Life is an amazing gift, but sometimes it can be incredibly stressful and challenging. When life seems to overwhelm us with obstacles and setbacks it can be very difficult to step back from the overwhelming pressure and haze that we are experiencing, to see the light that continues to shine through.
Stress has many physical effects on the body, one of which is the increased production and release of a hormone called cortisol. In fact this hormone is sometimes called the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol has many important functions such as metabolising glucose, regulating blood pressure, and supporting immune function and inflammatory response. When the body goes into ‘flight or fight’ mode in response to the threat of danger it releases extra cortisol which can have some positive effects such as a quick burst of energy, lower sensitivity to pain and heightened memory function. This helps us to protect ourselves or to get away from the dangerous situation as quickly as possible.
This increase in cortisol also occurs when we are experiencing high levels of stress, which can be helpful in the immediate stressful situation, however prolonged stress causes increased levels of cortisol to remain in the body. Usually after a flight or fight response, the body then relaxes and the cortisol levels balance back out. However if high levels of stress continue without relaxation or respite, the high cortisol levels remain and it can have negative effects both on the body and mind. These negative effects can include high blood pressure, increasing abdominal fat, lowered immunity and impaired cognitive function, all of which only exacerbate the feeling of stress.
Using techniques to help your body and mind relax is the best way to keep your cortisol levels balanced, reduce the stress in your life, and better manage your coping skills.
Meditation is a tool that has been used for thousands of years to improve the health of both body and mind, by decreasing stress whilst increasing mindfulness and inner peace. In my earlier years of school I was bullied quite badly and my mother used to practice meditation with me to help me relax before school, after school and sometimes before bed. This was the most effective way for me to relax and overcome the stress I was experiencing.
Breathing Techniques are a fantastic way of immediately addressing a stressful situation. Through yogic breath, or full abdominal breathing, you can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, increase your oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release, as well as calming the mind and regulating cortisol levels.
Yoga involves a unity between the mind, body and breath, all of which are impacted by stress. Through the practice of yoga we are able to focus the mind into the body, regulate the flow of breath, and activate the production of endorphins. All of which work to regulate cortisol levels and reduce stress.
Exercise is an important part of every healthy lifestyle, but it is also an excellent way of reducing stress. It actually works to increase the level of cortisol during exercise, but afterwards the levels lower again and regular exercise can help regulate high levels of cortisol. When I am feeling particularly stressed I enjoy going for a jog or a bike ride to help unwind and relax.
Music is a great way to unwind and de-stress, whether you play it yourself, sing a song, or put on a relaxing album. Not everyone has the same tastes in music, and what works to relax you might not relax another. Whatever your tastes are, music generates a relaxed mood and will help reduce stress and in turn regulate your cortisol levels.
Not only do all these above techniques help reduce stress, and regulate cortisol levels, but when implemented regularly into your lifestyle they also have the power to help prevent high levels of stress from recurring! So try to find a balance between your work, personal responsibilities and taking care of yourself, because you are worth it!
Eating delicious yet healthy foods has always been something I enjoy. Not just because I enjoy food (and trust me I do!), but also because it is almost as though I can feel the goodness being absorbed into my body. It is a noticeably healthy ‘good’ feeling, much like I feel after doing a spin class or going for a jog. It is possible that this ‘good feeling’ is partially in my mind, however I know for a fact that I feel better after eating a delicious steak and salad, or fresh made vegetable soup, than I do after eating a burger and fries, or pizza. In fact eating junk food always leaves me feeling heavy, bloated and lethargic (and a little bit guilty!), whereas healthy wholesome foods make me feel nourished and vitalised.
It is the same with what I put on my body. Most soaps, shampoos, deodorants, cosmetics, washing powders and even baby products are full of nasty chemicals that are being absorbed into our skin with contact. On all forms of media we are constantly being bombarded with why we need this face cream to reduce wrinkles, or that hair balm to have shiny hair. When really what we are doing is plying ourselves with more and more chemicals.
Hundreds of years ago we were on the right track, using natural ointments and home remedies to keep ourselves looking fresh and beautiful. Unfortunately though, over the years in order to make products last longer as well as adding fragrance, colour and texture, they have become more and more artificial and chemically structured.
I personally struggle with this because not only do I have dry skin and hair, I also have very sensitive skin and many harsh chemicals (especially highly perfumed ones) make me come out in a rash.
Fortunately our society is becoming more aware of the health risks involved with exposing our porous skin (we literally absorb it into our bloodstream) to the harsh chemicals we use daily. Because of this more and more ayurvedic, natural and organic products are becoming available. Not just face creams and body scrubs, but also cosmetics, shampoos and conditioners and washing powders. But it is important not to be fooled by a product being labelled ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ though, always check the labels to ensure they are not just trying to jump onto the bandwagon and re label their pre existing products.
There is a long list of nasty chemicals you should try to to avoid, some of the more common ones include:
- Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
- DEA, Cocamide DEA and Lauramide DEA
- Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
This only naming a few, others include chemicals that release formaldehyde (used in the preservations of corpses) which acts to preserve your skin!
What you might be surprised to know though, it that many of the delicious wholesome foods we enjoy eating actually make fantastic and effective alternative beauty products!
Here are 5 of my favourites that I use regularly:
- Oatmeal and honey facial scrub: Combine these two ingredients to make a fantastic facial scrub that helps get rid of old skin leaving your face feeling fresh and vibrant.
- Avocado, honey and yoghurt face mask: Mix half an avocado with one tablespoon of honey and one of plain yoghurt (ideally full fat).
- Cucumber eye de-puffer: Cucumber slices are an effective way of reducing puffy tired looking eyes. It is also lovely to apply at the same time as your avocado face mask and then relax back and enjoy the goodness!
- Egg white facial cleanser: Beat the white of an egg with a little bit of water and then use your fingers to massage into damp skin for about 30 seconds before rinsing off. This will leave your skin feeling firm and fresh!
- Lemon hair treatment: Lemon juice not only helps to lighten your hair in the sunshine, it is also a great way of making it shiny and healthy. Add a teaspoon to damp hair after washing and massage it through.
What is it that makes us human? It might seem like a really basic question, with a simple answer, but I have asked many different people, from different fields of expertise, and all of which have given me slightly different perspectives and ideas.
I have always found that we are multifaceted on many levels. There are so many aspects of who I am that continue to surprise, delight or confuse me.
It wasn’t until I started to learn about the koshas that it all started to make more sense. This was the first time I had heard a structured layout of what makes us human that manages to cover all the different, and sometimes conflicting, layers of who I am.
In the vedantic philosophy, we are taught that each individual is formed of 5 layers, or sheaths, of self. Much like an onion, these 5 layers wrap around each other and depend upon the others for substance and stability. In order for each layer of self to function at it’s optimal level, there needs to be a balance and harmonious relationship with the other 4 layers. This is why focusing on one area of self, whilst neglecting the others, does not bring the balance desired.
These 5 layers of self are known as the 5 koshas: annamaya kosha, pranamaya kosha, manomaya kosha, vijnanamaya kosha and anandamaya kosha
Annamaya kosha: This is the physical body, all the parts of you that come together to form your physical self, your bone, flesh, blood, hair etc. You need to look after your annamaya kosha by ensuring you eat a nutritious balanced diet, sleep well, exercise and keep protected against the elements. Practicing yoga helps keep this layer of self fit, flexible and healthy.
Pranamaya kosha: This is your energetic body, or your ‘pranic’ body. This kosha works in harmony with the first kosha to ensure that everything functions correctly. It is the energy that drives the heart to pump, the lungs to breath and the legs to walk. If the annamaya kosha is not properly fueled and rested, then the pranamaya kosha cannot provide all the energy that is required. Practising yoga and pranayamas help regulate this layer of self and ensure that the energy can flow freely through your whole body.
Manomaya kosha: This is your mental body, or your lower mind. The ‘monkey mind’ that is constantly chattering away about what you are making for dinner, how comfortable your new shoes are and what you think of your neighbour mowing the lawn at 5am. It is this kosha that assesses things from the ‘I’ or ‘mine’ perspective. Again this kosha works in harmony with the other two koshas. If the physical body or the energetic body are not functioning at their optimal level, the manomaya kosha is effected. If you are tired or unwell, you are more likely to be emotional or sensitive. Practising yoga and meditation helps keep this layer of self balanced and in harmony with the other koshas.
Vijnanamaya kosha: This is your higher mind, or your intuitive mind. The part of your mind that sometimes stops your manomaya kosha mid rant and suggests it calm down. It is the fleeting experience of intuition that we sometimes experience. The witness of the mind. Unfortunately vijnanamaya kosha only seems present in fleeting moments, however we can encourage and connect with our higher self through balancing the lower 4 koshas and practising meditation and mindfulness daily.
Anandamaya kosha: This is considered to be the bliss layer, the part of each person that connects to the universal consciousness. This layer becomes most active at times during deep sleep. It is said that those few who manage to achieve enlightenment in this life have connected to their own anandamaya kosha, which is the doorway to universal consciousness.
Have you ever noticed that when you are experiencing heightened emotions, your breath is often dramatically affected? When I am feeling scared I usually notice that I take shorter, shallower breaths. When I get angry I have a tendency to take sporadic breaths and even unknowingly holding my breath for short periods.
Noticing how you are breathing is an important technique in cultivating mindfulness into your life. The first thing to notice is where in your body you are breathing from?
Breathing from your chest: You may find that if you are feeling angry, or upset that you are taking shallow breaths from your chest area. When we breath from here we are unable to get the full capacity of oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, which only works to exacerbate any negative emotions we are feeling.
Breathing from your belly: This is our natural and relaxed state of breathing. When our bellies are completely relaxed and we take slow steady breaths that flow all the way down and seem to fill the whole torso. Next time you notice yourself getting a little worked up emotionally, take a few moments to slow you breathing down and relax your belly, allowing your breath to flow from here.
So now you know that emotions can change and alter our flow of breath, but are you also aware that the same can be done in reverse? That by manipulating the flow of your breath, you are also able to adjust and alter your emotional and even physical state?
‘Pranayama’ is an ancient sanskrit word that means breath control. ‘Prana’ actually means energy or vital force (in this case breath) and ‘Yama’ means self control (‘Ayama’ means to extend or draw out). Through manipulating the flow of the breath we are not only able to calm our mind, we can also energise it, put it into a state more conducive to meditation, or even heat or cool our physical body!
- Yogic Breath (Full Breath)
This practice uses the full range of breathing capacity by firstly inhaling through the thoracic region, then continuing down into the abdominal region. The breath is then paused for a very brief moment before being released from the abdominal region and then released from the thoracic region. Each breath is slow and deep, however there is no straining required and it should be comfortable to maintain for extended periods of time. This practice is fantastic for generating mindfulness, by anchoring your awareness into your physical body. It can be used to calm the mind or prepare your mind and body for the practice of yoga or meditation.
- Brahmari (Buzzing Bee Breath)
This calming breath is used to not only calm the mind by reducing anger, anxiety, frustration and tension, but also helps treat insomnia. It is a fantastic way to internalise and prepare the mind for meditation. Practised by blocking the ears and using long exhalations to create a humming that vibrates the lips and mouth, brahmari creates specific vibrations that resonate through the mind, and act to lower blood pressure. This practice is best done under the guidance of a trained instructor and should be avoided if you have any infections or disorders of the ear.
- Nadi Shodhana (Balancing Breath)
This balancing breath actually works by manipulating the swara, which in turn balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is practised by positioning the hand in a specific way so that your index and middle finger rest on your eyebrow centre and your thumb and ring finger can alternating between blocking the left or right nostril. You then breathe for set counts between either side and both nostrils together. This practice is a fantastic tool for clearing the mind and balancing your logic and creative brain, preparing you for situations such as exams, interviews or anything that requires the full power of your brain.
- Bhastrika (Bellows Breath)
This dynamic breathing practice has a vitalizing and energising effect on both the body and mind. This pranayama should only be attempted under the guidance of a trained instructor and should be avoided if you suffer acute asthma or any serious heart conditions. Practised by forcibly breathing in equal portions, for both the inhalation and exhalation, in quick and powerful breaths. It is not only used to invigorate and energise, but it is also used to strengthen the nervous system and bring about clarity of mind.
- Sheetali (Cooling Breath)
This practice works by inhaling the breath through your curled tongue, or alternatively through your teeth (sheetkari), and exhaling out through the nostrils. This practice works to cool the body, in a way that is not too dissimilar to how specific species from the animal kingdom pant or keep their tongue protruding.
Many of us have been hurt by another person, or even many other people, at some stage in our lives. Whether we were hurt knowingly or unknowingly, with words or with actions, hurt is hurt. It makes no different if we felt abused, neglected or abandoned, the pain can leave deep marks, which can remain painful and continue to impact upon us for the rest of our lives.
Often we are told to forgive the other party, because we need to forgive in order to move on, but what does forgiveness actually mean?
I have always found ‘forgiveness’ to be a tricky word, that is often misused. It is so much easier to say it than to feel it. Some actions can just seem unforgivable, and the scars they leave may never completely fade.
Some people view the word ‘forgiveness’ as condoning what the other person has done, or giving in and expressing that the pain and anger they felt was not justified. If this is how you feel, then you are going to feel very reluctant to ‘forgive’ anyone who has truly hurt you.
This is why I like to use the term ‘letting go‘ instead of the word ‘forgiveness’. Because letting go is making a conscious choice to move on. A choice to discard the negative emotions that have been plaguing us. A choice to let our lives be filled once again with love, joy and happiness, because hate and anger only prove to be self deprecating and we deserve so much better than that!
The word ‘forgiveness’ implies that everything is now fine, which may be the case in some situations, but unfortunately in many it is not. For me, ‘l etting go’ of something instead implies that it is understood that whatever happened was in the past, it has been acknowledged, and now it is time to move on.
I remember an old saying my mother used to say at times when I was being bullied at school, ‘Forgiveness is the kindest gift you can give yourself’, and it wasn’t until many years later that the true meaning of this expression hit home. I began to realise what she was actually saying was that letting go of anger is the kindest gift I can give myself.
Holding onto anger and blame, even though these feelings may be valid, only adds more salt to a wound that has been created. Because lets face it, feeling emotions such as anger, hate and blame, take up quite a lot of energy and time. They wear us down and can even create disease in our bodies.
When we ‘forgive’ another person, by genuinely ‘letting go’ of our anger, we are not forgetting what happened or making it go away, some things can never just ‘disappear’. We are not declaring to the world that we want to spend time with the person who hurt us, we may not even declare that we ‘forgive’ them to anyone else but ourselves. But in letting go of the anger, we are actually gifting ourselves with an act of kindness. We are releases the burden that we had been carrying, freeing ourselves to move forward with strength and courage. We may still hold scars, physical or psychological, but they no longer hold us back.
So, if there is any anger you have been holding onto, from a wrongdoing that has been done to you in the past, take some time to reflect upon this and make the choice to ‘let it go’ and free yourself of the negative emotions you have been carrying.
Because as my wise mom always said “Forgiveness is the kindest gift you can give yourself!”