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We all have this vision of the perfect self, our perfect life, relationships, or the way our days and the whole life should be like. Some of us make everything to try to realize this vision, as they believe it's up to them and a bit of luck. They strongly believe they deserve it, their support system is in place and all the universe works so that they make step by step on this way to the perfect life. There are also some for whom this is not so straightforward. First of all, even if they have this ideal vision, their current life and past experiences result in the lower esteem of the control over this and the change seems not so realistic. How about you? Where are you now? Is there something that's bothering you so much that it's been following you for a very long time? Is there this one element in your life that you KNOW should be different for you to feel happier? What are you missing in order to make this step? Friday 19 November, my #66 DAYS FOR CHANGE program is launching for the last time this year. People have been asking me for it, so I'm not waiting till 2022. And this is actually because I simply don't believe in the New Year's resolutions. The sustainable change needs to happen wisely and throughout time, not from 31 December to 1 January. I tried and failed every time. This is how psychology works and we suddenly feel deprived of something the moment we decide to change it. Instead, let's look at various elements of your life before you decide what works and what needs some more attention. I'll be guiding you step by step and we will schedule a 1:1 session once you're ready to go forward with the change. If you want to be part of it, sign up and get ready for this amazing journey!

pic: adelepazani

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Our brain determines what is threatening, and therefore stressful to us. Its stress response involves two-way communication between the brain and the cardiovascular, immune, metabolic, and other systems via the nervous system, endocrine system, and HPA axis.

The optimal homeostasis is a state in which the organism's immediate needs sustain the least possible long-term costs. Allostasis is our adaptive process of maintaining stability during conditions that are outside of our range. So, the allostatic load is the body's cost to maintain this stability, which is often reflected in diseases and pathophysiological conditions. This is especially important for chronic stress and manifests in elevated blood pressure and heart rate, leading to long-term effects like hypertension and cardiac morbidity. Overactivity of stress-responsive systems is associated with increased symptoms in a wide range of diseases:

  • Psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression)

  • Alcohol or substance dependence

  • Epilepsy

  • Chronic pain

  • Cardiovascular disorders

  • Metabolic disorders (diabetes, obesity)

  • Immune disorders (infection, asthma, cancer)

The “fight-or-flight” response, activated by the amygdala, is responsible for the outward physical reactions most people associate with stress, including increased heart rate, heightened senses, a deeper intake of oxygen, and the rush of adrenaline. Finally, a hormone called cortisol is released, which helps restore the energy lost in the response. Stress induces an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system, decreasing the parasympathetic nervous system and increasing the sympathetic nervous system's activity. It reduces the activity of GABA- the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, increasing the allostatic load. During periods of high norepinephrine release, GABA and dopamine may be inhibited, influencing our ability to move gracefully (affecting motor control).

Neural circuits that mediate the effects of the ANS and HPA axis converge in the hippocampus, a limbic system component. Embedded in the medial temporal lobe, the amygdala and hippocampus are vital for memory function, emotion processing, and mediation of psychological stress, and modulation of HPA response to stress. The amygdala is responsible for threat perception. Hippocampus is responsible for the experience of stress. It releases a hormone CRH, carried to the anterior pituitary lobe, where it stimulates ACTH's secretion. This induces the adrenal glands to induce cortisol. Chronic stress results in increases in glucocorticoid levels. It provides negative feedback that activates CRH release in the amygdala. It creates fear-based behaviors and defensive reactions. Stress is associated with a volume reduction of the hippocampus and decreased hippocampal GABA levels because of the cortisol increase. Hippocampus has receptors that are sensitive to cortisol. Chronic stress ultimately also changes the brain's chemicals, which modulate cognition and mood, including serotonin. Serotonin, released in the raphe dorsal nucleus, is important for mood regulation and wellbeing. In fact, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to restore serotonin's functional activity in the brain in people with depression. 90% of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Sleep and circadian rhythm disruption are a common feature in many psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, play a key modulatory role in sleep. Elevated cortisol levels can, therefore, interfere with our sleep. Hypothalamus is responsible for circadian rhythms, and through the hormonal network, it is instrumental in creating the stress response. What's the impact of yoga on our brains? Performing asanas, we deepen the connection between our body and the primary motor cortex. We become more coordinated in our movements and more aware of the space surrounding us. Also, our self-awareness refines with the practice, and we become more aware of the effects of the bodily posture on our mood, getting better and better at detecting signals when we start being out of balance. This is a handy skill in creating resiliency to stress through self-awareness. From the ANS perspective, yoga reduces the allostatic load in stress response to restore homeostasis. Yoga practice is seen to correct the under activity of the PNS and GABA through the stimulation of the vagus nerves- the main peripheral pathway of the PNS. This improves the brain's functions for threat perception, interception, fear processing, emotional regulation, and defensive reactions. What’s more, yoga can modulate the pain perception through the challenging sensations while maintaining asanas for longer periods (influence the anterior cingulate cortex- ACC and insula). Long-time yoga practitioners have higher pain tolerance and thicker ACCs. This certainly changes our perception of a stressful situation, as we know we can handle it, and it will pass, not allowing it to affect us as a whole being, keeping strong and healthy boundaries. Yoga is also seen to increase heart rate variability, especially throughout the mix of energizing and calming asanas and breathing practices (ujjayi/ kapalabhati sandwich). The third and most myelinated vagus, according to Porges, promotes calm states consistent with the metabolic demands of growth, repair, and restoration. It also supports social engagement and prompts feelings of safety. Increasing vagal tone reduces heart rate and blood pressure, and decreasing vagal tone accelerated the heart rate and blood pressure. Vagal control allows for rapid adjustments in the heart’s beat-to-beat intervals. Yogic breathing can influence the ANS and HRV. It stretches the receptors in alveoli, baro-, and chemoreceptors, sending the vagal afferent signals to induce relaxation. An excellent example is coherent breathing, using a fixed rate of 6bpm. Also, Om chanting elongates the exhales, increasing the HRV. The main pathways to influence the PNS are within the vagus nerves. Each vagus is bidirectional, containing efferent and afferent nerves. Various fibers innervate the pharynx, larynx, lungs, heart. Many yogic practices focus on the opening in these areas of the body (backbends, ujjayi, spinal twists). There are neural connections that convey information from the vagus nerves to the structures that mediate interoperceptions and affective states and influence emotional states and thought processes. Yoga practice requires attentional engagement and is associated with positive changes in brain structures, especially in areas connected to awareness, attention, executive functions, and memory. It is seen to enhance the brain cortical thickness in the left prefrontal cortex. The practice of yoga seems to have a neuroprotective effect, thus positively impacting mental health. Finally, yoga practice can also be seen as a type of physical exercise. Exercise tackles inflammation by leading to an anti-inflammatory response. Besides, exercise increases neurogenesis – the production of new brain cells – in important areas, such as the hippocampus. It also improves our mood, cognition, and physical health.

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Breath is so powerful, yet so often taken for granted and forgotten. Taking a breath is the first thing we do after we are born, and the last thing that's done before dying. It is essential to our existence, so we probably should be more aware of its mechanisms. Breathing gives us energy – thanks to the transport of oxygen to the cells of our body. We need to nourish our cells with oxygen and get rid of waste products, like CO2. Breathing is key to neurological processing. Putting it short- we can't live without our breath or how we breathe is how we live.

Seeing this process physiologically, we can talk about respiration- the exchange of gas in our bodies, minute ventilation- the volume of air breathed into the lungs in a given minute, respiration rate – the number of breaths per minute or tidal volume – the amount of air displaced during inhalation. But how exactly the inspiration happens? The brain stem initiates the inhalation. Via the phrenic nerve, the diaphragm muscle contracts downwards. This changes the pressure in the lungs and pulls the air into the lungs. When the lungs are full, afferent baroreceptors feed the brain stem causing inhibition of inhalation. The exhalation is passive. Of course, this is very simplified, as there are more muscles used in breathing (intercostals, abdominals, or accessory muscles).

Breathing could be modified voluntarily, and the observation of the way someone breaths can tell us a lot about this person's state (relevant in grief, depression, anxiety). In yoga therapy, we use breathing assessment as a critical element of diagnosis, looking at the location, rate, intensity, and inhale/exhale ratio. The most optimal breathing is the diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, however some people present reverse breathing and, on some occasions, accessory (chest) breathing, like when we exercise.

Forced way of breathing may manifest in muscle tension, especially around the scapula, upper arm, and chest. Too much of the accessory breath may be the result of bad habits, respiratory disease, or stress. As a result, our accessory muscles get tight, diaphragm weakens, we get headaches, and we have reduced uptake of oxygen and feel stressed, as we are in a sympathetic arousal state.

There are many ways to adapt the breathing patterns to what can be potentially more beneficial for us, only by modifying the way we breathe. Prolonging the exhale is a simple adaptation skill to use in response to stress. When we want to signal our mind that we are relaxed- we should breathe into our lower lungs. It is because our lower lungs are richer with alveoli (end of the bronchioles), where the air exchange occurs. Their total surface is of 50-100sqm in a healthy person. Hemoglobin from the red blood cells will pick up oxygen and has more space to expand- its compliance is more significant in the lower part of the lungs, so it permits greater gaseous exchange. For our optimal health, we need 95-100% oxygen saturation- the amount of available hemoglobin that bounds to oxygen. It is problematic for people with anemia.

Yoga therapy offers useful tools to respond to the individual needs to adjust the breath location, rate, and intensity as well as ratio. The most relaxing breathing rate is 5-6 breaths per minute. During this slow breathing, we keep CO2 at an optimal level, so that the blood doesn't become too acidic. Once we speed up the respiration, there's more CO2 in the blood, making it more acidic. That's why we expel more CO2 during exercise. It's a by-product of glucose use that we need to get rid of. It can become a vicious cycle for people with anxiety. People engaged in relaxation consume less oxygen, as they are in a parasympathetic state. The longer exhalation sends signals from the nucleus via the vagus nerve to drop the heart rate.

A yogic perspective on energy, breath, and alignment

Yogic philosophy's view on breath starts with the concept of energy. According to yogic texts, prana is omnipresent universal energy. On a macro level, this manifests in electricity, magnetism, and heat. In the human body, this refers to the subtle body, connecting to the networks of channels, resulting in the physical and mental processes influenced by the level of the flow of this energy. The quality of prana can differ and is prone to change. We can work with prana by breathing practices but also regarding its quality in the environment that surrounds us as well as food that we consume.

Other misalignments may lead to various disbalances and diseases, depending on location in the body. Prana is subdivided into five vauys (bodily winds): prana, apana, samana, udana, and vyana. Prana vayus, located between diaphragm and base of the neck, controls all the other in an upward motion and is responsible for respiration, heart, and lungs functioning, as well as circulation. Apana, located in the pelvic region, is responsible for elimination and excretion (functions of kidneys, bowel, and bladder). Samana, located between navel and diaphragm, has a balancing role between apana and prana as well as controls the digestive system and our metabolism. Udana is located in extremities (arms, legs, neck, and head) and controls our senses, movements, and speech. It's a link between the heart and brain. Vyana is pervading the whole body and provides us a "second wind".

The alignment of the energy in our bodies, according to the yogic model, is represented in various koshas (our sheaths of functioning). In manomaya kosha, it results in clarity of mind, in vijnanamaya kosha- in a clear insight and anandamaya kosha in a pure experience of bliss.

Our way of influencing the energy in various koshas and prana centers is through breath control- pranayama. It literally means the extension of the vital force through deliberate control of respiration. Its purpose is to purify the energy and liberate us so that it leads to the power of the mind (steady breath=steady mind). Pranayama has been treated as a preparation for meditation and has a broad spectrum of techniques (ujjayi, sitkari, sitali, bhastrika, bhramari, murcha, plavini).

The aim of purification through the breath is connected with another conceptual model of nadis. Nadis are portrayed as energetic channels in subtle bodies through which prana flows. It is a universal concept for yogic and Chinese medicine (meridians). According to this theory, there is a central channel- Shushumna nadi, as well as left (ida) and right (pingala) nadis. They all originate from the base of the spine (root chakra- muladhara). Shushumna flows directly upward and ida and pingala coil around the central spinal column in alternate directions, crossing at various chakras. Yogi's aim is to balance the flow of prana between ida and pingala so that they are unified in shushumna. Then one can achieve a state of inner peace, and kundalini can rise till crown chakra, resulting in a samadhi state.

Ida and pingala are opposing forces. Ida governs the left side of the body, is related to the lunar energy, and represents introversion, relaxation, cooling qualities. Pingala rules the right side of the body, is related to solar energy, adding more dynamism, heat and is energizing. Shushumna is active only when both sides are in balance – achieving physical and mental neutrality. Reaching the point of balance is possible via alternate nostril breathing or respecting the nasal cycle and adapting our activities accordingly to the dominant nostril (Swara yoga).

Yogic work with energy is then through various activities: dietary regulation, asana practice (physical blocks of energy), satkarmas, pratyahara, breath practices(pranayama) as well as visualizations, meditation, and concentration practices. Our overarching aim is to achieve balance in prana as a vitalizing force to achieve mental, physical, and emotional clarity.

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