Most people probably associate yoga with meditation and perhaps a collection of postures and exercises which promote flexibility and relaxation, but it’s far more than that.
Originating from India over 3000 years ago it is a system of complete well being; including the physical, mental and spiritual health of the individual. It’s not a religion and can quite uniquely be practised by people of diverse age, sex and standard of health. Strict yogis maintain excellent health and even feel their life is prolonged through correct breathing, exercise, diet, physical and mental relaxation and hygiene with the fundamental goal being to reach Self Realisation – to tune into your conscious being and see life, the world and yourself in a transformed and entirely different way.
If you do a full yoga practise regularly and learn all the different postures you’ll probably be exercising every muscle and organ in your body; I really feel that regular yoga will be beneficial to everyone.
Each posture or position is specifically designed to be beneficial to different functions of the body. This could be to build and maintain suppleness in muscles and joints, improve the blood supply to certain glands to enable them to secrete more healthily and also, when combined with certain breathing techniques, can provide a gentle massage for the internal organs.
Allergies can be exacerbated by poor circulation, under-active organs, stress and depression. I’ve explored the different yoga positions which address these core areas and so, should help those with a tendency towards allergies.
I also feel that staying fit and healthy really helps you to cope with allergies, asthma, eczema etc. When you have bad asthma you can easily feel like you can’t do any exercise, sinking into a pit of inertia, which then in turn makes the situation worse.
If you don’t know how to practise yoga I recommend joining a class and seeking advice before trying to recreate any of these postures or breathing techniques. I’m not an expert so I don’t want to misadvise or cause any injury.
Yoga is so amazing because you go as far as you can and stretch as little or as much as feels good for you at the time. If your breathing is tight you take it easy and maybe only do ten minutes practise. Even ten minutes of yoga is beneficial; you can quickly build up over weeks so you can achieve deeper breathing and stronger stretches so take it slowly and gently and listen to the body. It shouldn’t hurt or pull, and always get advice from an expert.
The corpse pose – Savasana (Gentle)
This position is by far the easiest and is just so relaxing; I can easily nearly drop off to sleep doing this,although the aim is to reach a deep relaxed state of meditation; it’s a great beginning and end to your practise. Lie on your back with you legs out straight and arms by your side, palms facing up, feet loose, shoulders down and relaxed, not tense and hunched up. Head and neck in line with the body as if a piece of sting were running right from very top of your head to the soles of your feet. Your mouth, jaw and tongue should also be loose and relaxed. There should be a tense bone in your body. Concentrate on taking slow, long, deep breaths which come from your toes, up your legs, pelvis and chest on the in breath, hold it for a few seconds, then release, gently, feeling every vertebrae in your spine as you expel all the stale air in your lungs.
The scan pose (Gentle)
Lying on your back, perhaps with a bolster or rolled up blanket behind your knees, lay your arms along the floor, slightly away from your body, the back of your hands resting on the floor and palms to the sky. Try to empty your mind of thoughts and slowly scan your whole body, assessing which areas feel tense and tight. Gradually, starting at your feet and working up the body, try to completely relax each part of your body, beginning the the toes, then soles of your feet, ankles, calves, knees and so on. Where you feel parts of the body are tense, imagine them warming, releasing, and slowly relax as your whole body becomes completely at ease, your mental thoughts also slowing and clearing.
Reduce stress and lift the spirits
Funnel and Fountain postures (gentle)
Yogis believe that holding your hands together in a prayer position forms an energy seal, so any yoga postures which involve this are great for sparking your spirits, and easing tension due to stress; the Funnel and Fountain postures are a perfect example of how this works. Both involve standing with your feet together and your hands in the prayer position at your heart. For the Funnel, inhale and lower your hands until they part, then exhale and sweep them out wide to the side and draw them upwards, bringing them back together again over head in the prayer position to finish. Repeat this and imagine you are funnelling light and life into your body as your hands sweep through the circular movements.
The Fountain is kind of the reverse of this. Start in the same standing start position, hands in prayer at your heart, then inhale and raise them overhead, drawing energy upwards. Exhaling, sweep your hands wide up and down towards your sides in a cyclical motion. This time imagine you are drawing energy upwards with each inhalation and sending it out in a fountain around your body. You are immersing yourself in the fountain of energy; enjoy the lightness you will feel, and the release of tension as you continue for several breaths.
The Triangle posture (Strong)
This posture, if done correctly and held for some time can give a really deep and strong stretch and is so called because the limbs of the body create a triangle shape. Standing with your feet about a leg’s length apart, turn one foot out so it’s parallel to the narrow edge of your mat, or at 90 degrees, keep your heels lined up. Now keeping your hips facing forwards, lift your arms parallel to the ground, palms down, then reach to the left whilst inhaling a deep breath slowly, then exhale as you bend sideways, again to your left, placing your left hand on your leg. Reach your right arm upwards and hold for 5-10 breaths or longer if it feels good. Either look up or straight ahead, and repeat on the other side. You want to try to keep your chest facing forwards so you are opening out your chest and lungs and really relax, whilst keeping core muscles engaged to keep your body rooted and in the correct position.
Aid digestion with strong abdominal postures
The following postures will tone up your abdomen and so help with healthy digestion as well as supporting your back muscles.
Sit up straight, with the backs of your hands behind you, resting on your lower back, palms out, with the tips of your thumbs and index fingers touching. Keep your back straight, your tummy pulled in and your chin level, not hunched down. If you find your back lifts, stop and rest for a bit before trying this posture again.
Lying on your back, bend your left knee and place your left foot on the floor. Keeping your right leg straight along the floor, inhale and lift your left leg towards the ceiling, as high as is comfortable for you. As you exhale, lower your leg, keeping the foot flexed; do this five or six times and then repeat with the other leg. Pause or rest at any time during the sequence and bend both knees and bring them against your chest at the end of the practise.
To make this more challenging, engage both legs, raise one into the air and then allow the other to raise, so they pass each parellel in the air, raising one, then lowering the other at the same time. Keeping breath even.
Lying on your back with your arms by your sides and your hands, palms down, under your back and buttocks, lift and lower both legs, keeping your ankles and knees together. Inhale as you lift and complete eight repetitions. When you lower your legs don’t bring them right down to the floor, make sure your core muscles, stomach and pelvic floor are engaged, hold the legs in the lower position, then raise them up into the air again. If you find this really hard you may be lowering your legs too far, only lower them as far as is comfortable for you, and so that you can maintain your core strength and engage those stomach muscles to protect your back. This posture will strengthen your back muscles, stretch your abdominals and help with balance and posture. To counterpose this posture practise the bridge pose afterwards.
Boost your immune system
When you’re feeling full of the joys of spring, brimming with good health and busting with energy you feel great, but when you’re fighting an illness or bug, or stressed and run down it’s very easy for the immune system to suffer. There are a number of yoga positions which stimulate the lymphatic and endocrine systems as well as soothing the nervous system; regular practise can keep you glowing with health and happiness.
Standing with your feet planted together, firmly on the floor and your arms hanging loosely by your sides, slowly begin to twist at the hips from side to side. Allow your arms to bump lightly against you body, try to keep yourself as relaxed as possible, don’t bring tension into this posture by trying to twist, just build the momentum and allow the body to swing and twist and your arms to bump as they will. Continue this for a minute or two to gently stimulate the lymph glands in your underarms.
All you need for this position is a wall or chair. Sit alongside ideally a wall then turn your back away from the wall and your legs towards it. Shuffle your bottom up against the wall, legs straight up the wall, feet stretched upwards, and your back on the floor, neck straight, head level and eyes closed. Rest your arms on the floor with your palms facing upwards. Make sure your hips and back stay in contact with the floor. Hold for 1-5 minutes, as long as is comfortable. To exit this posture bring your knees to your chest and roll onto one side.
The fish posture is done lying on your back. Place a rolled up blanket or bolster on the floor and lie back so that your shoulders are supported and your head touches the floor. Gently drum your fingertips on your breastbone which will stimulate your thymus gland, an important regulator in your immune system. Be careful when exiting this position. After holding for a minute or two, use your arms to gently raise yourself back up to a sitting position.
From the kneeling position with feet pointing directly out behind you, bend forward until your chest is resting on your thighs, your forehead on the floor and arms at your sides, palms up, alongside your feet. This posture gives you a gentle stretch across your lower back and hips, try to relax, quieten your mind and empty your head of thoughts. Breath regularly, slowly and deeply as your enjoy the release of this gently posture. Hold for a minute or two, or longer if desired, giving in to the relaxation, then inhale as your rise up gently, making sure you engage your core strength and abdominal muscles as you do so to protect your lower back.
Detox and cleanse your body
We can all associate yoga with stretches, but it’s important to recognise that the crunching or compression of many postures also have strong benefits such as massaging your internal organs; regularly practising postures which incorporate both stretching and inward compressions can help to keep your organs clean and clear.
Twisting postures are perfect for detoxifying as they gently massage and tone your liver, spleen and intestines. Yogis would include fasting, consuming only water and fresh juice for a day to truly give the digestive system a rest. Always drink plenty of water and try a cleansing diet of rice and vegetables for a few days if you’re feeling particularly sluggish and bloated.
Knee to head bend
Bend in your left leg and place the sole of the foot against your right leg as close to the hip as is comfortable and allow your left knee to sink down to the floor. Inhale deeply and stretch up, lifting your arms over your head, lengthening your spine and reaching up to the ceiling. Now gently fold forwards from the hips with the aim being to rest your forehead onto your right shin, hold onto your right leg or ankle to help deepen the stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds, inhale as you lift your body out of the posture, before repeating on the other side.
Half spinal twist
Sitting on the floor with legs outstretched in front of you, place your left foot on the right side of your right calf. Inhale, lengthening your spine as you do so. When you exhale turn towards your left, rotating from the base of your spine. Rest your right hand on the side of your thigh and your left hand on the floor behind your back for support. Look over your left shoulder and gently deepen the twist to turn further each time you exhale. Hold for 30 seconds, then gently release, untwist and repeat on the other side.
Bow or half bow
Lying face downwards on the ground, bend one leg, let’s say the left, in towards your bottom. Reach around behind you and take hold of your left foot supporting yourself with your resting right forearm which should be across the floor in front of you. Lift your head, neck and chest as you press your heel away resisting against the hand holding it. To perform the full bow posture both legs should be bent in towards your back and both hands reaching around the grasp hold of each foot. Breath deeply as you aim to raise up your head, keeping kneck and back straight.
Modified cat/cow posture
Start in the cat pose on all fours and bring in your left knee whilst at the same time bringing your head to join it. As you reach your leg back out behind you so it’s straight, lengthen your neck and gently rock your head up and down too, so you are meeting your knee with your head, and as the leg goes back, your head moves away, up and back, slowly. Do this five times, or longer if you can. In Kundalini yoga you would do this for quite a long time to really get the glands secreting and liver and kidneys detoxifying.
Sitting cross legged, arm extensions
I can’t remember what this exercise is called but it’s great for getting your adrenal glands really working hard. The adrenals get sluggish and slow down due to our modern stressful lives so activating them and getting them really pumping is great for helping to clear toxins from the system. Sit cross legged with your hands in lotus nudra, with your thumbs and little fingers touching but the rest of your hand splayed out in a flower shape. Inhale and stretch out your hands to the side, exhale and bring them in to touch your hands together again. As you find a rythm gently speed up the movement of the hands, and your breathing. Continue this for a couple of minutes for a really good adrenal workout. Keep breathing, in as you stretch out and and out as you bring the hands back together. Keep your arms help up at shoulder height.
Breath of fire and cooling breath
Thest two are great for working on either side of your adrenals. The breath of fire works on one side and the cooling breath on the other. Interlace your little fingers with your other fingers wrapped into your palms and thumbs pointing up. Pull, tightly and try to seperate the little fingers, work hard, and breath in and out through your nostrils with short sharp breaths. Do this for a few minutes.
Cooling breath needs an O shaped mouth. Breath in and out through your opened and rounded mouth for a few minutes. This brings really cooling breath in and out of the body.
Strength and stamina
Salute to the sun – Surya Namaskar (Strong)
This posture is really a series of positions and always makes me feel so positive. It’s calming, life affirming, but also very strong. You begin in a standing position, feet firmly rooted to the floor. I try to do this with my eyes closed as much as possible to remain in the moment and not conscious of my surroundings and what others around me are doing. The back bend at the beginning opens out the lungs and is good for deep breathing and strengthening this area, careful not to arch too far and keep the neck and head firm and secure. Next is a forward bend which is very relaxing, breath in and out as deeply as you can here gently and slowly. You want to breath in as far as you can, and out again slowly, not rushed. This posture helps to reduce mucous build up which is a symptom of asthma. From here Salute to the sun has many different variations which can include the upward and downward dog, plank and cat pos,e but can include others. All of these promote muscle strength and control and will help build power and firmness in your core area.
The concentration and breathing involved in this posture really help me to empty my usually cluttered and racing mind. Work on keeping your core muscles tight and ‘engaged’ throughout, using your breathing as a way of deepening the concentration.
Here we’ve discussed just a handful of yoga postures that make up the practise of yoga. There are over a hundred different exercises and positions to try, all of which, if conducted safely and correctly, are beneficial to health and will give your whole body an all round workout. Please do seek professional help and expert advice before trying any of the postures suggested here.
Recently in Natural News an article caught my eye, “Yoga improves mood, reduces inflammation and relieves chronic diseases”. In it Chris Streeter, MD, and his colleagues from Boston University School of Medicine claim they have “discovered that this is because of yoga’s ability to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an endogenous antidepressant neurotransmitter present in the brain.”
Deep relaxation and meditation using yoga and chanting are also thought to be beneficial to health. Read Michelle Berriedale-Johnson’s article to find out how she got on trialling Sheffield Yoga for ME/CFS new yoga nidra practise CD. I fail miserably trying to meditate; I get so far and then fall asleep, and on the few occasions that I have tried it I’ve missed trains and appointments only to awake hours later from a deliciously deep but unplanned sleep. Usually this means I needed the sleep and relaxation but the aim of meditation is to find that clear space where you can truly appreciate the practise of meditation – not to just fall asleep!
Special thanks go to Pattie Smith, my rather special yoga teacher, who has taught me a real love of yoga practise and almost everything I know about yoga; she manages to make it fun and challenging at the same time.
Yoga: natural fitness for body and spirit from The Body Shop
Dynamic yoga by Godfrey Devereux
Yoga techniques for alleviating asthma by Matt Gluck (in Yoga Natural Living magazine)
Kundalini Yoga: to detox and destress with Maya Fiennes
So yoga is good for us, brush off your yoga mat and get practising. I am aiming to do more yoga practise and try to get a weekly routine going. So far I’ve failed to do this by not setting time aside but I am positive that my health will benefit from practising more than my regular once a week. Do you practise yoga? What are your favourite postures? Do you think it’s beneficial to your health? I look forward to hearing from all you budding yoginis out there.