Alleviate Your Allergies With 3 New Habits

Spring is here!  Definitely the favorite time of year for many urban dwellers (at least those of us that live in latitudes that include a frigidly cold winter), Springtime is full of everything new.  Tree blossoms, warm weather, clean homes, bursts of energy, happy moods…all of it contrasts nicely with the low energy hibernation mode that we settle into in order to survive Winter.

But one thing about Spring isn’t new–the return of pollen induced allergies.  Allergic symptoms certainly put a damper on an otherwise pleasant change of seasons.  If you suffer from a runny nose and itchy eyes during Spring you are not alone; nearly 36 million Americans endure the effects of seasonal allergies.  With so much suffering, it makes sense that the market is full of a range of remedies from pills to sprays to face masks.  These remedies are useful, and completely necessary for many sufferers, but they sometimes have unpleasant or uncomfortable side effects.  They might provide temporary relief, but they don’t really address the underlying issue, which is your body’s reaction to the allergens.  If you are an allergy sufferer and are unsatisfied with your attempts to alleviate your symptoms, or are looking for new ways to combat your allergies this Spring, then consider trying the following holistic remedies that I have learned through my research and my own practice.

image by Arvind Balaraman.

Pursue a Healthy Lifestyle. Let’s think about what is going on during allergy season.  Your sniffle nose, puffy eyes, headache and itchy skin are a physical reaction to the presence of foreign substances, such as dust, pollen, cat dander, in your body.  Your immune system detects the foreign substance and launches an attack by releasing histamines and other germ fighting chemicals–this is what causes your symptoms.  The more chemicals the immune system releases, the more unpleasant symptoms you endure.  But the more agile and effective your immune system is, the less chemicals it will need to release to combat those pesky particles. So an integrated healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, sufficient sleep and plenty of exercise, will combat your allergies from the inside out and over the long-term.  A healthy immune system is simply better equipped to deal with the presence of allergens at all times of year.

It is also true that practicing yoga, and particular inverted and balancing postures, will help immediately alleviate many of the symptoms of allergies.  But it is difficult to prescribe a perfect series of postures that will work for everyone because each body is different, and each person is dealing with a variety of different combinations of symptoms.  If you are interested in knowing some yoga postures that will help alleviate your symptoms, leave me a Comment below, check out this article from Yoga Journal, or send me an email: zara(at)yoginizara(dot)com.

Practice Breathing.  Yogic breathing practices, called pranayama in Sanskrit, have long been recommended for the alleviation of allergies.  In particular, the Kapalabhati (“skull shining”) practice, which I have described how to do in a previous post, is known as a cleansing technique because it methodically ejects stale oxygen and particles out of the nose and lungs.  Practicing Kapalabhati in the afternoon is often helpful as a daily antidote to allergy symptoms.  However, only try practicing Kapalabhati if you can still breathe through both of your nostrils!  It is not helpful–and can be harmful–to try breathing practices when you are already suffering from congestion (email or Comment me for a recommended yoga posture instead).

A less obvious, but possibly more important and long-term, benefit from breathing practices is that it stimulates your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for decreasing the body’s stress level.  More and more doctors are talking about the effect that high stress levels have on the experience of allergies, but the short story is that stress weakens the body’s immune system and decreases its ability to deal with allergens.

For a daily dose of stress reduction, try alternate nostril breathing (Anuloma Viloma in Sanskrit), a practice where the breath is inhaled through one nostril and exhaled through the other nostril; each nostril is alternately blocked off with the fingers of the right hand.  Follow these simple steps:

  • First, sit in a comfortable position with your back tall.
  • Hold your right hand up and tuck the fore and middle finger to the palm; leave your left hand on your lap.
  • Place the thumb of your right hand near your right nostril and your ring and pinkie finger by your left nostril.
  • Block off your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril; then block off the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Keep your left nostril blocked and inhale through the right nostril; then exhale through the left nostril while blocking off the right nostril.
  • Inhale again through the left while blocking off the right nostril; and exhale through the right while blocking off the left nostril.
  • Repeat this sequence for 10 to 20 rounds.

Nasal Cleansing.  Also known as Nasal Irrigation and Jala Neti in Sanskrit, Nasal Cleansing is a great way to keep your sinus passages free from both allergens and the mucous your body creates to fight them.  The process, which is simple even if a bit intimidating at first, involves pouring a mixture of warm water and ground non-iodized salt through each of your nostrils using a neti pot (like the one in the image below).  I like to cleanse once a day when I am somewhere with lots of particles in the air, or when I am feeling congested.  Otherwise, I generally cleanse once or twice a week.  It leaves me feeling clear-headed, fresh and clean–and the ancient yogis swear that it is a cure for every ailment in the body originating from the chest up.

You can find a neti pot kit in your local health food store, or you can purchase one from the Himalayan Institute.  The kit comes with detailed instructions on how to create the saline mixture and perform the cleanse.  But if you need further guidance, reach out to me and I will be happy to help you learn how!

Are you suffering from allergies this Spring?  Tell me about your symptoms in a Comment below and I will offer some further suggestions for particular yoga postures you can try to alleviate it.

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A Recipe That’s Better-Than-Coffee

I remember clearly from my days as a midtown Manhattan corporate lawyer those afternoons (nearly every one of them) on which I literally could not keep my eyes open come 3 or 4 pm.

Some days I would feel so heavy that I would drop my head and literally nap on my desk.  Other days I would try to fight it by imbibing more and more caffeine, but it never worked because I would still feel run down and on top of it I would have coffee jitters.

Now that I work from home, I still get that slump in the late afternoon but after years of practice and exploration I have found some creative (and more intelligent) ways to combat those drowsy hours.  Here are three of my favorites:

1. Kapalabhati.  A breathing exercise from ancient India, Kapalabhati is the yoga equivalent to a shot of espresso.  The Sanskrit meaning for Kapalabhati is to light (bhati) up one’s skull (kapala), and by practicing it in the late afternoon you will certainly light up your skull as if you were just waking up in the morning.  There is no better way to get refreshed.

Kapalabhati consists of short and sharp exhalations alternating with soft (and slightly longer) inhalations.  The short, sharp exhalation has a feeling similar to that of blowing one’s nose into a tissue and is created by a forced contraction of the lower belly muscles in and up.  The exhalation pushes air out of the lungs in quick repetitions.  But don’t forget to inhale as well.  Although Kapalabhati practice puts more energy into the exhale, you need to inhale (softly) so that you don’t run out of air to exhale.

If you are new to the practice, try it slowly, with approximately one inhale and sharp exhale each 5 seconds.  It gets easier the more you practice and eventually you can increase the speed of your inhale/exhale to as much as two inhale/exhales each second.  (If you need more instruction on how to do it, leave a comment/question below).

On a physical level, through the Kapalabhati practice stale air is forced out, thus purifying the lungs and nasal passage.  Even  short practice stimulates every tissue in the body, improves the circulatory and respiratory systems, and creates a corresponding alertness in the mind.  It will bring more energy to your body and mind than the strongest cup of coffee!

2. Hydrate.  Many times your low energy level is a result of dehydration.  This is true at any time of day, but particularly so in the late afternoon after you have been working diligently (yes, your brain requires food and water to function properly) and you have possibly forgotten to have anything to drink since your morning coffee or lunchtime soda.  Most likely you are not drinking enough water to sustain your mind and body’s important work.

Although each person will vary, the Institute of Medicine recommends drinking 3L (for men) or 2.2L (for women) of water daily–and that should be in addition to whatever other beverages, such as coffee, tea, juice, you are drinking.  My teacher in India advised me to triple my intake of water, and when I followed her advice I ended up right at the 3L per day mark.

The results have been fantastic.  When I drink enough water I avoid most of my old afternoon slumps.  Try it and see.  If you are busy running around and unable to drink enough water over the course of the day, you can try a quick fix and drink some coconut water, which contains electrolytes and minerals that will super-hydrate you. I tried this myself the other day and went from falling asleep in the library to feeling reenergized and ready to complete my work.

3. Switch to Tea. Just like many of you, I am a coffee lover.  There are few joys more pleasurable than my morning cup of steaming hot brew.  That said, coffee has a big downside, or should I say, a big downward spiral into the late afternoon crash that is nearly unbearable.  I’m sure you have all noticed the connection between your morning coffee ritual and your afternoon involuntary napping ritual, and you have probably tried fighting it by drinking yet another coffee.  But this leads to even more fatigue and that uncomfortable caffeine shakiness.

A better method is to try avoiding the crash altogether by drinking green or black tea, which have less caffeine.  Your body will adjust to the change and start to function on its natural energy reserves (provided you are keeping properly hydrated!) and you won’t experience the sluggish feeling of caffeine emptiness.  If you just can’t give up that morning cafe, then try switching to tea for your afternoon caffeinated beverage.

These are just a few of the ingredients for my recipe to stay awake through those slump filled afternoons, and I know you have some of your own.  What methods do you use to stay energized and awake through the end of the day?  Join the discussion by leaving your comments below!

And as usual, if you are interested in learning more about how  breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance can make your urban life better email me at zara@yoginizara(dot)com.

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Do You Know Your A, B, Cs?

How do we pursue body practices – like yoga – in a safe way?

An article from the New York Times raises that question with an ominous title: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.


As a long time practitioner and teacher of yoga, and a person who has experienced directly the positive mind/body transformation that occurs with regular practice, I was jaw-to-the-floor alarmed to see this article.

I encourage everyone to read the article for your own education, but for those who want a quick summary the gist is this: consistently attempting to practice the more challenging yoga postures–such as back bends, deep twists and arm balances–can lead to insidious injuries.  The most troubling part of the article for me was the story about a master teacher, with more than 40 years of practice and teaching under his belt, who underwent spinal surgery to repair damaged vertebrae that were constricting nerves in his lower back and causing excruciating pain.  By his own account, this teacher said his many years of practicing extreme bends and twists were the reason for the vertebral damage.  While he didn’t say he regrets having dedicated his life to the pursuit of advanced yoga, he did say that he believes yoga can end up causing lasting damage if done with obsession or ego.

Good point.

Engaging in the practice without obsession or ego is exactly the goal of a deepening yoga (or any other mind/body) practice.  It’s a curious phenomenon, with yoga especially, that the desire to move into a cool looking posture is a strong motivation when one first begins the practice.  It whets our appetite and drives us to come to the practice over and over again.

But then something happens when the practice begins to deepen…we start to have less craving for those advanced postures and more acceptance of where we are at any given moment.  It might be that we are in a forearm balance or a forward bend, but we start to experience being there more honestly.

It is precisely this internal honesty, which one cultivates with dedicated practice, that keeps us from injuring ourselves in yoga or any other body practice.  But it is honesty that is so hard to cultivate!  That is why I constantly encourage my students (and myself) to keep “checking in” with the mind and body during a yoga class to assess whether moving into a deeper variation of a posture or attempting a more advanced posture is appropriate.

To help students remember, I have come up with a set of “A, B, Cs” that can be followed at any point during a class (these reminders are especially helpful to beginning students when they are first learning about body practice).  Keeping these points at the front of your mind during any challenging body practice will go a long way in preventing you from harming yourself.

Alignment.  Before you push yourself in any body practice, take a look at your physical alignment.  There are basic alignment concepts that your teacher will often say, such as, knees in line with ankles, and hips in line with knees.  Alignment instructions make up the majority of my words in any yoga class.  Keeping your body in careful alignment will prevent you from twisting, bending, turning or stretching beyond your capacity.

Once your body is in alignment, then take it a level deeper and examine your mind to see if your intention, i.e., the reason you are doing the practice, is aligned with your efforts.  This is the point where we often confront our egos and the tendency to push our body beyond a safe limit in order to impress ourselves (or others).  Be honest with yourself about both your physical and mental alignment.

Breath.  Arguably the most important part of any body practice, the breath will always be honest with you (even if you are not being honest with yourself).  I often say that in the dialogue between the mind and body that occurs during yoga, the breath is the translator.  Your body has an inherent, internal wisdom that is often hidden by the clamoring chatter that goes on in your mind.  Your breath will communicate to your mind what your body is capable of.

On a practical level, the lesson to follow with the Breath is simple: never attempt to reach, or remain in, a posture if your breath has become short (or stopped altogether).  You know you are ready for a posture when you are able to breathe deeply and consistently while you move into it, hold it and come out of it.  If your breathing shortens stop what you are doing immediately!  And then take a moment to go back over your Alignment.

Childlike Care.  In our achievement driven modern culture, we often treat our bodies with a harshness that we wouldn’t even wish on our adversaries.  We rarely treat ourselves with the kindness that we share with our loved ones, but that is exactly what we should do when engaging in body practice.  Before you push toward your physical boundary, consider yourself as you would a child, and proceed with the soft gentleness you would take if you were solely responsible for the safety of that child.  In other words, you should always treat yourself with the same level of care that we universally show to children.  Note that this is a lesson that we can take into all other parts of our life as well.

Equipped with your A, B, C’s, go practice more honestly, carefully and safely.

Have you been injured or hurt yourself doing yoga?  Tell me about your experience in the Comment section below.

As always, if you are interested in learning more about how to practice yoga safely and otherwise improve your life with breathing techniques, mindful movement/asana, meditation and work-life balance, email me at zara@yoginizara(dot)com.

To get the next Urban Practice next post direct to your Inbox, make sure click Follow. You can also join me for daily meditation/movement tips and musings with a Facebook “Like” here or on Twitter @MyUrbanPractice.

Welcome to 2012!

I hope everyone had a wonderful New Year’s celebration, and a relaxing long weekend.  As is typical with the dawn of a new year, I have been thinking about what to make of 2012.  Some of you may have heard about the Mayan calendar that ends in 2012, and the doomsday predictions from end-of-the-world enthusiasts, and that has been on my mind a lot lately.  Don’t worry, I’m not one to follow apocalyptic forecasts, but my curiosity has always led me to inquire more about what those Mayans were pointing out.

Image by Ideago

If you haven’t read about it, the basic idea is that the Mayans were sophisticated astrologers who laboriously observed the night skies (which were pitch black sprinkled with countless shiny stars–much different from the dimmed version of what we observe thanks to our shiny city lights), tracked the minuscule movements of the celestial bodies and then predicted their future (and past) movements well into the thousands of years.

We know now, thanks to our fancy scientific instruments, that their observations and predictions were remarkably accurate.  And their knowledge was vast; they knew these stars had been moving around for thousands and thousands of years.  The Mayans used their astrological observations to create a system of calendars, the latest of which is the one slated to expire on December 21, 2012…

There are various theories for the significance of the abrupt end to the Mayan calendar, and the more alarmist versions include natural and man-made disaster scenarios (I have a theory of my own that involves a weekend blowout pow wow that kept everyone from ever going back to work).  But whatever the reason for the calendar ending, the excitement surrounding the phenomenon can serve a certain purpose for us all in the year to come.  What if we were to all live every day between today and December 21, 2012 as if this year were our last?  What would we do with our time?  How would we end each conversation with a loved one?  Where would we put our attention?

It is easy to lose ourselves in the hurried monotony of our daily lives, and to put off what is really important to us for that “later” time…next year, next month, next week.  But a resolution to consider NOW as the right time, the right place, the right action would bring a richness to each moment that will ultimately fulfill our life regardless of what happens when we wake up on December 22, 2012.  It’s a form of mindfulness practice that has long been espoused by Buddhist and secular meditation practitioners.

So, that is my challenge to myself as I start this year, and I invite you to accept the challenge too.  I will be researching and writing many more posts this coming year on how you can keep the resolution close, and improve the quality of every part of your life.  I would love to hear about your experiences along the way so please liberally share your comments and questions!

Some Wisdom on Nutrition for the New Year

Hello friends, one of my fellow yoga teaching, lifestyle leading and urban blogging gurus, Ms. Nadya Andreeva, has posted a wonderful piece containing basic nutrition and lifestyle recommendations from the Ayurvedic tradition.  Check out her post below and tell me what you think!

Life-changing Health Lessons from Hippocrates