you’re going to lose regardless. I think the changes—the weakness—that we see in people’s posture when people get into their seventies and eighties is because they stopped working the muscles. And of course, a muscle that doesn’t get worked is going to atrophy.

Q: So which muscle groups do you have to work on to retain good posture or improve your posture?

Julie Gudmestad: The weakness that I'm most concerned about is in the erector spinae, which are the two long muscle groups that go up either side of the spine. The mid-back area on a lot of people just generally tends to be weak, so the lower and middle trapezius, which helps to position the shoulder blades are often involved. And down into the low back, the quadratus lumborum is a factor also, it is also a spinal extensor.

Weakness of these muscles will contribute to these posture problems. Just as bad, it also makes the back more vulnerable to injuries when people are doing activities around the house, like lifting a heavy basket of laundry, cleaning the garage, getting the groceries out of the car and into the house.

Any of these small bits of lifting and pushing and pulling that people do during the course of a normal day could be dangerous if your back is weak. You’re also very vulnerable to those kinds of so-called garden variety back strains, back pain, back injuries. This is a particular soapbox of mine, because I think if people’s backs were stronger, we physical therapists would have way less of these back strains that we end up dealing with every week.

Q: Why is it so hard to improve posture?

Julie Gudmestad: When people spend long periods of time at the computer with their arms forward and their head forward, then the muscles and the connective tissue on the front of the body gets short and tight, and this can lock people permanently into this forward head posture. And the way chairs are set up, they invite people to slide their pelvis forward and their back goes back. The mid-back goes back against the backrest, pelvis is forward, the head is forward, and then you sit there for eight hours a day. So in many cases, it’s a combination of the muscle imbalances and poor seating options.

Q: And of course, once your body gets used to one type of alignment in space, it thinks that that’s normal.

Julie Gudmestad: I’ve had so many people tell me, when I put them into just beautiful, textbook alignment and they’ll say, “Well, this feels abnormal,” and then I have to say, “Well, it’s actual textbook normal, but could we say that it’s unfamiliar to you rather than abnormal?”

Q:You have a course on yoga for posture improvement at YogaUOnline. Tell us about what you are covering in this?

Julie Gudmestad: Part One takes a look at the factors that contribute to slumping, and it’s going to be mostly the mid-upper back, the head, and arms. I show how to use yoga postures to strengthen the back and open the front and really help to correct the slumping. In Part Two, I'm still going to be working with the extensors in the back with a focus on the erector spinae and the  quadratus lumborum and the lower back, so people can understand what problems arise when they get too short and too tight and how to address that. So the first hour focuses on strengthening of the back, particularly the spinal extensors. And then the second hour, more focus is on stretching.

Q: Great. It sounds like a very, very important course on a topic that we really don’t hear enough about.

Julie Gudmestad: Yoga has so much to offer for these kinds of problems and if people get a basic understanding of what the imbalances are and [how to correct them], you can save a lot of suffering.

See here for more information about Julie Gudmestad and her course on Yoga for Posture Improvement and Back Pain Relief. 

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