Friday 3rd April - The Parasympathetic Nervous System, Pancakes and Potted Plants
This Week's Class Notes...A Bit About Your Nervous System and the Benefits of Slow, Gentle Yoga
I taught a gentle and relaxing live class via the wonders of technology this week with the aim of helping everyone participating to quieten their nervous system. Although I feel the sense of stress we were collectively experiencing last week has receded a little, there are still many day-to-day challenges and much uncertainty and worry about the future for so many of us. Yoga is a helpful way to manage this.
A strong, vigorous and dynamic yoga practice is good for strengthening muscles and bones and improving mobility and it also stimulates many of the systems of the body (heart rate up, blood pumping and a sense of energy rising) -that's why we always, always do Savasana at the end of class to help us relax and rebalance ourselves, in body mind and soul. Slow, gentle relaxing yoga is extremely valuable too. Staying longer in each pose (as we do in Yin Yoga) and making sure we are so comfortable that we can completely relax (you know that feeling of being able to 'let go' of everything and blissfully float just on the edge of sleep?) encourages our body's systems to slow down and restore. A balanced practice includes both the yin and the yang.
In the class I mentioned both the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems and I thought I would write about them here as, with such similar names, they're easy to get muddled up. I would definitely need a refresher course in anatomy if was to explain it in any depth as it's quite complicated and it's been a long time since I studied it but I did check back with my anatomy textbooks to be sure! Very briefly, the nervous system transmits signals between different areas of the body. There are two structural parts to it - the central nervous system which consists of the spine and the brain, and the peripheral nervous system which consists of neurons and nerves and connects everything together. There are two functional parts to it too - the somatic nervous system which controls the voluntary movements of the body via the muscles and skin, and the autonomic nervous system which controls the involuntary movements of the body such as breathing and digestion - the things we don't need to even think about. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are part of this autonomic nervous system and they work together to keep the body in a balanced state.
The sympathetic nervous system is your 'flight, fight' response to danger or stress. When it is activated by something dangerous, for example stepping out too close to the path of a passing car, the body reacts instantly. Hormones flood the body and the heart rate quickens, breathing becomes more rapid, there is an increase in blood flow to the muscles and an increase in sweating - you are on high alert. The parasympathetic nervous system is known as your 'rest and digest' mode as it controls the functions of digestion, and other day-to-day activities such as urination and salivation. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system quietens the body and allows you to relax - the heart rate slows, respiration slows and digestion is enhanced.
Although the 'flight, flight' part of our nervous system is both natural and necessary to us as human beings, most of us lead busy lives where we are often subject to too many stressors and our sympathetic nervous system can be operating on overdrive. Over time, this can lead to damage to the body, including heart problems and high blood pressure. Yoga can teach us to recognise how we react and respond to things and help us become more aware of the state of our nervous system. By balancing our busy lives (yang energy) with a little bit more gentle yoga, breathing practices and meditation (yin energy), we can reduce the amount of time we spend in 'flight, fight' mode - especially important at this current time when anxiety is high. As we increase the amount of time we spend in 'rest and digest' we can relax more and therefore help to keep ourselves balanced and healthy.
Savasana - the most important yoga pose
This Week's Recipe... Vegan Banana Pancakes
I'm using up soft bananas again! There's no egg required for this recipe and if you use soya or oat milk it's vegan too.
You will need:
1 tablespoon sunflower oil - plus a little to oil the pan
1 teaspoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
100g plain flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
125ml soya milk
maple syrup, to serve
This is a Tesco recipe that I saw mentioned on the side of my soya milk carton. It stated that the amount of milk should be 250ml but many of the comments online said that the batter was way too thin and suggested either doubling the amount of flour or halving the amount of milk. I chose to do less milk as it was only going to be me eating these pancakes - and I've still got enough mixture left for tomorrow.
Here's how to make it:
In a mixing bowl, mash the banana with a fork and whisk in the oil, lemon juice and cinnamon. Add the flour and baking powder. Stir while gradually adding the soya milk. You want the batter to be the consistency of thick yoghurt. (I used my Nutribullet blender to whizz up the mixture.)
Place a frying pan on a medium heat. Oil it using a little sunflower oil on a scrunched piece of kitchen towel or use a spray oil if you have that. Drop tablespoonfuls of batter onto the pan and swirl gently so it spreads across the surface a little to make small pancakes . I have a teeny tiny frying pan about 10cm wide - I don't know where it came from and I don't know who uses it or what they use it for! but it was ideal for making the perfect sized pancakes. You'll need to experiment with the thickness of the pancakes - too thin and they'll be difficult to turn over, too thick and the bottom will be browned before the top is set and flipping will get messy.
When bubbles pop and the glossiness of the pancake becomes matte (about two minutes), carefully loosen the edges from the pan and flip over with a spatula and cook for a further minute or so.
Place the finished pancakes on a plate. Repeat the process until you have enough.
Serve hot with some berries, a spoonful of coconut yoghurt and a drizzle of maple syrup.
This Week's Mother Nature's Magic...
There are so many beautiful things outside at the moment - flowers blooming, leaves unfurling, insects buzzing, birds singing in the quiet skies - I hope you are doing your walking meditations and really noticing these precious things as you go out for your exercise. Many of us are spending more time in the garden too, enjoying the feeling of the air on our faces and our hands in the earth as we tend our plots, but what about those who don't have a garden? How can they get their connection to Mother Nature and her magic at this time? Houseplants are the answer.
There is a growing interest in having plants in our homes, especially among younger people - according to the Royal Horticultural Society, 4 out of 5 16-24 year olds own at least one houseplant! The popularity of Instagram has something to to with this, as has the awareness of the health benefits of having plants in your home - regulating humidity, capturing pollutants and improving air quality - and there's also the mental health benefits of taking care of living things too. Houseplants tend to be tropical or exotic plants that naturally grow in warm, frost-free parts of the world. They couldn't survive outside in our climate in the UK but they manage ok inside our houses, even though the air is very dry. Due to their artificial and cramped conditions they don't often grow to their full size but, if you were to visit the glasshouses at Kew Gardens or RHS Wisley where perfect conditions have been replicated, you could see the very same plants growing to massive proportions - it's quite interesting to see the difference.
I've just been round my house to do a count-up of my plants... I have 79!! I haven't bought all of them though - I've been given some over the years and I do like to propagate them too to create new ones. I thought you might like to see some of them so I'm going to show you a few almost Instagram-worthy pictures of my collection for the next few weeks. We start with the living room...
White pot: Jade Plant aka Money Plant (Crassula ovata), grey pot: baby Money Plant, green pot: baby Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides),
silver pot in front: Devil's Ivy aka Pothos Vine (Epipremnum aureum aka Scindapsus - so confusing to have so many names!)
On the top left: just a bit of outdoor ivy that seems to like it here, bottom left: baby Asparagus fern (Asparagus plumosa or it might be Asparagus setaceus),
top centre right: Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), top far right: String of Hearts (Ceropegia woodii), bottom right: baby Money Plant
Large plant on the left: Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana), hidden at the back: Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), front: another Peace Lily
Left: Money Plant, centre: Lemon Button Fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia), right: Birds Nest Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii)
Left and right: Parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans), centre: some sort of Prayer Plant (Calathea aka Marantha)
Next week I'll show you how to divide and propagate some of these houseplants so, if you happen to own any yourself, you'll be able to make more beautiful green and leafy loveliness to decorate your home. By the way, if you're wondering how I remember all the Latin names - I have a little app on my phone to help me - it's called PlantSnap and it's very useful :-)
This Week's Musical Offering...
Om Sanctuary by Jason D McKean. This track is hypnotic and soothing. And very long. At 1 hour, 9 minutes it's a good one to put on to help you get to sleep at night. It's also useful as background music when you're concentrating on doing something and don't want any distraction but do want some relaxation. After a while you might find you're breathing better and that your shoulders and jaw have relaxed too...
This Week's Videos...
If you're lucky enough to have a pet then you're probably appreciating them for their company and entertainment value a bit more than usual right now. Dogs just love having their people around a bit more - cats, well, maybe it's more on their terms...
Have you met Simon's Cat yet? There are loads of these wonderful little animated films on You Tube - that should keep you busy for a while ;-)
And if you're a dog person, have you met Secret the Australian Shepherd? She does yoga...
I tried to teach Flo a few poses after Monday night's 'live' class. She really didn't get the hang of it, except Savasana which she did perfectly...
And finally, do you have small people in your family that you can't see at the moment? Yesterday was International Children's Book Day, an annual event where the love of reading is celebrated and attention is called to the importance of children's books. Just a thought, why not send the children in your family a book to let them know you're thinking of them even though you can't see them right now? My daughter Rachel works for Smallprint Books, a little independent children's bookshop in south east London. They're closed at the moment but struggling to stay afloat using their online ordering service. If you ordered a book through them you'd be helping a small business in these difficult times - I think Amazon will manage without us ;-) Their website is https://smallprint-online.com/collections/books?page=2 and their Instagram account is https://www.instagram.com/smallprintbooks in case you do want to have a look.
Until next week - stay safe and enjoy your yoga.