The Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice is today December 21, 2019 and is the shortest day of the year. For some of us that signifies a time to celebrate that the days become filled with more sun light. Moreover, we cherish the day light and the way we feel it innately impacts our health. The sun provides vitamin D, increases serotonin (one of our happy nuerons), and gives us warmth. Check out this Article that shows a cool time lapse of the son shines on the earth as it spins on its axis
Below are 3 ways you can yoga to celebrate
1. Ground Down
Winter Solstice celebrations are known to celebrate the birth of the sun and so we ground down to keep us connected to earth and nature.
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with arms relaxed at your side, palms facing frontwards (thumbs away from body -not next to legs). Inhale deeply filling the lungs and as you exhale imagine a soft energy lowering all the way to the feet. Feel the feet touch the ground noting the 4 corners of each foot grounding down. Inhale imagine that soft energy rising up the body and out of the head. Repeat for 3-5 breaths (or longer if that feels good)
2. Honor the North, South, East and West
Some Winter Solstice celebrations have a circle theme representing the cycles of the sun and will use the representation of the circle created from the 4 cardinal directions on a compass.
Stand in Star Pose, legs as wide as comfortable, arms extended away from the body hands approximately level with shoulders. The arms represent east and west. Imagine your head as the North that gives you divine direction. Your feet are the south that provide eternal rest. The east arm (pick one or find a compass on your cell phone if you want to be exact) represents the rising of the sun, your source of inspiration and fears squashed. The west arm represents calmness, tranquility and letting go. Stand in star pose and focus on each representation one at a time as you move from one body part to the other. You my inhale and exhale at each “point” but breath is not necessary for this exercise.
3. Determine your Sankalpa (Intention)
The Winter Solstice is a time of reflecting and focusing on personal awakening. Consequently, we spend time thinking about a personal commitment to ourselves about the future. However, don’t this make this commitment a list of to do’s or goals to accomplish. Focus more on a way of being. Furthermore, think about a vow to yourself that helps you reach your highest intention. This is your Sankalpa.
Winter Solstice and Holiday Celebrations
The ancient celebration of the winter Solstice has significance in today’s holiday celebrations. For example, Here is one of the many interesting reads you can find. With google you can dig deeper about the winter solstice celebrations that are interwoven into different holidays previously and today. While the holidays can be a happy and celebratory time for many, the stress of preparing and traveling can have an impact on the immune symptoms of those struggling with chronic illness. Even healthy individuals find themselves getting sick from not taking the time to pause and destress for an healthy immune system. For those of you that are struggling to keep peace with your body through these holidays, take pause and take a moment for self care. Click on this guide for a Mantra and Mediation for the holidays.
What is Proprioception?
Proprioception is the awareness of our body in space. We have proprioceptors in our muscles, tendons, skin and joints that communicate with the cerebrum or cerebellum. The cerebrum is most likely what you visualize when you think of a brain and is responsible for conscious control of movement. The cerebellum is located at the back of the head, behind where the spinal cord meets the brain and coordinates movement. Take a look at this cool 3D graphic Here if you need a good visual of the brain.
Examples and Impairment
An example of proprioception is when you walk (move freely) without looking directly down at the surface you are walking on (don’t consciously think about the environment). The most well know test of proprioception is a sobriety test. That’s why officers ask that someone appearing impaired reach out their hand and touch their finger to their nose while standing on one foot. However, alcohol is not the only thing that impairs our proprioception. Disease and injury can also impair it as well as aging. Fortunately, we are able to improve it. As an example, professional athletes do proprioception training so they can process more information faster to and from the brain to enhance performance and reduce injury. Luckily, you don’t have to be an athlete to improve your proprioception for daily function.
How Does Yoga Help?
In addition to improving balance and muscle strength a yoga practice allows us to be more mindful. We can train our bodies to pay more attention and reduce our chance of re-injury as well as increase the rate of rehabilitation. Moreover, having better balance reduces the risk of falling (Important to the aging population). Proprioception involves a process with rapid communication to the brain. Slow yoga that allows for moments to pause and reflect on bodily sensations is a great way to improve it. Slow yoga also awakens any sensory amnesia we may have from traumatic experiences (physical or emotional).
Stay tuned for more about our sensory system and yoga that integrates improved awareness of our bodies and feelings.
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Creating a daily yoga practice
A lot of us are looking how to make yoga a habitual part of our life. Whether you’re looking for help to start a yoga practice or be more consistent, below are 4 ways we can understand how to use the brain to our advantage to build a practice.
Before I continue, I want to address the concept of improving neuroplasticity. In general the improvement of neuroplasticity is not an end result. There needs to be a purpose in the neural changes we are attempting to achieve.
So these 4 concepts apply to improving neuroplasticity for any patterns of thought or behavior we’d like to change.
Examine what you are specifically passionate about in your yoga practice and focus on that. Meditation, slow flow, a specific asana, chanting or a certain style of yoga are a few examples. Our passions are extremely personal to each of us so once you’ve figured that out, practice the part of yoga that excites you the most. Know why you practice and go from there.
Yes, once you’ve figured out what you love about your yoga practice, do it over and over again. This step may be somewhat of a no brainer in building a habit, but the key is to do what’s accessible to you. Don’t make plans to go to a daily 90 minute yoga class if that is not feasible to do because of time, health or other commitments. For example, if meditating is your jam, meditate for 5 mins as soon as you get up or before you get in bed. Start where you are. If you can only do this one day a week. Start there and you may start to see other opportunities arise (check out my blog on ”“How to Train the Brain to Manifest Quickly” to understand why you may start to notice more opportunities to practice) You can also do something simple like practice one one pose a day for a week (yes. Savasana counts)
So do what you love, do it often, and do it different ways. This can be as simple as starting your poses on the left side if you always start on the right. Taking classes from different teachers with different styles is another way. There are many styles of meditation so try a different method. Contact me if you need help figuring how to add novelty to whatever part of yoga you’re loving and repeating.
4. Focus and Awareness
Doing both of these may be the biggest key to changing neural pathways to creating a habitual yoga practice. Focus is more of an immediate paying attention to what you’re doing in your practice. Whereas awareness is paying attention so you may notice changes from practicing. You may be surprised and find that both focus and awareness may bring you to finding that your passion in your yoga practice has changed. Since our minds so easily distract us, here are two analogies to help letting go of the distracting thoughts. Imagine your thoughts are like balloons, but you let go of the string as the ballons float away. Are you a fan of nature? Imagine those thoughts like clouds drifting across the blue sky. They come and they go gently.
If after reading this, you’re having a bit of overwhelm, I invite you to start simply with practicing sun salutations here. Do as much or as little as you can, but remember these four things so you can train your brain and have a more consistent yoga practice.
What the heck is the HPA Axis?
HPA stands for Hypothalomic-Pituitary-Adrenal. Both the Hypothalumus and Pituitary gland are located in the brain while the adrenal glands are located above the kidneys. The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis primarily functions as one of our stress response systems. After a stress event occurs, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in our fight or flight response. Next, the HPA Axis kicks into action responding to hormones secreted during the fight or flight response. The hypothalumus communicates with the pituitary gland which then communicates with the adrenal glands. In response, the adrenal glands produce cortisol. The HPA Axis in turn communicates with the SNS to keep the gas peddle down for our stress response.
Here’s a great video for visual learners that names the hormones specifically, where the hypothalamus and pituitary gland are in the brain, and the location of the adrenal glands above our kidneys
HPA Axis Disregulation or Adrenal Fatigue
Unfortunately with chronic stress, the HPA Axis becomes disregulated. The result can be too high or low levels of cortisol in our body. This disregulation can result in a compromised immune system, low energy levels, and inflamation So while, “adrenal fatigue” has become a catchall phrase for individuals that are regularly tired, have wacky circadian rhythms, feel depressed, etc , it’s possible the real culprit of these symptoms is a disregulation of the HPA Axis.
How does Yoga Improve Regulation of the HPA Axis
The most obvious way to regulate the HPA Axis is to destress. Yoga has been know to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is the brake to the stress response of SNS (fight or flight). It’s not that the SNS is bad and the PNS is good, but for many of us we are out of balance, The goal is to have balance between the two, which in turn helps us better respond to stress from the get go. Since over exercising can be a cause of HPA Axis disregulation, slow yoga is the best approach to take.
Another method to help regulate the HPA axis is to get a good nights sleep. However, if your cortisol levels are high in the evening, falling asleep at a sensible time can be difficult. Yoga Nidra and meditation can be great ways to combat wakefulness when you’re feeling ready to sleep but your body says no. If you are not familiar with Yoga Nidra or meditation and do not live near a studio that offers these, there are apps which you can use like Insight Timer or Head Space to guide you nightly.
Yoga and the Brain
If you’ve read this far, I hope that means I was able to simplify the workings of this particular brain system and how yoga helps bring our body through our brain into homeostasis. Check out last week’s blog about the brain and Manifestation. I will continue to provide content like this on my blog and welcome comments, questions or suggestions. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter for future content on how yoga benefits the body through the brain.