Svavasana is the Autumn for the Soul

I love this time of year! It’s filled with beauty and comfort. The trees display their many colors, and it’s great to snuggle up with a cup of hot tea, cocoa or red wine as the evenings grow cooler. This time of year the bounty of the harvest (whether it’s delicious apples and vibrant pumpkins grown at local farms, or homegrown tomatoes & zucchini) is celebrated and enjoyed. The plants (and their growers) have put forth hard work to bring us sustenance for the body and the spirit. This is a time that plants begin their dormancy in preparation for a rebirth and regeneration in the spring.

In yogic terms I liken Svavasana, pronounced Sha-VAH-suh-nuh, to the season of Autumn because it gives us an opportunity to regenerate our minds and bodies. It is typically done at the end of a yoga class, but it can certainly be done at the start of class or even on it’s own during the day. Svavasana, also known as Corpse Pose is traditionally done lying on one’s back with the feet a little wider than hip distance apart, and the arms resting at the sides of the body with palms facing up. The goal of Svavasana is to achieve deep relaxation for the body and the mind.

Quieting the mind and relaxing the muscles go hand in hand. Muscles are controlled by the neurons, nerves that send messages from the brain to all areas of the body. When the neurons send lots of signals to a muscle, the muscle contracts and tightens. This leads to body movement and muscle strengthening. When the neurons are quiet, muscles can begin to relax. Yoga practice is a wonderful place to increase and decrease this neuron activity. Initially the mind focuses on moving the body with conscious breathwork. Neuron activity increases and muscles contract. As class comes to a close, the body slows down then comes to rest in Svavasana. Now the neurons become quiet and the muscles begin to release into relaxation. This release is important for regeneration. Just like the plants of the harvest, we work our bodies in yoga class and now settle into our Autumn rest.

Many have found that they are more able to face tough daily challenges after yoga class. This is the regeneration (think springtime with flowers springing from the earth) that we receive after the Autumn of our Svavasana. For more tips on Svavasana and spinal health, subscribe to my newsletter, or join me for a class or private instruction.

Just Breathe…

Breath is a vital component to yoga classes. Yoga instructors (myself included) guide students in breath exercises (pranayama) and instruct when to inhale or exhale with movement. Why is the breath such an important part of yoga, and how does it help with overall health?

First let’s understand what happens when we breathe. Simply put, as we inhale we bring oxygenated air into the lungs. Oxygen then goes through the blood via red blood cells to all areas of the body. The oxygen then converts glucose to energy, thus supporting physical activity and keeping tissues healthy. Carbon dioxide, which is the waste product in de-oxygenated blood, then leaves the body through the exhale.

Increasing the oxygenation in the body helps increase energy to the muscles and decrease pain, it also decreases the chance of injury. Exercise and movement increase red blood cells (remember they carry the oxygen throughout the body). To increase oxygen going to the muscles, one needs to engage in aerobic activities, such as dancing, running, or cycling.

Yoga does not get the heart pumping like these activities, but it still can give you great benefit in this process because it strengthens the capacity of the lungs by toning core muscles and the muscles that help with respiration.

So get up and do the aerobic exercise that speaks to you…..run, dance, hike or whatever. But first, try toning the respiratory muscles in yoga class or with these practices:

  • Table Breath
    • Come to all fours in Table Pose with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders
    • Curve the spine up (like a Halloween cat)
    • Take a deep breath in to the torso, feeling the breath expand the ribcage and shoulder blades
    • Hole for a count or 5-10. Repeat 3-5 times.
  • Prone Diaphragmatic Toning
    • Lay on your belly and rest your head on folded hands
    • Take a breath into the ribspace
    • Hold for a count of 5-10. Repeat 3-5 times.

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When the Heart Goes Pitter Pat….

Go, go , go….this is our modern mantra. We rush here, do this, do that, then rush on to the next thing.

All the while our breath matches our movements….shallow and fast. Sometimes after running around and feeling stressed, I have trouble getting my breath back to a normal pace, even with meditation and pranayama (breathwork). There seems to be a disconnect between my brain and my body, in particular my heartbeat.

But is it really a disconnect? After so much movement (of both the brain and the body) the brain isn’t ready to settle down. Since the nervous system controls muscle action (which includes the muscle fibers of the heart, lungs and other internal organs) it’s not surprising that the heart continues to beat fast, and we may feel breathless. We must calm the mind to calm the heart.

The magical solution to this is slow, mindful yoga. When you slow movements down and match the breath to the movements, the nervous system (specifically the parasympathetic nervous system) signals the body to “rest and digest”. This results in reduced heart rate, decreased blood pressure,  better digestion, and a reduction in inflammation. The benefits of yoga to calm down the nervous system has been likened to getting a massage or spending time in nature.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, take some time to practice slow, yogic movements matched with breath. Your body will thank you!

P.S. My “Unwind the Spine” Fridays at 4:30 at Refresh Studios https://www.refresh-studios.com/classes  practices these principles of slow mindful yoga.

The Magic of the Exhale

“Don’t forget to breathe……Are you breathing?”

I often say this to patients as they perform their PT exercises. This statement is usually met with a look of confusion mixed with guilt, then followed by the words, “No….I was holding my breath.” As a smile creeps across their face they mention that they forgot to breathe because they were concentrating on how to do the exercise properly. Once they try the exercise with breath they find that it is less strained and more effective.

In PTA school we learned about respiration in terms of oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, the importance of this physiological process to the heart and lungs, and the muscles that make all this happen.

Most yoga classes start with focus on breath as a way to quiet and center the mind. Breath is called prana, or a vital  life force. It contains three parts; Puraka (inhalation), Rechaka (Exhalation), and Kumbaka (a pause between inhalation and exhalation). As I practiced yoga one day, it occured to me that the element of Rechaka is magical in its scope of usefullness.

On a physiological level the primary muscle of inhalation is the diaphragm.  In a healthy individual without a compromised respiratory system, the exhalation occurs without any active engagement of muscles. It is a passive activity of deflation of the lungs. So it really just…..happens. Even though there is no muscle action involved, the Rechaka  is powerful. An exhalation can:

  • Relax muscle tension and decrease emotional stress
  • Assist during Exertion
  • Assist in Engagement of Core Abdominal Muscles

Each of these could be a blog post individually. I will definately have another post dedicated to core engagement.  So here I’ll briefly talk about Rechaka’s relationship to the first two.

First, during yoga classes I teach, I talk about the exhale being an invitation for the muscles to relax. A great time to try this off the mat is at bedtime. Once you’re comfortable, close your eyes and notice your breath. Exhale slowly and evenly. Focus on heels or ankles sinking down and relaxing. Continue this with each body part, feet to head. If you’re not asleep by this time, take note of what’s going on in your body, as well as your mind. Rechaka is useful in quieting the mind and releasing muscular tension.

Second, when you need to complete tasks that require physical exertion (exercise, moving heavy objects), exhale as you perform the most physically demanding part of the job. Rechaka can give you an extra boost of power when you need it. Try this next time you perform a challenging yoga pose or at the gym when you’re working out.

Indeed, Rechaka has magical powers. I encourage you to use this readily available, free resource when you need relaxation, release of muscular tension, or an extra surge of energy and power.

Namaste and Be Well!            Lorie