Savasana – The Science & Art of Chilling Out

savasana

Pop Tart Culture

It always puzzles me when yoga students roll up their mat and creep out of the room as soon as savasana commences. I wonder if these are the same students, who, when they do stay for the final resting pose, stare up at the ceiling, fidget incessantly, and suddenly seem to develop a demanding case of poisen oak on the tip of their nose. It’s not that these students all have ADHD or lower levels of self restraint than the rest of us; I think it has more to do with a lack of understanding of the value of this posture. I also think it also has to do with our culture where we associate being agitated and stressed-out with being productive and having a sense of self-worth. Like the comedian Brian Regan says in his skit about Pop-Tarts, … after the toaster instructions, then they have a whole set of microwave instructions… how long does it take to toast a pop tart?! A minute?! You don’t have that kind of time?! Listen, if you need to zap-fry your pop tarts before you head out the door, you might wanna loosen up your schedule.  So true! Whether it’s the way we prepare food or the time we take to care for ourselves. We act like lunatics rushing around with our schedules so jammed packed that we feel like chilling out for a few minutes is not worthy of our time!

The Cherry on Top

Almost every type of yoga practice or sequence ends with a final resting pose, savasana, usually done flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out, relaxing heavily on the floor. The use of props like a bolster under the knees or a blanket under the head may make make this resting posture most comfortable. The pose name translates in Sanskrit to “corpse pose”, not because the ancient yogi’s had a morbid obsession, but because the pose is meant to facilitate complete surrender and letting go – physically and mentally. The body and mind are still and quiet. So is corpse pose the same as a power nap? Not really. Lying down on your back sounds simple, but if you look up the posture on yogajournal.com, you will find that it takes 5 paragraphs of step-by-step instructions to tell you how to set yourself up in this uncomplicated pose – and that’s just instructing the physical aspects of the posture! The biggest reason for setting yourself up with care for savasana is so that the body is completely open and at ease and is no longer a distraction to the mind. Understanding the benefits, which are so worth staying on your mat for that extra 5 to 10 minutes, might be key to helping you experience those benefits first-hand.

I could go on for 15 pages about the benefits of savasana for every system in the body, for hormone regulation, for mental and emotional wellbeing, and for spiritual connectedness (whatever your religious beliefs), but since I’d rather you finish this and head off to your mat to practice, I’ll focus on just two areas of benefit: One from a western, more medical standpoint about the nervous system and the other from a more holistic Ayurvedic view about the flow of energy.

Maintaining Balance and Homeostasis of the Nervous System

Quick refresher: The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is made up of two main corresponding systems – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), associated with the physiological response of “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), associated with the response of “rest and digest” or “feed and breed”. Good old Wikipedia draws out this phrase:To be specific, the parasympathetic system is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities that occur when the body is at rest, including sexual arousal, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, digestion, and defecation.”  It’s no news flash that modern life keeps us in a state of fight or flight most of the time where our SNS is dominant. However, as Dr. Veronique Mead so simply states, “A healthy nervous system maintains homeostasis by balancing input from both branches of the ANS during activites ranging from relaxing, digesting and sleeping, to waking, feeling excited, and running.” Relaxing and lettting go completely in Savasana is one of the best ways to activate the PNS, receiving the benefits of better digestion, detoxification, and sexual health as well as lower heart rate, lower levels of the stress hormone Cortisol, higher levels or endorphins (“feel good” hormones), and increased resistance to infection.

Rivers of Prana

In the practice of yoga, the postures and the breath are used to cleanse, tone, and strengthen the whole body – each system – on a holistic level. From an Ayurvedic viewpoint, health is achieved when Prana, or “life force energy”, is able to move uninterrupted throughout the whole body. Sickness and disease are seen as the result of poor energy flow. Those who regularly practice yoga may be able to tune into their body’s subtle rhythms and notice where and when they feel “blocked” or “stagnant” in a particular part of their body. During a well-rounded yoga practice, stagnant and blocked energy channels are opened up and cleansed, and during savasana, Prana is able to flow freely through the body to any places that need healing and extra nourishment. This is one reason for the very open and easy alignment in this pose. There are no “kinks” or bent angles in the body. All the energy channels are wide open for life force to flow easily.

If You Skip Out, You are Missing Out! 

Like I said before, there are so many other benefits to practicing savasana, such as the integration of new neuromuscular patterns and the quieting of the mind that happens from withdrawing the senses. However, I think you will learn about these just from experiencing them if you give yourself the chance. So stay, surrender to the practice of letting go, and see what happens. And please, don’t eat pop tarts for breakfast, even if you toast ‘em.

Gluten-Free Pancakes

Gluten Free Pancakes

There is nothing like sitting down on a Sunday morning to a hot stack of pancakes right off the griddle, topped with real butter and pure maple syrup. My husband and I went gluten-free a few months ago (totally worth it), and giving up pancakes wasn’t all that sad to me because I had never felt very good after eating them. Recently my mother-in-law (thanks again, Rea) came up with the best recipe for gluten-free pancakes, and I have to share it because they are so so good! Even if you’re not gluten-free, I promise you’ll love the flavor, the texture, and you’ll probably even notice that you still feel full and satisfied hours later.

In a blender combine:

1.5 cup milk   (could substitute soy, rice, or almond milk)
1 egg   (could use egg alternative)
1.5 cups Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Pancake Mix
1/2 cup almond meal
1/2 cup coconut flakes
1/2 cup coconut oil (melt it before adding)
1/2 banana
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
splash of water as needed to blend

Blend all ingredients in the blender until mixed well and drop about 1/4 cup mixture per cake on an oiled hot griddle or cast iron pan. So easy!

I love lots of protein at breakfast, so I topped one stack of mine with my favorite smooth almond butter and honey.

Enjoy!

Joie de Vivre and the Power of Coral Lipstick

www.visualphotos.com

Joy in the Kitchen

I’ve put off finishing this entry because I couldn’t think of a way to combine all the elements in an articulate way that would express how they are all related to me. I began writing while I waited for a pot of Beef Bourguignon to finish cooking. The most incredible smells of congnac and wine drench beef and vegetables filled the house, and I was feeling quite content and blissed out doing one of my favorite things – cooking – and feeling like a rockstar at it. (Thank you very much to Rea, my mother-in-law, for inspiring me and teaching me how to make this). The thing I loved most about making this dish, besides the incredible aroma that filled my house, is the flair and charisma that is so easily excited by simply following the steps of the recipe. At this point you might be thinking, “Wow. Poor Grace needs to get out more if following a recipe seems exciting and stokes her into a state of bliss and passion.” But come on! You get to poor cognac into the pot and light it on fire! When’s the last time you lit something on fire in the kitchen? Intentionally and with great results? Its fun!!! And you can not possible spark your pot of Beef Bourguignon into flame without some flair.

Bringing Life to Your Life 

Which brings me to my next subject – flair. In case you don’t frequently use the word and are rusty on the connotation, I will entertain you with some synonyms – aptitude, chic, elegance, genius, glamour, mastery, pizzazz, presence, shine. Those who posses an undeniable zest for life live life with flair. Its the difference between throwing together a boring pot of stew (ho-hum) and creating a French masterpiece with delight, passion, and a sense of excitement. Either way you will make dinner. But the living involved in the process is drastically different. Our lives are not only made up of the big moments – the weddings, vacations, firsts, births, deaths – they are made up of the little moments everyday. Yet we often become numb to this fact, to the beauty and magic of our everyday lives, and we lose our zest and energy for living in the process. We become stagnant, lethargic, and depressed. The funny thing about energy is that the level we become used to in our lives become our normal, and we are all addictive creatures at some level, so we go on creating more of what we have become used to. We get into cycles. Everyone falls prey to the negative cycle at some time. The challenge is to find ways to shift and get out now. Today. Because today is new, and it really has never happened before. We are constantly greeted with opportunities to shift.

Joie de vivre

The French have an expression – Joie de vivre, which roughly translates to “the joy of living” or “zest for life”. It is often used to express a cheerful enjoyment of life or exaltation of the spirit. In Positive Psychology, zest is one of the 24 strengths possessed by humanity. Zest is defined as living life with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and energy, and it is seen as part of the virtue of courage. Those who have zest exude excitement and energy while approaching tasks in life. Albert Einstein is quoted to have said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”  I think that having this excitement for life comes from seeing the miraculous in our lives each and every day. 

Get Your Game Face On 

And this brings me to the power of coral lipstick. Back to my mother-in-law. Two things you should know: She posses a boatload of zest for life and she wears the most outrageous coral lipstick. It looks lovely on her but quite startling in the tube. I’ve never been one wear lipstick, but the other day I saw her at yoga class, and she there she was in her usual state of flair, looking excited to be there and ready for anything, and I said to myself – I want that. Not necessarily the same coral lips, but that seemed like a good place to start. So off to the Sephora I went, and I discovered the power of lipstick. It’s such a simple thing, but pulling out that black tube and giving it a swipe gives me a sense of feeling ready, of expectation, of zest for life. Now I am not suggesting that everyone head to the cosmetic aisle on their path towards happiness and “exaltation of the spirit”. It could be anything that reminds you to live life with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and energy. Some of my other favorite tools for hitting the switch on the energy shift button are doing yoga, running, hiking. It could be buying a new dress that looks amazing on you (no, I don’t think this is shallow), making a fabulous recipe, or helping a friend in need. Topping the list of quick shift tools are dancing like crazy to your favorite song, signing in the shower, standing up straight and smiling, and committing a random act of kindness. Whatever helps you get your game face on for life because your life is made up of the way your live each moment.

Whatever it is you do, get out there and do it with some Joie de Vivre!

Scheduling a Massage for Your Brain

woman stressed

The Moment It Made Sense To Me 

A few memorable experiences in my life inspired me to become a massage therapist. I remember going to my favorite Naturopath years ago, complaining that I felt like I was in a brain fog, like I couldn’t think straight, my thoughts were all running together and spinning in dizzy circles. I couldn’t focus, and I was craving sugar and caffeine to maintain some sense of having it together mentally. Sound like 3PM at your desk? She worked out tension in my neck and shoulders, and then applied some manual traction and gave me a range-of-motion adjustment. If you’ve ever heard those lovely cracks and pops as pressure releases under the touch of competent and nurturing hands, you know what sweet music it can be. After I stood up from her massage table, I noticed that I felt as though my brain had been rewired. I felt alert, balanced, and clear. I told her as I was leaving the office, “I actually feel like I can think better”, to which she replied, “Well of course, you actually can.”

 East Meets West

She gave me both the Western and the Eastern reasons behind her answer. When the muscles around the shoulders and neck are constricted, tense, and tight, blood flow is reduced to the brain, and your brain doesn’t function so well with lower levels of oxygen. The muscular tension may also pull cervical vertebra out of proper alignment, causing imbalance in the spine itself and putting pressure on the nerves. In Eastern medicine, we find an additional reason: the fluid that surrounds the spine, cerebrospinal fluid, is one of the major conductors (and storehouses) of life force energy or “prana” that flows into the body on the breath, in the foods we eat, and through sunlight. This fluid flows within and around the brain and spinal cord within a three layered “Saran Wrap” like covering called the meninges. If there are blockages or constriction in the meninges, the flow of this life force will be limited.

Taking Care of Your Body and Mind is Not a Luxury 

Next time you are reaching for your 3pm cup of Joe, do yourself a favor and take care of your body holistically. If you can’t schedule a massage at that particular moment, get up and move around to get your blood flowing again. Try a brisk walk, followed by the yoga pose, uttanasana, which is just a standing forward fold. Let your head dangle and nod “yes” gently back and forth.

Everyone gets stressed, and stress always has an effect on your body. However, if you’re like most people, you become numb to the stress and tend not to notice the effects until they get really bad. The good news though is that you can stay in control and learn to be more mindful of what’s happening in your body before it gets to that point. Regular massage can help with that. In addition to boosting your immune system, releasing endorphins, and relieving tension, massage can also make you smarter. Well, maybe not literally, but it can increase mental clarity, reduce mental stress, promote better sleep and relaxation, and heighten your sense of being “present” in the moment whether you are at work or at play. Do your brain a favor; get a massage at least once a month. Cheers to clear thinking and a healthy body free of painful distractions!

More GABA Please!

yoga woman

Last night when I walked out of a vinyasa flow yoga class, I felt that warm, glowing, calm  energy that keeps me coming back to my mat day after day. I was thinking about this feeling, the “yoga glow”, and decided it is the exact opposite feeling of anxiety and depression. It’s more than feeling well-rested and rejuvenated, and it’s different than the endorphin kick of a great cardio workout. My heart feels settled, my body feels light, and my head feels clear and calm. What’s happening in my brain to make me feel so chilled out and happy?

There are, of course, multiple reasons why a yoga practice makes you feel great – body, mind and spirit. But in particular, the activity of one little neurotransmitter, GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), really sparked my interest to learn more. You see, GABA is mostly an inhibitory neurotransmitter, similar to serotonin. This means when we are stressed, frantic, or excited, GABA sends signals to tell the brain the chill out and calm down. In yoga speak, we might say it quiets the fluctuations of the mind. Studies show that GABA activity is measurably higher after a yoga session.

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons hypothesized that low activity of GABA in the brain is linked with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and even PTSD. Studies show that a regular yoga practice can help keep your GABA levels up, helping to ward off the aforementioned issues. I say regular because you can’t try one class and expect your GABA high to carry you through the next week. Its just like sleep. Even though you slept well last night, you still need to head to bed tonight to feel good tomorrow!

If you really love to nerd out on studies, check this out: The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This study compares the effects on brain chemistry of yoga compared to walking for exercise.

Or you could just take my word for it: Yoga is one of the best things you can do to keep calm and be happy.

Health Benefits of Massage

Not only is massage an ideal way to relax and feel rejuvenated, it’s also an integral component of maintaining health, wellness and balance. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies show that massage can be helpful for:

  • Stress Relief
  • Managing anxiety and depression
  • Pain
  • Stiffness, lack of range of motion
  • Blood pressure control
  • Sports-related injuries
  • Boosting immunity
  • Increasing recovery time
  • Reducing inflammtion

Check out this article from the Wall Street Journal to read more about the benefits of massage

Image

Hello world!

I am passionate about living life to the fullest, and I believe that the way we care for our bodies carries over into all aspects of our lives. Trying to sort through health advice can seem overwhelming and sometimes contradictory. My goal is to bring you simple, straightforward information and usable health tips to encourage and inspire you to live well!

Many people think of wellness as being free of disease. I think it is so much more than that! It means being healthy and vibrantly alive on the holistic level: body, mind, and spirit. It’s the kind of wellness that is both the catalyst for and the result of living with joy.

yoga