Your limit is your teacher

I recently came across a social media post by a local hot yoga studio exclaiming that we should have “no limits” when it comes to yoga. To be fair, the quote was “all limits are self-imposed,” and then someone commented that “no limit is the limit,” to which the studio owner replied “yes!”

It got me thinking about this attitude I’ve come across before; one that encourages yoga students to push themselves beyond their limits. I respect your choice to challenge yourself, but when you are teaching others to potentially hurt themselves, it becomes bullying. It goes against the very first moral observance of non-violence, or Ahimsa.

Entitled to my own opinion and interpretation, I believe that the “no limits” attitude in the world of yoga creates an ego-driven and competitive environment where people are encouraged to hurt themselves in the name of self improvement.

My practice includes progressing safely towards a pose

I choose to think of limits as grounding. Setting a boundary can be a form of self-compassion. We are human, after all. My personal yoga practice changes from day to day based on what my body and mind tell me. I don’t come to the mat and push myself in a pose that requires a deep hamstring stretch if I tweaked my hamstring the day before. I can continue to progress in other ways instead, because guess what? I want to do yoga for the rest of my life!

Anyone who has ever had an injury and adapted their yoga practice or exercise routine around it, knows – this is where you learn so much about yourself, your ego. This is where you develop self-compassion and can strive to take better care of yourself to heal and then thrive again with a fresh perspective. The injury is a limitation that teaches you to do something different. You become internally stronger by listening, modifying, and taking the best care of yourself so that you can continue to progress another day.

The pandemic world we are living in right now, where we need masks to go grocery shopping, are distanced from friends and family, and our careers have been put on hold: this is a limit. It’s a container that holds us and teaches us to do something different, to pivot and redirect our progression as human beings – which might include resting for a bit if we need it. 

To the many people who are turning to yoga for the first time, or deepening their yoga practices during this unprecedented age: explore your inner landscape safely. Be grounded by, but not defined by, your limits. And work towards challenging your limits, safely.

Your limit is your teacher.

Belly Breathing

Belly breathing – Learning to use the belly

  • Sit or lie flat with with one hand on your belly right under your ribs and the other on your chest.
  • From this position, take one deep breath through your nose while letting your belly nudge your hand outward. Ensure your chest isn’t moving as this happens.
  • Next, with pursed lips, breathe out like you’re whistling.
  • As you feel the hand you’ve placed on your belly go in, use it to push out all the air.
  • Repeat this several more times.

Why Belly Breathing?

  • The lower half of your lungs is the thickest and most closely compacted, which means more oxygen can enter the bloodstream. 
  • Consciously breathing into the lower half of your lungs by engaging the diaphragm, literally allows you to ‘breath more life into’… you. 
  • Oxygenated blood travels to the heart, where it’s pumped to the rest of the body via blood vessels that move into surrounding tissues. 
  • Ultimately, oxygen reaches every cell that makes up the body.
  • If your upper chest is moving when you breathe then you’re not using the lower part of your lungs, which means you’re not breathing optimally.
  • Chest breathing engages only the top part of your lungs, and remember that the lower half of your lungs is the most oxygen-rich.
  • If you’re breathing with your chest and not your diaphragm/ belly you’ll likely overuse your neck and shoulder muscles, which are not meant to be breathing muscles.
Learn Belly Breathing, stretch and strengthen to aid respiratory health! – Live at 11am

What are the benefits of belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing has proven to: 

  1. Improve respiratory function, by relaxing tight chest muscles and by increasing lung capacity. Research suggests that diaphragmatic breathing can be especially helpful to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  2. Lower heart rate and blood pressure, and is even recognized by the FDA in the treatment and regulation of hypertension. It also improves circulatory system function by maximizing the delivery of oxygen to the bloodstream and to each of the trillions of cells in your body.   
  3. Maintain blood pH levels (the scale of alkalinity to acidity.) Blood acidity is neutralized with the release of carbon dioxide from the lungs. Deep, slow breathing helps the brain and lungs continuously optimize pH levels.
  4. Engage your diaphragm internally which in turn massages your abdominal organs and glands, stimulating them and promoting their healthy and optimal function.
  5. Boost the immune system because as the diaphragm massages the internal organs and glands it helps move lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) throughout the body to their targeted locations.
  6. Detoxify the body. Controlled breathing stimulates lymphatic movement. One of the key functions of your lymphatic system is to flush toxins out of your body. Your lungs are also a major excretory organ. With every maximized exhale, you expel waste, toxins, and excess carbon dioxide from your system.
  7. Maintain healthy digestive function and help ease upset tummies. The same diaphragmatic massaging motion that helps flush toxins also helps stimulate blood flow of your intestinal tract, ensuring your gut muscles keep on moving as they’re intended to.
    • Breathing deeply can help prevent acid reflux, bloating, hiatal hernia, and intestinal spasms.
    • Deep breathing also helps quell the stress response, which compromises digestion. It’s worthy to note here that multiple studies and research confirm a high correlation between digestive/ gastrointestinal issues (i.e.: IBS) and mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression.
  8. Increase theta brain waves. Theta brainwaves are associated with the state of deep relaxation and dreaming sleep, as well as increased creativity, super-learning, integrative experiences, and increased memory.
  9. Be an effective relaxation technique. This is because your breath acts as a switching station for your nervous system, specifically between the two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (stress response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response.) Deep, slow breathing relieves stress and relaxes you, and also engages your sympathetic in ways that work for you, not against you. In this way, deep breathing helps send your body signals of safety so that you can enter into a higher state of functioning – one that is healing, regenerating, and conducive to sustained fulfillment and thriving.
  10. Be an effective option for treating emotional and mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

Source: Benefits of Deep Breathing, A Step by Step Guide to Diaphragmatic Breathing

How to Live a Longer, Healthier Life

Living to be over 100 isn’t uncommon at all in regions known as the blue zones. In these areas, life expectancy isn’t just higher; centenarians are generally also healthy in mind and body. Author Dan Buettner teamed up with a team from National Geographic to study these groups, and whittled their longevity down to 9 common denominators. We found their recipe for wellness extremely interesting and wanted to share it with you.

Prana Mudra – (Life Force Seal) for vitality!

As yoga and mindfulness teachers, our own blueprint for wellness always needs refining and fine-tuning. Whether we have time for a long yoga practice or a 5-minute mindfulness meditation, there is one daily constant, and that’s our high-energy dog, Lucy. She crosses a few things off the wellness list – she’s the reason we get up in the morning, she helps relieves stress (she loves snuggles,) and keeps us moving!

1. Move Naturally The world’s longest-lived people don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and don’t have mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.

What do you do to move naturally and stay active? How can you bring more natural movement into your everyday routine?

Soaking up some joyful movement.

2. Purpose The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy A reason for being.” The word “ikigai” is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.

What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning, what makes your life worth living, or gives your life value? Would you like to find more meaning in your life?

Getting up and taking Lucy for a walk is a great motivator! When she’s happy, so are we.

3. Manage Your Stress / Down Shift Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress leads to chronic inflammation, associated with every major age-related disease. What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.

What do you do to actively manage your stress? Can you add a few new stress-relieving habits like yoga or meditation to your list?

Brian in his Tree Pose, bare feet on yellow steps, arms uplifted.

4. 80% Rule “Hara hachi bu”  – the Okinawan, 2500-year old Confucian mantra said before meals reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80 percent full. The 20% gap between not being hungry and feeling full could be the difference between losing weight or gaining it. People in the blue zones eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then they don’t eat any more the rest of the day.

When do you eat your biggest meal? Do you continue to eat until you are past full? Can you be more mindful of your hunger levels at the next meal?

Giant sunflowers growing on a small South Philly side street.

5. Plant Slant Beans, including fava, black, soy and lentils, are the cornerstone of most centenarian diets. Meat—mostly pork—is eaten on average only five times per month.  Serving sizes are 3-4 oz., about the size of a deck of cards.

How often do you eat meat, and how big of a portion size do you put on your plate? Can you substitute beans at your next meal?

6. Wine @ 5 People in all blue zones (except Adventists) drink alcohol moderately and regularly.  Moderate drinkers outlive non-drinkers. The trick is to drink 1-2 glasses per day (preferably Sardinian Cannonau wine), with friends and/or with food. And no, you can’t save up all week and have 14 drinks on Saturday.

Are you able to drink moderately? We cannot condone drinking, as many Americans have a problem relationship with alcohol, but if you are able to enjoy a glass of wine without any negative consequences, cheers!

Shakti Mudra (Power Seal) Shakti is in everything, she’s the innate creativity at the heart of all living things. Rosemary in our garden scents the scene.

7. Belong / Community All but five of the 263 centenarians we interviewed belonged to some faith-based community.  Denomination doesn’t seem to matter. Research shows that attending faith-based services four times per month will add 4-14 years of life expectancy.

Have you found a community where you feel you belong? If you have, can you reach out to someone who seems like they might need help finding theirs? If you haven’t, make a list of possibilities.

8. Loved Ones First/Family Successful centenarians in the blue zones put their families first. This means keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home (It lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too.). They commit to a life partner (which can add up to 3 years of life expectancy) and invest in their children with time and love (They’ll be more likely to care for you when the time comes).

Can you create more quality time with your family? Can you commit more fully to your life partner if you have one?

Brian, my life partner, and our little family member, Lucy.

9. Right Tribe / Social Life The world’s longest lived people chose–or were born into–social circles that supported healthy behaviors, Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life. Research from the Framingham Studies shows that smoking, obesity, happiness, and even loneliness are contagious. So the social networks of long-lived people have favorably shaped their health behaviors.

Can you set up a phone call or lunch date with a friend this week? Even casual social relationships are important when it comes to longevity. Who is on your best friend list?

Best wishes for health and vitality from Team Sun Wellness!

We are all our own best teachers, of course. What works for someone in Okinawa might not work for you. So listen to your own mind and body as you reach for new ways to be your best self. We continue to wish you health and well-being, and all the vitality you desire!

Resources: Blue Zones Website