Tag Archives: Yoga

Living With Good Health and Vitality – Implementing The Four Pillars of Health

happy-people-in-the-poppy-field-1280x800-wide-wallpapers-netOur bodies are designed to perform optimally. Knowing this yet seeing the number of people who struggle with feeling good every day can be perplexing.  Why does it seem so elusive for many people to wake up feeling great and to have energy throughout the day?

There can be complex issues that effect our quality of health caused by modern 21st century lifestyles, but in an effort to distil information into bite-size chunks let’s keep this simple. I believe there are four essential foundations for optimum health and that often we leave one or more out of the equation while trying to care for ourselves  The Four Pillars of Health, which form the foundation for great health and vitality, are Diet, Exercise, Good Sleep, and Mental Outlook. Very often people will focus on one, two, or even three of these categories but it is a bit more rare to embrace all four consistently….so at times we get out of balance, or homoeostasis.  The body will always circle back to homoeostasis if we give it what it needs.

All four of these “Pillars” are equally important and support good health, but let’s arbitrarily start with Diet. (This is where most people start when trying to make changes to enhance health.) There are volumes of wonderful blogs and books dedicated to this subject, but in a nutshell what you must do is eliminate, or severely restrict, all processed foods from your diet. You want to eat foods that come from Nature, not from a laboratory. Your body does not know what to do with the artificial ingredients in processed food and they will cause serious problems for you in time. Begin this process by adding in good healthy things to your diet – focus on the plethora of foods you CAN eat, instead of the things you cannot. If you build your diet on what you must stay away from, your willpower WILL cave in time! Ask yourself the question, “What great foods can I add to my diet?” Stop thinking “no,no,no” when it comes to food, and instead make a list of healthy foods you like and have fun creating new meals. Give yourself the tools you need to get started by doing a little research, collecting tasty recipes, and start adding great food to your pantry and fridge. Remember to make the shift to focusing on everything you can eat and don’t browbeat yourself. Begin to crowd the bad stuff out of your diet by adding in the good.

Exercise: Most of us simply don’t get enough. Our ancestors walked around about 10 times more than we do. (Great quote from Lucas Rockwood: “Sitting is the new smoking” – I love it!) Sit less, and move more. The fact is, the more lean muscle mass you have, the more energy you’ll have. And, even better – the more you will need to eat to maintain your lean muscle (without gaining weight) and keep going.  If you don’t have much lean muscles mass, you won’t have as much energy and you will require much less food to maintain your weight.  So, look into Burst Training (sometimes called Interval Training), and move your body every day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk whenever you can, join a class, and move your body throughout your day in as many creative ways that you can think of.

Sleep:  It doesn’t matter how great your diet is, or how much exercise you get; if you are not sleeping enough consistently, are are not going to function optimally. Full stop. Rest and recovery phases are crucial for healing and maintaining vitality and good health. Sleep dysfunction is tricky because there are so many different causes for lack of sleep.  Good sleep hygiene is essential, and an upcoming blog will be devoted to this topic. But it’s really good and proactive for you to dig into your own research about this, so even googling “sleep hygiene” is a wonderful start. Take even a small step in the direction you want to go and try to let go of worrying and fretting about not getting enough sleep.  I know how hard it can be, because I have not been a very good sleeper at times….but never once was it helpful to worry about it.  Watch this space for more information about improving the quality of your sleep.

Mental Outlook: We’ve all heard how important a positive attitude is for health and happiness, and more than likely you’ve incorporated some of this sage advice into your life already. If so, good for you!  If not, don’t take my word for it – just commit to adding some positive practices, such as positive affirmations and a gratitude journal, yoga, meditation, etc. into your life every day for one month, and then see if your life improves. If it doesn’t you’ve lost nothing.  But you will never know that life can be so much better if you don’t give it a try.

We swing from “vine to vine”, looking for something else (we’re not sure exactly what) because we don’t see we are already whole and complete as we are right now. We just have to wake up and tune into this. For me, a meditation and yoga practice is important for clearing the clutter in my mind and tuning in but there are other practices that can be just as valuable, including Tai’ Chi and Qi gong (pronounced Chi Gong).  I believe a spiritual practice of some sort – whatever that is for you – is important for a sense of fulfilment and vitality. Does the word “spiritual” bother you?  Then pick another word.  But a practice where you can quiet the mind and stop the chaos, and feel a part of something greater than just yourself and your problems is crucial for good health.  This positive spiritual practice will help you plug into things that really nourish and recharge you.  You must nourish yourself! Even if your time is limited, you can set priorities and let something go so you can have a mini-break and recover. You only have 30 minutes while the baby sleeps? Spend it meditating instead of watching some silly TV program. The meditation will leave you more calm and refreshed than the TV. Remember that you can only do one thing at a time well, whatever the hype is about “multi-tasking”. If you try to open up too many windows on your computer, what happens?  It crashes! So will you. Get calm, close some windows, take a deep breath, and focus on the one thing you need to do in front of you. When that is done, you can move on to the next thing. Work on one “window” at a time.

Choose one of these four pillars that you think needs some bolstering (Diet, Exercise, Sleep, and Mental Outlook) and add one positive thing to your life every day. You will be the one to benefit from this positive attention. Please watch this space for future blogs on each indivdual Pillar of Health.

Note: Dr. Pedram Shojai is a wonderful teacher to learn from.  I discovered him while compiling notes for this blog. He is teaching and writing about the very same thing (now I know there is nothing new under the sun!…..ideas, thoughts, and words are part of our collective knowledge base and are constantly being recycled and given a new spin, a new life.) that I am writing about only he calls it The Wheel of Vitality, and Mental Outlook is referred to as Mindset. Follow him if you are interested – a beautiful man with wonderful things to say.

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

Science is catching up to what many of us have known for a long time – meditation is very good for you. Neurologist researchers have concluded that we have between 15,000 and 50,000 thoughts each day, and that the majority of these thoughts are fear-based or negative. Of these, 80% are re-runs, or thoughts we’ve had before – sometimes over and over. That, folks, is bathing our brain in negativity for a large portion of our day.

If you keep track of your thoughts for even a few minutes, you’ll see that there is a lot of busy-ness up there in your head. In yoga, this busy-ness of the mind is called “monkey mind”. In the office or at home, it might be called “multi-tasking” – but whatever you call it, it can be wearing and exhausting for the mind and contributes to our stress levels. Meditation is a great technique to help curb this tendency. It is a remarkably simple technique that, with practice, all of us can learn. Though simple it is not  necessarily easy because of our tendency to judge ourselves and become uneasy when our untrained mind becomes still.

Here are three steps to begin your meditation practice that I teach in my meditation classes. My heartfelt thanks go out to two of my meditation teachers, Christopher Baxter and David Nichtern for helping me learn and master these steps.

1). Taking our Seat:

Sit cross-legged only if this is comfortable, otherwise it is far better to come to a kneeling position (with support) or to sit in a chair. Rest your hands on your thighs with torso upright but relaxed. Chin should be slightly tucked in toward your chest with the back of the neck feeling long and relaxed. Your posture should feel uplifted but not stiff. Your back should be as straight as possible with a feeling of rootedness through the sitz bones and tail bone, and a feeling of rising up through the torso and chest. Feel a sense of settling down and reducing your sphere of activity.

2). Placing Attention on the Breath:

Begin to pay attention to your breathing. Have a light touch here, not too intense. Just a relaxed focus on the breath going in and out of the body is all you need. Once you notice your awareness has shifted elsewhere (and it will shift elsewhere! – This is not a failure.) simply bring your awareness back to your breathing without judgement or criticism of yourself. Just keep bringing your awareness back to the breath as many times as you notice it is wondering away. Your focus is soft and relaxed, not hard and intense.

3). Labelling Thoughts:

When you notice you are thinking about something, just say to yourself, “thinking” and bring your awareness back. It is helpful to take a “democratic” approach to thoughts – ie., no more importance is given to one thought over another. So, whether you are thinking about what you are going to have for dinner or about climate change – it is all just labelled “thinking”. You are neither repressing your thoughts or focusing on them. You just label each thought “thinking” and come back softly to focusing on your breath.  As the body continues to settle down, your mind will as well. Be patient and loving with yourself, just like you would if your mind were a toddler that kept wandering off. Label that wandering off “thinking” and patiently come back to your breath. It is always there, waiting for you to come back.

If you need to move to restore circulation, go ahead and do that without any frustration or self-criticism. Fix the problem, resettle, and continue where you left off….focusing on the breath.

In future blogs, I will write about other techniques. For now, practice these three steps for 10 minutes every day for the next 7 days. Increase to 15 minutes the second week.  Finally increase to 20 minutes on the third week. There is no need for any expectations because all you are doing is making a date to be with yourself a few minutes every day. Nothing woo-hoo needs to happen, so don’t worry about seeing colours or having a peak experience. All you are going to do is sit quietly with yourself and observe the breath. Try it for the next 21 days with all my good wishes.

Starting a Home Spiritual Practice

cropped-dscn0174.jpg   What I know for sure is: starting a home practice only works if you actually do it. After 15 years of dedicated practice (and 10 years before that of “dabbling”) I’ve found some things that work for me. Perhaps they’ll work for you too.

1. Creating a sacred space can make a huge difference in your willingness to practice. Generally, any corner of your home will do but it should be quiet and calm. If you have a separate room, obviously this is the best option but sometimes this isn’t possible. Be creative in arranging your space and make it pleasant and comfortable for yourself. I like candles, incense, and chimes, and I prefer a meditation cushion to a chair. I don’t have a lot of clutter, but I do have a couple of photos of people and places that are important to me. The idea is to feel as though you are entering a different space from your everyday life, but also this space must be a place to which you enjoy coming.

2. Stretch and Move: If you practice yoga, this is the perfect time to do a few gentle poses. A few stretches will do – you want your body to be able to be comfortable for a while without complaining. Try inhaling your arms up from the sides over your head, then exhaling back down again. Keep your arms  strong and straight as you inhale up, and soften your elbows and turn your palms down as you exhale down. Do this 3 to 5 times, then hold your arms up over your head on your next inhale, interlocking your fingers, and pressing your interlocked palms away from your head. You can hold this pose (but not your breath!) for a count of 10. Rather than simply count, I usually count my breaths and stay in this pose for at least 5 long slow breaths.

3. Find Your Comfortable Seat: Whether this is a chair, a cushion, or kneeling with a blanket under your knees, make sure you are as comfortable as you can be. Remember, you are not going to continue if this isn’t pleasant.  Try resting your hands on your thighs with your torso upright but relaxed. Feel a gentle pressing down of your “sitting bones” at the bottom of your buttocks, and a lovely elongation through your side waist and torso. Press gently upwards with the crown of your head which will tend to dip the chin slightly downward, Notice the back of the neck feeling long and relaxed when you do this. Your sitting posture should feel uplifted but not stiff. Feel a sense of settling down and reducing your sphere of activity.

4.Meditation: If you are new to meditation, I suggest you find a teacher to help you get started. It is very easy to get discouraged and give up – probably because it seems so easy to “clear one’s mind” until you actually begin the practice. It is the nature of our minds to think. All people have thoughts during meditation….yes, even the Masters who’ve been doing it for ages. The difference between a novice and a Master is that the Master will not get involved with the “story” behind the thoughts, or become attached to the thought.

The best way to practice this is to give your busy mind a job to do. It wants a job; then it will be happier. Begin to focus on your breathing. Have a light touch with this, not too intense or you’ll lose motivation. Just a nice relaxed focus on the breath going in and out of the body. Sometimes it helps to say to yourself upon inhaling, “I’m breathing in”, or simply “In”, and as you exhale say to yourself “I’m breathing out” or “Out”. Once you notice your awareness has shifted elsewhere (and it will…remember this is normal and is not a failure) simply bring your awareness back to your breathing as often as you need to.  When you notice you are thinking about something, just say to yourself, “thinking” and bring your awareness back to your breath. You are not repressing your thoughts or being carried away by them. They are all just thoughts; label them “thinking” and come on back home to yourself and your breathing.

4. Gratitude: Take a few minutes to acknowledge within yourself at least three things your are thankful for. You can even turn “negatives” into positives by being grateful your bladder/kidneys works so well, instead of being annoyed that you had to get up twice in the night to go to the bathroom. Or, being grateful that you have a wonderful mind that can think so effortlessly instead of being annoyed at yourself during meditation. You can find so many things to be grateful for, and guess what? It gets easier and easier the more we practice. Involve as much as your feeling self in your gratitude practice as possible, and smile if you can.

5. Forgiveness: Let’s just start with ourselves here. You probably cannot forgive anyone else if you can’t forgive yourself anyway. Forgive yourself for all your mistakes, omissions, insults, perceived lacks, and assorted shortcomings. If you can, look yourself in the eye in the mirror when you do this. Don’t look at your expression or anything on your face except the shine in your own eyes. Forgive yourself and love yourself. As you continue with this, you can segue into forgiving others, but start with yourself first and stay with yourself as long as you need to – 6 months is not too long.

If you make this sort of practice a ritual, it will change your life in all kinds of positive ways. Why? Because it has an almost miraculous way of loosening up the knots in our physical and emotional bodies, creating new pathways in our brain for more positive thought patterns.

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