Archive | Physical Health

What Stress Does Inside & How to Keep Your Cool

Talk of the Nation featured a terrific 24 minute discussion on holiday stress. “Health experts discuss the effects that stress can have on your health, and offer some suggestions for keeping your cool during this frantically festive season.”

Doctors from the Mayo Clinic and from NIH give the best explanation I’ve ever heard that accounts for what happens in the body physically when we are under stress. And they reveal the latest scientific data on how to help temper the adverse effects. The Mayo doctor even has a “Stress Blog” !! And get this, the first caller to the program was a yoga teacher who offers a yogic breathing technique!

Among the suggestion are expected ones – exercise (even just 20 minutes). But others are a bit unusual like how to trick your brain into thinking you’re more in control they you are.

Find out what the doctors thought…..You can listen to the NPR segment here. And check out the Mayo Stress Blog here. Too busy to listen to a 24 minute radio segment right now? Well, also has a 10 minute mindfulness guided meditation you can do right at your desk!

Ginger Clove Tea Can Warm You and Your Home

This tea is a favorite of mine, and more days than not, I’ve got it brewing on the stove. The first few sips can be strong. The ginger is an anti-inflammatory and can sooth stomach ails too. The recipe is an adaptation from the Ginger Tea I drank at my first yoga retreat at Parrot Cay. And I drank it constantly. For more on the benefits of ginger, click here. And my home always smells wonderful, too.

Here’s how I make it –

A large piece of ginger root (a little larger than the size of your hand)
5 or 6 whole cloves
A gallon of water
2 limes
Honey (optional)

First, wash the ginger root. Don’t peel it. It’s difficult to do and not really necessary. I dice up the ginger into about half inch pieces (about the size of a pinky nail) and put them in a pot with the water and the cloves. Sometimes as I’m dicing the ginger I find some more dirt in the , and I just rinse the piece off again. Then simmer and reduce the liquid until the brew is a nice caramel color. After you make it a few times, you’ll figure out what shade provides the strength of flavor you prefer. Adjust the amount of liquid or ginger accordingly. Sometimes I add more water when I’ve left it too long on the stove and start the reduction again (but by then my home smells wonderful).

To serve, I either use a French Press to filter out the ginger pieces and cloves, or I scoop out the liquid, avoiding the ginger, directly into a mug. I add the juice of one half lime per mug. You can add honey to taste. I used to add the honey, but I don’t any longer. Agave syrup or maple syrup is fine to use as a sweetener if you prefer as well.

And voila! A winter drink that’s healthy and yummy.

Abhyanga, Self Oil Massage, Nourishes Skin & Body

A regular practice of giving yourself a full body oil massage is an essential part of yogic health. Ayurvedic medicine complements and completes yoga and is the traditional healing system of India. As old as yoga (5000 years old!), Ayurveda uses the same Sanskrit language as yoga.

Snehana is the Sanskrit term for massaging herbal oils into the skin. The root of this word highlights a vital aspect of this practice. Sneha means love, and the literal translation of
snehana is to love your own body. So as you do this, you really need to feel affection for your own skin and what’s underneath. Abhyanga is a broader term and refers to any massage treatment that uses oil, and here I will be describing how to administer a self oil massage. Abhyanga is also a Sanskrit word and with ang meaning “movement” and the prefix abhi meaning “into” or “toward”, Abhyanga literally translates as moving into the body. Moving what into the body? Energy, love, prana.

One of my clients suggested I was highlighting this because of Valentine’s Day. The connection is apt. If you have someone in your life, this practice is wonderful to do with a partner. Whether with a partner or alone, practicing love toward your body with the practice of abhyanga is a perfect way to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.

To find out more about why to do this and how to…

Chronically Ill Patients Turn to Yoga

The New York Times printed an article December 15th, 2005 on yoga’s affect on chronic illness by Carol Lee,
Chronically Ill Patients Turn to Yoga for Relief.

The piece provides a very good overview of yoga’s benefits for those with various illnesses such as AIDS or Chrohn’s disease. Many patients find that the sessions, which make them feel more comfortable, also lessen some of their symptoms and the side effects of their medications.

The story opens with this:

JACK WATERS credits yoga with saving his life four years ago.

I do too. I’ve said many times over the last five years that yoga saved my life because I would have killed myself I was so alienated from my body, my life was a series of losses and doctors offered no relief or hope. I was lucky, very lucky. I’d already been doing yoga for five years when I became ill. I’ve written about yoga and my obstacle here.

Cynthia Mencher, a breast cancer survivor…69, joined a yoga class at the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan while recovering from her illness. “That gave me back a sense of reinhabiting my body.”

That re-inhabiting often serves as the best benefit. The mind goes away from a body that betrays.

Medical professionals have embraced meditative practices like yoga in managing illnesses. Studies have shown that yoga can, among other things, reduce fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis and lower anxiety in patients with cancer, heart disease or hypertension. In a recent preliminary study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, people with chronic insomnia who practiced yoga daily said that they were sleeping significantly better and for longer periods.

It should be noted that the type of yoga practiced and discussed here is Iyengar yoga – a gold standard when it comes to yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar wrote Light on Yoga in 1966 which helped bring yoga to the West. He also developed the use of props to support the body in illness and focuses on alignment. Iyengar was very sick as a boy, so it’s not surprising that his style of yoga is the most helpful – to any one, sick or well.

And one of the yoga studios featured is in Westfield, NJ, where I lived until I was 10 years old. Unity Yoga is said to be in Mountainside, but is really in Westfield.

Academic Studies on Yoga and Health

This entry highlights several studies being done on yoga and its effects on health. Medical studies and investigations on the physical benefits of yoga conducted by prominent institutions can be accessed through a government web site called Pubmed is a joint service of National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine.

Many of these were brought to my attention by my friend and former therapist Professor Afton L. Hassett, Psy.D. of UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She pointed out that through emotional balance, stress reduction and the physical exercise of yoga, the disease process can also be modified.

1. A study on heart disease and integrative medicine (including yoga) can be found
here, from Columbia University’s Dept. of Surgery (and now of Oprah fame: Dr. Mehmet Oz)

Our evolution toward a more integrative approach toward healing will accelerate if we can alter the different perspectives that patients and physicians bring to their relationship. This article reviews lessons that have been acquired using alternative approaches to facilitate the recovery of patients undergoing invasive procedures. After identifying that most of our patients use alternative therapies but prefer not to discuss these therapies with their surgeons, we began to routinely refer our patients to a coordinator trained in this field. The resulting integrative medicine program offers massage, yoga, audiotapes, and additional customized treatments.

2. A study on cardiovascular disease and yoga specifically can be found

To conduct a systematic review of published literature regarding the effects of yoga, a promising mind-body therapy, on specific anthropometric and physiologic indices of cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk and on related clinical endpoints.

3. A study, done in Germany, focused on Iyengar yoga and alleviating emotional distress.

Emotional distress is an increasing public health problem and Hatha yoga has been claimed to induce stress reduction and empowerment in practicing subjects. We aimed to evaluate potential effects of Iyengar Hatha yoga on perceived stress and associated psychological outcomes in mentally distressed women.

4. A study looked at biochemical indicators of risk for heart disease and diabetes.

The objective of the study was to study the short-term impact of a brief lifestyle intervention based on yoga on some of the biochemical indicators of risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes mellitus.

How To Deal With Illness & Fatigue

The Yoga Sutras compiled by Patanjali, are aphorisms that represent the essence of yoga knowledge and experience. The statements are succinct (averaging six words) and provide guidance on the benefits, philosophy and practice of yoga. For more about the Sutras, click here.

What are the nine obstacles in yoga?
Nine obstacles or distractions are outlined: illness, fatigue, doubt, carelessness, laziness, attachment, delusion, the failure to achieve samadhi and the failure to achieve samadhi. (Chapter 1:30) . Even 2500 years after Patanjali first assembled the Yoga Sutras, these obstacles can still veer yogis off their path.

Note that Samadhi means “settled mind,” which is said to bring very deep rest to the entire body. In this issue of nilambu notes, I examine the first two – illness (vyadhi) and fatigue (styana).

What does yoga say about illness?
Illness or sickness that disturbs the physical balance is the first distraction, because in yoga, the body is the key mechanism. If the car breaks down, the trip stops. The root of the Sanskrit word, vyadhi, means to “stand apart” or “be scattered” (Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, p.157).

So illness is said to break apart and alienate a person, a life. The primacy of the physical health indicates how, in yoga, the body is integral to and important for the mind. Mental development and that settled state of mind will be harder to achieve, though not impossible, when the body is ill.

What does yoga say about fatigue and apathy?
Styana is variously translated as fatigue, apathy, languor or lethargy. The root means “to grow dense.” (Ibid, p. 158). A yogi who is fatigued or apathetic enjoys no enthusiasm and forms no aspirations.

BKS Iyengar notes that in this state,

mind and intellect become dull due to inactivity…water in a ditch stagnates and nothing good can flourish in it. (Light on Yoga, p. 25)

My current yoga teacher speaks of the “walking dead” – people who are listless and unaware and unable to concentrate.

So what are we to do about these obstacles?
They impede obviously – but the Sanskrit term for these “obstacles” actually means “interval.” That is, illness and apathy create a break or a gap and thereby distract from the goal. The gap can be bridged. The Sutras continue,

Such distractions make the body restless, the breathing coarse, the mind agitated. They result in suffering. But they can be eliminated if the mind is repeatedly brought to a single focus. (Chapter 1:31-32).

Notably, the sutras do not deny or belittle these challenges. They exist. The sutras acknowledge the pain they can cause and note yoga requires an even more diligent focus when these obstacles are encountered.

So the answer to distractions?
Focus. Not a stunning aphorism, but one worth remembering. Important to me is that yoga recognizes these difficulties. And the etymologies of the words resonate and illuminate fresh perspectives on difficulties that can arise to hinder us.

These obstacles are not huge boulders, too weighty to move, that stop us dead in our track. Nor are they locked gates on our route that we ignore by going around another way. These obstacles are potholes in our path. And so we continue on our chosen way with heightened care and concentration – watching out for the potholes and gaps to bridge.

That’s the message of the Yoga Sutras.

Yoga Nidra – A Restful State of Being

Yoga Nidra. What does it mean?

Well, the answer to that has varied over the centuries. It’s often translated as yoga sleep, but sleep is understood very differently in yoga.

Patanjali wrote of sleep in the 10th Sutra of Chapter One –

Sleep is the mental activity that has as its content the sense of nothingness. – trans. by Alistair Shearer

Sleep is the turning of thought abstracted from existence. – trans. by Barbara Stoler Miller

So in yoga, sleep is not the absence of consciousness. It’s just a different stage of consciousness. In the earlier centuries of yoga, yoga nidra even was considered the highest form of consciousness, the closest to God. In this altered conscious state, one experiences continuous awareness of the self and a merging or even engrossing with God’s consciousness.

But today, yoga nidra most often refers to a state of deep relaxation in which the senses are aware of external stimuli but do not in any way react, even in the mind.

How does one get to that state of relaxation? Here are some steps:

  1. Put your body in a comfortable physical position. Typically, this pose is corpse pose or savasana – you lie on your back, palms up. You can support your neck and head and put a cushion behind the knees. Just be sure you’re comfortable.
  2. Set an intention – this could be to let go of an irritation, to forgive someone who wronged you, to make this deep relaxation effective – whatever you’d like.
  3. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Slowly try to match the length of the inhalation to the exhalation. As you exhale, try to image the carbon dioxide, the waste, that your body naturally exhales.
  4. Survey your body – think in your mind of each body part, right side and left side separately. You can be as specific as thinking of each toe. The more precise you are the better. As you think of each body part, concentrate on relaxing that part. Do all of this in quickly. Don’t linger in any place of the body.
  5. When the survey is complete, think of the whole body, supported by the floor. (hopefully by now, you’ll have a slight sensation of floating)
  6. Think of your intention.
  7. You can repeat the body survey or simply focus on your breath. You can stay in this for 10 minutes or 60. You should feel calm, a calm abiding. You are aware of sounds, the floor touching you, smells. But you don’t react to them, either actually or even in your mind. You may even fall into a different state of consciousness (sleep).
  8. Come out gently.

You can do yoga nidra on your own. Admittedly, it’s easier to have someone with a kind and gentle voice to guide you in, through your body survey and back out.

I’ve actually transferred some of Shiva Rae’s yoga nidras onto my Ipod and sometimes go into yoga nidra to help me transition into night or during the day when I need deep rest. (See review of her Yoga Nectar CD next month, but if you want to check out her web site, click here.

I also really relish doing it. I come out feeling refreshed and renewed. Nectar, indeed.

For general background on Patanjali click here and the Yoga Sutras, click here.

Yoga and Chronic Illness

Yoga International featured a woman who teaches yoga and who, like me, has fibromyalgia. Her experience closely mirrors my own. Click here to read about how yoga helps alleviate the symptoms.

In three respects, my experience diverged from the woman featured:

  1. On days when crutches or wheelchairs are necessary I don’t see how headstands are – but the monstrous disease does wax and wane.
  2. She doesn’t address how still, “restorative” poses are very difficult and challenging when in pain. Sometimes the body is better off moving because pain in a warm body in not as gripping and breathtaking. Other times, restorative postures are alternated with more active postures. Yoga teaches you to be aware of your body and responsive, whether you’re dealing with an illness or not.
  3. She also speaks of “flare-proofing” with certain precautions. In my experience, there is no flare-proofing. The behavior she outlines is still important; you do your best to minimize damage from the random onsets. But sometimes the bad times just hit and wreck havoc. Her sense of control and “proofing” again flare-ups belies her acceptance of surrender.

To read of my own experience with yoga and my disease, click here.