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Month: October 2020

How Exercise Impacts Your Sleep

By Sarah Munn for Weight Watchers

Why working out can help you get better ZZZs…

How Exercise Impacts Your Sleep

We all know exercise has innumerable health benefits – it can strengthen your heart, improve your flexibility and help you lose weight, to name a few, but did you know it can also help you sleep better?

“Specifically, it can improve sleep quality and help you fall asleep quicker,” says licensed psychologist Dr. Rebecca Leslie, PsyD.

“As obvious as it sounds, fatiguing yourself with physical activity enhances the chances that you’ll fall asleep more easily, and actually enjoy some good quality rest,” says Jenni Tarma, Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist and teacher on Yoga Medicine Online.

“From a nervous system perspective, the ‘feel-good’ effect of moving your body and exerting yourself a little can also help decrease feelings of anxiety, jitteriness or being wired, all of which can make it harder to fall and stay asleep,” she adds. “In other words, exercise can be a helpful way to release some of the stress of daily life, which tends to put the nervous system into a state of alertness and vigilance, and down-regulate us into a more sleep-friendly state of restful calm.”

Another possible reason that exercise can improve sleep quality has to do with body temperature.

Physical activity temporarily increases body temperature, Tarma explains, and the subsequent post-exercise temperature drop may encourage the body to wind down more easily and get ready for sleep.

How Much is Enough?

With that in mind, you may be wondering if there’s a certain amount of exercise you need to do to reap the sleep benefits.

Leslie points out that you don’t need a long-established exercise routine in order to see an effect on your sleep. “You could see an impact the same night,” she says.

And while you don’t need a routine to potentially see a difference, it can certainly help.

“The National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association recommend about 150 minutes of exercise a week, or about 30 minutes a day for five days,” Tarma says. “Without taking into account individual variability, this is a sensible starting place which, for most people, would improve overall wellness including the ability to sleep.”

As with all general guidelines though, she says, it is helpful to figure out what is most beneficial for you and your body.

“Some folks won’t balk at a 6 p.m. HIIT [high-intensity interval training] workout and have zero trouble sleeping, while others will do better with a mellow post-dinner walk, or some gentle yoga. Studies have also shown that being consistent with your habits helps promote better quality sleep, so it’s important to find a routine that you enjoy and can stick with to really get the full benefits of your healthy exercise habits.”

And finding that routine that works for you, can be helpful in and of itself.

“Getting into a routine, i.e. exercising and going to bed at consistently similar times, can help set our circadian rhythm into a regular schedule as well,” Tarma says. “Simply put, we can use exercise to signal to the body and brain that daytime is an appropriate time to be alert and active, and subsequently nighttime is the correct time to chill out and rest.”

Does the Timing of My Workout Matter?

Every person is different, so you may find you can work out at any time of day and get to sleep just fine. But for many people, exercising close to bedtime can actually make it harder for them to fall asleep. However, it also depends on what type of exercise they’re doing – again, every person is different.

“If you are exercising in the evening and having problems sleeping, it might be helpful to think about exercising in the morning or afternoon,” Leslie says. “Some people can exercise close to bedtime without a problem, but the general guideline is to refrain from evening exercise if you have trouble with sleep.”

The exception is calm stretch workouts.

“Stretching that is calming and relaxing, and does not significantly elevate your heart rate, can be helpful before bedtime,” Leslie says. “Stretching can be something relaxing you [do] before bed to help you unwind. I would say if it is gentle stretching or yoga, this can be done close to bedtime, but anything that makes you sweat, you should stick with doing earlier in the day.”

“One study found that a moderate activity like walking helped study participants fall asleep, while running and lifting weights did not,” Tarma adds. “This suggests that activities that jack you up (i.e. up-regulate the nervous system) too close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep. Obviously, this will vary from one person to another, and also depend on factors like the individual’s hormonal makeup. People who have naturally elevated levels of cortisol and are in general need of nervous system down-regulation, for example, may benefit from longer bouts of strenuous exercise and find that it actually helps them to sleep better.”

It’s also worth noting, she says, that while some exercise can improve sleep quality, this is not a “more is more” situation.

“In fact,” Tarma says, “athletic overtraining can also tilt the body into a constant state of hyperarousal and cause hormonal changes that negatively impact the ability to get deep, restful sleep.”

In other words, you don’t want to overdo it.

5 Reasons to Consider Going Alcohol-Free

By Sarah Munn for Weight Watchers

A lot of us may have overindulged in boozy beverages during quarantine, but it may be an idea to ease off and take a break.

“People are drinking more now because they have more fear about both the present and the future,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the Personology podcast from iHeart Media. 

“This uncertainty and fear drives anxiety, and alcohol can diminish that feeling state in the moment.”

This is because of the nature of alcohol and how it affects the body, she explains.

“Alcohol is in a class of drug called depressants because, amongst other things, it depresses the central nervous system. It is also an addictive drug, meaning that a person becomes tolerant to drinking a certain amount over time, and in order to have the same effect – for example, decreased anxiety – they require more drug,” Saltz says. “It also means that, over time, if they drink less or none, they may experience withdrawal from the drug, which causes feelings of nausea, sweating, rapid heart rate, [and] feeling generally awful. This in turn will usually compel the person to drink.”

After months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us may be turning to alcohol as a way to get away from our fears or feelings.

“[People] are also home a lot, feeling trapped, bored, fighting with family, having no newness or play in their lives and alcohol feels like an escape,” Saltz says. “Alcohol is associated historically with social and fun times and therefore is a draw. In reality,” she says, “alcohol only serves any of these functions while drinking and afterward it all comes roaring back – which incites more drinking.”

If you are experiencing high anxiety, Saltz says, developing actual coping tools like regular aerobic exercise, a mindfulness practice, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and talking to others for social support, will not only help, but they also have no downsides or risk of addiction. Talking to a therapist may also be beneficial.

“People who are drinking in order to reduce anxiety, feel more relaxed, check out, get to sleep, relieve their current feeling state or thought pattern are more likely to develop a problem because they will need more and more alcohol to accomplish this,” Saltz says.

She adds that for those using alcohol to fall asleep, it may not actually be helping as much as you think.

“Alcohol can seem to put you to sleep quickly, but it does cause very interrupted sleep with many awakenings. By disrupting sleep architecture, it causes you to have a less restful night of sleep.”

If you’ve noticed your alcohol intake has increased, reducing it is important, Saltz says.

“If you have experienced or are experiencing a need to keep drinking and increasing it, you may need to stop drinking altogether and not resume. People with alcohol abuse or dependence cannot drink alcohol … at all. Once you have developed an addiction, you can never resume drinking without risking relapse. Your nervous system has been primed for addiction.”

5 Reasons to Take a Booze Break

1. You’ll Be In a Better Mood

“Alcohol might make you feel untethered for a while, but it stuns the brain and depresses your mood,” says William W. Li, MD, an internationally renowned physician, scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.

2. You’ll Help Your Liver

“Your liver functions as a natural detoxifier and has to work hard to metabolize alcohol in your system,” says Li. “Heavy drinking takes its toll on your liver and going alcohol-free lets your liver heal up.” Tiffany Cruikshank, wellness expert and founder of Yoga Medicine®, calls it a vacation for your liver. “Think of your liver detox pathways like a lineup of chemicals and toxins waiting to be processed and eliminated, while alcohol is notoriously cutting in line and slowing things down,” she says. “Because of that, it’s critical for our health in so many ways and can have a really significant impact on energy levels, mental focus, mood, hormones (a big one for women with PMS), immune function and so much more.”

3. Your Love Life Might Improve

“In addition to mood swings, alcohol puts a damper on your libido as well as your sex organs,” says Li.

4. You’ll Have Better Immunity

Li says, “People who drink heavily have lowered immunity – definitely something you don’t want in a pandemic.”

5. You May Find it Easier to Lose Weight

Cutting out alcohol cuts out extra calories, Li explains.

Consider Alcohol-Free Beverages

Just because you are not drinking alcohol doesn’t mean you have to recuse yourself from social situations where alcohol will be present. You can always consider trying alcohol-free beer and wines, like the award-winning ones crafted by Hill Street Brewing Company. The taste and look just like the real thing – but sans alcohol. Consider stocking your home with alcohol-free options while hosting, or BYO-non-booze to any gathering.

Plus, Hill Street Brewing Company has the #hillstreetchallenge where they challenge you to go alcohol-free for 30 days – learn more here.

How Long Should You and Alcohol Be On a Break?

To get the most out of your liver vacation, Cruikshank recommends at least a week. “For those looking for a more therapeutic impact, I recommend a month.”

If you are a heavy regular drinker, Li also suggests a 30-day hiatus as a start. “During that time, pay attention to how much better you feel, physically, mentally, emotionally,” he says.

Bringing Booze Back, After the Break

After your break, if you don’t have an addiction issue and want to incorporate alcohol back into your life, Cruikshank says moderation is key.

“I like to stick to one [to] two drinks once or twice a week and when I find myself slipping into a more regular routine and feeling the effects, I know it’s time for a short detox to get back to a clear and energetic day,” Cruikshank says.

“When drinking becomes a regular thing, what’s difficult is the habit,” she says. “Creating a new ritual is helpful. I love the process of having a nightly mocktail to replace it, something tasty and healthy.”

Cruikshank’s favorite is a few berries (frozen or fresh) muddled with the juice of half a lemon, five to seven drops of liquid stevia and sparkling water. You can also add some fresh herbs from your garden (she loves thyme, rosemary, mint, basil or sage).

“If you’re feeling stressed and looking for the relaxation of a drink, try some CBD in your cocktail or maybe a short yoga practice to down-regulate your nervous system instead.”

Li suggests limiting your alcohol intake to wine or beer, and keeping it modest, one or two glasses with food, and not every day. “If you have a drinking problem, it may be best to abstain and [seek out] a support group to help you stay on the wagon,” he says.

Q+A with Tiffany Cruikshank: The Importance of Anatomy in a Yoga Practice

By Editorial Team for YOGA + Life.

Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine®, started practicing yoga when she was 14 years old. After her parents sent her away on a wilderness program, her eyes were opened to the world of holistic wellness.

As soon as I discovered yoga, the physicality of it really appealed to my inner athlete and drew me in,” Cruikshank says.

She went to college at the ripe age of 16 to further her knowledge of the body. She studied pre-med and received a Bachelors degree in Medicinal Plant Biology and Nutrition, a Masters in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and took on a specialty in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics. Around this time, she also earned her yoga teacher certification and began teaching.

After living and seeing patients in New York, Sydney, Portland and Los Angeles, Cruikshank now lives in Seattle with her family, where she spends most of her time teaching yoga classes online, educating yoga teachers on the importance of anatomy and providing wellness modalities to the healthcare community.

What was your journey to discovering the connection between healthcare and yoga?

After studying both eastern and western views of medicine for many years and as I started seeing patients, I quickly saw the need for yoga in the wellness realm. I realized that my patients who did yoga responded to treatments more quickly. I started giving them “yoga prescriptions” alongside the acupuncture, nutrition and herbs. I have always believed in the effectiveness of a three-dimensional approach and the importance of the proactive involvement of the patient, so it was a no-brainer for me.

What role does yoga play in your everyday life?

Yoga is a big part of my daily life, in many different forms. Whether it’s a longer or shorter practice, more movement or mind-based, the work that I do for YM, whats important to me is a purpose-driven practice. It gives me the time and space to acknowledge where Im at that day and allow myself to focus on what I need that day. By removing the need to do a certain practice or look a certain way, I can find what nourishes me and helps me thrive in my day. As humans, we have so many things to do, create, people to support, so much on our list and, on top of that, we have new information coming at us each day about all the things we need to do to be healthy. For me its about using the tools of my practice to support my health on a three-dimensional level. A practice that acknowledges all of my needs whether physical, physiological, mental, spiritual, energetic, etc. I love that I can be so efficient with one practice. Most people dont even realize how different their life can be when they improve their health and wellness. In research we call this quality of life, but the impacts are huge.

We make it really accessible with shorter classes that remind people that you dont need to practice for hours a day. When you pour your attention and intention into your practice, even a short 20-minute practice can be really effective. Now that I focus more on training teachers, one thing I miss is the community support and seeing the learning students accumulate over time. So, Im happy to have this resource now. Ive added short bite-sized monthly resources for deeper learning, aimed at anyone looking to get the most out of their practice. I love including research reference and classes to bring the information to life. 

The content I share goes beyond yoga sequences and helps prepare students for health, productivity and resilience. I include some other modalities that I have seen to be really effective with my patients and students — like myofascial release. Most people think of strength as just muscle, but tissue strength and injury prevention also rely on collagen and hyaluronic acid production, which can be influenced by things like myofascial release and specific yoga approaches like eccentric training.

What is the role of alignment in a physical yoga practice?

Thats a great question. I think alignment gives us a great foundation for the physical work we do as yoga teachers; its the backbone of our practice. What I love to do is train teachers to understand the body so they can then individualize the practice to each unique student, which requires training teachers to understand the body on a deeper level. As humans we love to have a clear path forward; i.e., you do this pose, this way, with this angle in the elbows. Unfortunately, the body doesnt work that way. But that requires more learning to understand. The reality is that our body, on every level, is made to adapt. 

There is rarely a right or wrong way to approach this practice, but we need to find the approach that suits the individual in front of us. In a general sense, its about bringing the body back into balance. Sometimes that requires an approach thats more focused on anatomy or mental health or the nervous system or the organs or the energetic system or many other factors. This is why I love yoga. We have so many tools to acknowledge, respect and support the multidimensionality of the body/mind. Ultimately, we are complex beings living in a complex world and we must take all of that into context to help our students. It all begins by listening, which is why our connection to a personal practice is critical as well.

How can teachers better incorporate alignment into their classes?

Keep studying! There is so much to learn, the key is to immerse yourself in continued education and not let yourself be overwhelmed by how much there is to learn. One of the things I see/hear the most is students being overwhelmed by the amount of information to learn, when you start studying anatomy and alignment it’s easy to feel that. 

The more we learn, the more we realize there is to learn and its easy to feel like we need more to be helpful. But the reality is that even the newest teacher can be so helpful. The key is that we need a commitment to continued education while still acknowledging how much we have to be of service to your students. We need to remember there is so much we dont yet know about the human body, with new research coming out daily, so we must also be comfortable living in the mystery by embodying the experience and guiding our students to do the same. 

So, for learning alignment, like our yoga practice, its about commitment to continued study alongside a willingness to allow ourselves to be immersed in the process. The only way to get there is to put one foot in front of the other and know there is no end point.

What is something you wish more practitioners and teachers of yoga knew about the practice?

There is no one right way! The more you learn, the more you realize there are so many viable options, thats why we try to give our teachers a well-rounded approach, much of which is research based but also leaving space for what we cant yet explain and the preciousness of our experience. There is no right or wrong in our experience, if it helps that is our truth. 

Our mindful attention is crucial! Theres been plenty of great research to demonstrate that mindful attention or presence in what we do will magnify our outcomes of pretty much any healthcare modality. From pain to mental health and beyond, when we pay attention, when we have support, when we attend to our health, we see better outcomes. When a doctor administers pain medication, patients experience more relief than when they simply push a button. When we apply physical therapy or massage with mindful attention, we see better outcomes then when the patient is reading a book or zoning out. In yoga we know this, but research helps us appreciate that our mindful attention is a therapeutic modality of its own!

The power of the mind is extraordinary! Unfortunately, the placebo effect is a western medical term to demean the power of the mind. The truth is that the power of the mind is so impactful that its impossible to eliminate it from our research. Dr. Irving Kirsch, a lead researcher in Harvards department of placebo, demonstrates that in his book, The Emperors New Drugs. He worked hard to get the FDA to release study specifics from the antidepressant companies and found that the outcomes of these drug rarely surpass the placebo. Never underestimate the power of the mind!

Our main job as yoga teachers is to be of service! All we have to do is humbly show up to be of service, offer the tools we have to help our students, work with a network of healthcare providers so youre not alone and let go of our attachment to the outcomes. Do your best and keep learning and growing from it all.

The 10 Best Benefits of Practicing Yoga in the Morning

By Timothy Burgin for Yoga Basics.

Many new yogis wonder, “what is the best time to do yoga? Is yoga better to do in the morning, in the afternoon, or in the evening before bed?” The answer depends on your personality, needs, and goals. No matter what time you get on your mat, you will still receive all of the amazing benefits yoga brings. Yet there are a number of important and unique reasons to practice yoga in the morning. Perhaps one or more of these ten benefits will provide the motivation to begin a morning yoga routine. Once you make it a daily habit, you’ll certainly notice powerful changes to your body, heart, and mind.

Set Your Intention for the Day

Practicing yoga in the morning is a powerful way to take charge of your day with a clear, thoughtful, and activated intention. Alexandra DeSiato, coauthor of Teaching Yoga Beyond the Poses, believes using an intention in your morning practice is “the difference between leading the day rather than letting it lead you. Not only is moving and breathing in the morning beneficial for your physical body and your anxiety-prone mind, getting to your mat in the morning gives you the opportunity to actively choose the theme of your day. In daily life, so much is out of your control: but the hour or so you spend in the morning being intentional, focused, present, and in the moment allows you to bring that intentionality and presence into the rest of the day—whatever the day throws at you!”

“Having that space and time in the morning to set an intention is key,” DeSiato explains. “and bringing in a theme or intention for your home practice is just as important as hearing a theme or intention in a class setting. Actually, crafting that intention at home at the start of a morning practice might be more important, for a few reasons. First, setting an intention for the day allows you to own your mood and make a choice about how you’re going to be despite whatever external stimuli gets thrown at you as the day goes on. When you’re the first person to talk to yourself, you create a boundary between you and whatever happens next. You know all that stuff you hear from your yoga teachers about getting rooted? This is how you do it. You give yourself the space and time, you find a phrase, intention, theme, or flavor, and you meditate on it or chant it or hear it in your mind: you build those roots by setting your intention in the morning. This, in turn, gives you a better outlook, a subtle, energetic shield against whatever the day holds. Creating a positive outlook for the day is probably the most important reason to start your day with a yoga practice.”

Jumpstart Your Day

What happens as you wake up and get ready for your day can have a huge impact on the quality of your thoughts and emotions for the next several hours. Yoga Nidra expert Tracee Stanley is convinced that “how you start your day can define how your whole day will roll out. Beginning your day with intention and gratitude is a great way to create a foundation of presence that can weave throughout your day. Understand your personal energy rhythm. Pay attention to what time of day feels the best for your workout, creativity, or bookkeeping. Honor those rhythms by scheduling your day accordingly. Start your day with the activity that capitalizes on how your energy feels first thing in the morning.”

Feel Fit and Strong for Whatever the Day Holds

Our days are often filled with stress, worry, and challenges. Approaching your day with the utmost sense of inner strength will give you the maximum amount of grit and determination to succeed. Yoga and meditation teacher Emma Sothern, notes how “morning yoga helps your digestion, keeps you grounded, and conserves your energy. Because deep breathing, detoxifying twists, and calming forward folds activate the parasympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system—our “rest and digest” state. Unlike the cortisol and adrenaline-fuelled, “fight or flight” sympathetic state, the PNS is calming and nourishing. Why switch that part on in the morning, when you need to “get up and go”? Well, so all your organs can function correctly. You slow down your heart rate. You stimulate intestinal activity. More blood travels freely to your vital systems—digestive, reproductive, and immune—to keep you fit and strong for whatever the day holds. Plus, if you feel sluggish in the mornings, with symptoms like brain fog or IBS, a short yoga sequence gets things moving again.”

Acknowledge Your Needs

Yoga in the MorningFitness Instructor and Life Coach Jenna Hillier notes the importance of turning inwards in the morning to acknowledge your needs to best plan and prepare for the day. “When parent, partner, employee, employer, caretaker, activist and/or friend are just a few examples of the many hats we wear, there’s no denying that we’re pulled in a multitude of directions a day. As an attempt to get the day started or be as productive as possible, it’s easy to wake up and immediately think about who or what needs your attention first. Doing yoga in the morning presents us with an opportunity to tune inwards to acknowledge our own needs before we rush off to address everyone else’s. It’s in those quiet moments when we’re connected with our self that we can clearly see what it is we need the most. This is especially important for planning a day that will support your mental health and emotional stability. When we start our day with movement and breath, we connect with ourselves in a way that enables us to acknowledge what it is we need the most. And as the saying goes… we can only give to those what we have, first, for ourselves.”

Clear the Mind

If you often wake up in a dull and hazy mental state, a few minutes of yogic breathing can quickly clear out any cobwebs in your mind. Stanley describes how “Yoga gives us the tools to calm and clear the mind to experience more balance and peace in daily life. Yoga teaches us that the breath is a direct reflection of the quality of the mind. If we want to calm the mind, we can begin by shaping the breath through pranayama. When engaging in simple pranayamas like diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing), it is the quality of our breath that matters. When we bring awareness to how we breathe, we can begin to still the vrittis or waves of thought. Just 5 minutes of deep, slow, continuous, and conscious breathing is my go-to practice to calm a busy mind.”

Boost Your Focus and Concentration

In addition to waking up the mind and establishing a calm thought stream, yoga with conscious breathwork will also give you a boost of mental focus and concentration. Kelly Clifton Turner, Director of Education for YogaSix,  believes that “as you breathe through your yoga flow, you’ll be providing your brain with loads of fresh oxygen. This will help sweep away any last bits of sleepiness and increase your mental clarity for the day ahead.” Creating a strong mental boost at the start of your day will ensure that you can start your work prepared and allow you to work at your maximum efficiency.

Boost Your Metabolism

If you struggle to maintain a healthy body weight, you should consider shifting your yoga practice to an earlier hour. Turner believes that “morning yoga will wake up your body and rev up your metabolism for the day. Incorporating a few twists into your morning yoga flow will also help stimulate your digestive system, helping get rid of any bloating from last night’s dinner and setting you up to feel great. You can really kick your metabolism into high gear if you opt for a power or heated yoga class in the AM.”

Relieve Back Pain and Tension 

morning yoga benefitsIf you suffer from occasional or chronic back pain, a therapeutic yoga practice may be more helpful if practiced at the start of your day. This will be especially true if your job requires a lot of physical movement and activity. “Stretching first thing in the morning can relieve back pain and tension that you have after a night of sleep,” Hillier explains. “For those with occasional soreness or chronic aches, stretching first thing in the morning can relieve back pain and tension that you have after a night of sleep. As you breathe and move, your blood flow increases, encouraging your stiff muscles to loosen up. For those looking to prevent future back pain, yoga’s focus on balance and steadiness helps the body to develop armor against the most common causes of back pain: weak abdominal muscles and lack of flexibility in the hips. Reviewing the benefits of yoga, particularly in the morning, it’s clear to see that virtually everyone can benefit from this practice.”

Strengthen Your Immune System

If your job or commute requires being around other people, you would be well served by a morning yoga practice. Health and wellness expert Sophie Jaffe notes how “stress is a leading cause of sickness especially when it comes to our immune system. When we let stress control our lives, we’re more susceptible to health problems. Yoga has been shown to help lower stress hormones (which compromises the immune system), calms the nervous system, and starts your day in a more mindful, intentional space. In stretching and moving, we release any stagnant energy stuck within our cells, allowing it to remove harmful toxins in our bodies.”

If you don’t have time for a full practice in the morning, you can opt for practicing a few targeted asanas to boost your immune system. Jaffe tells us that “a Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) encourages more blood flow to the sinuses and a Standing Backbend (Anuvittasana) strengthens the lungs, keeps the nasal passage open for breath and detoxifies the adrenal glands which can often become exasperated due to stress.” Inverted poses like Shoulder Stand, Plow pose, and Bridge pose are also great to boost the lymphatic system to help ward off coughs and colds.

Promote a Healthy Lifestyle

Starting your day with an act of self-care, like a short yoga practice, increases the chances that you’ll be making healthier choices for the rest of the day,” says Yoga Medicine instructor and Therapeutic Specialist Jenni Tarma. “Think of it as ‘starting as you mean to go on’: if a morning yoga practice reminds you that movement feels good in your body, you’re more likely to incorporate little movement breaks into the rest of your schedule. Similarly, starting off the day with a healthy habit incentivizes us to make better diet choices in general, since we’re more reluctant to “undo” the benefits of the work we’ve already put in.”

“A morning practice can also help boost your energy and leave you more clear-headed, reducing the chances that you’ll wind up relying on sugary snacks and caffeine to stay alert. Plus, you never know, your healthy choices may end up inspiring someone around you to start making some positive lifestyle choices too, so the benefits could extend into your wider social and professional circles as well!”

Back to Basics: Breath is the New Black

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the human brain’s proclivity for being seduced. Yoga students are seduced by the fancy (and perhaps erroneously labeled ‘advanced’) yoga poses. University students are seduced by the new, sexy, advanced concepts in certain academic fields. We are seduced, visually or otherwise, to the point where the basics—the very foundation of what we are trying to learn—is considered boring. We, quite frankly, don’t seem to want to spend the time mastering the basics. As a yoga teacher and university professor, I often see this in my students, and just so that all is on the table – I still find those seductive tendencies creeping into my own brain every now and then.

Why do we do this? Why do we scroll through our social media feeds or thumb through yoga magazines, pausing at those in handstands, arm balances, and pretzel-like positions? Why do we sigh and say, “Wow, I wish I could do that.”? Have you ever paused in awe at a picture of someone meditating? How about an image of someone in Tadasana/mountain pose, who is working tirelessly at all of the loops that need to be set up in order to ensure proper alignment and posture? Why are yoga workshops focusing on inversions more well-attended than workshops focusing on the bones of the basic sun salutation? Or even more importantly, the breath?

What is it that drives this behavior? Is it impatience? Excitement? Curiosity? Dare I say, laziness (i.e., to get to some desired point faster and skip the hard work along the way)? Is it our socialization to believe that bigger is better? Maybe a combination of several things? And before you give me the evil eye or send me some hate mail, let me say that I do think that there is a place for inspiration and for working toward a goal. But tell me, how can we get to those ‘advanced’ poses or concepts if we skip the foundation? How can a house be built if there’s nothing to build it on?

A few years ago, I took a class where, as is fairly typical, we were focused on a peak pose. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t the ‘usual suspects’ of peak poses….you know…backbends, inversions or an arm balance. It was the breath. Let me say that again. It was the breath. For an entire hour we moved, one breath per movement, through a continuous (and very simple in terms of yoga asana) breath flow. It was transformative. It was flat out challenging. It was inspiring. It taught me how much the breath is lost in our standard vanilla yoga class. Our students have been ‘trained’ to see bigger as better. A wise mentor said to me once, “If you don’t train them, they’ll train you.” And she was right.

As a yoga teacher and trainer of aspiring yoga teachers, I believe it is part of our responsibility to inspire our students to learn. After all, if we don’t encourage a strong foundational practice, who will? What if we encouraged our students to be in awe of the breath? To be in awe of the foundations of the practice? To be amazed by the process by which we integrate breath, alignment and movement? To become fascinated, not with standing on our hands, but with the self-awareness that is built through yoga? What if we made the basics downright amazing? If we change how we speak about and teach the breath and the basic, foundational poses, we may just change how our students approach them. Not only will this shift in perspective guide them to be more present in their own yoga journey, it will decrease comparison and feelings of inadequacy, and encourage joy and contentment on the mat. Becoming an active listener and observer to our mind and bodies throughout the yoga practice can, indeed, be the ultimate seduction.

As you consider this perspective shift, here are five things I’ve learned from trying to focus on the basics in my own practice and with my students:

1) It’s hard. Even the basic poses can be challenging, particularly if the intention is to sit in the pose for several breaths and become the internal observer. The mind wanders. A lot. And, to sit with ourselves? Well, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. The mind is a muscle and we need to exercise it and teach it to be present.

2) Paying attention to the breath can be exhilarating and expansive at times and downright aggravating at others. I’ve left my breath-centered practices feeling cracked wide open and breathing more fully than ever and I’ve also left them feeling agitated that I couldn’t find ‘the groove’ that day. Stick with it….this is teaching the practice of patience and allows us to check in with why we react the way we do when things don’t go our way.

3) Leave the ego at the door. Going back to the basics can be a humbling experience. But…to be able to find contentment with the sensations you feel while pausing in, for example, Warrior 2? That is tapping into one of the main intentions of yoga. Be willing to stay. To steep. To linger. To explore. Some of the best lessons come at the moments when we want to bail. Staying is often harder work.

4) Focusing on the foundations has decreased my brain’s relentless quest for ‘bigger is better’ and replaced it (most practices) with ‘subtlety/nuance is better.’ For example, instead of focusing on how deep I can go in Trikonasa (i.e., how flat can I get my bottom hand on the floor), I stay up very high in this pose, focusing on creating equal length on both sides of my waist by lengthening my spine. I focus on keeping my mind present by trying to find the subtle firing of my Quadratus Lumborum muscle. The possibilities for focal points in simple postures are quite literally, endless.

5) Teaching these concepts to students is more challenging than teaching a vanilla yoga class. Some of your students will buckle in, stay the course, rave about it, and want more, more, more. Some won’t. If you’re teaching from a place of authenticity (no matter what approach you take to teaching) you’ll ignite a fire and change the lives of those that stick it out.

Can Yoga Help You? – Happy Hour Podcast

By Shannon Jamail for Happy Hour Podcast.

Yoga, like meditation, is one of the ways you can keep your physical and mental health active. Many don’t realize the connection of yoga to mental health benefits and that is what today’s show is about.

This podcast features Valerie Knopik PHD, who is the Department Head of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University. She is also a Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist and teaches at the Yoga Medicine Online teaching platform which we’re going to talk about today.

Valerie is interested in all things mental health specifically how the environment and our biology interact to affect our mental health. She’s always been a believer in staying active and yoga is the perfect marriage of her work and mental health and her love of movement and anatomy.

Episode Highlights

  • Valerie tells us about herself.
  • Merging her academic and social life.
  • What is the Yoga Medicine Online platform?
  • The reason why they used Yoga Medicine.
  • Recommendations for starting home practice.
  • Changing the physiology of your body.

Click here to listen to the full episode.

What Happens to Your Body When You Meditate Daily

By Brittany Risher for Fitbit Blog.

Meditation is probably best known for its ability to bust stress and support our overall mental health. And that’s so important, but it’s not all meditation can do for us. Any type of regular meditation or mindfulness practice may benefit our physical health too. “The take-home message? Practice,” says Valerie Knopik, PhD, a Yoga Medicine® Online instructor. 

Here are four ways you may not realize that meditation is good for you.

Pain Management 

Meditation could help you become less sensitive and reactive to feelings of discomfort or pain. “Mindfulness meditation refocuses the mind on the present and increases awareness of one’s external surroundings and inner sensations. This allows a person to step back, reflect, and reframe experiences,” Knopik explains. 

Brain scans indicate this shift, showing that meditation appears to activate parts of the brain involved in changing the context or meaning of pain as well as in regulating emotional responses to pain. So far studies found that meditation may reduce pain and improve the quality of life for those who experience low back pain, migraines and other headaches, and even fibromyalgia

Improved Immunity

There’s no substitute for washing your hands and practicing other good hygiene. However, meditation may give your immune system a boost. For one, meditation reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic high levels of cortisol lead to increased inflammation, and inflammation makes our immune system less effective to fight off infections, viruses, and other invaders. Stress can also disrupt our gut microbiota, “which we are learning plays an important role in our body’s anti-inflammatory response,” Knopik adds. No wonder, then, that meditation may support a healthy gut.

But that’s not all. Meditation directly decreases inflammation in the body and may increase levels of T cells (which help regulate our immune response) and telomerase activity. Telomeres are the structures at the end of chromosomes. Shorter telomeres are associated with chronic illness, so increasing  telomerase activity may lead to longer, healthier lives, but more research is necessary.

Better Sleep 

Want to fall asleep faster, sleep for longer, and simply sleep better? Meditation may help. “Meditation helps us hone our natural ability to disengage from our thoughts. This is precisely what we need to do when we fall asleep,” explains psychologist Paul Greene, PhD, director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Meditation also helps reduce worry and rumination—two things that can keep your mind going and going and going at night. And physically, mindfulness meditation triggers the relaxation response, helping to slow your heart rate and breathing and ease muscle tension. All of that can help you nod off quicker.

Heart Health

Stress is linked to poor blood circulation and increased cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate, and risk of stroke and coronary artery disease. Meditation not only reduces stress—it also appears to positively benefit all of these other factors. How? The practice appears to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” system) and decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system), explains Chayakrit Krittanawong, MD, lead author of a recent review. While more research is necessary to confirm meditation’s benefits for the heart, it really can’t hurt to give it a try.

Plus, you don’t need to meditate for hours a day and weeks at a time to see results. In a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 2015, one group of employees did a three-minute breathing activity as well as one other brief mindfulness activity (such as a body scan or loving kindness meditation) every morning and evening for 10 days. At the end of the experiment, this group experienced longer and better quality sleep compared to a control group.

5 Self-Care Tips to Get you Through Election Day with Your Sanity

By Kiersten Willis for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As Nov. 3 approaches, you may be feeling your shoulders creep closer to your ears each day. Your chest may be tight and your limbs tense, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Coverage of Election Day may be adding to your anxiety amid the coronavirus pandemic and other nerve-shaking events of 2020. As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden prepare to face off next month and Georgians cast their votes for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s replacement, there are some general self-care tips you can employ to ensure you don’t feel overwhelmed.

“So much of this is completely out of your control but one thing you can control is how you take care of yourself,” Dr. Sherry Benton, a psychologist and founder/chief science officer of TAO Connect, told CNET.

Before you prepare to watch the results roll in on that big Tuesday night, here are five ways you can reduce your anxiety.

Practice Meditation

Benton recommended meditation as a way to ease your nerves in the next month. The practice involves focusing on the present and being aware of how you feel in the moment.

“When we practice mind-body techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and focused intention tasks, we influence brain activity in regions that are involved in reducing psychological stress and increasing the parasympathetic response,” Valerie Knopik, PhD – Director of Research for Yoga Medicine, the Miller Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University told Psycom.net. “This can, over time and with practice, ease anxiety and increase mood.”

There are many different types of meditation and apps such as Headspace and Calm offer ways for you to practice the techniques.

Back Off Social Media and Limit News Consumption

It can be difficult to do, but experts say it’s a good idea to reduce how much time you spend on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media. It’s also important not to get caught up in watching the news.

“Avoid watching the 24-hour news channels all the time. Really limit your exposure and do a lot of self-care,” Benton told CNET.

Brittany LeMonda, a senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told HuffPost that people should attempt to “take some breaks from inundating with the media. We just have it at our fingertips and it can really be dangerous to have so much access 24/7, so really take some time to unplug.”

If you’re unable to stop yourself from opening apps on your phone, you can opt to delete them altogether and reinstall them after the election.

Try to Steer Conversations in a New Direction

The impending election means many people you speak to may wish to discuss the candidates for light conversation. But if that makes you feel uneasy, you can politely share your preference for a different topic.

Dr. Valerie Braunstein, a licensed psychologist, told Good Day Philadelphia people can use “I statements,” like “I prefer not to talk about that,” to make their feelings known.

Share Your Concerns with Family and Friends

Speaking to HuffPost, Natalia Skritskaya, a clinical psychologist and researcher with the Center for Complicated Grief at New York’s Columbia University, suggested people find a trusted friend or family member to share their feelings with. Aside from talking to people, you can also focus on happy thoughts by writing them down. A Chinese study published in 2018 showed that expressive writing led to reduced anxiety.

Embrace Nature, Exercise and Therapy

Self-care can extend to treating your body right by being active, eating right and attending therapy when you feel you can’t cope on your own.

Medical director of New York City’s Field Trip Health Dr. Ben Medrano suggested taking charge by getting out into nature, exercising and seeing a therapist.

“All of these have been proven to make our emotional and mental health more resilient, particularly in stressful times,” he told Healthline. “They may even make us more open-minded to opposing perspectives. For many of my patients, I find that this current climate is a profound opportunity to contemplate a deeper sense of meaning in their lives. This could be spiritual, philosophical, or scientific.”

Perhaps all those things could be heightened by spending time outdoors. A 2019 study found that spending at least 20 minutes in nature led to lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol

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