Building Precious Immunity

Hug a tree to build your Ojas, they said.

Photo taken at South Philly Meadows at dusk (A. MacMullan)

My teachers in ‘Ayurveda and Immunity’ at Prema Yoga Institute are sharing ways to retain and build your vigor and resiliency that is the root of our immunity.

Ojas is an Ayurvedic concept and refers to that shield that helps us ward off stress and sickness. When our Ojas is good we have a glowing complexion, a sense of well-being, the ability to endure, and a feeling of lightness in body and mind.

A person with high Ojas

On the other hand, when we have low Ojas, we feel depleted. Signs of low Ojas include:

  • Dry skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Heaviness in body and mind
  • Drowsiness or fatigue
  • Tendency to get sick frequently
  • Lack of focus
  • Anxiety
  • Constant negative attitude

“We must guard our Ojas like a savings account,” Ayurvedic practitioner Julia Abramova says, taking care not to withdraw too much and potentially experience depletion and eventually disease. 

So how to you build up your Ojas if it’s depleted?

Recipe by Julia Abramova, Jyoti Yoga and Healing
  • Strengthen your digestive fire (get on a good eating routine, don’t overeat, etc)
  • Eat Ojas-building foods that are sweet, heavy, smooth, cool, stable (avocados, bananas, soaked dates, soaked raisins, fresh figs, sweet potatoes, mung beans, ghee, milk, almonds)
  • Do restorative yoga
  • Rest! All healing begins in rest.
  • Practice Abhyanga or Self-massage with Oils
  • Practice Pratyahara – disconnect from sensory overload
  • Walk in the moonlight
  • Forest bathing

So here’s a suggestion: go stand in nature and put yourself on “receive” mode, taking in the soothing sounds, gentle air, and life force of the beings around you. Drink in the beauty that surrounds you. Build your Ojas!

Sunsets are a marvelous way to drink in Ojas

Resources:

  • Ayurveda and Immunity, Prema Yoga Institute
  • Julia Abramova, E-RYT500, Founder and Program Director of Jyoti Yoga & Healing, Ayurvedic Practitioner, Certified Yoga Therapist (C-IAYT)

Going with the Flow

One of my very best traits as a human is the ability to harmonize with others (vocally and otherwise!) However, recently I’ve begun to realize that inner harmony is an even greater skill, and definitely one needing honing in me. Balancing my own inner energies requires the skill of awareness on a deep, deep level. Learning to heed the need for rest, and recognize when something is not good for me are two biggies. 

Letting go of the need to do everything, be everywhere at once, and get it all done requires constant effort (or ease, actually.) And then there is cultivating the ability to ask for what I need from others, clearly and compassionately. Setting boundaries has never been easy for me, but now that I realize their importance I’m getting better at it.

When I’m harmonizing on the inside, not pushing myself through pain or low energy to try and “get it all done,” my emotions are calmer and my mind is also more tranquil. It’s then that the harmony of being with others and really listening (without interrupting) – and connecting with that divine flow of life energy that surrounds us every single minute becomes an absolute joy. 

Achieving this state of inner and outer harmony is only possible for me through a very regimented self-care routine. If I stick with my routine, I can really GO WITH THE FLOW so much better. And the type of yoga that is best for me is actually NOT the vigorous vinyasa that I used to do, but a more gentle type that helps me cultivate this constant awareness both on and off the mat. And that’s what I like to teach, too.

I think that’s the great journey of our lives: getting to know and heal ourselves, learning to listen, and striving for balance every single day – both within ourselves and with others around us.

Written by Ann

Bee’s Breath

Why we love Bhramari Pranayama: As we’re exhaling and creating the droning sound, like that of a bee, we’re also lengthening our exhalations – which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the side in charge of resting and digesting. Calming, centering, grounding…bee’s breath is just what we need these days!

🐝Bhramari is the Sanskrit word for “bee,” and this pranayama or breath exercise is so named for the humming sound produced – like the gentle low buzz or droning of a bee. We like it best for its ability to drown out an anxious mental loop, and find it incredibly grounding and centering. 

Bhramari Pranayama (Bee’s Breath):

  • Calms and quiets the mind
  • Releases cerebral tension
  • Stimulates the pineal and pituitary glands, supporting their proper functioning
  • Soothes the nerves
  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Dissipates anger
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • May have a positive effect on tinnitus
  • Bolsters the health of the throat
  • Strengthens and improves the voice
  • Supports the healing of bodily tissues
  • Induces sound sleep

“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.”

– William Blake

How to Practice Bee’s Breath:

  1. Sit comfortably but upright, with a stable foundation to support you.
  2. Gently close the lips, keeping the teeth slightly apart, and bring the tip of your tongue to the space behind the upper front teeth. (Keep the jaw relaxed throughout your practice.)
  3. This part is optional: You can actually use your thumbs to “close” your ears (for me, not all the way feels better) and then gently cover your eyes with cupped palms. There are other ways to practice with the fingers fanned out, but this is most comfortable for me. It does take the experience a little deeper inward.
  4. To begin, take a deep breath in through the nostrils.
  5. Begin to exhale slowly, making a steady, low-pitched ‘hmmm’ sound at the back of the throat—like the humming of a bee. Focus on making the sound soft, smooth, and steady. The positioning of the tongue allows the vibration to better resonate throughout the head.
  6. Continue for as many repetitions as you like. After the final exhalation, allow your breath to return to normal and observe any changes that have occurred.
  7. Maybe you can even feel the vibration continue throughout your head and body after you’ve stopped humming!

🐝How do you feel after your bee’s breath practice?🐝

Bee Breath is also featured in a blog post I wrote for Prema Yoga Institute, as part of my Yoga Therapy Training. I learned a little more about Bee breath during my Breath Coach course – and it turns out there is even more benefit to this technique than I could imagine! Read MORE.

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.
Belly Breathing with Dana Slamp of Prema Yoga Institute
Take a full class that includes Belly Breathing, stretching and strengthening to aid respiratory health!

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

Yoga for Healthy Aging

Swarthmore Public Library – February 5th 2-3pm – FREE – Join us for a combined lecture and movement session, safe for all bodies. REGISTER HERE.

Age is not a disease. It’s a state to which we aspire. Yet slow-moving age-related changes such as loss of muscle mass, kyphotic posture, and lack of flexibility can leave us feeling frail, off balance, and unable to live as independently.

photo by Ben Zuckerman

Often the very thing that many of these age-related changes react positively to is activity – and the RIGHT activity. And when we make lifestyle changes to counteract the effects of aging, it helps us find a sense of control over what may seem like an overwhelming decline. Yoga is one such activity, found to counteract many age-related changes that reduce your health span.

Whether you’re looking to strengthen bones + muscles or improve flexibility and balance, there is a safe yoga practice for every level of fitness and mobility. While we may not have control over certain aspects of the aging process, we do have control over our lifestyle and activity levels. Beyond the physical postures, the mind/body connection created during yoga helps foster awareness and acceptance towards our aging bodies so we can practice safely and with compassion towards ourselves. 

Ann and her grandmother, Ellie

About the instructor: Ann Grace MacMullan, E-RYT 200, has been teaching yoga to older bodies for almost 5 years. Her oldest student was her grandmother – at age 98, she was one of the most active participants of her chair yoga class! She now teaches a range of ages and mobility levels in her Gentle Yoga, Chair Yoga, and Balance classes in the Wallingford-Swarthmore community.

A New Decade, More Healing

This coming decade is a big one for me: I’m turning fifty. That number seems incomprehensibly large when describing my own years on the planet, and yet many of my yoga and balance students are well over that age and as active and vital as ever; I consider them tremendously young. Nevertheless, fifty does seem an age where one should have it all figured out – and I’m still working on that.

Why I Love Yoga

I practice and teach yoga because it’s one of the tools of wellness that’s become necessary to my own daily functioning. I have personally experienced the healing power of this mind-body practice on many levels: regulation of my own turbulent emotions, freedom from anxiety disorder, mobility in my spine despite disc herniation and stenosis, and an overall sense of well-being. My wellness is something I actively pursue, and yoga makes me feel good all over!

Teaching yoga is a job where I get to be my 100% authentic self. I set my own schedule. I form deep connections with interesting and genuine people. Best of all, I’ve witnessed yoga’s myriad benefits in students: improved posture and balance, stronger bones, pain management, better flexibility and strength, and an ability to interpret the body’s signals without too much mental chatter.

Bridging Yoga and Healthcare

As I reach my fifth decade, it’s time to go “all in” with this healing art! Or at least, keep walking the yogic path in the way that honors my own experience; and that means more formally approaching yoga as a therapeutic means of healing mind and body. Thanks to the kind folks who gifted me with the Yoga for Osteoporosis training, I’m starting my journey towards certification as a yoga therapist, and could not be more excited to have been accepted by Prema Yoga Institute to begin my training in February of 2020. I’m pushing my roots down farther into the world of yoga, and into the somewhat new field of yoga therapy.

At PYI, we believe that yoga teaching and Yoga Therapy can empower the body/mind to heal itself. The role of a Yoga Therapist or teacher is not to diagnose or to treat, but to empower the client to participate in their healing process.

-Prema Yoga Institute Handbook

Yoga therapy integrates traditional yogic concepts and techniques with Western medical and psychological knowledge. Whereas traditional Yoga is primarily concerned with personal transcendence on the part of a “normal” or healthy individual, Yoga therapy aims at the holistic treatment of various kinds of psychological or somatic dysfunctions ranging from back problems to emotional distress. Both approaches, however, share an understanding of the human being as an integrated body-mind system, which can function optimally only when there is a state of dynamic balance.

It feels so right to be pursuing this through Prema Yoga Institute (PYI,) an International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) accredited school. The kind teachers there opened their doors to me in November and gave me a small peek at this field of work, and at how much there is for me to know! Here is the course work I will do, once I figure out how to afford it all:

  • Yoga Therapeutics Essentials – starts in February, all signed up!
  • Embodied Philosophy
  • Yoga Sound Therapy
  • Ayurvedic Yoga Therapy
  • Functional Anatomy 1+2
  • Yoga in Health Care
  • Yoga for Back Care
  • Yoga for Cardiac Care
  • Advanced Yoga Therapy
  • Yin Yoga Therapeutics
  • Immersion Courses (already did the Osteoporosis course)
  • Practicums 1-3, one is in a clinical setting – hopefully with Dr. Fishman!

I am simultaneously terrified and thrilled for this next decade. May it be filled with presence, kindness and honesty lighting the way forward!

Thank you to family, friends, students and teachers who have shown their support along the way. I look forward to empowering self-healing in myself and those around me, and continuing the dance of yoga.

If you’d like to contribute to my cause, please visit my GoFundMe page.

Student Spotlight: Judy

  • Name: Judy
  • Age: 71 (she adds, “old enough to know better and young enough to do it anyway!”)
  • Sun Sign: Aries
  • Pets: Two long-haired black cats, Amos and Pinkerton
  • Favorite Sweet Treat: anything chocolate

Interoception

One thing I’ve noticed about Judy since I met her in 2016 (besides her lovely posture!) is her ability to open herself up to whatever she’s experiencing, and I can tell she’s really listening inward during class. She has been a fixture in my group classes since then, adding her special brand of graceful goodwill and lightheartedness.

Grace

Warrior Two Pose

Judy’s been practicing on and off since 1998, but in 2000, she needed spine surgery in her neck to repair a serious bone spur that was interfering with her range of motion and causing numbness down her arm. They took the discs out of C6+C7 and replaced them with bone from her left hip. While she suffers from arthritis throughout most of her joints, Judy has learned that she feels much better if she keeps moving.

“If it hurts, it means I’m still alive.”

-Judy s.

Currently, she practices yoga about 2-3 hours each week, which has also helped strengthen her bones as we reported earlier this year. (Her improved Dexa Scan scores contributed to the blogpost I wrote on Yoga for Stronger Bones.) In fact, I blame Judy and another student for getting me interested in yoga for osteoporosis, and I’m only at the beginning of that journey, so thank you…

Effort

Extended Side Angle Pose

Judy came to my house for a special one-on-one session – or an osteocyte party as I like to say! Osteocytes are important building blocks of bone synthesis, but we need to practice the right poses with proper alignment and work hard within the pose (hold for at least 30 seconds, for one!) in order to put enough stress on the bone to get that bone-building party started. She even got into an Extended Side Angle Pose, great for stimulating the femurs and spinal vertebrae – the areas where Judy has thinning bone.

Centering

With her weak ankles and neuropathy in her feet, Judy’s toughest challenge is balancing poses like Tree. “Balance is hard for me, and it makes me feel less successful, though it does get somewhat easier with practice!”

“Let go of your judgments and just do what you can, but make it a regular part of your routine.”

-Judy S.

Because of Judy’s regular yoga practice, she experiences less arthritis pain, stronger bones, and feels more centered in her daily life. Yoga class provides her with a social connection with like-minded people. I’m so grateful to have Judy’s beaming smile in my classes, along with her humor and present-moment insight into her own practice. I hope she will consider the yoga dose response study with Dr. Fishman and keep those BMD scores improving!

It’s truly an honor, Judy!

Meet more of our students

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