Feach-a Teach-a: Joanne Lloyd

Where are you from and how long have you been in Boston?FullSizeRender-3_mediumthumb
I went to undergraduate and graduate school in Boston and haven’t left! I’ve been in the Boston area for over 25 years!

What was your first yoga class like?
I think I went to my first yoga class at Kripalu in the 90’s. It was the whole experience of meditation, yoga, and breath work that I loved learning.

What’s your favorite pose to teach?
I teach kids and they are such natural yoginis! I love watching their little brains work as they watch me, and figure out how to get their body to look like mine. Teaching crab pose? Sometimes it looks like table pose to them! At this age it is all about body awareness and body control. I love teaching them how to climb the wall in down dog at the wall. Their confidence soars when they figured out how to master this pose!

As a practitioner, what pose makes you cringe?
Hmmm, well, I never like seeing necks turned if they are in a plow pose. Also a simple frog jump can get tricky if they forget to lift their hands up and instead they kick their feet too high.

Where can we find you when you’re off your mat?
I am a psychotherapist in Brookline, I teach therapeutic yoga to traumatized kids in Boston, and I have two school aged yoginis of my own!

What’s your favorite or the most random song on your class playlist right now?
My most popular rest time song is a version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" by Chantal Kreviazuk & Raine Maida. I also love "Where You Belong" by Kari Kimmel.

Catch Joanne teaching Toddler Yoga on Wednesday mornings!

The Physiology of Yoga

The Psoas: Exerting Influence Beyond the Bones

Articles about the psoas seem to be popping up everywhere right now. The psoas is a multi-stranded muscle with attachments that begin at the last thoracic vertebra and continue along the entire lumbar spine. In a seated, computer-driven lifestyle, the psoas muscle takes a big hit, becoming weaker and shorter.

iliopsoasWhile the psoas is an important player in anatomy, influencing our pelvic alignment, posture, and lower back curvature, it has other profound impacts on our physiology. Due to its deep interwoven nature in the visceral cavity (the area of the body which houses our stomach and other organs), the psoas interacts with several of our body’s systems, including the nervous, adrenal, digestive, and lymphatic systems. These interactions set the psoas in an influential position, with the ability to  introduce changes that affect our entire body. 

The fibers of the psoas muscle dive underneath the visceral cavity and attach to the top of the inner thigh. During development, the psoas develops concurrently with the copious neural tracts (visualized in the photo to the left) of the lower thoracic and lumbar branches of the nervous system, resulting in a deep knitting together of the muscle fibers and nerve bundles that branch into the visceral cavity and down the leg. Due to Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 2.09.23 PMthis co-development, problems in the psoas can result in pain that radiates anywhere from the back, abdominal region, or down the entire  leg.  Due to the sensitive and excitable nature of the nervous system, both a shortening and an overstretching of the psoas can result in sensations of pain, as the nerves become either compressed or overstretched. This duality makes diagnosis (and, thus, treatment) of the problem tricky. People often attribute any sensation of pain to tightness in the psoas and can make the mistake of stretching an already over-extended psoas. While an overstretched psoas is definitely less common, activities such as yoga (which places a determined focus on stretching the psoas) can introduce cloudiness in diagnosing the cause of pain. Luckily, simple tests, such as the Thomas test (check it out, HERE) or the modified Thomas test, can be performed to determine the root of the problem and point the way toward appropriate, corrective measures.

The psoas also affects the adrenal glands because the fascia surrounding the psoas is also connected to theadrenal glands and psoas kidneys. The adrenal glands, responsible for the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine (the chemicals that give you adrenaline and energy), sit right on top of the kidneys. Thus, any compression or overstretching of the psoas’ muscle fibers will pull on the surrounding fascia and have the ability to affect the kidneys and adrenal glands. Mechanical stimuli around the kidneys creates a change in the biochemistry of the local environment and can change the release patterns of adrenaline into the body. Changes in biochemistry can lead to adrenal fatigue and feelings of exhaustion, or overactivity in the adrenal glands, which results in the sensation of anxiety.

The digestive system can also be affected by the psoas. Anatomically, the psoas dives behind and then under the digestive system, creating a psoasandorganshammock that can act as a masseuse to the organs. With this in mind, an overly stretched psoas loses some of the connection to these organs when it becomes slackened and lengthened. Imagine the rubber band on a sling shot. When the band becomes overly stretched, it loses its ability to generate and exert much force on an object. While your organs are not experiencing the drastic forces generated by a sling shot, an overly-lengthened psoas loses the ability to provide a strong, massaging force to the organs inside the abdomen. On the flip side, a psoas that is shortened and tight can generate too much pull on the organs of the abdomen. An overly active psoas will increase stimulation and neural activity inside the visceral cavity, igniting patterns that lead to tension in the organs. For this reason, the psoas is often referred to as the “fight or flight” muscle. When it is chronically tight and activated, it ignites the sympathetic nervous system, which shuts down digestion, increases adrenal activity, and prepares the body for action. While this was a useful action throughout evolution and when we need to prepare the body for quick action, chronic activation of these sympathetic resphoto-3ponses can lead to indigestion, anxiety, and fatigue.

So how do we balance our psoas and avoid setting off a cascade of negative physiological events? While it may seem daunting to find the correct balance of strength and length in the psoas, many actions can help bring the psoas and its surrounding photo-5organs into equilibrium. The first step is to bring awareness to the muscle. Using the tests discussed above, determine if your psoas is compressed or overstretched. Depending on the verdict, asana can be incorporated to either stretch (anjaneyasana, virabhadrasana 1, virabhadrasana 2, and any type of backbending) or strengthen (navasana, utthita hasta padangusthasana, dandasana, and parsvottanasana) the psoas. Incorporating a few of these postures into your morning and evening routine can quickly help restore the psoas and bring balance back to the inner ebb and flow of your other physiological systems.

For more information about the author, Jessica Pate, or to access her other articles, visit her website physiologyofyoga.com, or like the Facebook page here

5 Healthy Activities to Do with Your Kids this Fall {In & Around Brookline}

I don’t know about you, but with the new season just around the corner, our staff over at CCY has got fall on our mind! While autumn brings crisp fresh air, boots-and-sweater weather, warm and spicy chai, hayrides and seasonal shifts, it’s also the perfect time to think outside the box, and have fun with your kids. Here are 5 creative & healthy activities – in and around Brookline – you can do with your kids this fall!

1. Hit Up the Allendale Farm Stand:
allendaleFarmWhat better way to celebrate the season than by heading to a local farm stand? We love hitting up Allendale Farm, right in Brookline! Stop by after your kids get home from school to stock up on fresh fall favorites like squash, pumpkin, potatoes, pears, apples and  brussels sprouts. The kids will have a blast browsing what’s in season, and learning about new fruits and veggies to try at home (and your fridge will be jam-packed with wholesome food.) Win, Win!

We love that Allendale features their own freshly-picked produce, as well as some other specialty goods from local partners. Some of our favorites include their pasta & sauces from Valicenti Organico and freshly-baked bread from Clear Flour Bakery!

2. Cook a Nourishing Meal Together:

spaghettisquashOnce you’re stocked up on fresh, local produce, it’s time to prepare a meal together! Cooking is a great way to bond with your children, and help take some of the stress out of dinner prep. Change up the boring, ol’ Spaghetti night with this easy Spaghetti Squash with Tomato-Basil Sauce, which your kids will have a blast helping you prepare! (Hint: skip the cheese to make it vegan!)

Craving something a little sweet? These delicious Healthy Bites are easy enough for toddlers to help with. (Try making them with local apple sauce for a flavor boost!) 

If all else fails, pizza night is sure to be a hit for the entire family. Stock up on fresh, local veggies and let the creating begin. Each member of the family can have a role like rolling the dough, pouring the sauce, or placing your favorite toppings on the pie! 

3. Take a Scenic Hike:

Northing screams New England quite like fall foliage. With Blue Hills Reservation less than 10 miles away from Brookline (right in Milton), you can enjoy family hiking without having to take a far-away weekend getaway. With breathtaking views, 125 miles of trails and varied terrain, Blue Hills is a perfect fall hiking destination for all age groups.  Pack some healthy snacks and reusable water bottles, and have a blast exploring nature with your kids!

4. Go on an Apple Picking Adventure:  
A family trip to the orchard is in order, as late-August through September honey3is the height of pick-your-own apple season! Luckily for us Bostonians, there are dozens of family-friendly farms just a drive away with apple picking, hay rides, corn mazes and more! Some of our favorites include Belkin Lookout Farm, Doe Orchards, Honeypot Hill, and Shelburne Farm. The freshly picked apples will make for a delicious lunchbox snack, pie filling or accompaniment to a salad!

5. Get Your Downward Dog On (and Bring the Kids)! 

While it’s common for parents to want to escape the hustle-bustle to get on their mat, believe it or not kids need yoga too! Recently, child development experts are realizing just how beneficial yoga is for youngsters, helping to decrease stress, improve cognitive function, not to mention it’s a blast!

kidsyogasingingbowlLuckily for you, here at CCY we offer a variety of Kids Yoga classes, paired up with our adult schedule, so you can get your solo yoga time while your kiddies do too! Starting mid-September, we’ll be offering a series of classes ranging from Toddler Yoga (for ages 1.5 – 3.5) to Teen Yoga for Girls (ages 11–16). Take a peek at the full schedule, with costs and registration details here.

Rachel Kaczynski is a Certified Health Coach and freelance writer living in Boston, MA. She is the founder of Healthy Chicks, a wellness blog empowering women to live happier, healthier, more meaningful lives. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook here.

Yogi of the Month: Carolyn Lovit


Name: Carolyn Lovitcarolyn



Fun fact about you: I want to go cross country on a Harley.

Favorite yoga pose: Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose, or "Low Plank") because I finally can do it, some of the time. 

When not on your mat, where can you be found?: Painting in my studio a.k.a. dining room or roaming around Coolidge Corner. 

How long have you been practicing and what's your latest yoga breakthrough? 2008. Every practice and every day is different...

How has yoga impacted your life? Keeps me sane...

The Physiology of Yoga

The Overlooked Practice: Yin Yoga and the Biological Domino Effect 
(Part 3 of 3)

To this point, we have discussed the importance of exercising our connective tissue, as well as how the body can sense the changes that occur during yin postures and stretching. But once the external, biomechanical signal is converted into an internal, biochemical or electrical signal, how does this signal begin to change the fascia? 

domino-effectBiochemistry can initiate changes in the local environment in two primary ways. The first method in which modifications are introduced is through the direct alteration of the expression of genes involved in the composition of the fascia. When internal  biochemical signals are initiated, a chain of dominos (in the form of proteins) begins to fall. As with dominoes, each protein’s behavior is determined by the actions of the previous protein in the chain. Eventually, when the last domino is reached, a final protein specific to the message being delivered will move to the central command station of the cell (the nucleus). This protein messenger initiates changes inside the nucleus by modifying the manufacturing blueprint for every protein component in the body, known as the DNA.  

While every cell of the body contains a complete set of DNA (or coded manufacturing instructions), certain cells only produce certain proteins at specific times. This is why our stomach cells are not the same as the cells of the heart and why our skin cells behave differently when we need to repair a wound. The factors that determine which proteins are produced are these final dominos or messenger proteins (also known as transcription factors). The immediate needs of the cell determine which messengers are sent to the command station to bind to the DNA. This is an important step, as most messengers can only bind to specific portions of the DNA. In the case of yin postures, the cell will send forth messenger protranscriptionteins that have the ability to bind to DNA segments that encode instructions for the fascial proteins, such as collagen or elastin. Once these messengers reach the blueprint, they will bind to the appropriate segment of DNA and initiate either an increase or decrease in the production of the target protein. During a yin stretch, production of proteins (such as elastin or tenacin C) associated with the more mobile, elastic components of the fascia are increased. These newly formed elastic proteins are then exported to the outside of the cell where they can be integrated into the fascial protein web.

A second way biochemical signals can induce changes in the fascia is through a process known as paracrine signalling. Think about how a smell expands and travels in all directions away from its source, affecting the behavior of nearby individuals—paracrine signaling works in much the same way. Once a paracrine-signalcentral cell (the source) receives information that biomechanical changes are occurring in its surroundings, that cell will release biochemical factors that alter the behavior of neighboring cells. In the case of fascia, the cells most affected are known as fibroblasts, whose primary purpose is production of the fascial proteins. When fibroblasts receive a paracrine signal they alter their production priorities, upregulating production of some proteins, while down-regulating others. This altered production translates to changes in the external, mechanical environment in which the cells are suspended. During yin postures, the fibroblasts will increase production of elastic components and decrease production of tension generating components to create positive changes in the fascia.

Yin yoga also requires practitioners to hold postures for long durations of time in order to counterbalance the extended holds we place on fascia in our sedentary lifestyles. When a posture is held for several minutes, we allow the necessary time for biomechanical feedback to continually ignite biochemical signaling pathways that can Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 4.58.47 PMalter the connective tissue. If we only hold yin postures for short durations, we do not allow time for all the dominos to fall and significant changes in cell signaling and protein production cannot be achieved. So while it may not be pleasant to hold dragon pose for four or more minutes, just take a deep breath and allow the body to do its work!

We need to begin to move out of the mindset that we are only “doing” something when we can see immediate, external changes. Active, muscular yang practices are important to combat our sedentary lifestyles. However, our sedentary lifestyles are hurting more than just our biceps—our facia and other connective tissues are also suffering. Therefore, just like we incorporate yang to exercise our muscular system, we also must incorporate yin to exercise our connective tissue. By exercising our fascia, we begin to untangle unseen, internal nets, allowing for more harmonious flow, movement, and well being.

For more information about the author, Jessica Pate, or to access her other blog posts, visit her site HERE. 

The Physiology of Yoga

The Overlooked Practice: Yin Yoga and the Languages of the Body 
(Part 2 of 3)

In the previous blog post we took a look at why it is so important to exercise our connective tissues. But how can we accomplish this through yoga? Unfortunately, many people are under the assumption that active “yang” practices are an adequate prescription. While it is true that yang practices can lengthen the muscle tissue that is deeply interwoven with the fascia, they do not provide the correct biomechanical environment to maximize fascial changes. Due to the interwoven nature of muscle and connective tissues, fascia will follow the movement of the muscle, contracting when the muscle contracts, and relaxing when the muscles relax.

A useful visual for this is to imagine a sheet of bubble wrap. When the air bubble is inflated, the material surrounding the air is stiff and provides strong, tensile support. However, if air is released from the bubble, space is created for the plastiyinbackbend2c material to move. Our muscle and fascia behave in a similar way; if our muscles are active, the fascia will experience tension directed toward the midline of the muscle.This tension creates an internal pull in the direction of the muscle contraction, thus shortening the fascia. However, if we relax our muscles while simultaneously holding a deep stretch, we remove any active, inward strain and allow passive, outward strain to drive the mechanotransduction (a process in which cells convert a mechanical signal into electrical and chemical changes) of the local environment. This passive strain will produce tension longitudinally, allowing the fascia to lengthen, rather than the shortening tension which results from muscular engagement. For this reason, yin yoga emphasizes the absence of muscular engagement in the targeted area.  When the musculature is soft and we place ourselves in yin postures that stretch, for example, the groin, the connective tissue surrounding the hip flexors will receive a signal that the biomechanical environment has changed. With this new information, biochemical changes can be initiated to adapt to the new environment.  

So how does the connective tissue sense these changes on the cellular
level? Research has suggested two primary “middle men” which aid in this process. The first are proteins known as integrins which  line the outer surface of cells. Integrins are classified as “transmembrane proteins” because half of their structure lies inside the cell and half lies outside the cell.  Externally, integrins bind to other proteins such as laminins and tenacins, which are connected to a greater web of proteins that collectively move in unison to make up the fascia. These integrins form a fence which behaves much like the bungee-cord fences surrounding boxing rings. When there is a mechanical shift outside the cell in the fascia , the web of fascial proteins move the integrin fence, which then affects the internal mechanics of the cell. The intracellular proteins that dock to integrins will shift and initiate a biomechanical “domino effect” to alter gene expression patterns.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 2.04.23 PM
The second middleman between the external and internal environments of the cell that have been implicated are ion channels. These can be imagined as gates whose opening is dependent on the local, electrical environment. When biomechanical forces are applied to fascia, a concurrent change in the electric charge of the area (known as piezoelectricity, which will be discussed in a later post) occurs. Changes in the charge of the fascia around cells cause ion channels to open, allowing an influx of electric charge into the cell in the form of positively charged ions. These ions alter protein activity inside the cell, which can initiate changes in gene expression as well.

Bringing this back to the bigger picture, our bodies are made up of countless  interconnected proteins, which all work together to create an environment that is optimal for our habitual activities. Therefore, when we sit for extended periods of time, we ignite modifications in our fascia that are optimal for seated posture. Conversely, when we hold yin poses for extended durations, we are able to initiate changes which counteract the outcomes of sedentary lifestyle.  These alterations are possible because the body speaks many languages and will translate the mechanical input of yin postures into biochemical and electrical outcomes. These chemical and electrical changes initiate a domino effect,  setting in motion the process of fascial restoration. In the next and final post on the physiology of yin yoga, we will discuss just how these domino effects create beneficial changes in the fascia.

For more information about the author, Jessica Pate, or to view more of her blog posts, visit her site HERE. 

The Physiology of Yoga

The Overlooked Practice: Yin Yoga and Fascial Stiffening
(Part 1 of 3)

The yin and the yang. You likely first encountered this phrase and its
accompanying image at a young age, whether in the form of a friendship necklace or a doodle. The contrast of black and white alone hints at one of its basic definitions of duality. Representing the intention to achieve balance between oppositional energies, the yin and yang can be applied to almost all facets of life. However, finding a harmonious equilibrium is an active, difficult practice, as our environments and predispositions sway us to allow one energy to take precedence over the other. When we allow this delicate balance to shift too far to one side, problems begin to arise. While yoga can be, by nature, a balancing practice, it is not exempt from falling into an uneven equilibrium.

In recent years, yoga has gained momentum and become commonplace in society. At this point, it would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of vinyasa, Bikram, or Baptiste yoga. All of these styles can be considered “yang,” as they are associated with more active practices, which build heat, involve strong muscular engagement, and/or have a fast-paced flow. These practices are energizing, strength-building, and stimulate almost all of our organ systems.

In today’s modern, driven society, which emphasizes achievement, progress, and ambition, it makes sense that this type of practice is very popular. Culturally, we are “doers” and often even look down upon actions or practices that move slowly or don’t demonstrate a large, visible reward. In a vigorous vinyasa class, it is easy to see immediate effects: sweat dripping off your body, an increased heart rate, and muscular fatigue. Additionally, these classes often incorporate more complicated postures, which create the feeling of accomplishment and progress. For these reasons, opposite, balancing practices such as yin yoga, which does not involve much active engagement, are practiced at room temperature, and employ the use of long, passive holds, are often misrepresented as “lazy” or useless. In truth, this logic could not be more flawed.

Yin yoga is not a familiar, muscular type of exercise, but the benefits the practice offers our physiology are invaluable. While yang practices target our muscles, yin exercises our connective tissues. What exactly are connective tissues? While there are many types of connective tissue in the body, yin postures have the most profound impact on our dense, irregular connective tissue, or the deep fascial layer surrounding the muscles and joint capsules. Fascia is a stiff, matrix-like net that provides support for our muscles and joints, as well as biomechanical feedback to the body.

Unfortunately, as technology has progressed, we have transitioned from an active, mobile society to a sedentary society that sits behind a steering wheel, computer, or television screen for the majority of the day. Even with regular exercise, most of us cannot avoid long periods of being sedentary. During these sedentary periods, our body’s intelligence induces adaptations to fit our primary level of activity. Therefore, as our muscles and joints are chronically shortened, our fibroblasts (cells of the connective tissue) read this information and begin to induce biochemical changes in the fascia. These biochemical signals cause increased cross-linking of collagen, a stiff, fibrous component of fascia, which results in shortening and reduction of elastic mobility in our tissues.

tl-fasciaOnce a shortened, tight state is acquired, unfortunately, it is difficult to easily reverse. Unlike our muscle cells, which have a large degree of plasticity and can undergo changes in length somewhat rapidly, facia is much more rigid. This property is beneficial for fascia’s basic function of stabilization, but problems arise when we force our fascia into an unnaturally rigid state due to our lifestyle. When we sit for extended periods of time, facia adapts and hardens into these positions. Locked in these seated, often hunched, positions for most of the day, it is not a coincidence that most complaints of tension, pain, and tightness relate to the hips, lower back, shoulders, and neck. If we do not actively exercise our connective tissue, this problem will only be exacerbated over time, eventually leading to morphological changes, most vividly demonstrated by individuals with a “frozen shoulder” or older individuals with a “hunch back.”
So how can we counteract this facial hardening? An answer lies in yin yoga. In the next post, we will discuss how yin ignites biomechanical feedback and induces biochemical changes to restore mobility and fluidity in the body.
For more information about the author, Jessica Pate, or to view her other blog posts, click HERE.


Featch-a Teach-a: Lauren Messinger

Where are you from and how long have you been in Boston?

I'm originally from Danvers, MA, which is about 20 miles north of Boston. I have bopped all around the city, but my husband and I finally landed in Jamaica Plain five years ago. I wouldn't want to live anyplace else in Boston!

What was your first yoga class like?
It was a hot mess! I had taken some yoga here and there, but what I consider my first "real" yoga class was on January 22, 2007 with one of my favorite teachers, Jacqui Bonwell. It was the morning after my first "real" date with my then-friend, now-husband and it was also my little sister's 2nd birthday. It was truly the perfect storm of three of my greatest loves!

What’s your favorite pose to teach?
I love to teach and assist extended pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). I adore this pose as a practitioner and I think it is so beneficial to every body...whether you melt all the way to your belly or practice it on your back. I Iove when my prenatal mamas set themselves up with a bolster under their hips. You can see the instant relaxation in their bodies! There's always a way to make it work for you!

As a practitioner, what pose makes you cringe?
Warrior 3. (Virabhadrasana). Enough said.

Where can we find you when you’re off your mat?
You can find me running all around JP with my two year old daughter, Penelope, commuting around town on my sweet pink bike, talking safe skin care with Beautycounter, or trekking to the North Shore to soak up the sunshine in Gloucester on Good Harbor Beach. Life is good!

What’s your favorite or the most random song on your class playlist right now?
I'm currently obsessed with a song called Shamanic Dream by Anugama. It's the perfect song for a deep, luxurious savasana!

The Physiology of Yoga

      Soft Belly, A Key to Balanced Health

“Engage your abdominals, draw your low belly in, and harden through the midline.” These are familiar cues to yogis and those practicing any type of physical activity, from cycling to weight lifting to dance. Being mindful of abdominal engagement is important in many movements because it helps stabilize the spine and prevent “dumping” into the low back or lumbar spine. Nonetheless, we walk a fine line in terms of creating a culture that overemphasizes abdominal engagement and strength. True, many of us spend the majority of our day sitting at a desk, not thinking about contracting the abdomen, so we do need to create an active practice of abdominal strengthening exercises. But as with most aspects of life, in order to maintain health we must engage in balancing or opposing practices as well. By actively focusing on softening the abdomen, we are giving our immune and nervous systems the chance to take the spotlight and function at maximum capacity as well. 

Functionally, the nervous system is divided into two main branches: the
somatic (responsible for voluntary actions, such as lifting your arm) and the autonomic (responsible for involuntary actions, such as digestion and dilation of the pupil). While many are familiar with two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic (commonly associated with the “fight or flight” response) and the parasympathetic (or the “rest and digest”) systems,  there is a third branch of the autonomic nervous system, called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS lies in the abdominal, or visceral, cavity and acts in coordination with both the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. It also has the ability to stand alone, harboring intrinsic reflexes that can operate without input from the brain, central nervous system, and autonomic nervous system.

This unique, independent nature sets the ENS apart from other branches of the nervous system and therefore it is often classified as a completely separate system. While the ENS is often understated, its importance is profound. The ENS is intricately connected to our physical and emotional well-being. It is interspersed throughout our entire gastrointestinal (GI) tract; contains more than 100 million neurons (five times the number found in the spinal cord); produces more than 80 percent of the body’s supply of serotonin (a broad acting neurotransmitter influencing mood, appetite, the endocrine system, and cardiovascular system); and 50 percent of the body’s dopamine supply (a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of motivation and happiness).

Problems arise when the ENS is overworked and not given a chance to restore. In our hectic, over-stimulated lives, we can overactivate this system both locally and peripherally. Locally, the GI tract has receptors that translate chemical and mechanical stimuli into enteric neuron activation. While many of us may not be aware of it, most people store tension in their abdomen. Granted, while we might not be actively contracting our obliques and rectus abdominus (our “6-pack muscle”), it is likely we are holding a deep, subtle contraction in our abdomen in response to daily stressors. By simply placing your hand over your belly and focusing on breathing and softening, you will likely notice a change in the pressure and firmness of your abdomen. Overengagement, or too much “clenching,” of the abdominals causes a restriction of blood flow to the organs of the visceral cavity, which limits nutrient delivery and waste removal. Without continuous, fluid blood flow, there is a local build up of chemical messengers, which can exacerbate the issue by generating a feedback signal for our visceral cavity to contract further. When this environment persists, it can lead to chronic pain, as well as digestive distress.

Peripheral stimuli can also affect abdominal tension. In day-to-day life, we encounter various stressors, all of which initiate chemical responses in our bodies. Stress, while actually beneficial in small doses, creates a problem when it is chronic and not managed properly. It causes a central release of certain hormones and immunological factors, such as the corticotropin-releasing hormones, IL-6 and IL-8, which then circulate throughout the body, initiating stress responses in various tissues. A recent study revealed that elevation of these three factors caused a change in the expression of structural proteins in the GI tract, leading to visceral pain and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, these stress hormones have been shown to directly stimulate neurons of the enteric nervous system, which then initiate the aforementioned “clenching.”

blanketrollHow exactly can we help our ENS through yoga? One simple way is to
practice slow, deep, abdominal breathing. Since the ENS works in concert with the other branches of the autonomic nervous system, when we activate the parasympathetic nervous system through controlled breath we also initiate a relaxation response in the ENS. Countless studies have also shown that deep breathing can shift your biochemistry by affecting the levels of stress hormones in our bodies, which has an indirect impact on the ENS by decreasing the stimulatory load on the receptors connected with the ENS. Finally, besides the internal, mechanical influence the rhythmic contraction of the diaphragm has on the ENS, we can also initiate an external, mechanical, relaxation response by laying the abdomen over a bolster or rolled up blanket. By placing external pressure on the abdomen and relaxing abdominal contraction, we force ourselves to release the subtle clench that is chronically maintained in the visceral cavity. This allows for unhindered blood flow, which, in turn, allows nutrients to access the abdomen, removes waste, and causes those mood-boosting hormones, serotonin and dopamine, to start circulating throughout the body. 

So don’t be afraid to soften your belly periodically. Your body and mind will thank you.

For more information on the author, Jessica, visit her profile HERE. 

Yogi of the Month: Russ Pinkham

  Russ Pinkham

Occupation? Equity trader 

Fun fact about you? I have taken flying lessons, piloting a Cessna 172.

Favorite yoga pose? Child's pose! Actually, my favorite is cat and cow pose. Both feel good on my neck and spine. 

When not on your mat, where can you be found?
 I can be found running, skiing in the winter, cheering on
the Patriots, lunching with friends, attending an occasional concert - last one was Lady Gaga. 

How long have you been practicing and what's your latest yoga breakthrough? I have been practicing for about 5 years. My latest breakthrough has been side crow.

How has yoga impacted your life?  A steady practice of yoga allows me to work smarter, to sleep better, and to be more present with family and friends. 

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