Want Stronger Bones? Do Yoga!

Yoga for BonesFeeling great is reason enough to do yoga, but happily this activity also comes with myriad proven health benefits.1 One of these is bone health. Yoga poses strengthen muscles. This puts stress on bones which stimulates extra calcium deposits, and enhances the action of bone-forming cells. The result is stronger denser bones.

Maintaining bone health is important for every stage of life, however the older you are the more important it is to take part in activities that keep bones strong. Both men and women experience lower bone density as they age. After 50 over 55% have low bone density.2 Women have the added impact of lowering estrogen levels which impact on bone density.

Standing yoga poses like Warrior one and two strengthen the legs and hips. Upper body weight bearing poses like Downward Dog and others impact on the muscles and bones of the wrists, arms and shoulders. Back bends like Cobra and Locust pose are accessible to most and impact on the bones of the spine. An additional benefit of yoga is the balance and co-ordination that it develops. This helps prevent falls that may be the cause of fractures, especially in older adults.

Ideally we do yoga to prevent bone loss but what if you have already experienced bone density loss? Can yoga help you regain it? Studies indicate that it can. One such study found that 12 minutes of yoga daily can reverse bone loss, specifically in the spine and femurs.3 Another study demonstrated that yoga can effectively build bone mineral density after menopause.4 These benefits did not require rigorous training. Both studies had participants hold ten to twelve common yoga poses for about 30 seconds each daily. This means that you can maintain or improve the health of your bones with less than 15 minutes of yoga daily.

I have also personally had students with bone loss connect with me after finding their bone density had increased after starting our yoga sessions. Here is a letter I received from a student in my hatha yoga class

Hi Bobby, My tests have shown that my bone density has increased at an amazing rate since I started yoga. I don’t know if it is coincidence as there are other factors to consider but my results have moved from osteopenia to normal in my hip, and from osteoporosis to ‎osteopenic in my spine. I have had 4 bone density scans in my life and this recent improvement was considered drastic!  My doctor described my results as stark improvement!

-Carol T, St. John’s Yoga Practitioner

If you would like to try the poses used in the study above for yourself follow the list provided below.

1.Tree 2. Triangle 3. Warrior Two 4. Side Angle 5. Twisted Triangle 6. Locust Pose 7. Bridge 8. Lying hand to foot 9. Lying hand to foot with Foot to side 10. Seated twist (One leg straight) 11. Seated twist (both legs bent) 12. Corpse pose

Simply hold each pose for 30 seconds as you continue to take deep breaths. Pause for a few seconds and then move on to the next pose. Use blocks if needed to ensure poses are comfortable as you hold. If you would like to join a class for motivation, or to be sure you are aligning correctly in the poses contact me at Bobby@ShaktiYoga.ca.

Five Reasons to Study Yoga Nidra

Twenty five years ago as an undergrad in an Altered States of Consciousness course I watched in fascination as my lab partner swatted an imaginary fly from the hypnosis script I was reading. I remember thinking “This is a big deal!” Yet somehow the significance of this experience faded into the background of degree finishing and other life priorities for almost a decade. Fast forward to me lying on a straw mat in an Indian ashram listening to sounds from the other side of the earth. I am able to do this because my Guru Ji, in his thickly accented yoga nidra instruction voice, had suggested I could. This far eastern experience reignited my undergrad passion for the mystery and power of the subconscious. It was at this point that my psychology background, yoga experience, and deep belief that we are more than our conscious thoughts, began to merge. I began a decades long yoga nidra study that included personal practice, coursework, and instruction. I can honestly say that this ancient guided meditation technique more powerfully informs my yoga teaching, personal interactions, and parenting than any other yoga practice. There are so many reasons why I think everyone should try this ancient practice. Here are just five.

  1. Get Deep and Profound Rest
    Yoga nidra is a state of brain wave activity that is just above deep sleep. While actual sleep can be disrupted by stressful dreams, repeated waking, teeth grinding, or tossing about, yoga nidra brings a consistent restful state. Yoga Nidra avoids such rest interruptions by bringing one to a theta brainwave sleep-like state that induces sleep-like relaxation, without fully going to sleep. Verbal guidance keeps the participant hovering just above deep sleep, or delta wave activation. The imagery used conveys a sense of safety to the deep consciousness. This allows the body to experience deep rest without the interference that some sleep experiences can bring.

    2. Transform thought Patterns, and Make Emotional Shifts
    We often maintain patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that hold us back from complete health and wellness, even when our waking mind is aware of this fact. A good example is the new year’s resolution. It is made because we perceive the action or habit that we are hoping to change is not contributing to our happiness, yet we rarely follow through. This is because we make the commitment with our most conscious layer of mind (in upper level beta brain wave activation). The message does not make it down through all the layers of consciousness. When the whole brain and nervous system are not involved in a decision follow-through is unlikely to be successful. To explore why we can hold so tightly to unhealthy patterns, and to discover how we might unravel them, we need to “talk with” the nervous system at every level of activation. I frequently use yoga nidra to help clients release fears, and optimize physical, mental, and emotional function in a variety of situations. For example, removing anxiety about birth, or transforming a fearful situation into manageable setting. With regular practice long held physical aches can release, unwanted habits may begin to shift, and more.

    3. Heal Yourself & Your Loved Ones
    Why we get sick is multi-faceted and complex beyond the understanding of even today’s advanced medical science. What we do know however is that anxiety and stress can cause, or significantly impair, our body’s ability to function in general. This includes both the processes that help us avoid illness, and those that aid the healing process. Yoga Nidra calms the nervous system, which turns on the body’s healing (para-sympathetic) response. This triggers increased availability of physical resources to heal imbalance, illness, and injury. The placebo effect is an incredibly well studied phenomena that proves we can potentially heal sickness by what we think. This is why all drug studies must include a placebo group. Scientists know that a large portion of any drug study group is going to get better just because they thought they would! Yoga nidra works to tap into this underutilized human super power. What we think changes our state of wellness, both emotionally and physically. And the best news is that this practice can be done by anyone. A facilitator can whisper yoga nidras into the ear of someone who is lying in a hospital bed. One could listen to a yoga nidra recording while reclining in a cushy chair.

    4. Help Ease Anxiety in Children (and Adults)
    Did you know that children may be the most powerfully impacted by Yoga Nidra (guided relaxation) meditation? They spend more awake alert time in alpha and theta brainwave activation and so are most easily able to visualize with real-life-like clarity. This can result in powerful healing and calming responses. Imaginary friends are a good example of this. Some of my most profound responses to yoga nidras have come from elementary school children. One little girl told me recently, “You just made all the sadness in my body disappear”. As a parent I have used this technique when my children were sick or anxious to induce calm and reduce discomfort. Bedtime is a great time to use this technique. Short yoga nidra techniques can even be taught to children to use on their own in stressful situations.

    5. Utilize the “Swiss Army Knife” of Wellness Tools
    Yoga nidra is the most versatile of yoga tools, and can be used for many purposes. Some do this practice to relax more deeply, others to heal from trauma. One day you can explore your psyche using Jungian style archetypal images, and the next prepare for an easy birth. In the same class one participant may report feeling a long held physical ache release, and another may obtain insight that allows them to make an important life decision. There are also energetic uses such as connecting with spirit guides, and loved ones who have passed. Past life regression and manifesting can also be explored with this technique. The usages of yoga nidra are limited only by your imagination and interest. Some focus on mainstream uses, others use yoga nidra to delve into a mystical exploration.

My two decades of exploring this topic have become the contents of the Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training (2 Weekend Days). This training is suitable for yoga teachers, school teachers, medical professionals, social workers, and any other professional who wants add this technique to their tool kit. Also welcome is ANYONE interested in using this practice with friends, family members, or themselves, even if they have no yoga experience. Go to this link to the Shakti Yoga Nidra Teacher Training / Workshop page for more info or to register and hold your space. Contact Bobby@ShaktiYoga.ca if you have any questions.


Pumpkin Pie or Pudding? You Decide

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This pumpkin pie recipe does not include any wheat, dairy, or sugar. And before you click your back button I’d like to add that it is also the creamiest pumpkin pie you will ever eat.

The creaminess comes from full fat coconut milk (so yeah, unfortunately you still can’t eat the whole pie), the sweetness is a result of juicy medjool dates, and oats are used as the binder. The perpetual presence of these three ingredients in my cupboard, along with my autumn ritual of keeping a container of muffin cup size baked pumpkin portions frozen in my freezer made this a super easy bake for me. While you could eat this pie filling as pudding (I did this morning), I would switch a few things up if pudding were your goal.

In addition to being tasty this recipe is a beautiful ayurvedic example of balancing ingredients for autumn. The pumpkin, and dates are grounding foods. Combined with the warming spices they work to balance the excess of vata energy that can build up at this time of year. Read on for the recipe.

Creamy Pumpkin

Pie Filling Ingredients

Pumpkin puree (14oz can or weigh what you have pre-cooked yourself)

1 can full-fat coconut milk (14oz)

1/4 cup rolled oats (3 tbs oat flour/or your flour of choice.)

8-10 medjool dates (or sweeten to taste with your favourite sugar)

1 tbsp vanilla extract

2 tsp cinnamon

A pinch each of nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger (or a little more of each. Season to taste. Use pumpkin pie spice if you prefer)

1 tsp salt

Crust Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour (I used oat flour)

1 tsp salt

6 Medjool dates

1/2 cup ghee

Water (add as needed a spoonful at a time)

Instructions: Preheat oven to 375. Crust: Blend dates and ghee into creamy mixture. Add flour and salt mixture until combined. Remove to bowl adding water if needed. Press into pie pan. Filling: Blend all ingredients in a blender/vitamix/food processor until smooth. Pour into pie crust. Bake for 25-30 min. It may look like it isn’t fully done. That is ok. It firms up nicely in the refrigerator. Whipped Topping: If a topping is desired scoop the cream out of a can of coconut milk leaving the watery portion behind. Mix the cream with a tsp of vanilla and desired amount of honey (I keep the watery portion for other recipes). If you keep your can of coconut milk in the refrigerator the milk and cream separate more easily.

Pumpkin Pudding Instructions: Yes, you could save a bowl of your pumpkin pie filling to snack on later but the BEST pudding involves mixing equal amount of pumpkin puree, coconut cream (separated from the milk as above), tsp vanilla, 4-6 dates (to taste), all the pie spices above to taste. Mix all in Vitamix/blender. Cool in refrigerator to set. I have been whipping this up for breakfast ever since the supermarket filled with pumpkins.

*If baking your own pumpkin use a pie pumpkin, or a buttercup squash, or kabocha. The carving pumpkins are wetter and not so tasty.

Healing and Appreciating… With a Little Help From the Ancestors

Musings Inspired by Pitru Paksha (The Hindu Period of Ancestor Worship)

The view from my late cousin’s place of rest.

My mom called me today with a camping update. She was excited to have spent the night sleeping next to the grave of an ancestor. It was a whimsical act born of a passing comment from a local that her cousin had been buried in that area a number of generations ago. Upon learning this, my mom immediately rounded up an elderly resident who had been shown the burial area by his grandfather years ago. Together they approximated the burial spot to an overgrown bramble. She felt compelled to camp as close as possible for no obvious reason.

As I thought about what might have drawn her to spend the night with a cousin who had long passed I remembered that it is now the period of Pitru Paksha (fortnight of the ancestors). A Hindu practice where ancestors are remembered, prayed to and for, consulted, and appeased. In 2020 this takes place between September 1st and 17th. This is a time to contemplate the contributions and sacrifices of those who came before us, to cultivate gratitude, and receive insight that will help us live a better life. We pray for their peace and ask for their help as we invoke their presence.

Given that I am not Hindu I suggest that you consult Hindu texts, or seek clarification from someone who is of this faith, if you are interested in learning more about this sacred time of worship. My understanding would be of a surface depth at best. I am grateful however for Pitru Paksha, and similar ancestor practices from a number of traditions, that remind me to pause and create space for those who have paved the way for my own time on this earth.

Many philosophies teach that imbalance in our internal and external worlds may be the result of an unresolved relationship with an ancestor. In the book It Didn’t Start With You,Mark Wolynn explores the many ways that family trauma may be passed on and expressed in unhealthy cycles of emotion and action. Wolynn explores genetic studies showing physiological and emotional PTSD characteristics passed on to children who were not conceived when traumatic events occurred. In addition to genetic changes, social interactions and family culture can also unwittingly pass on unresolved emotions from one generation to another.

Wolynn suggests reflecting on repeated language habits and expressions in our core language during challenging times. To look into the places in our lives where intentions are at odds with actions. Maybe our behaviours are sometimes irrational because they didn’t start with us.

Holidays such as Pitru Paksha inspire me to contemplate the lives of family members such as my late grandmother. Her first husband, at a young age, died suddenly from a massive heart attack as he was walking down the street. This left her in complete poverty with a house full of young children. Various receptive families “adopted” her children and she moved to a neighboring town to be a servant girl to “earn her keep”. No roads meant that regular (if any) contact with her young children was impossible. As a mother I feel sick and breathless when I think of what she must have endured. The unimaginable and heart piercing sorrow of dropping off sobbing children one by one to households that would probably be extending lukewarm welcomes at best given that they were all struggling with the subsistence existence that was the norm at the time. My Nan eventually met another man (my grandfather) and started a new family. I never heard her speak of this part of her first family experience.

Nan with an later child of the family.

I now sometimes wonder if Nan’s trauma may impact on my own way of interacting with my family. Whether the occasionally powerful resentfulness I felt when my husband slept through diaper changes, or missed a parenting cue was connected to Nan’s feelings of anger at being abandoned (or course in this case it could just be because sleeping through diaper changes is totally uncool in partners, am I right mommas?). OK, obviously me and Nan still have work to do on that bit. Maybe that is why I have once again chosen to spend this September meditating with my Nan and sending her love and healing. When I do, I feel as though she is sending me back love and appreciation. I sense that she is grateful and soothed by my acknowledgement of her pain. As if we have become partners in our healing experiences.

I am wondering if my mother was called by my late cousin to sleep in close proximity of her grave for such a healing session. Maybe this cousin from our past had a message to share, a gift to give, or a request to make.

With a couple more days of Pitru Paksha remaining I invite you to spend some time with your ancestors. We are at the end of a long line of genes, experiences, loves, hurts, and accumulated wisdom. In whatever setting or ritual that works for you I implore you to listen to their whispers, send them love, and ask them for direction.

It might be helpful to draw a family tree and note anything you know about each person’s life that stands out. Then close your eyes, focus on your breath, and create space for flow. This is not an intellectual process. Resist choosing a specific person. Wait for your body and heart to be touched by an ancestor, maybe someone from the family tree you drew, or possibly someone else who simply sensed that now is a time for valuable connection. Journaling your experience afterwards can help to reinforce insights and explore meaning.

I am tempted to end by saying something like “Happy Pitru Paksha” but I have no idea if people actually say things like that on Pitru Paksha so I will instead wish you a powerful and fulfilling visit with whomever answers the prayer of your soul.

Coconut Green Tea Ice Cream

Matcha is known to be packed with anti-oxidants, and coconut milk is often touted for it’s MCT oil benefits so I guess you could call this Coconut Matcha Ice Cream a healthy dessert. It is so yummy that I didn’t require that designation, but I will admit that it makes me feel less guilty about having a second bowl.

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Fantastical Fiddleheads

Finally! After years of missing the short two week window that fiddleheads remain curled in the lovely (and tasty) shape that they are named for I finally caught them tentatively rising above the earth!

I have loved these deep green coils since I first tasted them in vegetable soba noodle dishes served in the Japanese mountains in springtime. Despite growing up frolicking in fern patches as a child, I had no idea that people ever ate them. My small town ancestors were suspicious of their safety. Which it turns out has some validity since they do need to be a specific kind of fern (the ostrich fern), and even then have to be boiled for 15 minutes, or steamed for 10-12 minutes before they are safe to eat. Having no internet to consult I guess Nana wisely chose to err on the side of caution.

If you plan to go foraging remember that only fiddleheads from the ostrich fern is edible. Do your research or consult an experienced forager before picking your own. Fortunately you can also find them in season in your local supermarket.

According to Health Canada ostrich fern fiddleheads contain vitamin C, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids, making them a great way to boost your nutrition in the Spring with a locally sourced ingredient.

Ensure you clean as much of the brown scales off them as you can, and rinse in cool water a number of times before following the cooking guidelines above. Wash your hands after handling them as well. Cool them under running water after boiling/steaming. You can freeze them once they are cooked properly for up to a year.

Once they have been cooked add them to anything that works with veggies. Some compare their flavour to asparagus. I have so far added them to quiche, omlettes, sansai soba noodle soup, and the spicy Korean veggie dish known as bi bim bap (mixed veggies and rice). I have not done so yet but plan to add them to pasta sauce. You can also saute them as you would any other vegetable, and eat as a side dish.

The mid to late Spring opening time of the ostrich fern varies a little depending on your climate. I am writing this at the end of May in far eastern Canada. Keep your eye out at your local supermarket as they may source ostrich fern fiddleheads locally when in season.