Nikola Ellis - Yoga Therapist

Nikola Ellis is a certified yoga therapist, psychotherapist and counselor. She develops evidence-based health programs for organisations and individuals and trains health professionals, community workers and yoga teachers to use the tools of yoga and meditation in community and health care settings.

Morning meditation for stress relief

What if there was a simple way to calm the mind, relax the body and relieve pain? What if this wonderful tonic was free, accessible and easy to use? Welcome to mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation has become hugely popular in recent years, and for good reason. Studies have shown that a regular practice can reduce anxiety,[1] improve immune function[2] and help manage pain.[3]

While the benefits of mindfulness meditation are clear, it can be challenging to get started. Perhaps you’ve tried it, but within seconds of sitting still your mind’s a riot of buzzing thoughts. Sounds familiar?

Making Meditation Easy

Here’s a great tip for easing into meditation – move, don’t sit. Performing simple movements with calm breathing can help to relax the mind and body, paving the way to an enjoyable seated meditation. A 2009 study also suggests that combining movement and meditation can improve attention and memory more than relaxation alone.[4]

Morning Meditation Ritual

Morning is a great time to practice meditation, setting the mind and body to ‘calm’ for the day ahead. Try this morning ritual, combining movement and breath to prepare you for a blissful seated meditation.

Arm Raises

  • Stand still and notice your breath.
  • Inhale: Gently raise your arms up over head.
  • Exhale: Follow the breath out as you lower your arms to your sides.
  • Repeat 6 times.
Dynamic Forward Bend
  • Inhale: Raise your arms up overhead.
  • Exhale: Bend your knees as you fold forward from the hips, bringing the hands to your knees, shins or feet.
  • Inhale: Raise your arms up to the sides as you lift up out of the forward bend, bringing your arms overhead as you come to standing.
  • Exhale: Slowly lower your arms back to your sides.
  • Repeat 4 times.

 Seated Twist

  • Sit on a chair or the floor.
  • Inhale to lengthen the spine.
  • Exhale: slowly twist to one side, looking over your shoulder.
  • Inhale: untwist back to centre.
  • Exhale: slowly twist to the other side, looking over the opposite shoulder.
  • Inhale: untwist back to centre.
  • Repeat 4 times.

Sitting Comfortably

  • Find a comfortable supported position – sitting on a firm chair is fine.

Mindfulness Meditation

  • Become aware of your feet. Feel where they connect to the floor. Become aware of your toes and ankles. Move your attention up into your calves and knees. Feel your thighs, front and back.
  • Be aware of your sitting bones where your body touches the surface you’re sitting on. Feel the even weight of your body drawing down into that surface. 
  • Become aware of your back, feeling into the lower back, the spine, the mid back, the shoulder blades, the upper back and shoulders.
  • Feel into the upper arms and down into the elbows. Be aware of the forearms, hands, fingers and thumbs.
  • Move your awareness back up to your shoulders. Feel your neck, head and scalp. Become aware of your forehead, eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, ears, mouth and chin.
  • Become aware of your nose and nostrils.
  • Feel the breath where it enters the body at the tip of the nostrils. Become aware of the sensation of the breath in the nostrils as you inhale and exhale. Focus your awareness on the breath in the nostrils. Each time your mind wanders, bring it back to noticing the sensation of the inhale and exhale in the nostrils.



[1] Miller, J; Fletcher,K; Kabat-Zinn, J; Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 1995 May;17(3):192-200.

[2] Davidson, RJ; Kabat‐Zinn; Schumacher, J; Rosenkranz, M; Muller, D,; Santorelli, SF; Urbanowski, F; Harrington, A; Bonus, K; Sheridan, JF. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine: 65 (4) 564–570 doi: 10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3

[3] Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. (1985) The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. J Behav Med 8: 163. doi:10.1007/BF00845519

[4] Subramanya, P; Telles, S (2009) Effect of two yoga-based relaxation techniques on memory scores and state anxiety. BioPsychoSocial Medicine 3:8. DOI: 10.1186/1751-0759-3-8

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Techniques for managing body pain with Yoga

When pain strikes, the last thing you feel like doing is exercise. But getting on the yoga mat could be your passport to pain-free living. Here’s how everyday pain such as tension headaches, lower back and neck pain can be relieved with yoga.

A real pain in the neck

According the GSK 2017 Global Pain Index, 90% of Australians will experience both head and body pain in their lifetime. [1] While regular exercise helps, it turns out that yoga is even more effective. What’s more, you don’t have to be a guru to get the benefits.

According to a study from Germany, people doing yoga reported significantly less neck pain than those following a standard exercise program – in just nine weeks.[2] The story’s the same for back pain, where a tailored yoga program has been shown to be more effective than either aerobic exercise or education programs for relieving lower back pain.[3]

Moving on up

It isn’t just neck and back pain that improves with yoga. Headaches can be dissolved through regular practice, too. A 2014 study found that people who practice yoga experience fewer and less severe migraines,[4] while participants in a 2013 study experienced a significant reduction in the pain of tension headaches in people taking a regular yoga classes.[5]

How yoga beats pain

Yoga places great importance on calm breathing and every movement is accompanied by a smooth breath.  This combination of flowing breath and movement has a powerful impact on the body’s nervous system.[6]

The hormones that usually regulate inflammation are negatively impacted by prolonged exposure to stress. When this happens, your immune system becomes less efficient and inflammation can be increased.[7]

Calm yogic breathing activates the ‘relaxation response’, reducing heart rate, stress levels and muscle tension.[8] Because pain is made worse by tension and inflammation, switching on the ‘relaxation response’ can make a big difference to how much pain you feel.

Simple yoga routine

Here’s a simple yoga routine that can help you keep day-to-day pain at bay.

Cat to Cow Pose

  • Start on all fours
  • Inhale: Tilt your tail bone upwards, dip your belly towards the floor and lift your chin.
  • Exhale: Tuck your chin under, round your back to the ceiling, tuck your tail under.
  • Repeat 6 times.

Cat to Downward Dog

  • Starting on hands and knees, and inhale.
  • Exhale: push your hands into the floor and lift your hips up to the ceiling, raising your knees off the floor.
  • As you inhale, gently lower your knees back down on to the floor.
  • Repeat 4 times.

Locust Pose

  • Lie flat on your belly with your arms straight down along your sides.
  • Inhale: slowly lift your straight legs, arms, head and chest up off the floor.
  • Exhale: gently lower back down again.
  • Repeat 6 times.

Child Pose

  • Move back onto hands and knees.
  • Press your hips back towards your heels and lower your forehead to the floor.
  • Rest here for 6 breaths.

Calming Breath (extending exhale)

  • Sit comfortably.
  • Close your eyes and notice your breath.
  • Start to count the inhale and exhale for 4 counts each.
  • Try increasing the exhale to 6 counts.
  • Take 12 breaths, breathing in for 4 counts and out for 6 counts.

The next time pain strikes, head to the yoga mat – and don’t forget to breathe!



[1] Extrapolation data based on: Q2. Where on your body and at what frequency do you experience body pain? [TOP 2 BOX Regularly experience] [NET Any body pain] & Q4. Can you tell us at what frequency you experience the following types of head pain? [TOP 2 BOX Regularly experience] [NET Any head pain] // Base: All respondents DATA REF: BP + HP PREVALENCE CALCS

[2] Cramer, H; Lauche, R; Hohmann, C; Lüdtke, R; Haller, H; Michalsen, A; Langhorst, J; Dobos, G. (2013) Randomized-controlled trial comparing yoga and home-based exercise for chronic neck pain. Clin J Pain. 29(3):216-23. doi: 10.1097/AJP.0b013e318251026c.

[3] Wren, A; Wright, M; Carson, J; Keefe, F. (2011). Yoga for Persistent Pain: New Findings and Directions for an Ancient Practice. Pain. 152(3): 477–480. doi:  10.1016/j.pain.2010.11.017

[4] Kisan, R; Sujan,MU; Adoor,M; Rao,R;  Nalini,A; Kutty,BM;  Chindanda Murthy, BT; Raju,TR; Sathyaprabha, TN. (2014) Effect of Yoga on migraine: A comprehensive study using clinical profile and cardiac autonomic functions. IJOY 7(2) 126-132. doi:  10.4103/0973-6131.133891

[5] Menon,B; Satyanand,V; Karishma, PH. (2013) Effects of yoga on tension headache. Jl.DrNTR Health Sciences 2(3), 167-170.

[6] Sharan, D; Manjula, M; Urmi, D; Ajeesh, PS. (2014) Effect of yoga on the Myofascial Pain Syndrome of neck. IJOY 7(1):54-59. doi:  10.4103/0973-6131.123486

[7] Cohen, S; Janicki-Deverts, D; Doyle, W; Miller, G; Frank, E; Rabin, R; Turner, R. (2012) Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. PNAS 109(16): 5995–5999 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118355109

[8] Streeter, C; Gerbarg, P; Saper, R; Ciraulo, D; Brown, R. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Med.Hypotheses 78(5) 571-579. DOI:

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Four easy Yoga poses for back pain

Got lower back pain? You’re not alone. One in six Australians suffer with back pain, becoming more common with age.[1] The good news is that yoga can help. Here are four tips for relieving back pain with yoga.

Relax, don’t stretch

Deep stretching can be counterproductive when it comes to back pain relief. The opposite of ‘tension’ is ‘relaxation’ - not ‘stretching’. Try this relaxing yoga pose to ease your lower back.

Posture 1: Legs on a Chair Pose (Viparita Karani)

  • Find a firm, even surface and lie down on your back.
  • Place your feet up on a chair so that your calves and heels rest on the seat.
  • Relax the back of your body into the floor and rest here for 3-5 minutes.

Get Moving with Down Dog

If you sit down all day, dynamic yoga postures can help mobilise a stiff back and relieve tension. Downward dog is the perfect pose to get things moving.

Posture 2: Dynamic Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

  • Start on your hands and knees.
  • Take a breath in, then draw your belly button back towards your spine as you exhale. At the same time, lift your knees off the floor and raise your hips up towards the ceiling.
  • Press firmly into your hands and send your ribs back towards your thighs.
  • Relax your head.
  • As you inhale, take your knees back to the floor, returning to hands and knees.
  • Repeat 5 times.

Core Support vs. Six Pack

Core strength is important for managing back pain, but that doesn’t mean getting a six-pack. Instead, work on strengthening the deep postural muscles that support your frame –the transverse abdominis and multifidi.

Take a deep breath in, then exhale fully, drawing the lower belly back towards the spine. Now hold it. Feel that? That’s your transverse abdominis. You can strengthen this important core muscle by working with an ‘active exhale’ in Plank pose.

Posture 3: Plank (Kumbhakasana)

  • Starting on hands and knees, straighten out your legs, curling under your toes.
  • Your shoulders are directly above your wrists with the base of your thumbs and index fingers grounding firmly into the floor.
  • As you exhale, draw your front ribs up away from the floor towards your spine.
  • Keep your ribs drawn in as you inhale, then lift them up a little more with each exhale.
  • Hold for 6 breaths.

Magnificent Multifidi

The lumbar multifidi muscles work in tandem with the transverse abdominius to support the spine. To activate your multifidi, try this dynamic standing forward bend.

Yoga Pose 4: Standing Forward Bend (Parsvottanasana)

  • Stand tall and step your left foot back.
  • Inhale to raise your arms overhead.
  • Exhale to fold forward from the hips, bringing your hands to your leg or the floor.
  • If your hamstrings are tight, place a chair in front of you and bring your hands down onto the seat.
  • As you inhale, lengthen forwards and come up again to your starting position.
  • Repeat 4 times on each side.

Next time you experience back pain, start by relaxing and then mindfully work with poses that activate the deep core muscles to build strength and stability.



[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [Internet]. Who gets back problems? Canberra: AIHW; 2017 [updated 2016 December; cited 2017 May 25]. Available from:

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