When you’re over your head ... a yogic headstand. Photograph: fizkes/Getty Images/iStockphotoInstagram has long been filled with fitness crazes, from urban parkour to HIIT workouts and even the chair challenge – a feat of core strength that involves climbing under and over a chair without once touching the floor. Not to be outdone, celebrities are embarking on a new craze – taking photographs of themselves upside down in headstands and handstands, with everyone from 70-year-old Dragon Duncan Bannatyne to TV presenter Fearne Cotton getting involved.Otherwise known as inversions, headstands and handstands are a key part of advanced yoga practice, but when performed incorrectly they can have damaging consequences, up to and including causing a stroke.“Instagram is full of peak-level poses,” says Anna Taylor, a yoga teacher. “Something like a headstand really needs to be built up to, so you’re not crushing your shoulders. It might not be one for office workers who have bad back alignment.”In order to perform a headstand, your core strength needs to be built up through poses including the plank, dolphin plank (where you keep your forearms on the floor) and downward dog poses, according to yoga teacher Sarah Scharf. “For a complete beginner, it might take anything up to six months to build your strength properly with other poses,” she says. “Then, when you feel ready, I would start with a handstand against a wall, or using props that take the weight off your neck. Always make sure you’re practising with an experienced friend or instructor.”When you are ready for a headstand, make sure your back is straight, your elbows are aligned with your shoulders, your forearms angled behind your head and your fingers interlaced around the back of your neck, says Adam Hocke, a yoga teacher. “There’s a real meditative focus to achieving the headstand,” he says. “It gives you a new perspective and it is calming to have the heart above the head.” Hocke cautions against kicking up into the pose too forcefully and placing too much weight directly on to the neck.“These celebrity poses are a great way to get people into yoga,” Hocke says. “But I wish more accounts would show the basic poses and work that goes into achieving these inversions. You can get the same effect just by bringing your legs up against a wall. Anyone can do it and it shows that the hardest poses aren’t always the most beneficial.”
Ironing ... an unnecessary evil? Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick. Photograph: Snap/Rex Features Photograph: SNAP / Rex FeaturesWhat is the environmental cost of ironing? Am I saving the planet by being a scruff?Nick Riches, London W13Post your answers – and new questions – below or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
"I'm getting married tomorrow. I wanted to send you this message," the text, which was sent with his fiancée's knowledge, began. "Thank you for being my first love."
Posed by models. Composite: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Guardian DesignI am a woman in my early 20s and have had a few sexual partners, with one longer-term on-off relationship (in which I had my first sexual experiences). My mother never spoke to me about masturbation, which I began experimenting with, well before any sexual activity, after reading about erotic fiction websites in a women’s magazine in my teens. I am worried my use of erotica may be affecting my ability to orgasm during sex. While I masturbate (successfully) regularly, I have only reached orgasm once with a partner. I know my own body, but am unable to translate this into sex, possibly due to my own insecurities from my teens. What can I do? I am worried about having unsatisfying sex for ever.There is nothing to be concerned about; everything you have described is completely normative. Using erotica is not a problem – in fact, it most likely helped you to fire your own erotic imagination and learn how your body works. Your task now is to go through the process of teaching partners how to please you. This might mean simply guiding them verbally – or perhaps physically guiding their hands or mouths. Many people erroneously imagine it is easy to switch between masturbation and sex with someone else, usually because they expect partners to read their minds. But satisfying sex requires communication; patiently helping your partner to know and do exactly what you want, and fully reciprocating. And relax – it takes time to learn the arts of giving and receiving.• Pamela Stephenson Connolly is a US-based psychotherapist who specialises in treating sexual disorders.• If you would like advice from Pamela on sexual matters, send us a brief description of your concerns to email@example.com (please don’t send attachments). Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms• Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.
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‘When thoughts occur, you don’t interrogate them or imagine them being carried away on balloons, you just let them occur.’ Photograph: Posed by model/Getty/iStockphotoDoing nothing is exhausting: mindfulness involves keeping a running tally of every single passing thought and sensation, while transcendental meditation involves concentrating on your breathing and mantra. Perhaps we should all try niksen instead?Niksen is an increasingly popular Dutch relaxation technique where you relinquish control and just ... stop. When thoughts occur, you don’t interrogate them or imagine them being carried away on balloons, you just let them occur. At a time when meditative practices can feel like yet another thing to do, niksen is liberatingly simple. Stop doing everything right now. Congratulations, you just did a niksen. It is essentially sanctioned daydreaming.It sounds tremendous, so I had to try it. The brief from my editor was possibly the best I have ever received – sit down and don’t do anything for an hour – so I retired to a chair away from my desk and, well, just sort of stopped.And it was brilliant. A working day can often feel a bit like a zombie attack, with requests and demands coming in from every imaginable angle. To deliberately remove myself from that felt amazing. There was a freedom to it, a tranquillity. We are all so busy doing as much stuff as we can that to suddenly stop felt preposterously luxurious.Or at least it did for about 30 seconds, because that was when the thoughts started to trickle in. I was staring out of my window, but I was seeing the dozens of unread emails that were almost certainly piling up in my inbox. I was nagged by the sinkful of washing up that needed doing and the bin that needed to be taken out. I thought about the podcasts I could be listening to. Shamefully, I found myself wondering if anyone had written any good tweets.In the end, I managed 10 minutes of niksen before my brain stopped idling and told me to stop being such a layabout. Still, they were 10 very nice minutes. Niksen isn’t something you can just plunge into, it turns out. It takes time to build up to a level of comfort where you can happily do nothing. And so help me God, I’m going to get there if it kills me.
‘I shared my morning sickness medication with him.’ (Posed by model) Composite: Getty Images/Guardian Design TeamKirsten, 22, knew something strange was happening at about eight weeks into her pregnancy. The classic first trimester symptoms, such as weight gain, food aversions and nausea, were all arriving as expected – but she wasn’t the only one affected.Her partner, Silas, 23, was experiencing similar physical shifts. He started gaining weight and felt repelled by familiar foods. As Kirsten’s morning sickness took hold, he was struck with equally debilitating nausea. “I felt sick every day for weeks,” he says.Initially, Kirsten was sceptical. She worried that Silas’s symptoms were an elaborate joke, or that he was being insensitive. “But, as time went on, I realised he was truly suffering,” she says. “The nausea was the worst of it. He had it much worse than I did. I ended up sharing my morning sickness medication with him so he could get through the day.”Silas’s experience was no freak phenomenon. He had Couvade syndrome, otherwise known as a “sympathy pregnancy”. The mysterious – yet surprisingly common – condition causes pregnant women’s partners to manifest the physical and psychological symptoms of pregnancy. Those with the syndrome report abdominal pain, morning sickness, bloating and lethargy, as well as mood swings, memory loss and depression. In more extreme cases, they can even experience pseudocyesis, in which their stomach swells throughout their partner’s pregnancy, only to begin retracting after the birth.For Kalu, 25, the symptoms were brief, but all-consuming. During the first trimester of his partner’s pregnancy, he struggled with extreme anxiety and nausea. “My stomach was twisting and turning,” he says. “I was throwing up for days. The only thing I could eat were liquids, such as water and fruit smoothies.”It is easy to dismiss these men as simply being melodramatic, especially when you compare Couvade syndrome with the intense physical strain of a real pregnancy. Perhaps that is why there has been so little research into the causes.“I don’t think that people understand the nature of the disorder,” says Dr Arthur Brennan, a senior lecturer in nursing at Kingston University, who has written several research papers on the condition. “It sort of straddles the boundaries between a mental disorder and a physical disorder. It doesn’t fit tidily into one or the other category.”As for how many men may be affected, the research is surprising: one study found that up to 52% of US fathers will experience some symptoms of Couvade syndrome, with 59.1% in Jordan and up to 61% in Thailand. In Poland, a 2013 study found that 72% of expectant fathers could experience at least one pregnancy-related symptom. Lack of research in the UK means that recent statistics are sparse, but estimates in the early 1970s put rates between 11% and 50%. Of course, there is a lot of room for interpretation when symptoms such as mood swings and depression are involved.The syndrome is not a modern-day one. There are references to Couvade rituals in Corsica, Cyprus, Papua New Guinea and ancient Iberia that stretch as far back as 50BC, with expectant fathers apparently lying in bed throughout the pregnancy, and receiving the same level of attention as mothers. In some cases, they would even wear their partner’s clothes, groan and cry out, and complain of labour pains.Couvade syndrome may not be limited to heterosexual human couples, although they make up the majority of the reported cases. Dr Bartlomiej Piechowski-Jozwiak, a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, says the most severe case of Couvade syndrome he has ever heard of came via a vet: “A woman developed a variant of Couvade syndrome triggered by her dog’s pregnancy: she had all the symptoms of the syndrome, and she knew she was not pregnant.”So what does cause Couvade syndrome? For a long time, it was believed to be purely psychological. Some early explanations, rooted in psychoanalytic theory, suggested that the symptoms were born out of a man’s envy of the woman’s ability to procreate. Others suggested it could be a way of diverting attention back to the man, who can feel irrelevant or marginalised during pregnancy.> When Amanda is pregnant, I just get emotional and lazy, and eat cakeBut more recent studies have suggested that Couvade syndrome could be linked to empathy and attachment. Symptoms, it seems, are more prevalent in men with greater investment in their unborn baby, and increased involvement in the pregnancy.This was the case for Mike, 32. The tattoo artist had Couvade syndrome with all three of his partner Amanda’s pregnancies, experiencing morning sickness, pseudocyesis, exhaustion and heightened emotions. He believes it may have been down to the couple’s closeness. “We breathe each other’s air constantly,” he says. “We own a couple of businesses together, we live together, we work together and we have children together, so we’re very close. We also spend a lot of our free time together, too, because we’re friends.”There are potential physical explanations for Couvade syndrome. What we know from the very few studies that have been carried out so far is that men’s hormonal levels shift significantly during the antenatal period. Testosterone tends to diminish, while oestrogen and prolactin rise.“I’d say my oestrogen levels were all over the place when Amanda was pregnant,” says Mike. “I was an emotional wreck.”“My training regime practically stopped because I didn’t feel like I had the urge or energy. I’m quite a testosterone-y bloke: I’m mad on the gym, and I train hard and often. But when Amanda is pregnant, that just stops. My ‘want’ just disappears. I just get emotional and lazy, and eat cake.”Dr Robin Edelstein, a psychologist from the University of Michigan, has studied these hormonal shifts in expectant fathers. The lower testosterone, she suggests, may be to blame for some of the symptoms. “Lower testosterone is associated with weight gain and depression,” she says. “It could [also] make men more supportive and more invested in their relationship, and more prepared to become a parent.”“A number of studies have found that testosterone is lower,” Brennan agrees, “whereas prolactin tends to rise. The link, or the apparent trigger, is found in men who had the greatest concern or responsiveness to the unborn baby. Possibly, this could be to do with empathy, but it could be due to anxiety as well.”But for those with Couvade syndrome, it’s not really about finding answers. Instead, the priority is removing the stigma that surrounds the condition, and for it to be acknowledged as a legitimate part of the pregnancy process.“I don’t really think it’s a cause for research,” says Mike. “Obviously, some people may take the piss, or say I’m trying to steal the thunder from Amanda’s pregnancies. And, yeah, they are her pregnancies, but I can’t deny what’s going on.”If anything, he says, the syndrome should be celebrated as a symbol of intimacy between two parents (the couple are now working on a book about how to stay close during pregnancy, which they credit to the experience). “Couvade syndrome taught me to be more compassionate; to have more understanding of what it was Amanda was going through – not just physically but mentally,” he says. “Maybe Couvade syndrome will give men more of an understanding of what a woman goes through when she pushes her body to its limits.”