Yoga and Gut Health

Yoga and Gut Health

How mindfulness can lead to a healthier microbiome.

 

I am no stranger to stress! And I bet you aren’t either. When was the last time you felt stressed? Was it 10 minutes ago?

I often talk about stress because it’s SUCH A COMMON problem!

In our hectic lives with jobs, social dynamics, family responsibilities, financial difficulties, and small annoying things too, we feel an increased heart rate, lack of patience, and an angry or annoyed mood all too often.

In this mini blog I’ll talk briefly about some of the research linking stress to poor gut health, why this is important, and what this has to do with yoga!

 

A bit about MY Stress Story

Despite being a yoga teacher, I definitely get stressed! Thankfully my yoga practice does help me be a little less reactive, but the stress definitely rears it’s ugly head at times!

One example of how I think my stress shows up on me is this: When my little boy was 6 months old, I started to get redness on my cheeks. I did ALL sorts of elimination diets. I cut out alcohol, chocolate, caffeine and gluten, but none of these made a difference.

Now looking back at this time of my life, I was severely sleep deprived and also felt very anxious and stressed about the weaning process of a 6 month old baby (as well as most other factors about having a 6 month old!)

I’ve spoken to a functional nutritionist since, and they agree with me that it could very well be stress related. Psychosocial stress could be reducing how well I absorb my food in my gut, and potentially it could be leading to more systemic inflammation from a “leaky” gut (more on this later), which shows up as a skin rash on my face!

So, my prescription…. More mindfulness in my yoga practices, and 3 slow breaths before every meal.

 

The Science-y Bit

There is a whole field of research dedicated to the connection between our gut and our brain. This includes growing evidence showing a connection from brain to gut. 

This connection means that psychosocial stress negatively affects the microbiome (bacteria in our gut), the movements of our bowls, the permeability of our gut-lining, and the resulting inflammation in our bodies (Konturek et al. 2011; Bailey & Maddison, 2024).

There is also evidence of a connection in the other direction: form gut to brain. This shows that a dis-regulated gut (microbiome, movements and gut-wall permeability) can have a negative effect on mood and even psychiatric disorders! (Bailey & Maddison, 2024).

But in this blog we’ll focus on the connection from brain to gut – as this relates to how mindfulness practices, such as yoga, could be helpful for our gut health!

 

What is Leaky Gut?

I know, it’s not a very pretty term, is it? You’ve probably heard this phrase, but might not quite understand what it means. 

The barrier between what’s inside our gut and our blood-stream is on only one cell thick. This is called the “gut barrier”. We are meant to absorb water, the nutrients from digested food and a range of other beneficial molecules through this barrier, but it’s important that some things don’t cross this barrier!

When our gut barrier gets “leaky”, this allows other molecules (e.g. gluten) to cross into our blood and can lead to the activation of our immune system. This is an inflammatory response which can lead to a host of other issues in the rest of the body (e.g. rashes, bloating or more serious symptoms such as those form Coeliac’s Disease).

From a review of the science available at the time, Konturek et a. (2011) concluded that STRESS negatively affects the intestinal permeability (“leakiness” of the gut), GI-motility (the movements our bowls make to move everything along) and leads to an increase in pro-inflammatory mediators (an activated immune response).

 

Why Does it Mater?

All this talk about the effects of stress on the gut matters because Konturek et al. (2011) also found that chronic stress is a major risk factor for:

  • Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD), 
  • Peptic ulcer, 
  • Functional dyspepsia, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), 
  • Irritable bowel disease (IBS), 
  • And other functional disorders of gastro-intestine (GI) tract.

 

What’s This Got to do With Yoga? 

Good question. Well, yoga is known to be a stress-reducing activity (Cocciara et al., 2019; Della Vale et al., 2020).  This may not surprise you. Many people who join my in-person and online yoga classes do so in hopes to reduce their stress – and they find that is does!

However, WHAT is it about yoga that helps to reduce stress? This is an even more interesting question! While I love a strong plank pose, arm balance and hip-flexor stretch for other reasons, this is probably not the stress-reducing side of yoga.

But what is?

 

Mindfulness (Not Plank Poses)

I believe (and it is backed by science) that it is the mindfulness aspect of yoga which is the real secret ingredient for stress reduction in the long term.

If you’re wondering, mindfulness is a mental exercise of creating awareness of everything around and within you, and working towards acceptance of whatever you’re feeling or experiencing. 

Yes, any physical exercise will give you “feel good” hormones, and make you forget about your troubles in the short term. But there is a whole field of research dedicated to mindfulness, which suggests that THAT is the aspect of yoga that leads to stress reduction.

If you’ve ever done a yoga class (that was about a bit more than the stretching), then you’ll remember cues such as “Feel the sensations in your body, and try not to judge.” Yoga puts you in uncomfortable positions and then trains you to become accepting of all the sensations you feel in these poses.

After a lot of practice, then this acceptance of discomfort can radiate out into other difficult/uncomfortable aspects of life.

Take heart – this takes practice!

 

Acceptance Seems to be Key

One interesting study by Lindsay et al. (2018),  found that the aspect of acceptance seems to be key in the stress-lowering power of mindfulness.

In this study 153 stressed adults (average age of 32), were assigned to three groups, at random, who received 15 lessons on a smart-phone focussing on:

  1. Guided awareness + acceptance of sensations in their bodies
  2. Only guided awareness of sensations in their bodies
  3. Freely reflecting on sensations in their bodies (this was the control group)

They found that those in group 1) who focussed on BOTH being aware of sensations as well as on the ACCEPTANCE of them, had a greater stress reduction that those in groups 2) and 3). They decreased their level of cortisol (stress hormone) and has a smaller increase in blood pressure after a deliberately stressful speech test conducted by the researchers.

 

The Take-Away Message?

It’s highly likely that there is room for improvement in your stress-response to daily life’s events. (I’m not judging – I’m right there too!)

If you’re open to seeing how mindfulness can help you, here are a few suggestions:

  • Do Yoga Nidra (this is a lying down yoga which focusses purely on mindfulness of the body, emotions, thoughts and intuition). You can find audio-recordings of Yoga Nidra classes on every meditation/yoga app out there! (Including mine. 😉)
  • In your regular exercise / yoga practice / and life: Focus on awareness and acceptance of every sensation, thought and emotion you feel.
  • Before every meal / on the loo: Take 3 very slow breaths!

 

I hope you enjoyed this little deep-dive into the science of health, yoga and mindfulness!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


References

Cocchiara, R. A., Peruzzo, M., Mannocci, A., Ottolenghi, L., Villari, P., Polimeni, A., … & La Torre, G. (2019). The use of yoga to manage stress and burnout in healthcare workers: a systematic review. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(3), 284.

Della Valle, E., Palermi, S., Aloe, I., Marcantonio, R., Spera, R., Montagnani, S., & Sirico, F. (2020). Effectiveness of workplace yoga interventions to reduce perceived stress in employees: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology, 5(2), 33.

Konturek, P. C., Brzozowski, T., & Konturek, S. J. (2011). Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol, 62(6), 591-9.

Lindsay, E. K., Young, S., Smyth, J. M., Brown, K. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87, 63-73.

Madison, A. A., & Bailey, M. T. (2023). Link Stress-Related Gut Microbiota Shifts to Mental Health Outcomes. Biological Psychiatry.


Reducing Stress Without Meditation

Reducing Stress Without Meditation

You don’t have to mediate or wake up at 5 am to reap the benefits of this simple thing…

 

“I just get stressed easily. That’s just me!”

Have you thought or said this? I completely get it. Sometimes feelings of stress, anxiety, anger and overwhelm feel so out of our control that you think it’s something that just happens to you.

Nothing you can do about it.

But is that really the case? In this mini blog I’ll present some new research showing that making a simple change in your home routine CAN make a difference.

This will not be about re-framing your mindset (although that does help!). This will be about a physical thing you can do (at home!), that will help you lower your levels of stress and anxiety.

(Spoiler alert… it’s yoga!)

 

My journey with stress

I’m no stranger to stress. It’s affected me just as much as the average person!

During my academic studies I felt stressed when approaching deadlines, when I’ve been late for a flight I’ve been very stressed, and when I had a baby I was often very stressed about things like feeding and sleep etc.

Life happens!

But what is overly obvious to me is this: At times when I have a regular yoga practice at home, I have a much bigger and fluffier emotional buffer pillow which lessens the intensity of my stress and anxiety response.

But! Don’t take my word for it. Here is a recent study with some interesting results…

 

Studying the ‘sweaty’ type of yoga

There has been a lot of research about yoga and stress already – with great results! (Cocciara et al,. 2019; Vale et al., 2020). However, most studies have used a traditional Hatha Yoga style which is low in physical intensity.

This new study by Phansikar et al. (2023) looked specifically at the style of yoga that I like (Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga). This is a more physically intense style which uses flowing movements called Sun Salutations. During this type of yoga you synchronise breath with movement, and strengthen and stretch almost every muscle in your body!

You might think that to lower stress, you need to be meditating, but this yoga style is more like a mindful type of exercise session.

That’s what I love about it!

 

What did the study do?

So, let’s give you a picture of what happened.

86 working-age adults were divided across a yoga group or a control group. The yoga group engaged in a 50 minute yoga session 3 times a week for 8 weeks. (This included 35 minutes of movement, and 15 minutes of relaxation). The control group went about their daily lives.

The researchers took a variety of self-reported stress and anxiety measurements, as well as cognitive tests such as reaction time and memory, both before and after the 8-week intervention.

 

All from their living rooms!

An aspect of this study that really excited me is that EVERYTHING was done remotely! Participants attended a combination of Zoom classes and followed recorded classes at home in their own time.

Many people think that to get the “proper experience” or to “do it properly”, you need to be in the physical presence of a yoga teacher.

Well, the results of this study beg to differ…

 

What did the study find?

The results of the study were clear. The yoga group significantly lowered their mental stress and anxiety, and also improved their working memory over the 8 weeks of the programme. (All compared with the control group).

That’s pretty cool!

 

No meditation needed!

What I find interesting about this is that they did not try to reduce their stress with specific mindset practices, meditations or even trying to reduce ‘stressful events’ in their lives…

They purely did 35 minutes Sun Salutations and various other moderate-intensity yoga poses 3 times a week. At home! They didn’t even have travel time or extra expenses!

I love that this is TRULY accessible and possible for the vast majority of able-bodies people.

 

How does yoga work?

“But how did simply moving and breathing for 35 minutes reduce stress and anxiety?” (I hear you ask)

Yoga brings your attention to you body and your breath as you move through the poses. This allows your focus to leave whatever is going on in your head for a little while.

This focus on your body and the sensations as you move is also called ‘mindfulness’. And such a present, mindful state is known to help regulate emotional experiences (Farb et al., 2013) and lower Cortisol (Pascoe & Bauer, 2015).

 

The take-away message

The take away is simple. You can significantly reduce your stress and anxiety by scheduling 3 sessions of yoga into your week! (More is good too… but not necessary).

This beauty is that these can be at home. Allowing you to fit the yoga practice around your unique work/family commitments.

Personally, this helps me deal with the demands of mum-life and self-employed life!

You don’t necessarily need to focus on meditating or changing your mindset to help reduce stress and anxiety (although those things would probably help too…)

Just move and breathe!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


References

Cocchiara, R. A., Peruzzo, M., Mannocci, A., Ottolenghi, L., Villari, P., Polimeni, A., … & La Torre, G. (2019). The use of yoga to manage stress and burnout in healthcare workers: a systematic review. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(3), 284.

Farb, N. A. S., Segal, Z. V., & Anderson, A. K. (2013). Attentional modulation of primary interoceptive and exteroceptive cortices. Cerebral Cortex, 23(1), 114–126. https://doi.org/10.1093/CER- COR/BHR385 

Pascoe, M. C., & Bauer, I. E. (2015). A systematic review of ran- domised control trials on the effects of yoga on stress measures and mood. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 68, 270–282. https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2015.07.013 

Phansikar, M., Gothe, N., Hernandez, R., Lara-Cinisomo, S., & Mullen, S. P. (2023). Feasibility and impact of a remote moderate-intensity yoga intervention on stress and executive functioning in working adults: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 1-12.

Valle, E.D., Palermi, S., Aloe, I., Marcantonio, R., Spera, R., Montagnani, S., & Sirico, F. (2020). Effectiveness of workplace yoga interventions to reduce perceived stress in employees: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology, 5(2), 33.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


3 Surprises about Stress

3 Surprises about Stress

The surprising ways that Stress hurts you, and how yoga can help.

 

I’m absolutely certain that you already know that stress isn’t that great. You’ve felt it in your own body: the raised heart rate, the jitteriness, the sleeplessness, perhaps the anxiety or emotional eating…

And I am also sure you are aware of the main negative health effects! But just to make sure here is a quick list

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Auto-imune conditions
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Weight gain and diabetes
  • A reduced immune defence against viral infections

So…. That’s said! Shall I just end my blog there?

Well, the picture is actually a little more interesting, so I’d like to talk about 3 surprises about stress.

These surprises are based a fantastic review of the scientific research by Connor et al. (2021). It’s a heavy read, so I’ll give you a whistle-stop tour.

However, if you’re up for putting your nerd glasses on, then have a look at the reference to the full article at the end!

 

Extremely Strong Evidence

Connor et al. (2021) state that “the cumulative science linking stress to negative health outcomes is vast” (Just think: heart disease, auto-immune disease, obesity, dementia). If this is all that you rake away from today’s blog – then that’s great!

Once we understand how bad mental stress is, then we might be motivated to take steps to help manage our own stress response in everyday life.

However, it’s not as simple as stress = bad, no stress = good.

In fact, it’s all about our own RESPONSE to a stress. Does your body response very quickly and intensely? Does it then release the stress quickly? Or are you not able to adequately response to a stress?

This brings me to the first surprise about stress.

 

1) It’s complicated: The Goldilocks of Stress Response

Being constantly stressed is not good, yet when our bodies have a too low stress response this isn’t good either! A healthy stress response looks a little like the Goldilocks story!

When we have constant work or life stress, then our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is always on. (The ‘Fight or Flight’ system).

This chronic activation of the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system is called autonomic imbalance. This is associated with a wide range of mental and physical negative health consequences, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even psychotic disorders.

Stress shows up in DIFFERENT ways!

Job and life stress can increase the production of the stress-hormone Cortisol. However, people with burnout, fatigue, exhaustion or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome generally have too LOW levels of Cortisol. Researchers agree that both situations are associated with poor health!

A healthy body ideally is able to produce adequate stress hormones (not too much, not too little – but the Goldilocks amount) when a threat is perceived. Then, soon after the ‘threat’ has gone a healthy body can relax again.

The issue with modern life is that our bodies perceive threats pretty consistently throughout the entire day!

 

2) Playing Havoc on the Immune System!

Stress literally changes your gene expression. Most importantly, the expression of the genes governing our immune system!

Scientists used to think that stress only down-regulated the immune system, but now there is lots of evidence that it can act in two opposite directions! (Both up-regulation and down-regulation).

This is why stress can cause inflammation-related diseases such as heart disease and autoimmune conditions (due to increased activity of the immune system). Yet, stress can also cause impaired responses to viral infections and vaccinations (due to immune suppression).

In fact, scientists believe that when the hormone cortisol is consistently high in response to chronic stress, the immune cells become blunted to the signal to switch off, resulting in a mild but persistent level of inflammation.

Chronic inflammation (an overactive immunise system) is a body-wide problem that is linked to a variety of negative health effects such as problems in your bowls, skin rashes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, tendonitis and joint issues to name just a few.

Yet, in other situations stress can lower the effectiveness of the immune system’s ability to fight viral infections.

So, stress is a real bugbear! It plays complete havoc on our immune system.

 

3) Yoga & mindfulness change gene expression (in the opposite way to stress)!

I realise that the previous sections were a little heavy. So here is the good news… We can do something about it!

Early intervention trials on groups of people especially prone to stress (i.e. breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue, and carers of family members with dementia) have show to counteract the negative effects of stress on the immune system. (Black et al., 2013, Bower et al., 2014).

Specifically, 12 minutes daily meditation for for 8 weeks by 39 family dementia caregivers, resulted in the up-regulation of genes involved in anti-viral immunity, and down-regulation of genes involved in inflammation in the body. (Black et all., 2013)

Similar up-regulation of genes involved in anti-viral immunity, and down-regulation of genes involved in inflammation was also seen after 16 Breast cancer survivors with persistent cancer-related fatigue participated in 12 weeks of Iyengar Yoga (Bower et al., 2014).

Thats exciting!

 

The take-away message?

If you’ve made it this far… hurrah!! It’s difficult to talk about this topic in an easy-to-read way. So, well done for persisting!

Here are few things that might help you deal with everyday stressors:

1. It’s not stress itself, but your RESPONSE.

There’s no need to avoid stress entirely (and it’s not possible!) The important thing is to work on your OWN reaction. Try to stop and think about whether a stressful event is worthy of a high or low stress response from you.

(Is it life threatening? Then high stress is warranted. If it’s not… then maybe a lower reaction).

If you DO get very stressed, then try to take a deep breath when the moment is over so that you can let goooooo of the stress response, and come out of your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system again.

 

 2. Try yoga or mindfulness!

I’m biassed, I know. But there is also a lot of evidence now that yoga and/or a mindfulness practice is REALLY helpful in helping us change our stress-response (see a previous blog on this here!).

Stressful things WILL happen in life, but the way we RESPOND to them can change. But this takes practice, and I believe yoga can help with this.

I am personally someone who is prone to stress and anxiety, and this is why my yoga practice is something sacred to me. I’m convinced it helps me stay calm in situations where I could otherwise drown in emotional stress. (Not that I keep my cool all the time!!!)

I’d love for you to benefit in this way too!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Black, D. S., Cole, S. W., Irwin, M. R., Breen, E., Cyr, N. M. S., Nazarian, N., … & Lavretsky, H. (2013). Yogic meditation reverses NF-κB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(3), 348-355.

Bower, J. E., Greendale, G., Crosswell, A. D., Garet, D., Sternlieb, B., Ganz, P. A., … & Cole, S. W. (2014). Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 43, 20-29.

O’Connor, D. B., Thayer, J. F., & Vedhara, K. (2021). Stress and health: A review of psychobiological processes. Annual review of psychology, 72, 663-688.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Does Yoga Improve Sleep?

Sleep, glorious sleep!

Can yoga improve your sleep?

 

Do you find yourself mulling over all your worries when you’re trying to fall asleep?

It’s annoying isn’t it!? You know that the best thing for you right now is to drop off, but still your brain just won’t let you.

(It’s even MORE annoying if you have young children that wake you up a lot – so that when you have the opportunity to sleep, you really want to make it count!)

Well, I feel you. I’ve had it very often myself.

That’s why I thought that today I’d delve into a few studies to see if yoga can improve sleep! And I’ll go into my personal journey of how I am trying to improve my own sleep.

 

My personal story

I’ve never been a ‘good’ sleeper. There’s been periods in my life when falling asleep was really, really difficult. And the more I got frustrated about it, the worse it got!

I do the usual things like avoid caffeine after 12 noon and am even a little worried that chocolate will keep me awake. So no after dinner chocolate for me! (Plenty before though…)

I have noticed that the times in my life when I’m more mentally stressed definitely coincide with worse sleep. So, it naturally follows in my mind that a yoga practice that can effectively ease my stress might help with my sleep too!

I’m personally a little guilty of doing mostly the physical side of yoga. I love the way it tones my muscles and the feeling of ease it gives in my body. But, one of my aims is to work a little more on the mental relaxation side of yoga as well.

(More on HOW I plan to do this later in this blog!)

But first, let’s delve into a few studies on yoga and sleep…

 

Research on Yoga and Sleep

A quick search on Google Scholar immediately popped up a few recent studies on yoga and sleep!

Here is a quick and dirty summary of a few of them:

  • University students doing 8 weeks of either a slow-flow vinyasa class or a strenuous Ashtanga class 2 times/ week improved in their amount of reported sleep, stress and anxiety, compared with the control group (Street, 2020).
  • Health care professionals attending an 8 week ‘yogic mediation’ course improved their sleep quality compared with a control group. This was proven objectively, using a brain-scan (Guerra et al. 2020).
  • 16 experimental studies on yoga and sleep (out of the 19 studies) showed a positive effect of yoga on sleep in a systematic review by Wang et al. (2020). That said, this effect was only seen for healthy individuals who did not have cancer and were not in a peri-menopausal life-stage.
  • An 11-minute Yoga Nidra meditation (an audio file listened to at home) led to lower stress, higher well-being and improved sleep quality after a 30-day intervention, compared with a control group who did not listen to the meditation. This positive effect was still seen even six weeks after the intervention had finished! (Moszeik et al. 2020)

This is only a whistle stop tour of a few studies. If you’re interested yourself, I’d highly recommend browsing Google Scholar when you search for ‘yoga + sleep’.

 

Which type of yoga?

Yoga is a broad term and it includes a huge variety of movement (and non-movement) types. You might be familiar with a sweaty Vinyasa class, or perhaps a Yoga Nidra practice where you literally lie on the ground with your eye closed. Very different!

What I noticed in the studies on yoga and sleep is that they all focussed on adding the mindfulness aspect to the physical yoga poses or they used a non-physical ‘yoga mediation’ or the Yoga Nidra style (the lying down one).

So, HOW can this mindful side of yoga help with sleep?

 

Bringing back ‘Rest & Digest’

When we can’t sleep it is because our nervous system is fired up! Our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ system is active and it stops us from falling asleep.

The mental stress of the day, our ruminating thoughts, the high energy/violent impressions from the Netflix show we’ve just watched or the caffeine still flowing in our veins are all possible causes.

Even if you’re super tired, this survival drive will keep you up, because, instinctually, your body thinks there might be danger!

(How annoying is it when you’re tired to your bones, but you just won’t fall asleep!?!)

Well, a mindful yoga practice has been shown to help reduce the activation of your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system (the sympathetic nervous system), and increase the activation of its opposite: the ‘rest and digest’ (the parasympathetic nervous system).

 

Benefits not just after a yoga class…

What we aim for with a mindful yoga practice is that we not only get this ‘rest and digest’ benefit immediately after a session, but that at any time in the day it is easier to tap into this restful and peaceful state.

So, when you get stuck in traffic, you might be able to stay calmer by taking a slow breath and, in so doing, avoid a huge spike in adrenaline. Or when you’re watching an action film, you might be able to stay calmer in your body rather than letting yourself experience as much adrenaline as the stunt actors!

Studies on long-term yogis tend to support this outcome, as they show that yogis generally have higher mental wellbeing than a random selection of non-yogis (Morris et al. 2023).

(Have a look at my previous blog about Ashtanga and mental health here for more details about this).

 

How I am going to improve MY sleep…

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, I LOVE a strong and sweaty Ashtanga session! I love feeling my muscles work and that satisfied feeling after exercise.

My regular Ashtanga practice at home, does give me huge mental health benefits already, but recently I’ve been looking for something more.

Specifically… I’ve been reading more and more about Yoga Nidra. (I highly recommend the book ‘Practical Yoga Nidra’ by Scott More). And I’m starting to add this into my own yoga routine.

 

What is Yoga Nidra?

Yoga Nidra is a non-physical form of yoga that is a mindfulness exercise. In a comfortable position, you bring your awareness to either your body, your energy, your emotions or your thoughts in an open and curious way. This is most easily done while listening to an audio recording.

It is translated literally to ‘Yogic Sleep’! And it can last anywhere from 2 minutes to 60 minutes!

And as you might remember, the study by Moszeik et al. (2020) found that 30 days of listening to an 11-minute Yoga Nidra audio recording improved sleep quality!

So this is my newest personal challenge…. Along-side my very physical Ashtanga Yoga practice, I will be adding a short and sustainable Yoga Nidra practice.

Would you like to join me???

 

New Yoga Nidra (Sleep) Challenge coming up!

In this personal Sleep Quest I am creating a series of Yoga Nidra audio recordings. (Guided by Scott More’s book: Practical Yoga Nidra).

And I’ll be inviting you to join me for this challenge when it’s ready! This will be available by Christmas this year (2023), so that you can either do it over the Christmas holidays or start it in January.

This will be a programme of daily 5-10 minute sessions, for which you just need to lie on the ground or sit on a comfy chair, and listen…. Easy! 😉

Watch this space my friends!

 

The take-away message?

If you’re struggling with sleep – then I FEEL your pain! It’s so awful and annoying and frustrating.

But the good new is… a yoga practice (of any type) might help you!

It can be super physical (like Ashtanga) or much more relaxed, as long as you bring in some mindfulness. This looks like including slow and conscious breathing and bringing your awareness to how your body, energy, emotions and thoughts are feeling in the moment, in an open and curious way.

 

We all deserve restful sleep!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Guerra, P. C., Santaella, D. F., D’Almeida, V., Santos-Silva, R., Tufik, S., & Len, C. A. (2020). Yogic meditation improves objective and subjective sleep quality of healthcare professionals. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 40, 101204.

Morris, B., Jackson, J., & Roberts III, A. (2023). Effects of long-term Ashtanga Yoga practice on psychological well-being. Mental Health and Social Inclusion.

Moszeik, E. N., von Oertzen, T., & Renner, K. H. (2022). Effectiveness of a short Yoga Nidra meditation on stress, sleep, and well-being in a large and diverse sample. Current Psychology, 41(8), 5272-5286.

Street, K. (2020). Effectiveness of Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga: Combating Anxiety, Depression, Stress and Sleep Quality. University of Arkansas.

Wang, W. L., Chen, K. H., Pan, Y. C., Yang, S. N., & Chan, Y. Y. (2020). The effect of yoga on sleep quality and insomnia in women with sleep problems: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC psychiatry, 20, 1-19.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Mindfulness for A Crazy Life

Mindfulness for A Crazy Life

What is Mindfulness? And How can I fit it into my busy life?

 

Do you ever realise you pretty much rushed through every moment of your day?

Or have you been at the end of a car journey, and didn’t really remember the details of driving?

Or do you feel your life is just rushing by?

 

We operate on Auto-pilot

This is because we are often on… auto-pilot! Automatically doing our daily tasks, with our minds already planing the next thing on the to-do list. And in this process, we never TRULY experience and enjoy our present moment!

This is SO normal in our crazy, busy, over-filled lives. So no judgement from me! I’m right there with you!

“I’m just so busy – this is just life for me!” I hear you say.

Well, I will try to convince you that, the busier you are, the MORE you need some mindful (mentally present) moments in your life.

…and you’ll be surprised to hear, that there is a REALISTIC way of getting these moments!

 

What exactly is Mindfulness?

It’s more simple than you might think. Mindfulness originates from Buddhist teachings on meditation, but don’t let that scare you! It’s not really about meditating for hours on end.

Mindfulness is bringing your attention to your senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste and proprioception (feeling your body’s position). Usually one at a time!

For example, you might bring your attention to the feeling of your body, slowly moving from your feet to your head (this is a body scan). You might bring your attention to the sensation of your breath. Or you might focus on particular sights, sounds, tastes or smells in your environment.

This can take anywhere from 10 seconds to ….as long as you want!

Sounds simple – right?

While it’s essentially simple, it’s nevertheless difficult to stop and apply a moment of mindfulness when you’re in a crazy busy time of your life! (I feel your pain!!!)

So…  hearing WHY mindfulness is important might help to increase your motivation to stop and take a mindful moment more regularly.

 

Why is Mindfulness good for me?

Stopping the hamster-wheel in your mind for a moment is SO. GOOD. FOR. YOU!

But I think, intuitively, you already knew that.

When you stop, observe your senses and slow down your breath (aka. have a mindful moment), this slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, lowers your cortisol level (the stress hormone) and basically signals to your body that you are safe!

These are all physical and mental things that we struggle with when we are too busy. So adding in a little mindfulness is ESPECIALLY important for the busiest of us!

Yes – it’s difficult to fit it in, but keep reading! The next section shows that it doesn’t have to take a long time!

A lot of scientific research has praised the benefits of mindfulness, but I want to focus on a lovely systematic review study by Howarth et al. (2019).

This is why…

 

Just 5 to 25 minutes of mindfulness!

Ana Howarth and her team at the University of London reviewed the findings of 84 experimental studies looking at mindfulness. But what’s most interesting is that the vast majority of these experiments only gave ONE single session of mindfulness to their participants (only lasting between 5 and 25 minutes)!

Amazingly, 93% of the experiments resulted in significant positive health effects!

There was a mix of study participants. The majority were ‘general’ healthy people, and 19 studies included specific groups of people with an underlying health issue.

In BOTH groups, a very BRIEF mindfulness session had positive results!

 

Improved memory & lowered stress

The study’s results indicate that including very SHORT mindfulness moment into your life could increase how you enjoy yourself day-to-day AND how productive you are at work!

This is so because mindfulness improved:

  • Memory and attention
  • Cortisol (the stress hormone), negative emotions and overall emotional regulation. Both in a real-life context, and when stress was induced on-purpose in an experiment.
  • Lowered perceptions of pain (when induced by an experiment)
  • Cardiovascular reactivity (which indicates better heart health)
  • Healthier eating or smoking behaviours

 

Reduced pain & lowered blood pressure

And not only did ‘generally-healthy’ people benefit from stress reduction and improved mood, but people with serious health conditions benefitted from a very BRIEF mindfulness experiment.

 

Specifically, the study saw:

  • Lowered blood pressure in hypertensive men with chronic kidney disease
  • Improved body satisfaction in participants with eating disorders
  • Reduced pain-related distress, and lower perceived intensity of pain in patients with chronic or acute pain.
  • Improved brain-function for those with a traumatic brain injury

 

How do I fit Mindfulness into my CRAZY life?!?

I’m sure you appreciate the amazing findings by Ana Howarth and her team at the University of London (2019), but are still thinking:

“That’s great, but I HAVE NOT got time to sit and breathe!”

And I hear you loud and clear.

The beauty of mindfulness is that is doesn’t have to be a proper ‘session’. You can fit it into you life in little ‘snacks’! (Just like how you can exercise by exercise ‘snacking’ – see my blog on this here).

 

Some examples that are EASY to fit in to a crazy busy life:

  • 2 minutes of mindful breathing in your car after you’ve dropped of your child at nursery or school.
  • 3 minutes of mindful breathing as you stand in your garden, letting the winter/summer sun warm up your skin.
  • 2 minutes of mindful breathing as you wait for the kettle to boil in your office kitchenette
  • A 5 minute body scan (maybe listening to an audio guide), just as you come home from a stressful day of work.
  • A 10 minute yoga practice (or a longer one!) where you focus on mindful breathing and feeling the sensations in your body.
  • 1 minute of mindful breathing while you’re in the loo!!!

Do you get the idea? You can do it at ANY time of day, in ANY clothes, in ANY place!

 

The take-away message?

Basically – the busier you are, the more you NEED mindfulness. Or you risk life passing you by like a runaway train. (As well as risking an upward creeping blood pressure and stress level!)

And, thankfully, it is POSSIBLE to add very SHORT mindful moments into your day. This can be as simple as a few slow breaths in your car, stopping to let the sun shine on your face, or a short yoga practice on your kitchen floor.

(Hint hint: I can help you with that short yoga session! I have a bunch of 10, 15 and 20 minute online classes!)

 

To conclude…

I hope that this blog will help you to realise that you deserve those mindful moments.

That taking a moment is SO GOOD for you. And because you’ll be less stressed and more attentive it’s also good for everyone AROUND you!

You deserve this. ❤️

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Howarth, A., Smith, J. G., Perkins-Porras, L., & Ussher, M. (2019). Effects of brief mindfulness-based interventions on health-related outcomes: A systematic review. Mindfulness10(10), 1957-1968.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Why Women Need Muscle

Why Women Need Muscle

What’s the point of getting strong and can yoga get me there?

 

It’s not something that many women aim for… yet it’s something we ALL need and would benefit from so much.

Do you want to feel energetic, confident and make maintaining your weight easier? – then build muscle!

In this mini blog I’ll talk about why building strength is so essential, and how one particular type of yoga helps get you there! Hint…. It’s Ashtanga. 😉

(Ps. If you’re a man reading this – I’m aiming this at the ladies today! But it’s mostly all relevant to you too! It’s just that men don’t need as much convincing to work on strength).

 

Why don’t we do it?

It seems to be a cultural norm that men lift weights and women do cardio and/or ‘stretchy’ yoga. Do you agree?

To some extent this has been changing in the last 10 years, thankfully. There are more and more of us ladies that love Cross Fit and Olympic weight-lifting, and to them I say “you go girl!!!”

But, in my experience, the majority of us women find the weights section in the gym a little intimidating! Or we feel that working on strength will make us too ‘bulky’ or that it is essentially a ‘manly’ thing to do.

 

Well… there are two things I’d like to say to that:

  1. You deserve just as much space in that weights section as ANYONE! (So go use it if you’re curious!)
  2. You can build strength OUTSIDE the gym too! Such as squatting with a kettle-bell, or doing planks at home, ooooor doing some strength-focussed Ashtanga Yoga! More on this later…. 😉

 

Why is muscle beneficial?

Muscles are used for so much more than looking ‘beach ready’!!!

They are important for our health in several ways: 1) Avoiding injury. 2) ‘Soaking up’ blood sugar. 3) Increasing bone strength. 4) Motivating movement in general. 5) Aaaaand increasing confidence as you DO look better with some muscle!

 

1) Avoiding injury.

Strong muscles help your body move efficiently, without over-straining your bones, tendons and ligaments. For example, the stronger your thighs, bum, back and core muscles are, the less likely it is that picking up a child or something heavy from the ground will hurt your back!

 

2) ‘Soaking up’ blood sugar.

Your muscles use blood sugar as a fuel. The bigger your muscles, the more they act as a sponge to soak up sugar when it enters your blood stream after a meal. It’s natural and normal for your blood sugar to rise after eating, but how quickly your body can bring this level back down is a marker of how fit and healthy your body is.

If your muscles don’t absorb this sugar… then your fat cells will. This is also OK and natural! But, I’m sure you’d rather fuel your muscles. 😉

 

3) Increasing bone strength

Bones respond to being used. The saying ‘use it or lose it’ also applies to them! For bone density to remain high, it’s important that we lift heavy things (such as weights or our body as a weight). Working on building muscle therefore helps to keep our bones strong too.

This becomes ESPECIALLY important for us, women, when we pass the beautiful 4-0, as it’s normal for bones to start losing density gradually at this stage. (Unless we lift heavy things!)

 

4) Motivating more movement

When you’re stronger all over, everything in life seems a little easier. So the motivation to jump up and go for a walk or run or swim or dance or…. (fill the black) will be higher!

In this way, having more strength will have a knock-on effect on your cardiovascular AND your mental health as well. Few things are worse for cardiovascular and mental health than a lack of movement and engagement with life.

 

5) Body confidence

Muscle makes you look and feel good. I’m no fan of super restrictive eating or of aiming for a very low body weight. So, please don’t miss-understand my message.

In my opinion, building MUSCLE is the healthiest way of changing the size and shape of your body. And you can do this while still eating enough nutritious food!

Without ‘losing’ weight, this will help your body feel firm and capable. And (through the ‘sugar sponge’ mechanism mentioned above) it may just cause a bit of healthy weight loss (if you need it), without you even trying!

 

How can YOGA help me build muscle?

You’re probably thinking “What’s all this got to do with yoga?” Well, let me explain.

The styles of yoga that I love to practice and teach are Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow yoga. These are strength-building styles which use plank-poses, push-up movements, squats, hand-stands and arm-balances!

It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but for those of you who love getting a sweat on and ‘feeling the burn’ – Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow yoga is for you!

It’s the way I personally stay strong and toned, and keep my body injury free while picking up a heavy toddler all day long!

But I don’t want you to take my word for it… I’ll show you some science to back it up!

 

A little scientific proof…

Ashtanga, as a specific style of yoga, has not been studied by many researchers yet, but studies are fast being published. (This is very exciting for me!)

To date, the largest randomised controlled Ashtanga Yoga intervention was on 34 women aged 35-50 (Kim et al., 2012). Eighteen were assigned to the ‘control’ group and 16 to the Ashtanga exercise group. Those in the latter group attended 8 months of Astanga yoga twice a week, with each session lasting around 1 hour.

The researchers observed many different health and fitness aspects and whether they would change after the 8 month intervention. However, the one measurement I will focus on today is leg strength.

This increased significantly in the Ashtanga Yoga group compared with the control group!

(For outcomes on Bone Density, have a look at my blog on this: “Yoga Science: Bone Density” )

 

What about upper-body strength?

I find this finding especially significant because Ashtanga Yoga doesn’t actually focus that much on the legs!!

I have been practicing this style regularly for 5 years now, and from my experience, I can say that it strengthens the arms, core and back more than the legs. (I always add EXTRA squats to the traditional sequence of poses!)

The study by Kim et al. (2012) didn’t measure upper-body, core or back strength. However, if they found an increase in leg strength after Ashtanga yoga, then it’s very likely they would have found an even bigger increase in upper-body, core and back strength!

Upper-body strength is also something that women in particular don’t focus on as much as men. I think there might be a lot of limiting beliefs that we hold, which go something like this:

“I can’t do push-ups” or “I have weak wrists” or “I’m just not strong”

And unfortunately, these things will become true if we don’t do the work to strengthen these areas! (Which is the chicken, and which is the egg?)

 

The take-away message?

I’m not being disparaging to women!

I just believe that the vast majority of us CAN (and deserve to) be strong and confident in our bodies. However, many of us are stopped by cultural ideas of what’s a ‘feminine’ form of exercise. Or we are stopped by internalised ideas that we are not ABLE to be strong!

I wish to motivate more of us to lift up a heavy kettle-bell, do some push-ups or some strength-based yoga!

It’s not only about how you look (though it does help!) – but very much about how you FEEL: confident, strong and capable!

Yoga homework

Let’s do a strength-based yoga session this week!

If you are a member of my BendyLife community, go along to the orange strength theme and pick any class.

It could be 15 minutes 30 minutes or 1 hour!


Planning it in

Then, going forwards, plan in at least ONE strengthening activity each week. This could be strength-yoga or a short session of lifting something heavy!


And if you need a little help getting started with Ashtanga yoga, go along an have a look at my classes… 😉

You deserve to feel strong!

Learn more about BendyLife yoga...

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Kim, S., Bemben, M. G., & Bemben, D. A. (2012). Effects of an 8-month yoga intervention on arterial compliance and muscle strength in premenopausal women. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 11(2), 322.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


Yoga to reduce the Neck Hump!

Let’s Talk About Posture! (part 3)

The Neck-Hump!

 

Do you catch yourself looking at your phone with your head flopped forwards?

This is Forward Head Posture! Or more colloquially called a ‘Neck-Hump’ or ‘Hump-Back’ posture or ‘Dowager’s Hump’.

To really feel what this is, go ahead and let your chin slide forwards. If you put your hand on the back of your neck you’ll feel that this really exaggerates the lump at the top of your spine.

 

Not just about good looks…

Now, this is not only just an aesthetic concern (ps. I think the desire to look good is TOTALLY valid too!)

But with years and years of forward head posture, you’ll actually change the position of your spine and this will become a permanent position, not just a lazy one!

So, what can we do???

 

Why is Forward Head Posture everywhere?

There are several reasons why most of us develop a forward head posture these days.

Basically, we are always looking at something small in front of us!

We look at our phones for 10,000 hours a day… we look at our monitors or laptops at work all day, at night we read books/kindles (don’t get me wrong, I love a book!)

But all this makes us slide our head forwards to get a little bit closer to the tiny words on the screens!

As hunter-gatherers we were really designed to look up into the middle or far distance more often.

So, NO judgement! I do it. You do it. We all do it.

But what can we DO about it?

 

Does exercise help Forward Head Posture?

Well, thankfully, there’s plenty of research out there showing that corrective back and neck exercises help!

Let’s start with a systematic review that selected seven of the highest quality studies (out of 47 potentials) (Sheikhosseini et al. 2018).

These researchers pooled the data on all 627 participants across the studies, and tested whether corrective exercise made a difference on forward head posture (or as they call it: craniovertebral angle).

They found that yes, indeed, there is strong evidence that corrective exercise is effective for improving forward head posture! Woohooo!

Systematic reviews are the most robust type of evidence there is, however it doesn’t give us those nitty gritty details of exactly WHAT the studies DID…

 

Let’s look at WHICH exercises!

So let’s look at one study on forward head posture a little more closely.

Harman et al. (2005) recruited 40 men and women between 20 and 50 years of age, who all had at least 5 cm of forward head posture (assessed with a photograph).

Twenty-three participants were assigned a 10-week exercise programme, with instructions to do the following on 4 days a week:

  1. Chin tucks lying front-down, and lifting the head
  2. Chin drop while sitting
  3. Shoulder retraction using an elastic band (think: shoulders back)
  4. Chest stretches (the pec muscles)

The remaining 17 participants were in a control group that did nothing different form their everyday lives.

 

So, what happened?

At the end of the intervention the researchers found several interesting results.

The neck range-of-motion of the exercise group participants had improved. The authors suggested that the chin drop and tuck exercises were most likely responsible.

The exercise group also stood a little more upright at the end of the intervention, compared with the controls. The researchers called this the ‘shoulder-to-pelvis’ angle. They credited the pec stretches and shoulder retraction exercises for this change.

 

The power of awareness

Now, a funny thing happened with the results of the forward head posture! Both the exercise group and and control group improved!!

The researchers were cautiously confident that the exercise programme had helped the intervention group improve their forward head posture. So, why did the control group improve as well??

They thought that the control group had become more aware of how they were standing simply by being part of a study that was measuring posture.

They concluded that this was a positive finding. It shows that not only is exercise beneficial for forward head posture, but an educational or awareness programme on how to hold ones head in daily life could potentially make worthwhile differences in neck posture as well!

 

Yoga for the Neck-Hump!

Corrective back and neck exercises can be done in many ways. One of these ways is…. yoga!

(Then you also get some lovely additional relaxation and mindful benefits!)

Personally, yoga plays a huge role in how I work on my posture. It’s my main form of ‘conscious exercise’.

From my years of practicing and teaching yoga, these are a few posture tips and poses I find most useful:

  • Double chin! When standing or sitting, give yourself a beautiful double chin by pressing the chin back just a little. This counter-acts forward head posture.
  • Locust pose: This is basically the 1 pose for posture! Lie down on your front, hands palms-up next to your hips, and lift your upper body and legs at the same time. Look down your nose (double-chin!) This is great for strengthening the upper back and neck.
  • Relaxed chest and shoulder stretch: Lie down with your shoulder blades on a yoga block, placing your hands, palms-up next to your head, elbows at 90 degrees. And relax! This is wonderful for counteracting day of forwards computer slumping.

There you are! Just a few tips for a very simple home-based yoga routine, that could improve or avoid a Neck-Hump.

If you’re thinking “That’s interesting, but I don’t know where to start!”

Then read on…

 

Want some help?

Do you want to see if you can improve your posture with yoga? Well, I have something exciting coming up!

In September I will be launching a 28-day challenge called the Posture Doctor Challenge!

This will involve a daily 15-minute class. That’s achievable – right?

Watch this space for the up-coming challenge!

Up for the Challenge?

Would you like to be updated when this challenge is available?

Then please put enter your email address below.

* indicates required

Want to read more about posture?

This mini blog is the third in a 3-part blog series. Why not take a moment to read the other two?

Part 1 went into detail about shoulder flexibility and Part 2 talked about back strength for posture.

Enjoy your reading!

Love,

Jolanthe x


References

Harman, K., Hubley-Kozey, C. L., & Butler, H. (2005). Effectiveness of an exercise program to improve forward head posture in normal adults: a randomized, controlled 10-week trial. Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy, 13(3), 163-176.

Sheikhhoseini, R., Shahrbanian, S., Sayyadi, P., & O’Sullivan, K. (2018). Effectiveness of therapeutic exercise on forward head posture: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of manipulative and physiological therapeutics, 41(6), 530-539.


Yoga for good Back Posture

Let’s Talk About Posture! (part 2)

How can we strengthen our back?

 

A strong back is a key component to tall and beautiful posture. 

Your back is a beautifully complex structure of nerves, bones, cartilage, tendons and muscles.

It’s easy to take it for granted! After all, we use it automatically in every single thing we do. So there’s no need to actively think about it.

However, in this mini blog I will present some thoughts and evidence to show that we can do a little more these days to really look after our back and keep it strong.

This will be relevant to you especially if you have a job where you sit down a lot!

 

What does the back do for posture?

Your back is supported by muscles. These help hold the body upright and allow the trunk of the body to move, twist and bend in many directions.

Some of these muscles, called the back extensor muscles, are attached to back of the spine and enable actions like standing and lifting objects. These muscles include the large paired muscles in the lower back, called Erector Spinae.

The Erector Spinae helps hold up the spine for beautiful upright posture!

 

Why does our back get weaker?

If we’d live like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we’d always have a super strong and upright back. No questions asked!

Walking a lot, picking up heavy things, squatting, sitting on the floor without a back-rest are all movements that our bodies are designed to do and that keep the Erector Spinae muscles engaged.

We did these every day and most of the day, before office chairs and sofas were invented…

 

Is your office job weakening your back?

We all know that muscles get bigger and stronger when you use them. And, vice-versa, it is the same! They will start to weaken when there are long periods of disuse.

So just think about the position your back is in most of the day at work. Are you reclining onto a chair? And are you then you’re sitting in the car, reclining? And then when you come home, do you spend a few hours reclined on the sofa?

(No judgement from me, I’m sitting on an office chair while I’m writing this! And as I wrote this last sentence I found myself sitting up taller, away from the backrest!)

Yes, I know, we have to work. And for the vast majority of us we can’t avoid computer work!

But there are a few things we can do to counter-act this effect.

 

What does the research say?

I looked at what’s available on Google Scholar, and found many studies showing the benefits of exercise and yoga for improving low back pain (Anheyer et al., 2022; Owen et al., 2020).

That’s great! It partly shows us that these exercise modalities can help strengthen the back.

However, low back-pain is a much more complicated phenomenon than back strength alone, as it includes tightness in other muscles and psychological factors as well.

I was interested to find studies measuring actual back strength!

And I found one study of 193 office workers that did measure back strength, along with a host of other measurements (Genin et al., 2018).

When comparing those who regularly took part in the office exercise programme (2-3 times a week), to those who did not, the active group had statistically significantly higher back strength.

So the active office workers had managed to maintain a stronger back, despite their sedentary job, by regularly doing exercise 2-3 times a week.

 

Three yoga poses for a strong back!

Now, you know I am a big fan of yoga!

Personally, I have needed to keep my back super strong over the last two years to survive the physical demands of having a baby (now toddler)!

Picking up a young child from the floor and lowering them into a cot are very demanding for the back!

My strategy for surviving this time injury-free, was to really focus on back strength in my yoga practice. And I am happy to say, that it worked!

Some of my favourite poses for improving back strength are:

  • Locust Pose: Lying face down, lifting your upper back and legs from the ground just a little.
  • Side Plank: One hand (or elbow) on the ground, reaching high with the other arm. Side edges of the feed on the ground.
  • Upright big-toe hold: Standing up tall holding one foot up in front of you, maybe with the leg straight or knee bent, working on keeping the back straight.

You don’t even have to have a super long session to get the benefits of these poses.

A 10-15 minute routine that includes these poses would be beneficial for back strength, if done frequently.

If you’re thinking “That’s interesting, but I don’t know where to start!”

Then read on…

 

Want some help?

Do you want to see if you can strengthen your back with yoga? Well, I have something exciting coming up!

In September I will be launching a 28-day challenge to help improve posture!

This will involve a daily 15-minute class. That’s achievable – right?

Watch this space for the up-coming challenge!

Up for the Challenge?

Would you like to be updated when this challenge is available?

Then please put enter your email address below.

* indicates required

Want to read more about posture?

This mini blog is the third in a 3-part blog series. Why not take a moment to read the other two?

Part 1 went into detail about shoulder flexibility and Part 3 talks about how to reduce or avoid the ‘Neck-Hump’!

Enjoy your reading!

Love,

Jolanthe x


References

Anheyer, D., Haller, H., Lauche, R., Dobos, G., & Cramer, H. (2022). Yoga for treating low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain, 163(4), e504-e517.

Genin, P. M., Dessenne, P., Finaud, J., Pereira, B., Dutheil, F., Thivel, D., & Duclos, M. (2018). Effect of work-related sedentary time on overall health profile in active vs. inactive office workers. Frontiers in public health, 6, 279.

Owen, P. J., Miller, C. T., Mundell, N. L., Verswijveren, S. J., Tagliaferri, S. D., Brisby, H., … & Belavy, D. L. (2020). Which specific modes of exercise training are most effective for treating low back pain? Network meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine, 54(21), 1279-1287.


Yoga for Shoulder Posture

Let’s Talk About Posture! (part 1)

What can we do for the shoulders?

 

I’d like to take you back to a memory…

I remember very clearly a moment when I was sitting at a wedding, years ago. I saw these cute young flower girls walking down the aisle in front of the bride with their naturally super-upright posture.

Out of nowhere my mind started thinking about how my posture had deteriorated over the last few years.

When I was a young girl and teenager I had always done ballet and figure skating, and liked to believe these things kept my posture pretty upright.

However, sitting there, I suddenly became aware that for years I hadn’t done much else besides sit and work in front of a computer screen… And it hadn’t done my neck and shoulders any favours!

I’m recounting this story because I think it’s relevant to almost all adults.

We all have jobs and, for a lot of us, this requires A LOT of screen time!

So, do you ever lament the loss of the naturally tall posture you had as a child?

 

What I’ll be writing about…

I thought it was about time to explore the topic of posture and how it relates to the practice of yoga!

Finding yoga while I was neck-deep in PhD work at the University of Bath REALLY helped me bring some focus back to maintaining a healthy body.

So, in this three-part blog series I will cover some of the things I have learned about movement and posture:

Part 1. What we can do for the shoulders?

Part 2. What we can do for the back?

Part. 3. What we can do for the hips?

Sit back, and enjoy!

 

Why do our shoulders round forwards?

Everyone does have a slightly unique bone structure and tendency for how they hold their body.

So some people just naturally have a more rounded upper back and shoulders than others.

However… Our lifestyle and what we choose to do with our bodies does play a huge role in shoulder posture.

So what are the lifestyle reasons that shoulders might roll forwards?

From my understanding of anatomy and experiences in practicing and teaching exercise and yoga, these are some influences on rounded shoulders:

 

Desk work

You guessed it. I think this might be the number one culprit, in terms of number of people affected by it! When we type on a key board, we sit for long lengths of time with our Pectoralis muscles (especially the Pec Minor) in a shortened position. This will start to pull the shoulder forwards.

Staring at your laptop screen for hours also lets the muscles in the upper back get a little lazy, as they don’t get any exercise. These are meant to help keep the upper back upright and shoulders back as we walk around (which we used to do much more as hunter-gatherers).

 

Caring work

Anyone in a caring, person-centred job will also experience the same shoulder rounding effect, that others get from desk work. For example a GP, nurse or therapist will often hold a forward-rounded posture towards the patient to show that they are listening to their medical issues.

 

Sports

Tennis, cycling and swimming are sports that will strengthen (but shorten) the Pectoralis muscles. I’m not saying that these sports are bad! They are great for your health.

However, if a sport focuses a lot on one particular muscle group, then it is important to do the necessary complementary stretching and strengthening to keep the body in balance.

Can you think of some other sport examples?

 

Holding babies & children

This is a new area that I’ve learned A LOT about in the last year and a half. Before becoming a mum I didn’t fully grasp the physical effect that caring for a child around the clock can have on your body.

Now I know that breastfeeding, bottle feeding, rocking to sleep and pram pushing (as well as MANY other tasks) are ALL rounded shoulder activities. If mums and dads don’t consciously stretch the other way, then they will see some rounded shoulder effects appear over time.

 

What can we do about it?

That’s enough doom and gloom!

The good news is that we CAN do something about it! And this involves strengthening the postural muscles along the back and stretching the shoulder muscles, especially the Pecs!

I found an interesting research study that asked 40 women to do just that for 6 weeks (Hajihosseini et al., 2014).

These women, aged 20-25 years, all had rounded shoulders of more that 52 degrees. They were randomly divided into 4 groups:

  1. Control group (given no exercises)
  2. Strength exercises
  3. Stretching
  4. Strength exercises + stretching

After a 6 week programme of doing the assigned exercises 3 times a week, the researchers saw some interesting results.

Each group with some form of exercise improved shoulder rounding positions significantly compared with the control group. What’s more, the strength+stretching exercise group seemed the improve more than strength and stretching alone.

This difference wasn’t statistically significant, however it was a study with small numbers, which reduced the ability to detect statistically significant differences.

So, it was clear that either or both stretching and strengthening of the back and shoulders was beneficial for improving posture of the shoulders in these participants.

 

What can yoga do?

It’s not a far stretch of the imagination that yoga can tick the boxes of stretching and strengthening of the shoulders!

The stretching side of yoga has got a little more attention in the media generally, but I personally LOVE the ability of some yoga poses to increase core, back and shoulder strength.

Poses such as Sphinx pose and Locust pose are great in increasing upper back strength. These are poses I try to do daily to counter-act my desk work and child-carrying hours.

Reclining with your upper back on one or two yoga blocks, with the arms out to the side, is a wonderful stretch for the pecs. This is something I reeeeaally needed during my academic days at university.

Holding a half-Lotus twist (with one arm behind the back, grabbing the opposite thigh or foot) is also a brilliant shoulder opening stretch.

While these specific poses are great for opening the shoulders, attending ANY yoga will also help. Regardless of what the yoga class contains, reducing the level of stress and tension in the body will help to soften and open your shoulders as well.

So, don’t sweat about the small print! Just do some yoga. 😉

 

Heart opening

According to yogic philosophy, any chest stretching poses also have the benefit of opening the ‘heart chakra’.

I am not well versed in this area of philosophy, however I find it interesting.

If you find it difficult to ‘go for it’, to give fully to others, to express emotions or if you feel withdrawn emotionally, then you MAY benefit from some ‘heart-opening’ stretches.

I am one of these people!!

Before finding yoga, my shoulders and chest were always really in-flexible. This is where I have done the most work in my yoga practice. It may perhaps have helped me become more open emotionally to others as well…?

I invite you to keep an open mind!

 

Want some help?

In September I will be launching a specific 28-day yoga challenge to help improve posture!

This will involve a daily 15-minute class.

Watch this space for the up-coming challenge!

Up for the Challenge?

Would you like to be updated when this challenge is available?

Then please put enter your email address below.

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Want to read more about posture?

This mini blog is the third in a 3-part blog series. Why not take a moment to read the other two?

In Part 2 go into detail about back strength for posture and in Part 3 I talk about how we can avoid or correct the ‘Neck-Hump’!

Enjoy your reading!

Love,

Jolanthe x


Reference

Hajihosseini, E., Norasteh, A., Shamsi, A., & Daneshmandi, H. (2014). The effects of strengthening, stretching and comprehensive exercises on forward shoulder posture correction. Physical Treatments-Specific Physical Therapy Journal4(3), 123-132.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x


The Power of Self-Compassion

The Power of Self-Compassion

You don’t have to be your biggest critic…

 

When you make a mistake, have a rough day or have an emotional meltdown…. what do you do?

If you’re anything like me, you might ruminate on the things that have happened, and wish you’d done a whole bunch of things differently!

It can leave you feeling self-critical and down.

I know the feeling!!

But what if you could be kinder to yourself, more compassionate. Just as you would be for a close friend or loved one?

As it happens there’s a WHOLE research field dedicated to self-compassion. And it’s fascinating!

In this mini blog I’ll reveal how self-criticism has affected me personally when I was teetering on the edge of post-natal depression.

I’ll also (very briefly) summarise what the research has to say about self-compassion, based on the fantastic review by Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the world of self-compassion (Neff, 2023).

 

My personal story…

The most recent time that self-criticism (dare I say self-hate) has affected me was about 8 months ago. I was super exhausted and had almost no time to spend on my own health, passions and business, because I’m a mum to a little (lovely) human.

(This is the perfect storm that often leads to postnatal depression for many, many mums and some dads).

Due to my general state of frustration and tiredness I was very quick to snap at my husband, and would often start and perpetuate arguments. I could see that the way I was acting was reactive, unkind and unfair, and I started hating myself for it.

 

Negative spiral

This became a negative spiral, that led to more frustration and more self-criticism and more snappy arguments, dragging me lower and lower.

So….. why am I revealing the less-than-glamorous bit about my life?

Well, practicing more self-compassion could have REALLY helped me here.

I could have had self-compassion for my low-mood and snappy reactions to my poor husband. I WAS going through a super challenging time after all!

I now understand that self-compassion would have stopped the negative cycle of self-hatred that was pulling me down.

Does this sounds like anything you’ve experienced?

 

What is self-compassion?

Kristin Neff is a leading researcher in the field of self-compassion psychology. This is how she defines self-compassion:

“Self-compassion is a way of relating to the ever-changing experience of who we are with kindness and acceptance, especially when we fail or feel inadequate.

Self-compassion does not require feeling better than anyone else, it simply requires acknowledging the shared and imperfect human condition.” (Neff, 2023, p. 201)

I love her words, as she gives us permission to be imperfect and to care for ourselves unconditionally anyway!

 

Three magic ingredients…

Kristin Neff has conceptualised three important components of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness vs. self-judgement. Taking a benevolent and supportive attitude to our shortcomings, rather than condemning ourselves coldly. Acknowledging our shortcomings while caring for ourselves regardless.
  2. Appreciating a common humanity. Recognising that life challenges are part of being human, an experience we all share.
  3. Mindfulness vs. over-identification. Being willing to turn toward, feel and acknowledge our own pain. Yet, not to over-identify with it. Observe it as a temporary state that will pass, rather than something we “are”.

(All of these, especially 1. and 3. are remarkably similar to a mindful yoga practice!! …more on this later.)

 

Why be self-compassionate?

“What is the point of all this?” You may ask…

Well, there are over 4,000 scientific journal articles documenting the positive effects of self-compassion on wellbeing! (Neff, 2023)

I want to keep this blog brief, so I’ll just make a short (and very incomplete list) for you. Self-compassion has been linked (scientifically) with…

Reduced:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Suicidal ideation and self-harm
  • PTSD
  • Eating disorders
  • Body image concerns
  • Shame

And increased:

  • Happiness
  • Satisfaction with life
  • Hope
  • Gratitude
  • Curiosity
  • Vitality

These outcomes were found in a large range of studies using cross-sectional, longitudinal (surveys across time) and experimental methods. If you want to dive into this research yourself have a look at Kristin Neff’s excellent review here (Neff, 2023).

It’s an amazing list of mental health benefits from something that is essentially quite a simple mindset shift!

 

But isn’t it narcissistic?

Perhaps you’re thinking that being kinder to yourself and ‘loving yourself’ unconditionally might sound like a soft option or somewhat narcissistic. But that is a common misconception!

To change your mind, it helps to know the difference between self-compassion and having high self-esteem.

Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of your self-worth based on how you perform in daily life and how you compare with others. High self-esteem, while being good for mental health, HAS been linked with narcissism (Crocker and Park, 2004).

Whereas self-COMPASSION does not rely on judgments or evaluations of your performance. Instead, self-compassion is a way of caring for, and accepting, ourselves especially when we fail or feel inadequate.

Self-compassion does not require feeling better than anyone else, it simply requires acknowledging the shared and imperfect human condition.

 

What’s it got to do with yoga?

Apart from stretching, yoga actually works on changing how someone relates to their own body and mind.

Have you ever attended a yoga class that made a real psychological difference? (You felt happier, lighter or more hopeful afterwards?) The teacher was probably using mindfulness theming…

In the most satisfying yoga classes, a teacher invites the student work on their mindset / mind-body-connection throughout the breath and movements.

Some common themes I always find running through my classes are:

  • To observe everything going on in the body and mind, without judgement.
  • To be kind to, and grateful for the body.
  • To notice any uncomfortable sensations and thoughts, and realise that they are just that, sensations and thoughts. That they do not define your inner self.
  • Not to focus on ‘achieving’ a pose, but to accept where you are.

 

Yoga is self-compassion

After reading Kristin Neff’s three components of self-compassion, I realised that a mindful yoga practice has A LOT in common with them!

Especially with point (1) Self-kindness vs. self-Judgement, and point (3) Mindfulness vs. over-identification.

So, practicing yoga in a mindful way, while fostering a non-judgemental and accepting attitude towards the body and mind, is an act of self-compassion.

I make that yet another string to yoga’s bow!

Homework

I invite you to have a look at my latest on-demand yoga class called:

Flexibility Flow

In this class I use the theme of self-compassion as I guide you through poses to stretch the hamstrings, shoulders and hips.

It’s just 30 minutes!

 

(If you’re not yet a BendyFriend, have a look at my offerings.)

Learn more!

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in comments below!

Jolanthe x


References

Crocker J, Park LE. 2004. The costly pursuit of self-esteem. Psychol. Bull. 130:392–414

Neff, K.D., 2023. Self-compassion: Theory, method, research, and intervention. Annual review of psychology, 74, pp.193-218.

Strength, Posture & Mindfulness

I’ll help you gain body confidence and contentment

with short, easy-to-follow yoga classes from your LIVING ROOM!

On-demand and LIVE

Check out what I offer!

I’m a Small Business

Give yourself the gift of self-care for a super affordable price, while supporting an independent, small business!

I enjoy getting to know each and every new yoga student – so can’t wait to meet you!

Love, Jolanthe x