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Health and Wellness

Charlotte Boan

Journalist Charlotte Boan was inspired to build a career around health and wellbeing when she first went on a yoga diving assignment to Dahab in Egypt in 2004. Since then she has become a qualified yoga teacher and traditional Thai yoga masseuse. Scuba diving specialist Charlotte writes for a number of publications and is most at home with her feet in the sand and the wind in her hair.

The benefits of yoga

 

Longer time underwater, a calmer state of mind and improved body movement in the sea: yoga is something I only really started to take seriously once I discovered how much it enhanced my scuba diving. I was invited to try it out for a week back in 2004 for a magazine assignment in the mellow surroundings of the Egyptian Sinai resort of Dahab.

I was taken aback by the benefits I enjoyed by starting the day with a gentle 90-minute class before heading out for a few dives in the Red Sea. My muscles felt relaxed and energised thanks to the stretching. The breathing and meditative techniques had dramatically cut the amount of air I consumed from my scuba cylinder, instantly gifting me with longer time underwater. I also found myself slowing down, being more alert and present, and significantly more gracious in my movements.

My experience with yoga up to that life-changing trip had been six months attending a weekly 45-minute power yoga class in the local gym. For many years previous I had naively dismissed yoga as something far too soft and girly for an adventurous tomboy-type who was not shy of a few scars, bumps, creaky bones, bruises and broken teeth.

Ten years of regular practise later, I am still discovering benefits of yoga within all areas of my life - perhaps most tangibly in my physicality. I never really experience back pain anymore, despite those years being plagued by discomfort in my pre-yoga life. And while I often continue to push myself in physical pursuits, I rarely experience any physical fatigue, pain or injury anymore, and I cannot recall the last time I needed to reach for a painkiller.

It’s natural to see a connection with yoga and a pursuit of a discipline, such as scuba diving, or even more so for freediving. Holding your breath for extended periods underwater demands great breathing control and mental strength, as well as flexibility in the body.  However, over recent years there has been a surge in demand for yoga as a training tool for all manner of less obvious sports pursuits.

Sport-lovers, from skiers to triathletes, are catching on to the benefits of time on the mat. Even cricketers and Premiership footballers are coming out in praise of this ancient practise. Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs is still playing at the highest level at the age of 40, and credits yoga for his longevity.

Bespoke yoga classes for disciplines such as cycling, running, skiing, swimming and athletics are popping up all over the place. The biggest sell points for these classes are injury prevention, increased stamina and mental focus, and decreased stress.

Here is just a quick overview of a handful of benefits of yoga for the physically active:

    •    Breathing is a major focus of any yoga class, or should be. Learning to breathe correctly not only promotes performance efficiency and strengthens lungs and increase oxygen flow, it is also key to relaxing, reducing anxiety and improving concentration.

    •    Most sports, particularly high impact, involve repetitive motion of certain joints and muscles. Yoga postures work to create more elasticity in the muscles, open up joints and works on most areas of the body in a gentle and controlled way.

    •    Yoga postures strengthen your core. Focused, mindful movements particularly require strength in the mid-section of the body. This is not only preventative in terms of injuries, it also increases strength stamina and energy for any physical activity.

    •    Improving your balance and promoting greater body awareness. Yoga is very much about bringing balance both physically and mentally. As you progress in your practise, you develop a strong awareness of your body and its possibilities and limitations, and its exact range of motion. This is key to injury prevention and building up strength or relieving stress in particularly areas. Yoga also gives you more energy, in terms of releasing tension and promoting greater flow of energy.

    •    There are so many different styles of yoga and/or pilates classes to suit most people. The key is to find one that works for you. It is a great low impact, cross-training discipline and can be as demanding or as gentle as you feel you need.

 

Mind and body - breathe easy

If ten years of regular yoga practise has taught me anything, it is that the mind and body connection is not just an ancient philosophical concept of the East. It is a very real science and doesn’t require copious amount of herbal tea, tie-dye clothing, downward facing dog poses, or one single chant of ‘Om’ to understand. Our thoughts can affect our physiology, just as as much as our physical state can radically alter our state of mind.
 
Our bodies are always responding to our thought processes. Take breathing as one of the primary gauges of mind matter. When we are relaxed in our thoughts, our breath is often slow and steady. If we’re excited, we may gasp. If we panic, our breath can become very shallow and rapid. We sigh in disappointment. We are often left breathless in surprise and shock. If you think about it, most of our emotions have a breath reaction.
Posture, heartbeat and energy levels are other common indicators of what thoughts are occupying a busy mind. Someone’s slumped shoulders and strained back can demonstrate being ‘weighed down’ by problems overwhelming their brain.

In terms of energy levels and what’s going on in the mind, it’s hard to muster energy when you’re feeling glum, but you can bet a bit of anger can spur you on to play a competitive sport with a bit more oomph. You should see me on a squash court when I’m having a bad day!

Yet, with all this direct confirmation from own bodies, so many of us continue to buy into the idea that the mind and body are separate entities. Maybe this is why stress - often wrongly labeled a thing only of the mind - costs millions in sick days each year.

Stress is often triggered by thoughts or emotions and is something we can all identify with. It can strike us at any time with varying intensity, from the minor annoyances of being stuck in traffic on the way to an important meeting, to the extremes of dealing with divorce, job loss and bereavement.

In physiological terms, stress is a perfectly healthy reaction designed to help us deal with a short-term situation. A hit of adrenaline will, in most cases, positively enhance our mental and physical performance in a given situation. I’ve always been a bit of an adventure junkie myself – I love a good adrenaline rush.

When stressed, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’ mode: speeding up heart rate; slowing digestive and urinary systems to conserve energy for active muscles and brain function; increasing blood pressure and sugar levels; releasing more blood from the spleen; and dilating the bronchioles in the lungs for us to have a greater breathing capacity.

If ‘stress responders’ go into overdrive with prolonged strain, however, this is when it may be harmful, and, in extreme cases, even fatal. Excessive and unresolved stress can lead to high blood pressure, physical exhaustion, coronary thrombosis and heart attacks. Other long-term physical issues can include a depleted immune system, hormonal imbalances, sleep disruption, digestive problems, such as stomach ulcers, muscle tension leading to poor posture, and hair loss.

Prolonged stress can also cause serious emotional and mental health problems, such as anxiety, fear, overwhelm, depression and confusion. 

So, when considering health and wellbeing, it makes perfect sense to me that we treat both our mind and body with care and see them as connected. I always aim to find that balance between relaxation and healthy exercise of both – not just because I’m another thirty-something trying to find myself.

And, while I’m not here to try to convert everyone into yoga, meditation or a hippy mind-set – as much as I reckon that would be great fun – I just ask you to open your mind a little and explore the common sense behind these ancient approaches to holistic health. 

 

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