Do flamingos carry the secret to good sleep?

When you think of Flamingos, what pops into your head? Miami? Pink? Standing on one leg?

I bet, however, the first thing you think of is not a cure for sleep disorders. But, it might not be as ridiculous as you think; Seth Roberts has written about the effects standing has on quality of sleep. In particular Seth notes that when he spent large portions of his day standing (upwards of 8 hours), his quality of sleep was better. Of course, very few of us can or do stand for such long periods of time in any given day, so Seth tried standing on one leg instead.

If I stood on one leg “to exhaustion” — until it hurt too much to continue — a few times, I woke up feeling more rested

Our current lifestyles tend to involve a lot of sitting – sitting at work, sitting in front of the TV, sitting down for dinner. We don’t stand a lot anymore. And sitting is slowly killing us. Maybe the flamingos have it right after all. Maybe we should all stand on one leg more. The old favourites of Tree or Eagle Pose could be just the ticket to a better night’s sleep.

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Yoga writer

Cute way to get your yoga inspired text written in yoga postures, courtesy of Lenovo.

makko-ho

Tricks of the mind

Because we live in a world of a single light source, our brains have learned to trust shadows to help us identify what an object is doing or how it is moving through space. Which basically means we can trick our brains.

Here’s a quick youtube video about it – interesting stuff

Meditation techniques for beginners

Bodhisattva

Bodhisattva

Even though meditation is a deep and never ending subject, with a multitude of techniques and practices that can be tailored to very specific outcomes and goals, I often find that the simplest techniques are the most powerful. Meditation techniques for beginners are usually deceptively simple and it’s easy to forget just how profound these very easy sounding instructions can be.

There is no great mystery to meditation, it really is a case of just stop procrastinating and start doing the practice. Before we get to a few free meditation techniques though, lets talk a little about the purpose of meditation.

Often, people think the idea of meditating is to block out the stress of daily life. To “turn off” the mind and cut out reality. In fact, meditation is pretty much the opposite. Good technique will allow you to open up to life fully, to understand the stresses and emotions and root causes of what you are going through and to accept them. The great advantage of meditation is that, through practice, you will be able to pre-empt your reaction to many of life’s challenges and by doing so, become less attached and less caught up in the heat of the moment. understanding why you react to a situation with anger will allow you to almost feel the moment before you get angry, accept that you are and let it go. You will also start to find the places between the thoughts and emotions. The points of stillness and calm. Being aware of these moments gives you great strength because you come to realise that even in the moments of great stress, there are points of pure calm; yin and yang.

There are a few key points to any meditation practice – try to follow these as you start your meditation:

  • Stay comfortable – a little physical discomfort is part and parcel of meditation, partially because you will suddenly become aware of all the little aches and pains and tensions you never knew you had and partly because you will be sitting still for longer than you normally do and don’t realise how many minor adjustments you make in your posture on a moment by moment basis. Try to stay comfortable and keep relaxed.
  • Make a routine – to start with, it is best to set aside a specific time and place for your meditation and follow through with it each day. It takes five days to start building a habit, but once you get over the initial hurdle, you will find it easier to stick with it. Setting asside the same time every day to do your meditation will help you form the habit.
  • Start small – if you are a beginner, there is no way you’ll be able to sit for 30 minutes or an hour right off the bat. Start small. Five minutes a day for a week. Then gradually increase. Aim to build up to 30 minutes a day over the course of a year.
  • Persist – meditation is a long term practice. Results are rarely seen overnight. Give it time, commit to it and do the practice.
  • Detach – once you’ve decided to meditate, forget about measuring the benefits, at least in the beginning. This can be counter productive. Instead, just enjoy the journey and detach from the destination.

Now to the actual technique of meditation. Physically you can choose to stand, sit or lie down. Most people choose to sit when starting out. Lying down is physically a little easier than sitting because it allows you to relax a little more quickly, but it also makes it very easy to drop off to sleep while you are in the middle of your meditation. Standing up meditation techniques can the most tricky physically, because it requires the most residual muscle use.

So to keep things simple, lets choose to sit down. I like to use a straight backed chair and sit a little forward on it so my back is not against the back rest. You can sit cross-legged on the floor, using a zafu meditation cushion or stool or kneeling in zazen if you prefer, but to start with, for total beginners, sitting on a chair will be the easiest.

Find yourself a quit time of day and set up your meditation space – low lighting, maybe some incense or essential oils to help keep you in the right frame of mind.

For our first beginners meditation technique, we are going to concentrate on our posture. This is an ideal first meditation and the perfect place to start if you’ve never done any meditation before. Practice this for five minutes every day for a week and then come back for more. Set a timer for five minutes so you don’t constantly check the clock. If you have a timer with a soft chime to bring you back from your meditation, all the better.

Set comfortably a little forward on the chair, back free of the backrest. Rest your hands on your thighs or take a more traditional pose with them in your lap. Close your eyes. Imagine a very fine thread pulling your head up from the centre of the top of your skull. This is in fact a very important actupucture point called Bai Hui.

Feel your spine stretching gently as you head raises up a little. You should feel as if you head is floating a little and each vertebrae gets a little more space between itself and it’s neighbours. As your attention slowly goes down your spine gently elongating each vertebra, come to your tailbone and then feel your buttocks on the chair. Feel yourself sitting squarely, weight evenly distributed on your sitting bones, and then feel your tailbone gently pulling down into the ground.

The juxtaposition of the top of the head gently rising and the tailbone gently sinking creates a lovely gentle stretch to the spine. There are two very important acupuncture channels running along the back – the Bladder meridian on either side of the spine and the Du meridian directly on the spine. These two channels both allow acupuncturists to directly stimulate and bring qi to all the other meridians in the body. So keeping a good relaxed, but slightly stretched posture will have a beneficial effect on these meridians as well.

When you have completed going through the basic posture of the spine, bring your attention to your forehead. Feel it relax and soften from the middle of the forehead (the third eye – an important chackra and accupuncture point). The feeling is almost as if you are smiling with your forehead. Now concentrate on your mouth. Feel a light smile on your lips. Last bring your mind to your chest. Like the forehead, feel it relax and soften. These three things (forehead, mouth, chest) are sometimes called “the three smiles“.

From the chest move your mind to your shoulders and allow the trapezius to relax. Run your mind down each arm relax the biceps, triceps and forearms. Let your mind linger a little in the hands. Feel your fingers gently relaxing.

Now drop your mind into your belly. Let it relax. We aren’t on the beach. We aren’t in our bikinis. We don’t have to suck it in. Let your belly hang. Reaching the bottom of the belly run your mind gently down your ingiunal crease (the area around your groin in front of your hips) and let that area relax, move your mind into your buttocks and let them relax and then go down each leg in turn, allowing them to relax.

End in your feet. Feel the ground beneath them. Let the toes stretch slightly.

If your timer hasn’t gone off yet, then start again at the head and go through the alignments and relaxation again. When your timer goes and your five minutes are up, put your attention into your belly for a few seconds and then gently, slowly, open your eyes.

That’s it. Pretty simple isn’t it? We’ve covered a nice easy meditation technique for complete novices and beginners. Next time I’ll outline the next steps in the meditation.

Transcranial direct-current stimulation

There’s a huge topic to be had here – can and should we use technology to hack meditation? Some die hards schooled in traditional ways will immediately say “no!” – the idea that you can shortcut your way to any sort of samadhi is just repulsive to them. Others will jump straight in and say anything that can get people into meditation is a good thing and they will embrace everything and anything straight away.

I’m a bit conflicted on the issue to be honest. Having spent a large amount of time training, sitting, searching; I’m a bit of a fan of struggling a little – going through those initial tough periods where you can’t see the benefit yet or just can’t sit comfortably. I think part of the journey is to go through that initial settling in period in any spiritual practice – sometimes a leap of faith is very educational. On the other hand, I know I’ve struggled and had a less than stellar record on daily practice….and part of that is simply that it is sometimes hard, sometimes a struggle and if there’s something that can help and ease the way a bit.

Anyway Transcranial diracte current stimulation (tDCS) is a way of passing a constant low current directly to the brain using some small electrodes. It started, as many things do, as a form of therapy. I know, it sounds sort of archane and brings to mind electroshock therapy or the old god helmets which people reported brought about mystical experiences, but really tDCS is very mild and has helped people with brain injuries and strokes. However, recently, it has sort of gained popularity among healthy people as well because it can increase cognitive performance in everything from maths to attention span to memory to physical coordination.

WOW!

It sounds miraculous – imagine a quick and free attention boost. Bang goes one of the road blocks to your daily visualisation of complex mandalas. Get straight into the zone and experience flow first hand, right off the bat. I wonder how well this would work for some guided imagery type meditations.

So what’s the catch? Are there side effects? Well…so far, no. At least no short term side effects. However it is still being explored so long term risks are pretty much unknown at this time. I guess there will be some pioneers who will try it out, build their own tDCS devices and in a few years, we will have a better idea.

Old time strongmen – putting the mind into the exercise

I’ve become facinated with the old time strongmen and their methods of fitness! Trawling through the sandowplus site is like journeying back in time to world of music hall and carnivales. Reading up on the strongmen like Eugen Sandow, Charles Atlas and Swoboda is interesting, not only for their actual content, but also because it gives us a glimpse into the ideas of an age gone by.

Spured on by the industrial revolution and the relative ease of printing and distribution, an industry was born. The industry of mail order fitness. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, just as today, the focus of the fitness industry was on creating the perfect body. Bodyweight and dynamic tension were the order of the day, though there were some fitness apparatus being sold – the peculiar spring loaded dumbells that Sandow created and the Apollo bar (which was basically just a piece of metal bent in a U shape which was used to to pull, push and squeeze). The basic idea back then was to full tense and relax the muscles and thereby gain both definition, tone and health.

The marketing was all about the “disease of affluence” which was a popular notion that was doing the rounds – the industrial revolution had created an unprecedented number of white collar jobs and the more sedentary lifestyles meant people needed to start exercising in their spare time. Those who noticed and took advantage of this quickly made a large amount of money.

What is interesting though, is that some of the exercise instruction is actually really good – take Sandow, even though his showmanship lead him to pose in fig leaves and loin-clothes, was so dedicated to the Grecian ideal that he would measure the old Greek and Roman statues and try and create his body proportions to match. Sandow facinates me in another way though. He wrote in his book, that it is the mind that is really important in exercising and that all the average person needed was to train twenty minutes a day with light weights. This to me is the key – train everyday for a little time and keep your attention on the training.

sandow_dying_gaul

Sandow posing in a fig leaf

Sandow himself had impressive control over his body – he could flex any muscle at will, while keeping all the surrounding muscles relaxed (this is pretty difficult – for example try to tense your bicep without involving your tricep or deltoids).

His course included a set of exercises to be done while squeezing his spring loaded dumbells – the squeezing apparently, encourage you to bring your mind to the exercise and helped you isolate each muscle in each exercise. Sandow’s instructions are, if you can get passed the flowery writing, pretty precise – the bicep curls, for example, call for you to tense your bicep fully while keeping everything else relaxed. On releasing the curl, the bicep should relax and the tricep should tense. This simple sounding exercise, that we see people pumping through at the gym, is actually made much more difficult when you apply your mind. Sandow was so keen on the mind being in the exercise that he taught the use of weights only in the beginning to help people gain control over their bodies. Once you understood and had control over the body, in Sandow’s system, you would dispense with weights and rely totaly on the mind to exercise!

Eugen Sandow

It’s a little sad to see the way we have sort of devolved into mindlessly stomping on treadmills or watching TV while we go through the motions of exercise without proper attention to the body!

How wildlife took over when people left

Even in areas of unmitigated disaster, nature always does her best to adapt. A facinating documentary on wolves in Chernobyl

Does meditation make you happier

An interesting examination of one man’s first year of meditation. A gentle reminder that starting on a path of self-examination isn’t a quick fix or happiness pill, but rather a delving into your own physical and emotional state. It is refreshing to see an honest post like this – one that doesn’t gush with “oh my….meditation soooo changed my life”. At the same time, two thoughts come to my mind:

1) Having a good teacher and good friends is essential, especially if you are prone to depression

2) Having a physical practice is also essential. Too often we can become fixated on the mind and the feelings and the emotion and, if we are prone to overthinking, we can become trapped in a circle of thought that is difficult to get out of. A challenging physical practice can literally stop the mind from thinking because your attention will be taken over by the physical. I’ve always found this invaluable in allowing me to “switch off” my over-analytical mind.

Make your own yoga mat bag

Sewing your own yoga mat bag is very satisfying. For those of you who are handy with crocheting, here are a couple of yoga mat bag patterns:

Om Shanti Mat Bag

om shanti mat bag Nigella Yoga Mat Bag

nigella yoga mat bag

Sit down, stand up

I had a teacher once who said:

Lying down is closer to dying than sitting. Sitting is closer to dying than standing. Standing is closer to dying than walking. Walking is closer to dying than running.

And man could he run. Even though I’m sometimes cynical, there’s a grain of truth to his little saying. Evidence suggest that sitting for extended periods increases your chances of dying from a heart attack. Why? Well if I were to don the hat of eastern wisdom, I would say that movement is life and stagnation leads to pain and disease. From a western perspective, sitting in your chair all day means that your muscle activity drops which basically has a chain reaction in your body. You burn fewer calories and your body’s ability to break down fat in your bloodstream decreases. All bad news really.

To make matters worse, studies are finding that even exercising is not really good enough to counteract the effects. Basically it boils down to this:

People need to stand up more.

Which puts many people who work in offices in a quandary. Basically, if you have to sit on a chair all day, it’s better to fidget, bounce your legs, tap your toes anything that means you move, even just a little. Better still is to get some standing up time – a height adjustable desk means you can work standing up and sitting down, and varying it through the day tends to help people control their weight and stave off back pain. Or there’s always the option of using a fitness or stability ball for your chair since it will engage your core muscles and tends to make you move more. At home, spend more time standing up in the evenings. Maybe watch your TV standing up rather than slumped on the couch…..

It’s interesting to consider your practice in the light of these studies – if you spend your days sitting in a chair and your nights attempting to sit as still as possible in meditation, you might be doing more harm than good. What then to do? Well for meditation, you could take up standing meditation practice – not as barmy as it sounds really – people who train Tai Chi do it all the time and call it Zhan Zhuang or Standing Post.

More important though is to get some movement into your day – don’t just sit there in your job dying. Stand up, take a break, stretch walk, move, run.