Life is a race, it seems. When I was in my early twenties, it was all about who could finish their degree first, then it shifted into "who can get a decent job" first. Especially as a woman, another layer to the race is added, as, now that I am inching closer to 30, it doesn't seem to matter anymore what I've achieved academically or in my career, as my social media feeds are flooded with wedding pictures, baby bumps and little children. Time seems to be measured in how young women were when they delivered their first, or how many they had by the age of 30. Life, as it seems, is not only a race, but an endless competition.
Amidst this pressure many people, including me, face every day and a generation that seems to battle depression on an everyday basis, hooked on anti-depressants or other medication, it is worth considering how we can apply more natural ways to nurture and support our bodies for a more holistic and healthy approach. Yoga, for instance, has helped me considerably to calm my nerves, and meditation, even though I still struggle with it, has improved my general breathing techniques and ability to calm myself down in hectic situations.
However, sometimes we all wish for a single thing to make everything better, don't we? Wouldn't it be great if there was a magical potion that would make our muscles stronger, our brains better-working, reduce our stress levels and help the body maintain this new balance? Oh...wait, there is actually such a thing and it bears the magical name of "Ashwagandha".
But let's recap from the start. I recently read the article "Ashwagandha: Reduce Stress for Better Performance", originally published on HVMN, which gives a minute and detailed insight into the broad range this magical plant boasts, going from scientific studies that show the plant can reduce stress levels, to outlining all the health benefits you get to enjoy from it. Although maybe coined as a new "trend" plant by some, the knowledge of its healing powers dates back hundreds of years, and it's been used in Ayurveda practice as a supplement to improve mental and physical health for ages.
So what actually hides behind this alluring cluster of sounds? Despite the plant's unique smell (its name actually translates to "smell of the horse") that reminisces of the countryside and manure rather than major healing powers, the uses of Ashwagandha have been researched and studied extensively and the results indicate that this plant is the real superman among the plants.
I will not share all the incredible facts the original article includes, but if you want to read it all in the nitty-gritty details, click on the article name above or here to be redirected to their page. There is, however, one major aspect of the Ashwagandha plant, or Withania somnifera - if you prefer the fancy Latin denotation - which has specifically spoken to me. As stress is an all-too-familiar constant in my life, I was intrigued to read about its effect on the stress hormone cortisol, which can be, simply put, one major culprit for permanent high stress levels. Constant pain of clenched shoulders that lead to neck, shoulder and back ache are often caused by high stress levels, and Ashwagandha, according to the article, can actively help reduce these stress levels - and even help "to improve your ability to adapt to stress by normalizing the body's physiological responses" (as qtd. from the article). So, you may think now that's already a lot one single plant can do...
...but there is, of course, more. This super-plant is not only a fantastic way to get you into a healthier mental state, but studies have shown that Ashwagandha can also benefit muscle building and increase your body strength, for example the muscles that keep up your spine. Most back ache comes from a poorly supported spine that is caused by bad posture and a static lifestyle. Regular Yoga practice can, of course, help alleviate these aches, but who wouldn't want a little extra boost on the side, too. According to a study quoted in the original article, participants who took supplements could increase muscle strength already after one month - and that is without doing any exercise! Almost seems too good to be true, right?
Well, the only way to really test the plant's powers is by simply trying it out for yourself. You can find Ashwagandha tea in most tea shops already, or head to your pharmacy and get supplement tablets for a more concentrated intake. Ashwagandha supplements are also available for purchase on amazon.com, for example, such as the root powder extract. After reading the article, I decided to go for the simpler option and buy a lovely Ashwagandha tea, like the Be Resilient Tea Tonix (also available on Amazon). I'll keep you updated on the magical powers in future posts ... oh, and did I mention it also is supposed to enhance male fertility, reduce cholesterol and help with memory loss? Maybe it's true and the solution to all problems lies in a really good cup of tea...
The information taken about the Ashwagandha plant was kindly issued by HVMN and their posted article Ashwagandha: Reduce Stress For Better Performance.
Back pain. Don't we all know it. After sitting at your computer for hours, a little pricking starts where your neck meets the shoulder blades, which later on becomes a full strain, stretching up to your lower head and causing headaches and, for some of us, even a noticeable little hump at the end of your spine.
Back pain is a constant companion in my life, sadly. As a writer, I sit in front of my desk a lot, getting more and more hunched as the day proceeds. Unwilling to just accept the pain, I have, with the knowledge of my recent yoga training, devised a short sequence of easy and well-known yoga poses for writers and anyone else who sits mostly in front of a computer all day (so, I reckon, most of you).
Before we delve into the positions, let's look a little on why these problems occur in the first place. Why do our backs ache, where does it come from, and how can we counteract the constant pain? Over the past years, I have been to numerous doctors about my back ache, but the problem with most doctors is that a) they only look at the area you're complaining about, and b) they seek to counteract the symptom, not mend the source. However, the source is often in a completely different segment of the body than initially expected. In most cases, a short proper stretch each day, and ideally a few times in between working, can already work wonders and correct a hunched posture to alleviate back pain.
One reason that can cause back pain is kyphosis, or a hump at the upper back where the neck and shoulders find together, which is often an outcome of sitting hunched for a long time over a long period. What happens here is that the chest muscles, because of extensive sitting, become shortened and pull the back to the front, causing a hump. Additionally, the back muscles often are too weak and untrained to uphold the body, therefore the sinews have to hold up your head, become overstretched, the muscles get too much stretch, too, and you end up with back ache. A hunched posture can also lead to short breath, as your lungs and diaphragm get squashed during the day.
Now, many people attempt to train the back muscles in order to strengthen the back, with crunches or sit-ups, for example. While strengthening the back is a good idea for the future to uphold your body in a better way, it does not suffice to counteract the growing hump on your back, as the chest area needs to be stretched as well. Crunches or sit-ups are actually counterproductive to stretch your front, as they require you to ease into a hunched-up position as well.
So let's look at positions that can effectively open up the chest area and don't require too much flexibility or space. Truth be told, this is not inventing the wheel new and I am sure you've heard from most of these yoga poses already; however, following them in this sequence can be a nice, and not too long, evening exercise to relax and stretch your body. The following exercises should be held from anything between eight breaths (in and out) to two full minutes. As already mentioned, it is advisable to do one or a few of them throughout the day, and at least one pose for every two hours of sitting.
1) Dvipada Pitham (Bridge Pose)
With the bridge pose, you open up the chest gently without putting to much pressure on your joints yet. It is also a great exercise for back muscle and thigh strengthening.
Start your chest-opening and back-strengthening sequence with lying down on your back. Prop up the legs and bring your feet close to the bottom. Inhale and lift your pelvis from the floor as high as you can. Exhale and bring your pelvis down to the floor again. Continue for at least eight in and exhales, or for two minutes.
In the static version, remain in the air after the first inhale and stay there as long as you can, breathing calmly.
2) Chakravakasana (Cat and Cow)
This exercise opens the chest, but also stretches the shoulder blades nicely. It is a simple position you can also do in between work for a few minutes.
From the lying position, come into an all-fours position, legs hip-broad, hands a little before your shoulders. When you inhale, stretch your belly towards the floor and bring your head up, looking to the ceiling. Exhale and make a cat's arch with your back, tilting your head down towards the ground and rolling in your back and neck. Continue inhaling and exhaling with these movements for eight breaths or about two minutes.
Bonus: If you want to increase stretching your shoulder blades even more, end this exercise with a few in and exhales in Balasana (Child's Pose).
3) Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing dog)
This is probably one of the most famous yoga poses, but it is also deservedly effective. With this pose, you stretch your hamstrings and back muscles, elongate the back, stretch the neck, strengthen the shoulders and arms, as well as empty your head, as it is upside down - a real all-rounder!
As you're already in the all-fours position, stretch your legs and put the bottom into the air to reach a triangle position and consider the following points. Your knees don't have to be stretched, this is a common misconception about the dog pose. Your back, however, should be elongated and stretched and your heels should pull towards the floor, but if you lack the flexibility in your hamstrings to completely stretch your knees, bend them as much as necessary to maintain a long and stretched back.
Your eyes should be on your hands; i.e. your back should not just hang through, but be aligned with your spine. Your fingers should be spread out.
Hold this position for eight in and exhales.
4) Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
This position is also the ultimate chest opener. You can use yoga blocks to assist you holding this position, if needed. This position is also great for women who want to regulate their hormonal cycle as it lets your inner lady parts stretch out and breathe.
Sit back down on the floor and stretch out your legs in front of you. (If you are very inflexible, the legs may also be bent a little). Put your elbows on the floor behind you and slowly arch your back down, making sure you don't "drop" on the floor or overexert your back. Let your head fall back gently and jut out your chest.
Breathe eight times or for two minutes.
5) Nakarasana (Crocodile pose)
This is a nice position to end this short routine. It stretches out the spinal muscles and also twists the spine to realign your bones.
Lie flat on your back and stretch your arms in a 90 degree angle away from your body (lying on the floor). Bring your right toes up to your right knee and turn the leg slowly (when exhaling) to the left side, letting the right knee drop to the floor on your left side. The knee does not have to touch the floor, but both shoulders should remain on the floor. Whilst your knee faces to the left side, your head looks in the right-hand direction, i.e. your knee and head point into different directions.
Remain in this position for up to two minutes before returning to the middle position (shavasana). Only after a few in and exhales in the middle position, go over to doing the pose on the other side.
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