Approachable Fitness & Physical Therapy

The Science behind Yoga (and other exercise programmes)

The Science behind Yoga (and other exercise programmes)

I recently shared an article about science and yoga.  It was interesting as it focused on changes within the brain brought about through yoga practice.  What I found most interesting was that these changes are brought about by the focusing of the mind rather than the performance or achievement of yoga poses.  This means that the benefits can be gained by any mindful exercise programme which encourages you to focus on breath, link your mind to your body and gain relaxation. 

Much of the benefit yoga is proven to provide is associated with the management of stress.  The article claimed that 90% of all the illness we suffer is stress related.  I haven’t been able to verify that figure but stress certainly has a big impact your health and your ability to recover.

Do you suffer any of these basic symptoms of stress:

  • High resting heart rate.
  • Repeated headaches.
  • Stiffness in your neck and/or tight shoulders.
  • Back pain.
  • Periods of fast shallow breathing.
  • Increased perspiration (e.g. sweaty palms)
  • Repeated stomach upset, nausea and/or diarrhea.
Or any of these which are more likely to develop over a longer period:
 •             You’re often off sick
•              You have high blood pressure
•              You suffer chronic neck, shoulder, or low back pain
•              You suffer reflux disease or IBS
•              You have low fertility, problems during pregnancy, or painful menstrual periods.
•              Your arthritis, asthma or other chronic conditions worsen
•              You have skin problems such as acne and psoriasis.

If any of these sound familiar then the regular practice Yoga, or a programme with the same benefits, could certainly help you to better health.

The main elements in Yoga that have been found to improve a person’s stress levels are: breath, movement, mindful attention and relaxation.

Breath is a particularly powerful tool and can be used to control the stress response of the body. By filling the lungs, taking fewer breaths, making them deeper and longer you control the breath and lower blood pressure and stress response.  By focusing your mind on each breath, you regulate your thoughts, give yourself space and empty your brain.  In research, focus on breathing has been shown to change the way in which the brain (prefrontal cortex) behaves. Particularly in reducing depression and changing behavior to be more positive.  Neurotransmitters work more effectively and the interbrain links are improved giving a variety of benefits to the body.

By combining breath, movement, mindful attention and relaxation we can change how we feel and in time even change how our bodies behave.

In fact you can get all these benefits from most of our classes at the Studio.

·        In IMF Pilates we spend time training our brains to consciously connect to different muscle groups and to identify and engage specific muscles we want to work.  This connects the mind to the body in a practical way.  By having to concentrate on each position the mind is forced to empty other thoughts.  In this way you can achieve relaxation and stress relief through simple movement.

·        In Yoga For Healthy Backs we use the power of breath and relaxation techniques to reduce specific back pain.

·        In All Woman IMF Pilates we additionally focus on the relaxation of each part of the body. This helps you to connect more fully with your body and to enable complete relaxation.  Brilliant for pregnant clients, particularly useful through labour, and menopausal women suffering from stress and anxiety.

·        In Janey’s Yoga, using classic poses, she has an approach she calls ‘help yourself to find yourself’. She positions herself as a facilitator to help you find yourself rather than a teacher of Yoga,  The article I mentioned earlier used the line ‘Use yoga to find out who you really are’, this is clearly aimed at the type of Yoga Janey practices.

The image of yoga, often shown by the media, and presented by Yogis themselves is of skinny flexible, capable people adopting difficult and complicated positions.  In reality, the benefits can be obtained by almost anybody.  If you are busy, stressed, unfit, overweight, inflexible, not used to exercise or not sure about joining a class, whatever your age, we can still help you.  None of these are a valid excuse for doing nothing.  Movement is vital if you are to improve any of the above conditions.


Come into your body and reconnect!

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Fitness Trends for 2016

As the New Year approaches we tend to look back and review the past year and also plan ahead to the next one.
2015 saw The Studio develop extra-small classes, enabling clients to enjoy individual tuition within a group format. This makes it affordable, effective and sociable.
I undertook further training to enhance my skills as a fitness professional and soft tissue therapist. My specialist training with an experienced osteopath this year was in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of knee pain. A really useful area in which to have more knowledge. My soft tissue work training was in recognising and releasing the tightness which causes poor posture and gives back pain along with some new techniques to offer sport massage without pain.

So, what underlying trends can we expect to see in 2016? (ref ACSM)
1. Wearable Technology
Trackers, heart rate monitors etc… all helping increase activity levels by constant monitoring.
2. Body Weight Workouts
Taking fitness back to basics by using body weight instead of machines and free weights.
3. HIIT
High Intensity Interval Training used with many forms of fitness to improve performance and shorten the time spent exercising.
4. Strength Training
Both in the gym and in classes for general fitness as well as improved bone density.
5. Fitness Professionals with better training
Improved training leads to better results and more choice for the public in looking to improve their fitness.
6. Personal Training
Including group PT - extra small group exercise classes, perfect for affordable individual tuition
7. Functional Fitness
Fitness which helps activities of everyday life, essential for keeping active for longer.
8. Fitness for Older Adults
Older adults have specific requirements which are now recognised and will be better catered for.
9. Exercise for weight loss
Dieting alone cannot achieve sustainable weight loss and this trend backs the theory that exercise is an essential part of weight loss.
10. Yoga
Yoga has many forms and often includes ‘wellness’ which features lower down the list of fitness trends. I see these combined to offer an exercise based way to cope with the stress of today’s busy lifestyles.
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Yoga:- Religion? Life Style? Extreme Exercise, Relaxing Exercise? Just what is Yoga?



In fact it can be any of these things, and more besides.  For an understanding of Yoga it is necessary to look at the history and development of this ancient art.

 

Before we start I must point out that I am not a Hindu, neither do I teach nor practice any of the true forms of Yoga. I am not an expert in this field, but am offering a simplified insight into the many meanings of the statement I do Yoga. and what might be involved in a Yoga session.

 

In the beginning.


We can start with the Vedas.  These are the four collections forming the earliest body of Indian scripture, which codified the ideas and practices of Vedic religion and laid down the basis of classical Hinduism. They were probably composed between 1500 and 700 BC, and contain hymns, philosophy, and guidance on ritual.

 

It is the Vedas that are the common link between Hinduism and Yoga and which form their very foundations. Yoga is in fact one of the 6 main branches of Hindu philosophy.

The word Yoga means Union some say union with God, others union with self. This union can be perceived through a variety of methods including, but not limited to, control of the mind and senses, meditation and caring for the body through asanas, pranayam, cleansings, and detachment from worldly objects. Yoga directs us towards a righteous path of living; it is the remover of our identification with our physical body; and the aid to achieving moksha (liberation) in this lifetime.

 

So Yoga is religious and part of Hinduism?

Yes, but not necessarily!  Even from quite early in the development of Yoga and Hinduism it seems to me that Yoga could and did stand separately from Hinduism, as well as being an intrinsic part of it.  Yoga was originally a way of life but over time, it seems, a variety of elements from the whole have been extracted, each with specific benefits, and each called Yoga.  Confusing isnt it.

 

And now?

There are many forms of Yoga, some are named (e.g.  Hatha, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Anusara, Restorative, Jivamukti, to name but a few) whilst others are just Yoga.  Each focuses on a set of targets or beliefs drawn from the Yogic teachings.

 

What does this mean for me?


When you attend a Yoga class you might find you spend your time relaxing and meditating.  Or, you could find yourself attempting to achieve extreme positions.  The class might be constructed to be accessible for any age or ability, or the session could expect a high level of fitness, stamina, strength and flexibility.

There is no doubt that there can be huge benefits to be gained by the practice of Yoga however it is also clear that Yoga can also be physically detrimental.

When you consider the history of yoga you can see that it was not invented as a remedy for back pain or other injury. If this is your aim you need to seek form of exercise with a more physiological remedial basis.

 

How can I know what I am letting myself in for?


I would strongly advise that you contact the person running the sessions and ask them specifically what the aims of the class are, what their qualifications are, and make sure that their answers match up to your own targets and expectations.  In any case be extremely wary of any class that expects you to push past the pain.  Pain is the bodys protection mechanism and you should only be working through pain in closely controlled circumstances with specific goals.
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Pilates, Yoga and back pain.

What is the difference between Pilates and Yoga, and why would you choose to take up one or the other?
Frequently either are recommended by physio’s or doctors for back pain and can be very beneficial under the right circumstances. Unfortunately both carry inherent risks, particularly for people with back issues, and Yoga tends to be less useful than Pilates in these circumstances.

Yoga
Yoga was developed in India hundreds of years ago to address a whole range of human issues, from the physical to the psychological. It would normally include a significant spiritual aspect as well as extreme body positioning, providing a 'whole body' (holistic) teaching and healing.
More recently popular Bikram and Ashtanga developments of this teaching include a dynamic approach, which can be difficult for less able (normal) people to handle.
Many Yoga teachings, including the Bikram and Ashtanga methods, aim to stretch the body as far as possible and to target the maximum range of movement through each joint. While this may be considered beneficial for a person with no history of joint pain or injury, it is not recommended from a bio-mechanical view. One reputable source recommended that only the under 25’s should be allowed into this type of yoga class.
I feel it is not developed from a physiology base, and not all positions nor movements would be recommended by up to date research into human physiology.
There are Yoga classes that focus on the spiritual elements and relaxation. These can be perfect if you are looking for stress relief or a meditation like class. The spiritual element actually enables some people to really connect their mind and body and gain a tangible benefit from this.

Pilates
Pilates is an exercise method developed by Joseph Pilates, an injured gymnast and body builder, in the 1920's. It was developed from exercises from all the programmes available at the time along with some innovation from Joseph P. This included Yoga and several fundamental Pilates exercises clearly come from this discipline. Joseph understood the need for “core strength” and this is the focus for most Pilates forms.
Whilst there are still trainers that teach “pure” Pilates (as Joseph would have done), other professionals have modified and developed the exercises ever since. There is no copyright on the word 'Pilates' so the content of classes can vary hugely.

Back Pain
Many of the Yoga movements are medically contra-indicated for the back (i.e. the risk of making matters worse, by doing the exercise, is greater than the likely benefit). Some of the Pilates movements are also contra-indicated for the back (mostly derived from Yoga movements).
For an example of a Yoga inspired Pilates exercise which can cause back pain we can take a bio-mechanical look at the ‘roll down’.
Yoga and Pilates both use the ‘roll down’, a movement from sitting to lying where the back curls round to allow vertebra by vertebra to reach the floor. The intention being to strengthen the abdominal muscles.
But what actually happens to your body when doing this?
The intervertebral disc space is opened which can aggravate or even cause bulging (herniation/slipped disc). A little like squeezing a jam donut until the jam pops out.
In fact not only the abdominal muscles but also the hip flexors, hold the body as it rolls down.
The shoulders curl forward shortening the pectoral muscle group and the mid trapezius lengthens.
For many people these muscles are either already tight (pectorals) or already long (mid trapezius) from daily repetitive movements such as computer work or driving. The hip flexors are frequently tight just from sitting down for too long.
It turns out that this exercise provides no real benefit but potentially compounds the postural issues that everyday life gives most of us. Worse still it can aggravate back pain and intervertebral disc issues, rather than helping.

My training as a back pain specialist made me question the validity of some of these exercises, particularly when clients have back problems (slipped or bulging vertebral discs, degeneration of facet joints or osteoporosis). My bio-mechanic training has encouraged me to question each exercise that I teach. What is the benefit? What is the risk? Why am I teaching it to this particular group? Is there a better way to gain the desired result? There should always be a clear answer to all these questions.
I have been teaching Pilates and Yoga, in various forms, for more than 20 years. Over the last 10 years I have developed “I move freely” Pilates as an exercise form that carries most of the Pilates benefits with few of the risks.
I Move Freely Pilates takes the principles of Pilates but integrates Bio Mechanic coaching techniques to offer an up to date way of keeping mobile, strong and with the optimum amount of flexibility. Mobility work is essential to keep the whole body moving easily.  I feel that mobility and balance are key skills that deteriorate with age but which with work can be improved reducing the risk of stiff joints and falls in old age.
The strengthening work uses the body's ability to statically contract or 'engage' a muscle as well as using controlled lengthening and contracting of specific muscle groups. It works on the muscles of the abdomen, buttocks (glutes) and back, many of which you can't see (most people don’t even know they have them), but which should perform functional roles of support throughout daily life.
  It is this functional supporting role that reduces back and other joint pain. Each exercise involves a very precise movement and often it is impossible for anyone else to 'see' how hard a person is working as the work is in 'engaging' a specific muscle.  This often leads people to do the exercises at a level below that of which they are capable and so they don't achieve the full benefit but feel they are 'stretching out' rather than 'working'.
Performed correctly Pilates can achieve great core stability and it is as useful to elite sportsmen and women as it is to the general public. 
This link (from my Norfolk Studio) explains more about stretching v working a muscle:
http://thestudionorfolk.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/are-you-stretching-or-working-your-muscles/

To Conclude
Most Yoga teachers have spent time in India studying and practicing so they are expert in their knowledge. Most Pilates instructors have studied the teachings of Joseph Pilates and have an in depth knowledge of the exercises and breathing techniques he espoused. However this does not make any of them experts in back pain management. They are unlikely to have had the training to working with particular conditions, such as arthritis, or liaising with physio’s as to the correct exercise programme for someone with a recently herniated (slipped) disc. For this you need a back pain specialist.
All forms of Pilates and Yoga can offer some people real benefits. To choose which would suit you best give some thought to what you hope to achieve and how your body will respond to the challenges of each class. Do try several before deciding which suits you and don’t be put off if your back aches after one class, try another – they are all different.
I also strongly recommend taking at least one consultation with a back pain trained exercise professional, since it is essential to know some basic information about how to perform Pilates exercises that is not usually covered in the class situation.
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Thinking about taking up Yoga?


THINKING ABOUT STARTING YOGA?

Before you do you should understand the potential benefits and dangers (yes dangers) of practising Yoga.

Yoga has been criticised for being potentially dangerous by causing injuries and aggravating existing conditions such as arthritis.  Some authors of critical articles have themselves been injured in a Yoga class, others get their information 2nd hand by talking to participants in Yoga classes. Research can be difficult to verify as there have been no specific clinical trials so information is usually taken from surveys.

An extensive survey of yoga practitioners in Australia showed that about 20% had suffered some physical injury while practicing yoga. In the previous 12 months 4.6% of the respondents had suffered an injury producing prolonged pain or requiring medical treatment. Headstands, hand stands, shoulder stands, lotus and half lotus (seated cross-legged position), forward and backward bends, produced the greatest number of injuries. Respondents commonly took the blame for the injury on themselves, citing reasons such as ‘pushing it too far’ and not warming up, along with being too competitive. Read the source document here

The same article also asked the participants for the effect that Yoga had had on a range of over 500 specific medical conditions from which they suffered.  The results were positive:

• Much better 53.3%
• Better 29.3%
• Little better 12.5%
• No change 4.5%
• Little worse 0.3%
• Worse 0.0%
• Much worse 0.4%

In my opinion there are many health benefits for both mind and body to be gained from taking up yoga.  The relaxation element is good for sufferers of depression as well as in rehabilitation from cancer and the management of heart disease.  The flow through a succession of poses can help with stress management and improved posture

Injuries seem to come from beginners pushing themselves beyond their ability and instructors with little training, or experience, who cannot evaluate each participant’s ability and offer alternative positions.  Looking at the list of positions which incurred most injuries, head and shoulder stands should only be performed under close supervision by those working at an intermediate level.  Lotus and half lotus positions place the knees in positions which will aggravate any existing damage to ligaments or cartilage whether originating from an injury or wear and tear. Forward and backward bends put load on the spine which can aggravate any degenerative conditions and potentially cause back pain rather than ease it.

Ensure that you choose an instructor who has experience and a class which works at your level.  Watch out for exercises which may not be suitable for you (see injury section above) and listen to your body.

As an exercise professional I am keen to see everyone partake in some sort of exercise, it’s a question of finding what suits you and for many Yoga will be ideal.  Give it a try, but carefully.
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