Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Meditation 2: Simple Muscle Relaxation Mediatation

As promised, here is a simple meditation for you to try. It works by taking our attention away from our thoughts and the busy-ness of the mind, instead bringing the focus back into our body and breath. 

You can meditate lying or sitting in a comfortable position, perhaps easy cross legged or leaning against a wall. If you cannot sit without slouching in the spine however, it is best for you to lie. You can also put pillows or a blanket under your knees when lying to alleviate back pain or curvature of the spine. The following exercise is definitely best done lying down however. Keep your arms rested by your side, apart from the body, and let the legs fall open, feet relaxing out to the sides.

Wear comfy clothes and no shoes. Turn off your phone and make sure you are free from distractions.

Firstly, bring attention to your breath, noticing if it is deep or shallow, fast or slow. Are you getting enough oxygen to really revitalise your body with each breath? Start breathing deeply into the body, first feeling the chest expand upwards and sideways, and then filling the belly. Exhale fully from the belly - try sighing with the exhale to release all the tension and air. The more over-dramatic the sigh the better! Do this a couple times until you feel the tension leave your body.

Feel your body begin to sink deeply into the floor. If your mind is busy or you notice thoughts arise, gently bring the mind back to the breath. Acknowledge the thought, but do not follow it or ruminate on it's content; watch it like you would a cloud in the sky. If it helps you can remind your mind that you will be free in ten minutes to think about this, but this is your time to practice having a calm and quiet mind. This normally helps the thoughts to dissipate.

Start at the top of the head, focussing all your attention into this area, and feeling the back of your head relaxing heavily into the floor. Some people like to imagine a glowing light or aura around the are they are focussing on but if that is too hippie-ish for you let it go. Now start tensing and relaxing the muscles of your face - start by scrunching your whole face up and release, then close your eyes as closely as you can then relax them. Feel the eyeballs sink right back in the sockets on the release. Open your mouth wide and unclench your jaw, feel the jawbones relax. 

Then work your way down the body, tensing and releasing as you go. Start with the shoulders, then upper back. Then ball your right hand into a fist, tensing the arm and holding the fist for three seconds then releasing. Do the same on the left. Tense and release your belly, your low back, your buttocks, then your left leg and toes, then right leg and toes. Ball your toes and hold like you did the fist. Try to tense on the inhale, release on the exhale.

Once you have relaxed all the body parts simply lie and become aware of the new feelings of relaxation and release in the body. If any parts are still feeling tense, repeat the contraction on that area, and mentally encourage the area to "let go". 

Lie there for a few minutes enjoying the relaxation in your body. Again, don't become attached to any thoughts that come into the mind - don't try to "stop" them (impossible!), but simply acknowledge them and then let them pass. Focus on the breath.

When you are ready to come out of this meditation, begin by wiggling your fingers and toes to get some movement back into the body, then raise and stretch the arms out long above the head, stretching out your entire body for a few moments before you arise. 


Hope you find this helpful - and don't worry if your mind is super busy or you find it difficult to relax. That's all part of the practice, and it's actually a learned skill not to think. Even by attempting and perhaps failing you are still working on gaining this ability :)

It can be difficult to do this through reading the script yourself, so unless you can find a patient friend or loved one to read it out in my relaxing broga voice it may help to follow along to a guided meditation through your speakers or headphone. Here are three good ones I have found on youtube:

This site also offers some free downloadable meditations: Progressive Relaxation Exercises

There are plenty of them online and on youtube so search until you find one that "resonates" with you. And let me know in the comments if you find any good ones :)

Happy relaxing brogis!

Meditation 1: Monkey Mind

Although it seems counterintuitive to read about meditation rather than well... doing it, it actually helps to have some understanding of our mind and the effects of meditation upon it, as well as what we are wanting to achieve, before we even begin. So bear with me brogis!

Most of us (myself definitely included!) have what we call in yoga the "monkey mind" - meaning our mind jumps from thought to thought like a drunken monkey jumping from branch to branch on a tree. We have no control over where our thoughts go, rather they lead us... and often to places we would rather not go - envy, anger, worry, sadness, resentment... any of these sound familiar?! Meditation (and yoga) seeks to calm this monkey; to be the observer, rather than the follower, of our thoughts.

Eckhart Tolle's book 'The Power of Now' is a great source for learning more about the idea of the observer or "witness" of our thoughts; below is a passage I found really helpful when I was trying to get my own head around this concept... hope it helps you too:

"You have probably come across "mad" people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, thats not much different from what you and all other "normal" people do, except that you don't do it out loud. The voice comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes, dislikes and so on. The voice isn't necessarily relevant to the situation you find yourself in at the time; it may be reviving the recent or distant past or rehearsing or imagining future situations. Here it often imagines things going wrong... this is called worry.

... It is not uncommon for the voice to be a person's worst enemy. Many people live with a tormentor in their head that continuously attacks... and drains them of vital energy.

... The good news is that you can free yourself from your mind... You can take the first step right now. Start listening to the voice in your head as often as you can. Pay particular attention to any repetitive thought patterns... This is what I mean by "watching the thinker" which is another way of saying: listen to the voice in your head, be there as the witnessing presence."

I feel a bit funny telling you to "listen to the voices in your head"; but that's exactly what I want you to do! Start just witnessing the thoughts that come into your mind and - unlike the drunken monkey - watch them as an observer rather than simply just following them on the (oftentimes dangerous!) path they wish to take you down.

"When you listen to a thought, you are aware of not only the thought but of yourself as the witness of the thought... The thought then loses power over you and quickly subsides, because you are no longer energising the mind through identifying with it. This is the beginning of the end of involuntary and compulsive thinking. 

When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental stream - a gap of "no mind". At first the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will become longer. When these gaps occur, you feel a certain stillness and peace within you."

Bingo! This is exactly what we are hoping to achieve in meditation, this state of "no mind". And notice I say "hoping to achieve" - it can take a while to grasp, and is something you will need to practice over and over again. Don't become discouraged or expect immediate results; we are so used to the "drunken monkey" way of thinking that often it takes a while to get any kind of gap at all, and when we first start meditating it may feel like our thoughts will never clear. Trust me... my mind was one of the drunkest monkeys you could ever meet! But I know with a regular meditation practice these kind of gaps in thinking (and overthinking!) do begin to occur, and the result is a much healthier, happier you. Yay! :)

I will finish this post now, as it is probably a lot to take on... but I will be back soon with more information about meditation, as well as different techniques you can try to assist you in your attempts to find this lovely state of peace and calm. In the meantime, I invite you to try simply observing your mind... and see what happens. Until next time...


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Case Study #1 - Upper Back Pain

Our first Broga case study!

When my co-worker DC was struck with a mysterious pain in the upper back last week he naturally turned to me, his trusty Broga guru, to help him in his hour of need. Oh okay, I volunteered my opinion unasked, but whatevs... the point is the guy had a sore back... and yoga came to the rescue!

First of all... what's going on?

Neck and upper back pain can often be caused by muscle overuse, poor posture or over/under exercise. Often it can comes from holding uncomfortable positions for long periods of time; which, lets face it describes most of us working in offices in front of computers all day (that cricket coverage won't watch itself, will it DC?)

Improving posture in general, as well as the following exercises, will be the best way for DC to start feeling better again. In fact, awareness of our working habits and posture is the first step we can all take to avoid these problems arising in the first place.

So yeah, your mum could have written this post: SIT UP STRAIGHT! *wags finger*

In the short term however there are some exercises DC can do to alleviate the pain and start stretching out his muscles and aligning the spine (some of them he can even do at his desk without looking too much like a twat)

Seated Chair Twist:

This one is great as you can do it at your desk.

1. Sitting up straight, take a deep inhale, then on the exhale bring your right hand to your knee and the left along the back of the chair, turning your torso to face the right hand side.

2. Pause here and use the inhale to stretch your spine up tall in your new position.

3. On the next exhale begin to twist your waist and lower ribs further to the right.

4. Inhale, lengthen spine.

5. Exhale, twist shoulder and turn head to bring your gaze as far over your shoulder to the right as possible. Stay here for a few breaths - still using the inhale to lenghten and the exhale to twist further into the stretch.

6. Use an inhale to return the head and neck to the front first, followed by the torso.

Repeat other side.

Shoulder Twist against the wall:

Find a wall (and bandana?) and place your arm at about a 45 degree angle along it. Turn your chest away from the arm and twist to look over your opposite shoulder. Breathe here - again; inhale straighten spine, exhale increase twist. Inhale - return head, then release. Repeat on other side.

Ardha Jathara Parivarttanasana

1. Begin by lying on your back, arms outstretched at shoulder height, knees bent with feet on the floor.

2. On the exhale bring your legs down to the left and place your hand on your knees to ground them into the floor. Gaze over your right shoulder. Keep both left and right side shoulders grounded into the floor, as you breathe in and out here deeply and slowly.

4. On an exhale return head to middle, then knees.

Repeat other side.

"The Merv" (copywrite DC, 2012)

1. Grab a bandana/ scarf/ belt and hold either end above your head so one arm is at ten and the other two.

2. On an exhale bring the arms down to the left.

3. Inhale - return to the middle.

4. Repeat on right and continue repeating in time with your breath.

Try and keep your arms parallel to the body, not pulling back which creates an arch in the lower back (bad!) - pretend there is a wall directly behind you which you are sliding the arms along.

Longer term:

As mentioned earlier improving posture - along with strengthening the muscles that support the spine - is the best way of making sure these problems don't re-occur.

First up DC needs to activate that core, and then continue doing regular exercises that work on improving core strength and postural alignment. A strong core works as a kind of "corset" for our spine, meaning it doesn't have to take the whole load of carrying our torso, head, neck and shoulders alone. Strong core muscles = healthy supported spine = healthy body/ happy DC. The spine does so much work for us; not just posturally speaking, but also in carrying messages all round our body to our organs and limbs. Give it back a little love!

In an upcoming post I will share some more exercises DC can do to strengthen this area, stretching and twisting the spine and the muscles which support it. In the meantime here is a handy video of yoga back exercises he can do in the comfort of his own home.


Disclaimer: I am not a doctor! These are suggested exercises, not solutions for medical issues or injury. Please consult your doctor if you have severe or re-occuring back pain, and before undertaking any exercise regime. Stay safe brogis :)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Core Exercises

As promised... here are three exercises to practice and make use of your new found core-activation skills:

The Glide:

Lie on your back, with your knees bent, hip-width apart and hands resting on your thighs. Inhale fully into the chest, and on then on the exhale release all the air from your belly feeling the belly button contract inwards towards the spine and pull the pelvic floor up and into your body - as you are doing this lift your shoulders and slowly glide your hands up your thighs towards your knees. Hold and take a few breaths at the top, then gently lower your shoulders back towards the floor. Repeat.

This is a very subtle movement, and for people used to doing crunches etc. it may not seem very "active" at first. However if done correctly it will begin waking up the core, and after a few repetitions you should start to feel this area burn. Unlike crunches however, your back is fully supported in this movement - instead of hurtling your body forward using your limbs and superficial abdominal muscles you are using your deep core muscles to bring you forward, strengthening and improving them as you go.

Now we add levers aka "arms":

Begin the same way, but on the inhale bring your arms up over your head. Then on the exhale curl your shoulders off the floor and bring your hands in between your knees. Hold here for several breaths, then on the exhale slowly roll shoulders back down to the floor -core is switched on throughout this all!

Inhale, and then on the exhale return the shoulders back up again, but this time bring the hands towards the right of your knees, as if you wish to touch your right ankle. Now we are using our obilique abdominals and creating a powerful stretch down the side waist. Repeat on the left side, then continue three (or more!) reps on each of the middle, left and right sides. With each exhalation remember -all air out, belly button to naval, pelvic floor up!

One more! Navasana (Boat Pose)

Start seated on the floor with legs straight out. Press your hands behind you, fingers pointing towards the back. Lift and extend your spine and lean back into the arms, without rounding through the back. On the exhale start lifting your feet off the floor to get the thighs about a 45 degree angle off the floor. Try and straighten your legs out like Carlo is doing above, but if this is not possible without your back rounding have them bent, with your shins parallel to the floor (as seen here).

Stretch your shoulders apart and your arms out in front like you to want to touch the opposite side of the room. Try to keep the belly flat, and keep using the exhale to bring that belly button to spine. Tip your chin slightly forward to get some nice room in the back of the neck. Breathe slowly and easily - try to stay in the pose for 10 - 20 seconds, increasing to a minute over time. Release on an exhale, inhale and stretch your arms above your head to finish.


Now you know about this area and how to activate it, you can start using it all the time; both in your yoga poses and in every day life. So many activities can benefit from increased core awareness and spinal support - swimming, cycling, walking, standing, sitting on a chair at work - you name it. I will be re-visiting this subject again (and again and again) on the blog, but if you are jonesing for more core exercises right this very moment, the wonderful Sadie Nardini has a free video workout for you right here.

Thanks to my lovely patient (and easily bossed around) co-worker Carlo for modelling for these shots! I see a bright future as a sports model for this plucky young lad :)


Disclaimer: I am not a doctor! These are suggested exercises, not solutions for medical issues or injury. Please consult your doctor if you have severe or re-occuring pain, and before undertaking any exercise regime. Stay safe brogis :)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What is the core?

As well as a fun buzzword to throw around to make me seem more yoga teacher-y, core stabilisation serves a very important purpose... I swear! The 'core' in core stabilisation actually refers to three major muscular regions - the abdominal, pelvic and lower back muscles. These core muscles are not the obvious muscles we see such as the six-pack (or "keg" in some of our cases :)) but rather the deep muscles buried beneath them which attach to the spine, and are designed specifically to support it. Not only do these muscles enable good posture and balance - ensuring less back and neck pain - they also assist the spine during every single movement we make. Shout out to the cores! Raise your arms in the air! Yep - the core helped you do that. Amazing.

Even breathing becomes easier with a stronger core, as the ribcage becomes supported in it's optimal position; bringing in lots of much needed fresh air to energise and regenerate your body.

Some anatomical diagrams of these wonders:

Look at them there, supporting the spine like the champs they are!

So, how do I get these AMAZING AND MAGICAL CORE MUSCLES you ask! Well, obviously you do already have them, but the trick is to work on them to make them stronger; and therefore more supportive and useful. Luckily for you one of the first steps is awareness... so look at you being one step closer just by reading this! Have a cookie. No... don't. They're full of sugar. Have a raisin! Nature's candy. Mmmm.

Anyhoo.... the core. The first step is to "activate" this region (sound familiar brogis?) then to work on exercises which utilise this activation, of which there are many. In this post I will go through some activation techniques, then in the next I will give you three exercises (which I may or may not have stolen from pilates... yeah, that's how Broga rolls!) to kick start your practice. First things first though...

Core Activation, Method 1: Activation simply by breathing

This is the tried and true we practice in class. Simply lie in a comfortable position on your back, knees bent so you feet are below your butt. Become aware of your breathing, and use your inhalation to fill first your lungs and then begin filling your belly. Then, on the exhale, exhale every last bit of breath out from the belly and pull your navel back towards your spine until you feel a constricting movement deep in your inner abdominal muscles. Then hold this constriction as you inhale into your chest - practice holding it for several breaths (slow ones!) and then let go. Repeat.

Another trick to assist with this is imagining that you are tightening a belt - bringing your abdomen in as you exhale to allow this imaginary belt to go one notch tighter. Again, imagine you are drawing your belly button in towards your spine. The constriction deep in your belly should be a sign that you've got it.

Method 2: The Pea

I like this one too, just because it demonstrates the same thing but in reverse (sort of). Lie on your belly, legs outstretched, arms by your side. Inhale again into the chest, and again on the exhalation exhale fully and "scoop" the belly in as if attempting to pick up a tiny pea from the floor using your belly button. Again hold while refilling the lungs on the inhale, and continue holding for a few more breaths. Release!

One more step... Adding the pelvic floor!

Now you can add an additional lift of the pelvic floor during your full exhale to switch on the "wonder down under" and really get that core area switched on! How? Repeat one of the exercises above and during the exhalation add a contraction to the muscles between the pubic bone and the tailbone, pulling your perineum up in towards the abdomen. Another way to put this - contract the muscles you use when you pee, imagining you are attempting to stop it "mid flow" as it were (sorry, there is just no charming way to put that). Think of two forces at work here - one pulling your pelvic floor muscles up, the other pulling your belly button in towards your spine.

This pelvic floor activation is known in yoga as the very powerful "Mulu Bandha" lock, which you can read more about
here. As the article says, adding this action to your practice... "helps build core body strength, enables you to hold [yoga] postures longer, protects the low back muscles and makes [yoga] postures safer... increases your energy and vitality, and improves concentration and mental clarity"...


These exercises can also be of benefit with regards to erm... other very important areas... something I won't go on about, but you can read more here. One word to pique your interest: SEX (*clicks increase 100%*)

You can also practice this lock off the yoga mat anywhere you like... the bus stop, at your desk, watching teev... no-one will know! The more you do it the stronger these muscles will become and the more you will reap the benefits in improved spinal alignment and general all round healthiness. And remember to keep breathing when you are practicing these activations, don't brace or tense up - the contraction should be deep in your core, not in your limbs and breath.

Finally, as promised, in the next post I will take you through some exercises to utilise you new improved core muscles! Stay tuned.