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.
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:
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
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!