Blink! 3 Yoga Exercises for Eye Health

It’s hot! As the summer heat rises in Southern California, the air becomes dry, humidity plummets and our sinuses respond. Sore throats and dry, red, itchy eyes abound.

The mucous membrane lining your respiratory tract is a natural barrier to the outside environment. When this membrane gets dried out from a lack of humidity, eyes get sore and tired and your ability to fight a cold virus is diminished.

According to Dr. Robert Ivker, family physician and former president of the American Holistic Medical Association, the optimum humidity levels for sinus health are between 35-45%. As I write this, the recorded humidity for today in Simi Valley is 32%, which would be considered low for summer.

Using a computer in an air-conditioned environment in the summer compounds the problem, as blink rates slow when we focus on a screen. When you blink, you not only give the eye a brief rest, you also coat it with fresh moisture.

Try these yoga eye exercises to relieve dryness and soreness: 

  • Close your eyes and keeping your head still, make slow circles with your eyes, clockwise and counterclockwise.
  • Keeping your head still, but this time with the eyes open, slowly explore your periphery. Look as far left as you can, as far right, as far above you and as far below you as you can.
  • Lightly moisten your palms, then rub your hands together vigorously. When your hands are warm, cup them over your eyes. Don’t press on the eye, just let the moisture and warmth provide rest.

During this heat wave, be sure to drink plenty of water. If you are trapped in an office, rest your eyes frequently by looking away from the screen and focusing on a distant object. And don’t forget to blink!

 

Image credit: Ballookey Klugeypop via Flickr (CC)

The Goat and the Monkey

We all love a good story. From the very beginning of language, we have used storytelling to excite, entertain and explain our developing world.

This story is based on a discourse from Maharaj Sawan Singh (1858-1948). Originally a simple tale, I have colored it to meet our western needs and told it in my own voice. It reveals how the mind is often the culprit in our delusion and incorrect perception.

Once upon a yogi time, a woman owned a pet monkey and a goat. She kept both tethered under a tree by her house. One day she was making an elaborate meal for a family celebration. Delicious aromas emanated from the house as dish after dish accumulated on the window sill to cool.

The goat paid no attention to all the activity and nibbled at some small patches of grass at the base of the tree. The monkey watched the woman’s labors with interest and sniffed the air approvingly.

Soon the woman had run out of ingredients, so she grabbed her shopping basket and left the house to buy more. The monkey watched the woman disappear, released his tether, climbed the tree, jumped onto the window sill and ate all the food. He then returned to his usual place under the tree, set the goat free and tied himself up again.

When the woman returned, the first thing she saw was the goat wandering in the yard. The next thing she saw was that all the food was gone from the window sill. Then she saw the monkey still sitting in his place under the tree. She picked up a stick and started to chase the goat.

Just then a wise man happened by. “Good woman, why are you chasing that goat?” he asked.

“He has eaten my day’s labors, and now I have nothing to serve my family for dinner,” she lamented.

The man laughed and pointed to the fat-bellied monkey under the tree. “Then serve the monkey, for he is well-stuffed with sweet meats.” The monkey swiftly untied his rope and climbed to the highest branches of the tree.

Shading his eyes from the afternoon sun, the wise man watched the monkey climb. “See how the monkey is just like the mind,” he said. “A master of scheming, condemnation and avoidance.”

Can you observe your monkey mind today and catch the trickster in the act of incorrect perception? 

 

Image credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr (CC)

The Sane Asylum

I’m a busy lady, and never more so than since we opened Yoga Nook @ Fifth and started this year’s yoga teacher training. Sometimes I feel the weight of the work on my shoulders. The buck stops with me, and the responsibility for bills, taxes and employees can be heavy.

But I’m lucky — I have a place to escape to, and when I feel stressed I can make a cup of tea and imagine for a moment that I’m up in the mountains in our quiet house with just the sound of crackling fire and the tick of the living room clock. I see myself curled up with a book in the cozy, fireside chairs, a snow storm raging outside.

It’s hard to find time for ourselves. There are so many things clamoring for our attention: kids, work, spouse, family. The days seem jammed with work, chores and responsibilities, and in the evenings we’re so tired that frequently all we can manage is a few hours stuck in front of a TV screen.

What we all need is space, a place we can call our own. A space where we can post a “do not disturb” sign and stop the frenetic wailing of the world.

But where? Perhaps you have the luxury of a spare bedroom that could be converted from a junk catch-all to a safe haven. Maybe you could find a corner of the garden that’s secluded, or a patio area that could be dressed up.

One of my girlfriends invested in a small garden shed, added French windows and made a summer house for getting away from it all. You needn’t be as extravagant as that (though it was a blissful space) — it could simply be a corner of your bedroom.

Fill it with art and books, and surround yourself with the things that give you pleasure. Perhaps a comfortable armchair for reading or meditation, or some space for your yoga mat or a rug to stretch out on. Get a small fountain so you can enjoy the sound of water, light a few candles and include some plants if you have a green thumb.

Aim to spend some time in your “Sane Asylum” every day, reading or writing, meditating or just musing. Set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and take a vacation.

A sacred space inspires creativity, promotes relaxation and gives us room to unwind. Once your family gets the idea that you are meeting a personal need with a time-out, and that you are withdrawing in order to be more present when they need you, they’ll start to respect your space.

When we nurture ourselves, we are able to give more freely to those around us. Invest in yourself — you are worth it.

 

Image credit: Lorianne DiSabato via Flickr (CC)

Beginner’s Mind

I hope you all had an enjoyable holiday season and good times with your family and friends as you celebrated the end of 2015 and the beginning of the New Year.

I always look forward to these first few weeks in January. It’s like starting a new page in a fresh notebook or diary. We have no idea what adventures, joys or challenges the New Year will bring. There’s a certain sense of anticipation in the air, mixed with a little dread (tax season approaches!) — but overall there’s an impulse to move on, get ahead, start something new.

At the Nook, new students will be walking through the front door. They are immediately obvious, as they’re usually standing around in the vestibule with a deer-in-the-headlights look on their face. They may feel vulnerable, as if it’s the first day at school. They don’t know if they’ll like the class or understand what to do, and most of all they are afraid of failing.

Many of these new students will be taking their very first yoga class and are anticipating an experience based on impressions from media or celebrities. Often they are surprised by the amount of movement their body is capable of and the support that teachers and other students give them.

They don’t yet know it, but they’ve just walked into a yoga community, an extended family of people with like minds who are all experiencing the same adventures, joys and challenges.

You have walked in their shoes; you understand their concerns and fears. A friendly word or helping hand can dissuade their anxiety. As dread and doubt melt away, they can relax in the comfort of knowing themselves on a deeper level.

Gradually teachers and fellow students will become familiar to them, and soon it will be hard to imagine class without their mat next to yours. Indeed, there’s a new and unexpected satisfaction in watching someone try, achieve and grow.

Through that observation, you have an opportunity to remember what it’s like to have beginner’s mind, revisit your own experience and explore anew. Look for someone you can help in the coming weeks, and let’s welcome one and all to our warm and friendly space.

Do you remember your first class? Share your experience with us in the comments. 

 

Image credit: Antanas Kaziliunas via Flickr (CC)

The Season of Gluttony

I’m currently in England, and the fall colors are spectacular against the dirty grey sky, heavy with imminent rain. Giant old-growth oaks, sycamores and horse chestnut trees have turned brilliant shades of gold, yellow and bronze. Their leaves fall like confetti as I drive under their long limbs stretching across the road.

These damp, dreary days are blessedly short — already one hour less daylight than in California. I’m struck by the tendency for people to stay inside, lounge around and eat.

To be sure, we are hard-wired to eat more as winter approaches. Shorter days and cooler temperatures trigger primal rhythms and, like all mammals, we respond by loading on extra pounds for the long, harsh winter.

Luckily, our frontal lobes set us apart from lesser apes and mammals. It’s here where we recognize the future consequences of current behaviors. In the season of gluttony, however, as celebrations of the year’s harvest and traditional holidays approach, we tend to ignore the impact and indulge. We reassure ourselves that, come the New Year, we will go on a diet.

But have you ever considered that the extra calories are not just causing your waistline to expand, but also changing your brain?

Many processed foods, including shelf-stable baked goods and fried foods, contain partially hydrogenated oils. The chemical process of hydrogenation changes the shape of the fatty-acid molecules in oil, producing trans fats. Unlike healthful fatty acids, these molecule meanies alter the stability of brain cell membranes, resulting in cellular degeneration.

In addition, foods with high sugar content cause the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, in the brain. But the more sugar we eat, the less dopamine we create – so we eat more to get the same feel-good effect.

But wait – it’s not all bad news.

We can learn to eat more healthfully, and as we continue to affirm healthy choices, we lose the craving for fatty, high-sugar foods. With awareness and a little moderation, we can navigate this season of plenty without any long-term damage to our brain or waistline.

When faced with a buffet fit to burst with enticing treats, engage your frontal lobe:

  • Choose foods such as chicken and fish, which are both a good source of protein and relatively low in fat.
  • Avoid deep-fried anything.
  • Decide on one small portion of a delectable desert only after you have eaten some vegetables.
  • Don’t stand near the buffet table. Make a plate that is 50% vegetables, move away and don’t return for more.
  • Variety, moderation and awareness while eating will keep you functioning in the higher regions of your brain.

As for me, I’m going outside for a walk on a deep carpet of fallen leaves – even if my family does think I’m crazy.

 

Related articles:
Culinary Zen
Food for Thought

Image credit: Jake Vince via Flickr (CC) 

Sleep Better Tonight: 7 Ways to Wake Refreshed

It’s 2:30 a.m. It’s hot, and the whirling of the ceiling fan is causing the window blinds to click erratically against the glass. I lie in bed and wait for the next click.

My mind is racing — I’m thinking of all the things I have to get done in the morning. Click. Then I think of all the things I should have said. Click. Then I think of all the things I shouldn’t have said. Click.

How did you sleep last night? Did you wake up before the alarm clock, feeling refreshed? Or did you hit the snooze button?

Tiredness as a result of poor sleep habits is commonplace in our frenetic world. As a nation, we average one and a half hours less sleep per night than we did 100 years ago. One in 10 people suffers from long-standing sleep problems. The image of the office worker falling asleep with their head on the keyboard is less cliché and more archetypal.

Doctors define insomnia as dissatisfaction with the “quality, quantity or timing of sleep” for a period of one month or longer. Once a poor sleep habit has been established, it can be hard to break — but just putting up with it may not be the answer either.

People who consistently sleep less than six or seven hours a night are more likely to develop heart, lung or kidney disease. The immune system is often affected, making them more likely to catch a cold or become infected with the flu. Long-term insomniacs are 40 times more likely than a normal sleeper to develop clinical depression.

sleep infographic
Click to enlarge

How Much Is Enough? 

The average human needs seven to eight hours of sleep during a 24-hour period. However, some minds and bodies thrive on as little as five hours of sleep with no obvious side effects. The real question should be, “How do you feel when you get up in the morning: refreshed or tired?” If your answer is “tired,” then your sleep may not be deep enough or long enough.

7 Ways to Improve Your Sleep

We usually don’t think much about preparing for sleep; most of us just go to bed when we feel sufficiently tired. If you’re not getting enough sleep or the quality of your sleep is poor, setting up a new routine before you go to bed can help:

        1. Stop watching television or reading work-related documents about one hour before you go to bed.
        2. Avoid drinking caffeine, alcohol or sugary juices at night, as these stimulate the brain and digestive system.
        3. Stick to lighter meals in the evening. Eating big meals or meat and dairy, which are hard to digest, can also affect the quality of your sleep.
        4. Take time for an herb-infused shower or bath in preparation for sleep.
        5. Sprinkle your pillow with a few drops of lavender oil to help you relax.
        6. Make sure the room is dark, cool and quiet.
        7. Get up and do something to stop the blinds from clicking against the window! 😉

Do you have a pre-bedtime routine? What helps you sleep better? Feel free to share in the comments below. 

 

Image credit: masha krasnova-shabaeva via Flickr (CC)

Loving Your Yoga Mat

Recently, during a break in a teacher training weekend, a group of us sat in the Yoga Nook garden, sipping our coffee and enjoying the early morning sun. One of the participants stretched out on her mat.

“That looks comfortable,” I said.

She smiled. “I love my mat,” she said. Then she sat up.

“You know, this mat is my go-to place. If I’m feeling down, I find it and lay on it. It brings me peace. If I’m stressed, it calms me. If I’m distracted, it brings me focus. Just recently we put our dog to sleep, and I spent the last few hours lying on my mat with him by side.”

She stroked the mat affectionately. “I’ve been through a lot on this mat.”

This conversation got me thinking about other teachers I know who have used the same mat for decades, even though it didn’t perform as well as a new one. For some, it has become “the lucky mat,” a talisman for teaching great classes. For others, it’s been a safe haven in the midst of the frenetic world we live in.

Perhaps we become attached to this slim rubber prop because it remains a constant in our lives, absorbing our joys and sorrows without judgment.

One of my students once told me about a time her car got well and truly stuck in a ditch after she’d swerved to avoid another motorist. Luckily she had her mat in the trunk, so she slid it under the back wheels and was soon on her way home.

Mats have other uses, too. If you look closely in the Yoga Nook garden, you’ll find some old mats being put to good use. Here are some other ideas for how to use your retired yoga mats:

  • Use your old mat in place of a rug liner to keep area rugs in place and prevent slipping.
  • Cut the mat into 1″ strips — they make great ties for large shrubs or trees in the garden.
  • Cut your mat to fit your trunk. It’s a great non-slip surface to keep grocery bags from sliding around.
  • Cut a small square or rectangle from an old mat (or get creative and cut out a pose silhouette), and use it as a mouse pad.
  • Typically mats will wear most at either end, leaving the middle section in relatively good condition. Cut off the worn areas and offer the mat to a child interested in starting yoga. Kids and grandkids love to have their own props.
  • Use two mats for your workout, one on top of the other. It pads the knees and sit bones a little more comfortably.

Do you have an unusual use for one of your old mats? Or maybe you have a great yoga mat story. Let us know — leave a comment below or send me an email at yoganookcalling@gmail.com.

 

Image credit: Werner Moser via Flickr (CC)

Dancing in the Rain

As soon as I wake up, I know it’s raining. I can hear it on the patio roof, clicking like hundreds of tiny hammers tapping metal. I get up and fling the patio doors wide open so I can breathe in the relief of the garden.

The ground seems to be singing with joy; the plants pick up their heads and look skyward in silent thanks. In this land of little rain, these few hours of drizzle are like pennies from heaven.

Like the dry earth, we need water. Dehydration can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion or even shallow, rapid breathing. Virtually every part of the human body and all of its processes need hydration in order to function optimally.

Our blood is an incredible 92% water, while lean muscle is 73% water. Even our bones are 25% water. It is the primary component of secretions such as tears, saliva and gastric fluid. Without water, the body is unable to repair itself, lubricate itself or feed itself.

When we are well-hydrated, toxins are diluted and flushed, our body temperature is regulated, and vital nutrients are transported easily in the freely circulating blood. Even slight dehydration can cause sodium levels in the body to rise; the blood becomes more viscous and the kidneys slow excretion.

At this stage, the brain triggers the sensation of thirst. Feeling mildly thirsty is a warning sign that many of us ignore until it’s more urgent, but even mild thirst is an indicator that you are already depleted by approximately one pint.

water intake infographic
Click to enlarge – Infographic by visual.ly

Daily Recommendations for Water Intake

The recommended daily serving of eight to 12 8-oz. glasses of water may seem extreme, but in truth this only meets our minimum daily requirement. If you are participating in any aerobic exercise, your need for fluids will be greatly increased, and you should consume an additional one to three cups of water per hour of exercise.

Many fruits and vegetables contain a high percentage of water by volume. Cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons are obvious choices, containing more than 90% water, but broccoli, carrots and grapes are also high in water content.

In just a few hours, the soil in my garden has become dark from the late-summer soaking. The plants, resupplied with water, look turgid and upright, their energy regained. We are a part of nature, not apart from it – so on this humid, rainy day, I’m going for a walk to delight in the gift of water. I may even dance in the rain.

 

Image credit: Heather via Flickr (CC)

Put Your Feet Up

If your busy mind has been on the office treadmill all day, you can expect to feel tired when you get home. Problem-solving, creative thinking, and just generally trying to keep up with the pile of work on your desk can leave you physically and mentally drained, even though you’ve been sitting down all day.

When we arrive home after such a hectic day, we often turn to food for comfort. We are too tired to exercise, and the mind is too dull to concentrate on anything more than the mind-numbing flicker of the television.

If this scenario is all-too-familiar, try turning things upside down for a change: Viparita Karani, or Legs Up the Wall Pose, is a simple and effective way to get inverted, rest weary legs, restore hips and back, and calm the incessant chatter of the mind.

To come into the pose:

1. Choose a quiet place with a clear wall where you’re unlikely to be disturbed for at least 5 minutes. (The bathroom is a good place.)

2. Sit sideways on the floor with one hip touching the wall. Bend your knees and shift your weight to your forearms as you roll onto your back.

3. Straighten your legs up the wall and shimmy the hips until the buttocks touch the wall. The legs should be passive. If you have tight hamstrings, allow the buttocks to rest away from the wall. The floor should support your low back and pelvis.

4. Relax the shoulders and arms and let the legs sink into the pelvis. To increase the mind-calming quality of this pose, rest with the arms overhead.

5. Stay in the pose for 5 to 15 minutes. Your feet may become cool or start to tingle slightly. If this gets uncomfortable, bend your knees and roll to one side to release the pose.

The many benefits of this pose include increased blood circulation to the pelvic region and upper body, soothing the digestive system. Viparita Karani also gives a boost to the immune system by stimulating the major endocrine glands, and it’s a wonderful aid to sleep.

 

Image credit: kellinahandbasket via Flickr (CC)

The Daily Grind

With a Starbucks on virtually every corner and consumers ready to pay upwards of five dollars for a grande mocha latte, coffee is a thriving business. But is all that caffeine good for us?

It takes approximately 80% of the adult population to guzzle the 100,000 tons of caffeine consumed annually in the U.S. This common ingredient in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate products is the world’s most widely used stimulant. In fact, coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world behind petroleum.

Introduced to Europe by Venetian traders, the first English coffee house was opened in 1652. From the very beginning, marketers touted the supposed health benefits of the drink, heralding it as “a very good help to the digestion.”

But doubts were also voiced, and coffee drinkers were said to appear haggard, agitated and depressed. From those initial observations sprung a plethora of studies on everything from the effects of caffeine on frog muscle tissue to the link between caffeine and decreased fertility.

To Drink or Not to Drink?

Sensitivity to caffeine differs greatly from one person to the next. Studies of twins have found that there is a genetic component to how caffeine affects an individual’s body, and of course, tolerance develops with regular use.

Depending on who is doing the study, caffeine can look like an addictive, sleep-robbing stimulant or an FDA-approved cure-all. Most research agrees that caffeine in low doses can increase alertness and decrease fatigue and drowsiness. There is also some evidence that low to moderate caffeine consumption (less than three cups of coffee a day) may help protect against neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Consumed in higher doses, however, caffeine may promote headaches, mood swings and anxiety. Drinking five or more cups of coffee per day can cause irritability, insomnia, restlessness, and muscle tremors.

How to Cut Back on Caffeine

The prolonged consumption of caffeine can cause physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms such as headache, lethargy and depression may result from going cold turkey. If you do decide to omit caffeine from your diet, it would be less stressful to wean yourself off gradually to diminish the withdrawal response.

Medical experts agree that caffeine consumption is safe in moderation and produces no adverse health effects. If you find that the symptoms of caffeine overuse are troublesome, try cutting back on your intake. Here are a few ways to decrease your dependency:

1. Try drinking decaffeinated coffee at least some of the time. Alternatively, switch to half-caff, pouring yourself half a cup of regular and half a cup of decaffeinated.

2. Be aware of the pitfalls of free caffeine refills in restaurants. It may seem like a good deal, but you could pay for it later.

3. If you have an ever-brewing coffee pot in the office, limit yourself to just a few cups a day—or switch to herbal tea, which doesn’t contain caffeine.

4. Make a conscious choice to drink more water. Your thirst will be quenched and the water will dilute the caffeine, helping detoxify the body.

While caffeine alone causes little or no ill effects, it will interact with some medications. If you’re a heavy coffee drinker or consume large amounts of caffeine in other products and are taking a prescription drug, you should check with your pharmacist for possible side effects.

For more detailed information on caffeine, check out “Caffeine Fact & Fallacy” by Augustine S. Aruna.

 

Image credit: Amanda via Flickr (CC)