Thursday, April 28, 2011

Soft Music Is As Relaxing As A Massage

Soft music can provide the same stress relief as a pricey massage.
(Photo © istockphoto/Neustockimages)

Musician and composer Jeff Gold recently sent me a copy of his CD, Escapes, which consists of 60 minutes of instrumental music designed for massage treatments, yoga, and just about any activity that requires a relaxing soundtrack.

As I sipped a cup of Eco Tea and listened to Jeff’s compilation, I began thinking about soothing music in general. I usually gravitate toward meditative chanting and ambient sounds when I want to wind down (think Krishna Das, Deva Premal, and Brian Eno), but I know that my playlist of calming tunes may not be the same as yours. Musical preferences aside, it seems that when any soothing track is combined with deep breathing, it will have the same effect.

A recent study by scientists at the Group Health Institute in Seattle showed that deep breathing and soft music are just as effective in relieving stress as a pricey massage. This is good news for those seeking affordable wellness since a CD costs about $10 while a 60-minute massage typically costs $100 and up. “We were surprised to find that the benefits of massage were no greater than those of the same number of sessions of ‘thermotherapy’ or listening to relaxing music,” said Karen Sherman, a senior researcher at the Seattle-based health co-operative, according to the Daily Telegraph. “This suggests that the benefits of massage may be due to a generalized relaxation response.”

For more FREE relaxing sounds, download Todd Boston’s album Alive (and if you like what you hear, support the creation of Todd’s next album):

OR listen to this ambient sound design project by Matthew Wakem that was inspired by water (and contact him to design music for your spa, hotel, or lounge):

Ambient Water Mix by Wakem Sound Design

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Event Roundup: Summer 2011 Yoga & Music Festivals

Seane Corne leads a yoga class at Wanderlust California.
(Photo © Matthew Wakem)

Celebrate summer with music, yoga, healthy food, and lots of likeminded people at any of these wellness-focused festivals.

June 10-12, 2011
The 33rd annual Harmony Festival will take place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California. Musicians like The Flaming Lips, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, Natacha Atlas, and more take over five stages for the three-day event. Other highlights include: a Harmony Eco Village featuring inspirational lectures and workshops, a Well Being Pavilion featuring yoga classes and other holistic healing products and services, and a Crafters Village & Global Bazaar featuring hundreds of vendors showcasing unique, hand-crafted merchandise. Tickets are available at Whole Foods Market and the festival website.

June 16-19, 2011
Set at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder, Colorado, the Hanuman Festival allows attendees to enjoy mind-blowing music along with workshops by world-class yoga instructors in a sun-drenched outdoor environment. Teachers like Seane Corne, Darren Main, Kathryn Budig, and Amy Ippoliti lead the charge on the mat, while Donna De Lory, Suzanne Sterling, Desert Dwellers, and more fill the air with inspirational sounds. Tickets are available through the festival website

June 23-26, 2011
Pack your yoga gear and your dancing shoes for four days of yoga, music, and nature at the Wanderlust Yoga + Music Festival at Stratton Mountain Ski Resort, Bondville, Vermont. Join renowned yoga teachers like Rodney Yee, Colleen Saidman, Bryan Kest, Elena Brower, and Dana Flynn in dynamic yoga sessions by day, then dance to the positive vibes of Michael Franti & Spearhead, Andrew Bird, Krishna Das, and more at night. Plus highlighted speaker Deepak Chopra talks about mind-body health as part of the event’s Speakeasy Series of inspirational lectures. Tickets are available through the festival website

July 28-31, 2011
Get ready to stretch, dance, and om at the third annual Wanderlust Yoga + Music Festival at Squaw Valley USA, North Lake Tahoe, California. Flow with yoga masters like John Friend, Seane Corne, and Shiva Rea by day, while musical guests such as Girl Talk, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Jai Uttal and The Wailers provide a live soundtrack at night. In addition to the natural beauty of Squaw Valley, festival highlights include local and organic food, wellness-focused lectures and workshops, a heated swimming pool at High Camp (elevation: 8,200 feet), and a Mass Midnight Twister event on Saturday at the Yoga Tree Tent. Tickets are available through the festival website. (See a photo slideshow from Wanderlust California 2010 here.)

Do you know about a wellness-focused summer festival that’s not on this list? Use the email icon below to tell us all about it. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

5 Signs You Should Slow Down Your Workout

Tired from Spinning? It may be time to slow things down.
(Photo © istockphoto/kzenon)

You wake up tired, yet you still push yourself to go to that 6 a.m. Spinning class. After all, you’re trying to foster healthy habits. But according to Mark Allen and Brant Secunda, the authors of Fit Soul, Fit Body: 9 Keys to a Healthier, Happier You, those high-energy workouts could be doing more harm than good.

“High intensity equates to high stress, even if there is a part of it that feels good to a person,” explains Allen. “In small doses this is fine. However, as a staple of your exercise [regimen] it causes the negative effects of stress hormones to set in and can lead to lack of motivation, depression, lack of mental acuity, irritability, and injury.” He adds, “Slowing down from exercising at high intensity helps the body to gain fitness in a way that is sustainable over time and that is low stress.”

Below Allen and Secunda share five telltale signs you should slow down your workout routine.

SIGN #1: You're feeling burned out.
Pushing the envelope in your exercise will always lead to burnout over time. So drop the intensity down to a level where you end the workout feeling much fresher than when you start. Also, listen to your body. If you feel discomfort, or if you feel like you have try really hard to keep the workout momentum going, slow things down to a point where you are able to look at the world around you and feel a sense of enjoyment in your workout.

SIGN #2: You lack a good night's sleep.
You fall asleep easily but wake up feeling like you were run over by a truck. You keep waking up numerous times in the night. You feel big dips in energy and sleepiness during the day. If you suffer from any of the above, it's an indication to take it a bit easier in your training.  Along with swapping heart-pumping cardio sessions with low-impact workouts, try cutting back on caffeine, especially in the afternoon. Replace that coffee pick-me-up with a short walk outside. It will help you get through the rest of the day, and it will help you sleep better at night.

SIGN #3: You've had sudden changes in weight and appetite.
Rapid weight loss (or gain) as well as any fluctuations in appetite levels could mean your body needs time to recuperate from any high-intensity activities. Slow down your workout, up your protein intake, and reduce carbs (especially in snacks). Opt for almonds instead of cookies, or crackers and hummus instead of chips. This will help regulate blood sugar as well as give your body more of the building blocks it needs to repair itself.

SIGN #4: You have body pains or injuries.
Sore muscles are normal, but any sharp or chronic pain is a sign that your body has reached the limit of what it can take. Stop trying to set a personal record during each workout, and reduce muscle and joint stress with easy to moderate exercise. Also try a new activity if one is causing you some discomfort. For example, if a knee hurts when you run, try cycling or swimming instead. It may not be your first choice of exercise, but the variation will give an ailing part of your body some extra time to recover.

SIGN #5: You have an elevated resting heart rate.
Pay attention to your heart rate when you wake up in the morning. If it reaches five  (or more) beats above normal, this is usually a sign to take things down a notch. On top of reducing your exercise effort try drinking some extra glasses of water throughout the day. This will help to reduce another cause of an elevated resting heart rate: dehydration. Staying hydrated is especially important in the spring and summer months when the heat can make workouts even more challenging.

About Mark Allen & Brant Secunda

Six-time World Champion Ironman Mark Allen (left) and Shaman-healer Brant Secunda (right) are nationally esteemed health and fitness experts known for blending ancient shamanic wisdom with the latest scientific findings on nutrition, fitness, mood, and stress. They have been featured in such venues as Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, and AOLHealth. Allen writes for Triathlete Magazine, and the two of them speak and teach body-soul fitness workshops all over the country at places like Kripalu. You can read Secunda and Allen's blog and learn more about them at

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Yoga Improves Mood and Lessens Anxiety, Study Says

A study shows yoga results in increased GABA levels.
(Photo © Matthew Wakem)

I recently attended a Vinyasa yoga class during which instructor Ashley West Roberts asked us to stay low in Utkatasana for at least 10 breaths so that we could “sit with our negative feelings.” If you’ve practiced Chair Pose before, you know exactly what negative feelings Ashley was talking about. Your leg muscles burn, your arms start to get heavy, and you just want to stand up and shake it all out. But you don’t. You take deep ujjayi breaths instead. And if you’re feeling particularly masochistic, you challenge yourself to sit a little lower.

Strangely enough, it’s moments like these that keep me coming back to the mat. That’s because there’s a certain feeling of peace that comes with each deep breath. The tension in your muscles begins to release. Your heart rate slows down to a steady pace. And this happens regardless of how difficult the pose is.

I used to call this feeling the yoga bug and watched as more and more of my friends were bitten by it. But according to the results of a 12-week study conducted by doctors at the Boston University School of Medicine, the calming feeling yoga induces has nothing to do bugs at all. Rather, it’s the result of an increase in GABA levels in the body.

GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that suppresses the action of nerve cells. Think of it as a natural calming agent released by the brain that signals muscles to relax. Brain scans of study participants who reported a relaxed mood and decreased levels of anxiety after practicing yoga revealed that certain areas of their brains were flooded with GABA. Though more studies are required to determine the role GABA plays in lessening anxiety among yoga practitioners, there’s no doubt a regular yoga practice is a surefire stress reliever.

Of course, this study is just one more great reason to turn to yoga when you’re having an off day. So go ahead, unroll your mat, breathe through the tension, and let the GABA flow.