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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Tip of the Week: How to Cure Insomnia in 12 Minutes

I was badly afflicted with insomnia last winter in Perth, Australia. While many people hibernate through winter, I was kept up by the coldness and stress in general. It was overwhelming me — exams, rental, a triathlon and a crazy boss. My cognitive demands were almost ceaseless.

When a new Bikram yoga studio sprung up in my suburb, I was happy. Instead of going out and running in the cold, I could keep up with my exercise indoors instead. I paid up for a trial. 

I went into the searing hot room and did my first class. I was in “child’s pose” for most of it, because I was spinning from the heat! 

That night, I slept like a baby. 

Was it the heat? Maybe. Was it the yoga? Definitely.

Yoga reduces arousal in general. Bonnet and Arand (1995) suggested that insomnia is caused by inappropriate arousal, and isn’t a sleep disorder. Most insomniacs will attest to this — they can’t sleep because something is going on in their minds. They can’t relax enough to fall asleep. 

According to Karen Then, Studio Director of Bikram Yoga Victoria Park, improved breathing patterns from yoga relieves stress. She also shared that mental and emotional aspects ease factors that contribute to insomnia. This allows the sleepless to return to normal sleeping patterns. 

Bir S. Khalsa (2004) recruited chronic insomniacs who had to practice Kundalini yoga for an hour daily over eight weeks in the evening prior to bedtime. Participants were taught to use long and slow abdominal breathing, focusing on breathing or a mantra. They were to return their attention to the breath whenever the mind wandered. 

For 11 minutes, the participants meditated on their breathing using the ratio of inhale to hold to exhale of 4 seconds to 16 seconds to 2 seconds. They remained seated, while maintaining an erect and relaxed spine. Here's an example of the sort of exercise you can do to relieve your insomnia and help you achieve sleep:
  • 1 to 3 minutes: Long and slow abdominal breathing
  • 3to 5 minutes: Arms extended vertically at 60-degree angle, with upward-facing flat palms
  • 5 to 7 minutes: Arms extended horizontally with straight wrists and flat palms 
  • 7 to 9 minutes: Palms pushed together by arms 
  • 9 to 11 minutes: The palms are now rested in the lap, facing upwards. The right palm is resting over the left with thumbs touching. 
The breathing exercise improved total sleep time, sleep quality and sleep efficiency. The time spent awake decreased as well. 
Karen recommends the following postures for insomniacs to help with their rest as well:
  • Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose
  • Wind Removing Pose
  • Half Tortoise
  • Half Spinal Twist 
  • Savasana
Sleep tight!
 Melissa Mak

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tip of the Week: Tree Pose

Tree Pose is a standing, hip-opening posture that improves balance and concentration. Below are some tips to help you improve in the posture.

Esta Osil at Kura Waterfall in Nigeria
  • Work the pose from the ground up. Balance your weight evenly across your standing foot. (Read Your Feet are the Foundation for more specifics on how to balance your weight on your foot). Then, find balance and strength in the shin, calf, and thigh of your standing leg. Find alignment in your hips, tailbone, pelvis, and belly; and then in your collarbones, shoulder blades, arms, and neck.
  • Extend the pose through the crown of your head. Imagine that you’re trying to touch the ceiling with your skull.
  • Do not keep the raised foot in place by sticking out your buttocks. Instead, tuck your tailbone and maintain alignment through your spine.
  • To help with balancing, bring your awareness to the center line of your body — the vertical line that runs directly through the center of your head, neck, and torso.
  • Regularly practicing Tree Pose will tone your abdominal muscles, but weaker muscles can make it difficult to balance. Add extra core-strengthening work into your practice to help with balancing (and with the rest of your standing poses!).

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Tip of the Week: How to Improve Your Practice

Small changes to your Bikram practice can help you take it to the next level. Follow these steps from and watch your practice improve with every class. 


Step 1

Increase the frequency of your practice. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram yoga, advises students to attend at least 10 classes per month to achieve its baseline benefits. Yogis who continue to deepen their practice, however, usually attend far more frequently, never missing more than a day or two between classes. Frequent practice enables your body's fascia -- the tense membrane that surrounds your musculature -- to stretch slowly over time, deepening your flexibility.

Step 2

Strive for endurance and intensity in the standing series and focus more on depth in the floor series. The standing series, roughly the first half of class, is intended to generate the internal heat required for you to get deep into your body's organs and muscles in the second half. Don't be surprised if you hear your Bikram instructor say that the hard work you do up front will reward you later in class.

Step 3

Listen closely to instructions and pay strict attention to form. Every Bikram pose contains elements that must be mastered in sequence. In Standing Bow Pulling Pose, for example, many yogis have a tendency to flare out the hip of the non-standing leg, dancer style, in order to pull that leg higher overhead. This may get you more depth in the short run but compromises the integrity of the pose and creates a literal imbalance in that you're more likely to fall over sideways. Keeping your hips level, as directed, enables you to develop a solid, balanced posture over time.

Step 4

Hydrate yourself well before class, but don't eat or drink anything less than two hours before class. It's nearly impossible to deepen your Bikram practice if your only goal is to survive the class. Dehydration, hunger or a sloshing stomach inhibit your ability to maintain stillness, absorb verbal instructions and find your edge in a given pose.

Step 5

Check your diet. Bikram studio owner and 2005 International Yoga Asana Championship winner Esak Garcia advises eliminating sugar and refined flour from your diet to reduce inflammation that can inhibit joint mobility. Although researchers haven't looked at sugar consumption and yoga specifically, the University of Maryland Medical Center does advise osteoarthritis patients -- who suffer painful joint inflammation -- to "avoid refined foods, such as white breads, pastas and sugars." Excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine, junk foods and fat also may compromise the quality of your practice.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tip of the Week: Let Your Emotions Surface in Camel

When we carry heavy emotions for a long time we tend to start to hunch over. Carrying the weight on our shoulders, this is the physical body's response to the burden. This keeps the chest closed off and the heart closed in. It is only when we open our hearts and open our chest that we can let this go and create the space for new things to flow in. 

Camel Pose is the ultimate chest and heart opener, making your heart so open and vulnerable which allows the emotions to surface. To bring up and release certain emotions you've been holding on to, allow yourself to experience the freedom that comes with this acceptance and letting go. Using poses to move past emotional and mental blocks is part of moving your yoga practice forward. Emotions that aren’t released are held in the internal organs on a energetic level, effecting their function. The unreleased energies and emotions get trapped in a particular part of the body. Pent up emotions effect the production of hormones and can create tensions in these areas of the body.

The practice of asanas unblocks the energy currents and the emotions, exposing and bringing up many things. As yoga makes us more open we start to notice our awareness grow. As emotions start to move and surface, the process of balance and harmonizing begins. Emotions can surface in anyone, after just starting your yoga practice or after practicing for years. Sometimes you may not be able to link the emotion with any event in your life, you may not understand it, but this is okay. Just observe the emotion and let it go. This comes with practice; because it can be hard to let the things we hold on to go. 

You can sometimes know when you need to let go of things by feeling it in your body. It can be a heaviness in your heart even if your mind is contradicting the feeling. It is important to pay attention to these signs the body gives. Use yoga as a tool to help you not only physically but mentally and emotionally. Notice what comes up for you in camel pose, or any  pose. Is it frustration, sadness, joy, anger, love…

If all this "emotions" talk is not your thing, how about practicing Camel Pose for these benefits:
  • Stretches the entire front of the body.
  • Stretches the lower body  (ankles, thighs, quadriceps)
  • Strengthens the back.
  • Improves posture.
  • May help with respiratory issues, fatigue, menstrual cramps, diabetes, anxiety and depression.
  • Helps with digestion.
  • Opens the Heart Chakra and stimulates the Throat Chakra.