Let us hope that one of the good things that will emerge from the pandemic will be an end to the culture which all but awarded a medal of honour to those who ‘soldiered on’ in the face of illness, colds and flu and continued to go into the office to work (enabling viruses they were suffering from to spread and thrive!)
With the ever increasing pressure and drive towards more success, achievement and profit, at the expense of quality of life and happiness, society has trained us to push through minor ailments and aches and pains, as just a ‘normal part of life’. Thus, we learn to ignore the natural warning signals from our body, telling us something is wrong and we need to change what we are doing (and adjust our priorities). Waiting until we are immobilised with pain or illness, is likely to have far more long term, negative repercussions.
Poor postural habits can so easily creep up on us, just because of sitting still for long periods – especially when using un-ergonomic furniture and work equipment positioning. In the recent circumstances, many of us have found ourselves having to improvise home offices in our kitchens and bedrooms, imagining it would only be short term….!
Last week, I focused on sitting, the optimal position of the pelvis and how we can take simple measures to ensure our sitting posture is not damaging our spine (see video on Youtube).
This week I am bringing attention to the upper body and how a slumped posture (which, when sitting, starts from the pelvis) can lead to a chronic imbalance known as ‘upper crossed syndrome’.
Imagine how common it is these days and how it might be affecting you or those around you.
The short term effect is restricted breathing, lower vitality and poor concentration (often sending us off in search of a fix of caffeine and/ or sugar!) The knock on effect is that the chronically over- stretched upper back muscles, are working extra hard to hold us upright. They become weakened, start to ache and may even develop fibrotic knots. We then feel as if we need to stretch (!) or get a massage, which brings only temporary relief. The shortened neck muscles get more and more tense, also ache and can lead to headaches – but we just pop some pills and soldier on…..
With the loss of adequate muscle support and such poor alignment, the ligaments and joints also begin to cause trouble….
…maybe you can get the picture.
To redress the situation we need a good balance of strengthening, for the weakened back muscles with mild, gravity-resisted back bends and gentle, sustained lengthening for the short chest muscles, using supported, restorative chest releasing poses. These can be combined with breathing and attention to restrictions in the breathing mechanics.
In this week’s classes we will be exploring some poses and techniques along these lines.
The most important things is to remove the underlying causes – long periods of sitting still, with poor posture at un-ergonomic work set ups. The solution is not difficult; adjust the position to improve posture and preserve the natural spinal curves, build in some activity, establish a routine of regular movement breaks with conscious breathing shoulder and arm movements. The added benefits are that this will help reduce the need for caffeine and sugar and lead to better concentration, higher energy levels and even improved sleep quality.
Studies of a tribal people in Tanzania, the Hadza show that they actually sit around as much as we do, but in ways that are more active and they do not suffer from the same problems as us.
Agni as fire is one of the five inert impermanent elements (pañcabhūtá) along with space (ākāśa), water (ap), air (vāyu) and earth (pṛthvī), the five combining to form the empirically perceived material world (Prakriti).
The word Agni is used in many contexts, ranging from fire in the stomach (the digestive fire / internal cooking pot), the cooking fire in a home, the sacrificial fire in an altar, the fire of cremation, the fire of rebirth, the fire in the energetic saps within plants, the atmospheric fire in lightning and the celestial fire in the sun.
In the Vedas, Agni represents all the gods, all concepts of spiritual energy that permeates everything in the universe. In the Upanishads and post-Vedic literature, Agni additionally became a metaphor for the immortal principle in man, and energy or knowledge that consumes and dispels a state of darkness and ignorance, transforms and procreates an enlightened state of being.
In the body Agni is the digestive fire, located in the digestive organs, which are responsible for the processes by which food is broken down by acid and enzymes, to be absorbed and transformed into body substances.
In Ayurveda, agni combined with water forms Pitta Dosha which provides heat and transformation and resides in the area of the solar plexus, below the diaphragm.
On an emotional level agni equates with fire in the belly and gives us drive to action. It is also the crucible for the processing (digestion) and transformation of experience into understanding and wisdom.
It is not uncommon for unprocessed emotional experiences to cause chronic tension around the diaphragm, a sort of emotional indigestion.
In this week’s classes the theme is to stoke the internal fire, stimulate prana and bring consciousness to this area to help release deep emotional tension.
The classes will include abdominal work, twists and side bends, breathing techniques that stimulate the diaphragm and generate heat.
Through the invitation of some self-enquiry, we’ll explore any deep held emotions that might now be ready to be transformed into wisdom.
“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” – Leonardo da Vinci
The human foot is a strong and complex mechanical structure containing 26 bones, 33 joints and more than a hundred muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
The foot has two longitudinal arches and a transverse arch, which are maintained by the interlocking shapes of the foot bones lashed together by over 100 different ligaments, also assisted by the pull of muscles and tendons during movement. The slight mobility and elastic mechanics of these arches enables them to absorb and return energy during contact with the ground and this spring-like function is an important energetic saving mechanism.
(Fascinating Fact: Podophilia or foot fetish is one of the most common fetishes.)
The phalanges form the bendable toes. The calcaneus forms the heel bone. In between are the slender metatarsals and the irregular interlocking blocks of the tarsal bones, which could be the design of a master mason the way they ingeniously fit together into an arch.
When it goes wrong Given the complexity of the foot and the demands made on it, it is astonishing that it functions for many people, throughout life, as well as it does.
Common problems include: Bunions Fallen arches Sprained ankle Achilles tendonitis Plantar fasciitis Nerve inflammation Calluses and cracked heels
Many of which can be alleviated or prevented by simple measures and exercises.
In my classes this week we will do some yoga based techniques for the feet and related areas, as well as a few foot care tips.
“Our hands and feet are biomechanical marvels. More than any other piece of anatomy, they are what have made us such a successful species.”
The body’s core is essentially a more or less cylindrical, muscular box, that encloses the abdominal organs. It consists of 3-4 muscle layers, the innermost of which is sometimes referred to as the ‘deep core’.
The innermost deep core muscles: • transversus abdominis (TA) – the front, sides and side back • transversospinalis (principally multifidus) – the back (between the vertebrae) • respiratory diaphragm – the roof • pelvic floor – the floor • quadratus lumborum (QL) – the side back (The quadratus lumborum is included here because of its importance in stabilising the floating rib attachments of the diaphragm)
When contracting as a team, all these deep core muscles compress the abdominal cavity and raise intra-abdominal pressure. It can be further squeezed by the more superficial muscle layers, enabling ‘things’ to be expelled downward (defaecation, childbirth) or upward (forced expiration, vomiting, coughing, sneezing etc.).
The central anterior ‘seam’ where the left and right sides of the body join is the linea alba and the abdominal muscles attach to it via a thin tendinous, fascial membrane called the abdominal aponeurosis. The posterior ‘seam’ is formed by the spine, with the muscles attached into the thoraco-lumbar fascia. It might help to visualise the anterior linea alba as a sort of zip, holding 2 strong, inelastic, flexible pieces of ‘fabric’ together, from which the elastic muscular fibres wrap around the body. Posteriorly the muscle fibres again attach to similar firm pieces of ‘fabric’ which meet at the spine, where the multifidus muscles could be visually likened to the laces of the second corset. However, whereas the laces hold the 2 sides together, the multifidus group compress the spine vertically.
Hiccups are involuntary contractions of the diaphragm. Each contraction is followed by a sudden closure of the vocal cords, which produces the characteristic “hic” sound. They can be caused by a large meal, swallowing air while eating /drinking, alcoholic or carbonated beverages or sudden excitement. Occasionally, prolonged hiccups may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Hiccups are only found in mammals, and are most common in infants, becoming rarer with age. This may suggest that they evolved to allow air trapped in the stomach of suckling infants to escape, allowing more milk to be ingested. (Remedies include distracting the person, concentrating on something like heart beats and big movements of the diaphragm – a very deep inhalation, continuing to suck in as much breath as one can, holding the breath, then as complete an exhalation as possible, continuing to squeeze out as much breath as one can and holding the breath out. Another possible cure could be the yoga breathing exercise kapalabhti).
The abdominal walls are reinforced by the crisscross effect of the internal and external abdominal obliques and the vertical stability is provided by the rectus abdominis and errector spinae group.
When all the muscles contract together, while attempting to exhale against a closed airway (either throat or nose), this creates a firm pressurised column and is known as the valsava maneuver. It is used by body builders when powerlifting and for some cardiac function tests. Because it alters the rhythm of the heart, it can help stop palpitations caused by anxiety. When the nose is pinched, instead of closing the throat, Pressure is also raised in the head and can be used to equalise pressure and shift blockages in the ears and sinuses.
In addition to providing a flexible and compressible container for the abdominal organs, the core muscles perform or assist the various movements of the torso: flexion-extension, side bending / lateral flexion and rotation.
Muscles that attach the torso to the legs and operate the hip joints are sometimes included as part of the core, especially the psoas major and minor and even the iliacus. This is partly because of the psoas’ location down the inside back wall of the abdominal cavity (the iliacus the back wall of the pelvic cavity), that the spinal attachments of the psoas overlap with those of the diaphragm and the role of the psoas in lumbar extension / flexion which is not discussed here. A stable core forms the anchor, from which the hip muscles are able to operate the hip joints and move the legs. Thus, using the iliopsoas to raise the legs against gravity demands more muscular work to maintain a stable core and can be part of a sequence of core strengthening exercises.
ABDOMINAL – PELVIC FLOOR – LOW BACK STABILISING LOCK MULA BANDHA?
This co-contraction of a triad of muscles, lower transversus abdominis, transverse perineal muscles and multifidi, stabilises the low back and sacroiliac joints and is especially in yoga therapy useful when there is an injury, pain or hyper-mobility. It seems very likely that this is what is meant by Mula Bandha.
Lying supine with knees bent. Exhale fully and gently engage the lower TA, below the navel, as if squeezing it in and slightly downwards, towards the pelvic floor. Eventually you’ll notice a subtle lift of the pelvic floor. Inhale release. Repeat several times, allowing the area to soften and expand on the inhale. Engage the lock and hold with a few normal breaths. Engage the lock and do a few twists, taking the knees from side to side, breathing as normal. Practice engaging the lock while doing other small simple movements, then when walking. The muscular contraction should more like subtle tone rather than tension or effort. Be sure to completely relax when the lock is not required, breathe into the area and feel the expansion of the muscles. More specific pelvic floor exercises will be in another post.
This remarkably simple psycho-sensory technique was devised by Dr Ronald Ruden. Similar to EMDR and tapping, it calms, soothes and neutralises overwhelming and difficult emotions and can be used in the management of phobias, post-traumatic stress and anxiety.
It can be applied to another person or to oneself and involves a repetitive, stroking, caressing touch to the upper arms, hands and / or face. It can be used to calm a distressed person in the moment or to neutralise distressing memories from past events. The subject would in that case be asked to recall the emotionally disturbing event while the practitioner gently applies Havening touch to their arms, hands and face.
My video shows how to apply a combination of all three variations to oneself. I have included the addition of crossed hands for the face. This creates a continuous flow all the way to the hands, but also it feels more like receiving the soothing touch from someone else. You will be surprised at how pleasant and relaxing it is.
Dr Ruden studied how and why it seemed so effective and Doug O’Brien has made an excellent video with clear explanations of the likely neuroscience behind Havening.
Because of its no-cost simplicity, research studies on its clinical effectiveness are very limited. One sample of 27 participants completed self-reported measures of depression, anxiety, and social adjustment before, and one week and two months after, a Havening intervention. Scores on the different measures were better after the intervention than before. The authors note that the study is limited by “its small sample size” and “lack of control group”.
Of the women who have come to me for yoga therapy to assist conception, only one did not conceive and she realised after a few sessions that she actually was not at all sure she even wanted to have children!
All had been thoroughly medically investigated and several were undergoing fertility treatment. One couple did have some medical impediments. She was diagnosed as pre-menopausal (premature at only 36) AND her husband’s sperm had poor motility. She was a tall, rather thin, sinewy type, creative, hyperactive and doing a very strong, dynamic yoga practice (a typical vata dosha prakruti – see the last section on Ayurvedic Doshas). They were determined to have a child and did everything they could to enhance their fertility. They kept to a very healthy diet and regular mealtimes, gave up alcohol, reduced work commitments, including travelling, and followed a sustained course of acupuncture and Chinese herbs. She (and sometimes he) did the daily yoga routine I drew up for her; slow mindful movement sequences with lots of focus on breathing, some restorative poses and the guided relaxation that I recorded specially for her (a variation is included in the package). At first she found it quite a challenge to slow down so much and occasionally felt the need to do a more dynamic practice, but after a while, as she discovered the benefits, she enjoyed the slower practice more and more and went walking / gentle jogging in the park if she felt the need for more exercise. They even got a puppy and took to spending more time out in nature – amongst the birds, the bees, the flowers and trees….!! It took 2 years and their third assisted conception (ICSI) worked. Now they have a lovely daughter.
A woman’s body needs to be soft and ‘juicy’ to assist conception. Strong, dynamic exercise (and strong yoga styles / practices) tend to be too heating and drying. It is best to do a gentle, slow-moving, mindful yoga practice, with more focus on breathing and relaxation and to avoid overworking and stressful activities. Walk in nature as much as possible and do the things that bring you joy. Keep to a regular daily routine of meal times and sleep, avoid excess cold, raw foods, stimulants and too much time on the computer and internet, especially in the evenings. This deranges vata dosha, which dries out the body, can reduce fertility, stirs up nervous energy and anxiety and disturbs sleep.
Commit to making the yoga practice part of your regular daily routine, even if you can sometimes only manage a few minutes or just 1 technique.
Repeat and visualise your intention daily before and at the end of the practice. Open your mind and your heart to receive and accept whatever happens. You can only do your best and leave the rest to the Universe.
It is sometimes said in jest that the definition of an adult is a person who has stopped growing vertically and started growing horizontally! In youth we defy gravity through the process of growing upwards and with our physical energy and activity. Then we reach a peak, turn the corner and begin to surrender to gravity….. eventually literally shrinking and sagging back down into the earth! The inverted postures are considered to be a way of slowing down the ageing effects of gravity, by temporarily reversing it, which is why they are often described as rejuvenating poses and recommended to be done every day. One of my students, who lived in South Korea, described discovering, in an area of a public park, set aside for various physical fitness practices, a slanted inversion apparatus. She was astonished to see people in their 80s, 90s and even one of 108, hanging upside down for up to an hour a day and to hear that most had been doing so for decades. Although, other factors, such as diet, almost certainly played a part in their remarkable sprightliness, the story is still quite a testament to the rejuvenating power of inversions. However, like most fabled elixirs of youth, inversions do not come without risks.
Sirsasana (headstand) and Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), known as the King and Queen of asanas, are amongst the most powerful of yoga poses in terms of their immediate and long term physiological, energetic and emotional effects and should be approached with respect and caution. They are also amongst the most contentious of yoga postures and the headstand, especially is one that most beginners to yoga aspire to – often before they are ready. Both require a high level of experience and awareness in order to achieve the correct alignment and avoid dangerous pressure on the head and neck. This is done mainly by correct ergonomic positioning, which requires flexibility and adequate strength of the supporting muscles and also by actively pressing downwards, so as to create what feels like an upward rebound effect from gravity. Thus, one gains maximum benefit while minimising the risk of injury. The main danger is that damage from poor practice, tends to be done gradually, over a period of time and without the practitioner being aware of it, until symptoms appear. This unfortunately is when the harm has already been done.
One of the most obvious effects of inversions is the reversal of the action of gravity on circulation. It is an age old recommendation to put ones’ feet up for the relief of general fatigue and also for aching, swelling, varicose veins and tiredness in the legs. Blood and lymph are thus more quickly drained from the legs towards the heart and it has an overall relaxing effect. Thus a small degree of inversion already gives marked benefits. With a greater degree of inversion, the increased venous return to the heart stimulates it to contract more strongly, thus exercising the cardiac muscle. Blood flow to the upper body is greatly increased. We experience this immediately and, for many people, it takes several months of gradually building up, both the time in the poses and the degree of inversion, for the body to be able to adjust and be comfortable in the fully inverted position. There are baroreceptors in the carotid arteries which are triggered by the stretch caused by increased blood flow. They bring about a reflex, short term lowering of the blood pressure. With progressive training, the body’s adaptation mechanisms are stimulated to respond more quickly, inversions become more comfortable and the longer term benefits increase. Inversions ultimately have a calming effect and thus good for alleviating stress, fatigue, anxiety, mild depression, insomnia and some types of headache.
Click on the image to see a short video of a sequence of 2 supported inversions, which can be done on your sofa or armchair at home.
While there is an obvious increase in blood flow to the head, it is a common belief, amongst yoga practitioners, that inverting the body increases blood flow to the brain. If this were true, most people, when inverting, would run some risk of a blood vessel bursting inside the brain, causing a stroke or, if a vessel ruptured in the eye, possible blindness. The body has, especially within delicate structures like the brain and the eyes, mechanisms for protecting itself, e.g the blood brain barrier. However, with chronic high blood pressure, the normal protective mechanisms do not work so well. This condition is also associated with hardening of the arteries, causing them to be more fragile, – much like an elastic band, which has been over-stretched too much for too long. High blood pressure is thus one of the main contra-indications for inverted poses. At the same time there is evidence that stimulating the blood pressure regulators, e.g. with exercise, helps to lower the resting blood pressure for longer periods of time. It may be possible that mild inversions and a slight increase in blood flow through the carotid arteries, could trigger lowering of blood pressure and be beneficial, with minimal risk. More controlled research is needed.
The simple fact of experiencing the world from an inverted perspective, visually and physiologically, can shift a mental or emotional blockage and help clear the mind. Many yoga techniques cause a rapid physiological and energetic change which alters body chemistry, mood and thoughts. Learning inversions also challenges many people to overcome a certain amount of fear and are thus very confidence building.
Many claims have been made and passed around in yoga classes, for the benefits of inversions, not all of which are as yet supported by actual, clinical evidence. At the same time, many dire warnings are issued about dangers, which are also not proven. If in doubt, it is of course, always advisable to remain on the side of caution, start low and only gradually build up to inverting more for longer periods, as the body adapts.
Dry brushing is just what it sounds like – brushing over [most of] the exposed skin surfaces with a dry brush. It is usually done in a certain pattern and just before taking a shower.
Why would one do this?
It has a number of potential benefits, from smoother skin to improved circulation and even immune function and, not lease of all, it feels good!
Effects and Benefits
• Exfoliation This most obvious effect and benefit is immediately noticeable. The process of brushing with a firm, natural bristled brush over the skin helps loosen and remove dead skin cells, naturally exfoliating skin. That means less less dry, flakey skin and a softer, smoother surface.
• Cleansing The added benefit of exfoliating the skin is removing dirt, excess oil and residue from the pores. This reduces the need to use soaps or gel, which tend to remove too much of the skin’s natural protective layer of oil (sebum). Sebum is our own, tailor-made moisturiser, which both lubricates and waterproofs the skin and also forms the immune system’s first line of defence against the entry of harmful organisms.
• Elimination The skin is the largest organ of the body one of whose functions is elimination, so it follows that if it will function well if it is kept healthy.
• Stimulate circulation You will probably notice that your skin is a bit pink after brushing and may feel slightly tingly, because the skin capillaries have dilated bringing more blood flow close to the surface.
• Lymphatic Drainage Although somewhat debatable, some proponents of dry brushing claim that brushing the skin assists lymph drainage. The lymphatic system is a major part of the body’s immune system, which collects the fluid that surrounds all the cells into vessels to be filtered and cleansed via lymph nodes, at strategic places in the body and then return it to the blood circulatory system.
• Natural Energy Boost Similar to the oriental method of Do-in, designed to stimulate qi flow in the meridians, dry brushing has an invigorating effect and wakes you up with a natural energy boost. It can become a little bit addictive (in a good way!)
Selecting a Brush
Natural, sustainable bristle is generally considered the best. I use a firm, cactus bristle brush, with a long, removable handle. The handle allows me to reach my entire back and removing it makes it easier to use the brush on other parts of the body.
Initially the skin will be quite sensitive and it’s better to start with a softer brush, later you may prefer a stiffer, firmer brush. (IF you choose to brush your face only use only a small, VERY soft brush.)
Tampico cactus bristle – the firmest type of bristle available is best used dry. Tampico is a type of Cactus which is preferred by experienced body brushers for dry body brushing treatments as it is the most effective. It has firm, low flex, thicker fibres.
Sisal / Agave bristle – slightly less firm than the tampico.
Hogs hair – a medium strength bristle, which is good for all skin types and it can be used wet or dry. This is a good bristle to start dry body brushing with the aim of progressing to the cactus.
Boar bristle – a strong, good quality bristle, often used in hair brushes. Ethically sourced as the animals are not killed.
Horse hair – slightly softer than hog’s hair and again can be used wet or dry. Perfect for gently exfoliating the face..
Goats hair – the softest of the bristles and is for use on very sensitive skin or in facial treatments.
How to Dry Brush
Dry brushing can be done daily over the whole body, preferably in the morning before showering. Start with a gentle brush and soft pressure. Gradually work up to a stiffer brush and more firm pressure.
The order and direction
The most common recommendation is to brush inwards towards the heart, in the direction of the lymph drainage channels, as in Swedish massage.
Another method is to follow the direction of the energy (qi) flow in the meridians – down the back of the body and up the front, which is similar to the oriental do-in practice of tapping along the meridians.
I tend to use a combination of both these methods, brushing up and down while working my way in a particular direction:
1. Using the long handle to brush 2-3x up and down the spine from top downwards
2. Remove the handle and brush across the tops of the shoulders
3. The back and sides of the torso, working my way generally downwards
4. A circular motion 2-3x around the sacrum, then each buttock
5. Up and down the outside and outer back of the thighs then lower legs, including 2-3 circles around the knees.
6. The soles of the feet and up the inside and inner back of legs to the groin.
Repeat 5-6 on other side
7. Circle the abdomen in a clockwise direction spiralling into the navel then outwards, ending at the pubis.
8. Up the front side ribcage, armpits and inner arms to palms.
9. The back of the hand, from the fingers to the shoulders and a circular motion around the shoulder joint
10. Gentle circles around the breast, finishing at the sternum.
Repeat 8-10 on other side
Note: Do not brush too hard! A light, smooth stroke works best and is less likely to do damage. My skin is slightly pink and pleasantly tingly after brushing, but it should never be red or sting. If it hurts at all, apply less pressure, use a softer brush or stop completely.
Replace the brush when the bristles become too soft to be effective or are falling out.
This depends on what works for you. Some say daily, some once a week. In the beginning it is probably best to leave at least a day or two between brushes to check how your skin is responding and whether there are any adverse effects. I do not use soap on my skin, so I dry brush every day.
Cleaning the brush
Note most brushes are designed for dry use and wetting them will tend to adversely affect the wood and may loosen the bristles and make them fall out. Wetting the brush also softens the bristles, so if you prefer a stiff brush, don’t wash it too often. Putting it out in the sun will help kill any bacteria. You could spray it lightly with hydrogen peroxide, which kills bacteria and evaporates, or use surgical alcohol, then let it dry naturally.
Always explore and pay careful attention to what works best for you and YOUR body and use your common sense. If you have very sensitive skin, open or recent wounds, rashes, or a history of eczema or other skin conditions, this is almost certainly not for you.
Illness, medication and pregnancy can all alter the sensitivity of the skin and, even if dry brushing was previously fine, it may not feel good at these times.
Do NOT ignore warning signs like discomfort, pain, rash, itchiness, extreme or persistent redness. Avoid sensitive areas, don’t use uncomfortably stiff bristles, and stop immediately if irritation occurs.
There have been no scientific / clinical studies on dry skin brushing and it is not likely there will ever be funding for any, so the reports of its benefits are anecdotal (some are far-fetched!). It is generally agreed to feel good and the potential for harm is minimal (with the common sense precautions). Experiment for yourself.Tagsdry skin brushing
Although there are a number of supplements on the market that claim to boost the immune system, there is no real evidence for that they work. If the body is actually deficient in certain vitamins, taking the right dose of those particular ones might help a weakened immune system. However, taking mega doses of anything is at best likely to be a waste of money and at worst could be toxic.
The best advice is, as we all know, to lead a healthy lifestyle. Eat moderately, a varied diet, avoid smoking, drink small amounts of alcohol only with food and just occasionally and exercise regularly (and moderately!). If we have a good healthy baseline, we can deal with an occasional…err ‘deviation’ (we are only human!) and regain balance again relatively easily.
Other things well within our control are to develop efficient breathing, quality relaxation, good sleep, doing more of what we love, feeling grateful and being able to laugh and not take life too seriously. After all the very worst that could happen is going to happen to us all eventually anyway!
BREATHING & CLEANSING THE RESPIRATORY TRACT In Chinese medicine the lungs are considered to be the ‘tender organ’, because they are so susceptible to pathogens. (The Chinese medicine version of pathogens, such as wind-cold and damp-heat would not be recognisable to a western doctor, because they describe the effect of the invader on the body rather than it’s biological classification.) Healthy lungs are an essential component of good immunity when it comes to viruses etc that are likely to enter the body by that route. The lungs do have a clever method of cleaning themselves known as the ‘mucus escalator’. The walls of the respiratory tubes are lined with a membrane that produces a sticky, lubricating mucus and microscopic hair-like projections called cilia. These constantly move in a wafting action, up and out towards the throat, moving the sticky mucus, which has trapped harmful particles and organisms. One of the problems of smoking is that it paralyses the action of the cilia. Smokers often have a morning cough, because they have not smoked during the night and the cilia have been able to get going to start clearing out the accumulated mucus and other debris. Severe pollution can have a similar effect.
Apart from not smoking and avoiding polluted places, we can help support the lungs with breathing exercises. It can be helpful to think of these as medicine, with a right ‘dosage’, so they are effective without becoming harmful. If you over-breathe, you may hyperventilate, change the ph of the blood, get dizzy and could even pass out – definitely not healthy!!
The yoga breathing technique, kapalbhati is one of the kriyas (cleansing practices), partly because it helps stimulate the natural cleaning mechanism of the lungs. Additionally, it is energising, stimulates digestive fire (but only to be done BEFORE eating), tones the abdomen, cleanses the nadis (energy channels / meridians) and shifts our mood.
If you have an underlying respiratory problem, you may have been sent to a chest clinic and been taught ACBT / huffing breath (as I was after I had contracted hooping cough in my 30’s). Here is a Youtube video. Over the years I have also developed my own yoga version of the exercise.
The complete yoga breath is another practice that can help thoroughly ventilate the lungs and make sure the whole breathing mechanism is working well. Inhale to a comfortable count of 4, pacing the breath, so you have some left to reach the collar bone area. 1. Breathing downwards, as if into the pelvis 2. Horizontally widen all around the lower ribs / diaphragm 3. Expand the chest 4. Breathe upward into the space above the collar bones
Either exhale from the top down, finishing with a gentle squeeze of the belly, or just let the exhale fall out through the mouth. If you are a beginner, take a normal breath before repeating. Do 3-5 breaths then return to normal breathing. Repeat up to 3 times.
N.B.NEVER force or strain any breathing techniques. That can have the opposite of the desired effect!!
All these practices should be done moderately, to find what works best for each individual. More is not better. Especially if they are new to you, gradually ease into them, take pauses between rounds, to feel the effects (and develop mindfulness!)
Gargling with salt water has been suggested in the official advice. Another yoga kriya is nasal washing known as neti. This involves flushing out the nasal passages with warm salt water. With the head forward and turned to the side, water can be poured from a container with a spout, up one nostril so that it flows out through the other (the gentle version), squirted up with a sinus rinse bottle, or simply sniffed up each nostril, while holding the other one closed. A good time to do this is before breathing exercises, after being exposed to pollution and, at the present time, after being around other people. Examples of nasal washing devices all available on Amazon.
For many years, I noticed that my nasal membranes got so dry in airplanes that my nose would bleed. I took to rubbing a drop of olive oil inside each nostril, whenever I fly (or spend long periods in an air-conditioned atmosphere), which completely cured the problem. In the last couple of years, because airplanes have long been notorious for spreading infections, I have taken to adding to my little travel bottle of olive oil, a couple of drops of tea tree essential oil (approx 1:10). Tea tree is reputed to have anti-viral properties. I cannot say I have any evidence for this as protection against germs, but it is pleasant and unlikely to do harm. NEVER use essential oils undiluted as they may cause irritation.
DRY SKIN BRUSHING is a method of all over exfoliating to help keep skin healthy and the skin is the immune system’s first line of defence. You can read my post about it here
RELAXATION The other factor we hear a lot about is stress. A certain amount of stress is actually good for us, but too much and over too sustained a period is not. So in the time-honoured words from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; “DON’T PANIC”!!! Learn to relaxxxxxxxxx…… This might be easier said than done, especially for those who are so used to being constantly wound up those few extra turns, that they are no longer even aware of it! An indication is if you are someone who finds it a big challenge just to be still and do nothing for 10 minutes and immediately want to reach for your phone. Here is a hypnotherapy recording by Trevor Sylvester to help you relax and strengthen the immune system
Every now and then, practise taking a different perspective. This is called pratipaksha bhavanam. Imagine taking a step back from yourself and seeing what you are doing, thinking and feeling as if from some some distance away. Apply the bigger picture view and ask yourself what is the wisest way to proceed – for your own well-being and happiness and for all others around you.
Learn the art and skill of relaxation. Find what works best for you. Start with short power naps and progress to longer guided relaxation. Eventually you could dive into the deeper aspects of meditative consciousness in yoga nidra. Find a position that is comfortable and works for you. Savasana, the yoga ‘corpse’ pose with some supports works for many people.
Restorative yoga is exactly what it says, using supported yoga postures to deeply relax and to release tension from different areas of the body in various positions in order to restore energy and optimal function.
SLEEP Establish a routine to help ensure you get good sleep. • Aim to go to bed at the same time most nights • Eat supper well before bedtime, avoid caffeine and minimise alcohol consumption • Stop using all electronic media several hours before bed • If your mind is worried / preoccupied, read or watch something that transports you into another state, but be careful of over stimulating the mind in a different way
If you are going through periods of insomnia, don’t worry, try to snuggle up and luxuriate in the fact that you don’t have to get up yet. As long as you are resting your body can still replenish itself. If your mind is too restless, listen to a relaxation or yoga nidra recording, which will also help enable your body to restore itself.
JOY What do you love? Think of the places, people you hang out with, pets, activities that you most enjoy, that give you a sense of well-being / peace / joy / calm / okay-ness, or when you can become so wonderfully absorbed in the moment that you forget yourself. Make sure you give time to them regularly. It is good for your health.
What simple things in your life is it easy to feel grateful for? The feeling of gratitude is good for our health.
HUMOUR And finally the joy and healing power of laughter. I believe it is our saving grace. it gives us distance and perspective and stops us from taking ourselves and life too seriously.
Try watching this video, see what happens to you and how it makes you feel.
“Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never get out of it alive!” ~ Elbert Hubbard
In my 30’s I caught whooping cough, while in India, which was not diagnosed until it was over and I was back in the UK. By then it had done some damage to my lungs and, as I was deemed more than usually susceptible to infections, I was sent to a chest clinic. They taught me the Active Cycle of Breathing Technique (ACBT), otherwise known as the ‘Huffing Breath’, which has been extremely useful in helping to keep infections at bay. I might even say I seem to be LESS susceptible than I was before the whooping cough!
Here is a link to some physiotherapy descriptions /demo, which I think explain the technique very well.
Over the years I have developed my own ‘yoga’ version, which I use pretty regularly and, at the moment, am using every day. I also find kapalbhati (shining skull breath) very useful (see below).
HUFFING BREATH – ‘YOGA’ VERSION 1. Inhale a complete yoga breath to a count of 4 into: 1. pelvis – 2. lower – 3. middle – 4. upper chest. Comfortably pace the breath so as not be straining and have enough left to reach the collar bones. 2. Hold for a count of 5 (+/- optional extra: apply yoga locks; lift pelvic floor and close the throat) 3. Press the tongue down and exhale forcefully through the mouth, squeezing out as much breath as possible and imagine misting a mirror about an arm’s length away 4. 1-2 normal breaths 5. Repeat 3-5x = 1 cycle 6. I repeat the cycle in various positions to reach different parts of the lungs; standing or sitting upright, forward bend in standing or kneeling (lungs inverted), on my back, side lying.
This practice can make you cough, as it moves secretions up out of the lungs towards the throat, to be swallowed (so the stomach acid can kill any bugs) or spat out.
NEVER force or strain. The whole sequence should be easy and comfortable.
KAPALBHATI – Shining Skull Breath This is a yoga cleansing technique for the respiratory tract, which also has many other benefits. Here is a link to a free pdf, with instructions and pictures, on Kapalbhati
My post on strengthening the immune system contains some other techniques for helping to cleanse the respiratory tract and stop infections from taking hold.