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How Yoga Helps with Stress

"I'm an old man and I have known a great many troubles.

But most of them never happened."

~ Mark Twain

It is impossible to live life without stress. Yet the concept of stress has only actually been in our collective consciousness since the middle of the twentieth century. Hans Selye, was the first to identify physical, psychological and social stressors and how they cause stress, which is a reaction in the body.[1] It is important to differentiate between stress and stressor. Stress is the mind and body’s response that activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), releasing hormonal secretions of adrenaline and cortisol to assist us in coping with demands placed upon us. This is also known as “fight or flight” mode because it is a response that has evolved since prehistoric times “in order to keep animals – including humans – alive in potentially lethal environments.”[2] The stressor is the causal event, which sets off the stress reaction in the body. In essence, Selye “defined stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made on it.”[3] Selye made an important distinction between positive bodily reaction (eustress) and negative bodily reaction (distress) and explained that exposure to stressors are normal everyday events and happen even when we are sleeping. There is a necessary stress reaction which is an increase of adrenaline flow in the body to help individuals meet every day challenges – such as getting out of bed, doing morning exercise, getting to work - this is what Selye called eustress. On the other hand, distress is when the volume of stressors becomes overwhelming or an individual stressor creates so much emotional turbulence that the body's stress reaction goes into overdrive and pumps out a volume of adrenaline which is excessive (toxic) and may be corrosive to the body tissue. An example of unhealthy stress is when anxiety and worry become so acute that the accumulated stress hormones corrode the lining of the stomach and create ulcers.

Though Selye distinguished different types of stressors, the sociologist Richard Lazarus went even further to argue for a mind over matter approach to stress. Lazurus claimed that because humans are sentient beings, for the most part, there is a possibility for a cognitive interlude or appraisal between the stressor and the stress reaction.[4] In other words, an individual has to perceive a threat and define an experience as stressful before any bodily reaction ensues. Lazarus argued that most of the time people 'cope' cognitively and socially (redefining stressors as not important, or seeking help to cope with situations beyond their control) so that the stress reaction is not triggered. Then there are other stress-coping methods, such as denial, which may or may not diminish the physical consequences of a stressor.  People also cope by smoking, drinking or even comfort eating. Unfortunately, these methods of coping have their own downside, in that they create dependence on unhealthy habits, which can in turn feed anxiety, depression and disease in the body.

Fortunately, we all were also born with a “…rest-and-digest system, or dimmer switch, intact. This means that you have an innate capacity for relaxation, which is the foundation of emotional balance.”[5] Psychologist and Yoga teacher, Bo Forbes is talking here about the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or the rest-and-digest response, which has the opposite effect on the body to the SNS, and when activated can help us attain deep relaxation. With practice it is possible for us to naturally develop breathing and contemplative meditation techniques to help increase the length of the cognitive interlude between the stressor and the stress reaction. In other words, with regular yoga and meditation practice we can gradually move away from living with unconscious reactivity to stressors and develop an ability to respond more consciously.

For so many people striving for career success in competitive industries, stress can become a normal state of being. Technology has also played an enormous part in making it harder for us to switch off and rest and digest at the end of each day. I remember the first time my employer gave me a blackberry. I was thrilled because I saw it as liberation from the office. I could now monitor my emails from the comfort of my couch, whilst watching TV and comfort eating at the end of a stressful day. What I didn’t realise was that it just meant that they could get more of my time without paying for it. As a result less of my time and attention went into the pursuit of relaxation and more of my time was spent working. My yoga practice was still primarily a physical workout at this stage in my life. It wasn’t until I took a 10-day Thanksgiving retreat at the Sivananda ashram in the Bahamas that I began the journey toward liberation from my unsustainably stress-inducing lifestyle. This was my first real introduction to daily meditation at dawn and dusk with yoga twice a day. I can still remember experiencing some of my most nurturing and blissful savasanas during that retreat. I also discovered Yoga Nidra with a practitioner named Amy Weintraub who specialises in yoga for anxiety and depression.[6] I invested in a private session with Amy and it was incredibly healing. Whilst lying down in a comfortable, warm and safe position Amy coached me to take my awareness inside and explore different parts of my body, mentally scanning for any muscle tension and then sending my breath to release anything that wasn’t relaxed. Starting at the crown of the head, Amy took me on a guided tour of my body from the inside and introduced me to a practice, which I now understand to be fundamental to deep relaxation. Guided meditations where we take our awareness inside the body are “…deeply therapeutic, and involve muscular relaxation in the body and quieting, or lowered emotional reactivity, in the mind. Your brain waves, a measure of your brains’ activity level, are slower during relaxation than during active wakefulness, yet more active than in sleep. This state helps you focus your awareness on an element of the breath, a part of the body, or a pattern of thought or emotion. Restorative yoga is an ideal way to create true relaxation.”[7] What Forbes describes here is a technique, which is helpful in meditation, and recently popularized by the term Mindfulness. In my personal practice, Yoga and Mindfulness are intertwined with the same goal of finding equanimity and a true presence. An example of one of my favourite mindfulness meditation exercises is as follows:

“Sit in a comfortable, upright position or lie down. When you are settled,            

imagine that a wave of relaxation is spreading through your entire body.            

Let go of any holding in your jaw. Let your lips part and your upper and            

lower teeth separate slightly. Without changing your facial expression,            

imagine the feeling of a smile. Grow that radiant, open innocence, the            

joyousness behind a smile. After a moment, bring the feeling of a smile to            

your heart and linger there in your imagination. Then feel a smile in both            

lungs and in the space between your shoulder blades. From there bring            

the feeling of a smile to your abdominal organs and digestive system, your            

lower back, your pelvis and reproductive organs, and both legs. Finally            

feel your whole body as one large, open, radiant smile. Feel yourself as            

the embodiment of a smile, your whole being renewed, reverberating with            

the presence of a smile. Every cell is smiling.”[8]

In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there is a very small amount of writing about the physical practice of yoga – or asana. The vast majority of the classical text is dedicated to mind yoga, or meditation, with the ultimate goal of finding samadhi[9] One evening at the Sivananda ashram on Paradise island, I witnessed the closest I’ve yet to come to samadhi[10]. I was sitting on the beach watching the sky turn different shades of peach and magenta. The Caribbean Sea was completely still, like a lake, and there were long wispy clouds, like those I had seen in Japanese silk screens, stretching across a limitless sky. I had a profound sense of inner peace, which seemed to be reflecting back at me from my surroundings. To this day when I am meditating I can visit that beach and bring up that moment as if I am still sitting there enveloped in the serenity. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was the moment when yoga became my priority and all of my other pursuits began to drop away as meaningless. My soul and my body had had enough of being in a constant state of fight-or-flight. It was time to begin the long journey home.

It has really only been in the last year, after deepening my yoga and meditation practice with teacher training, that I have begun to grasp the extent of the potential we all have to use our breath to find relaxation and manage stress. Through focusing on the breath and turning our awareness inward during non-threatening situations, such as a yoga class, we become more able to access our PNS when we need it in more ‘threatening” situations. The PNS excels at neuroplasticiity, meaning that the more we exercise it the stronger it grows. By practicing specific breathing techniques, such as deep diaphragmatic breathing, starting with repetition of an equal-length inhale and exhale and then gradually extending the exhale, we calm the mind which in turn calms the nervous system and reduces the release of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. During savasana, it can be helpful to scan up through the body, starting at the feet and tensng and releasing your left foot, left calf, left thigh, then moving over to the right side and continuing all the way up until you reach the face. Then scrunching all of the muscles in the face, sticking out the tongue, popping open the eyes before closing them and relaxing the entire face and head. This can induce a blissful surrender into the mat as you place your awareness in the space between the eyebrows and imagine a wide-open spaciousness for thoughts and sounds to just float by.

We all have an innate ability to choose our PNS – rest-and-digest - response instead of our SNS response - fight or flight. The more time we spend turning our awareness inward on the yoga mat and/or on the meditation cushion we become more able to recognize thought patterns that cause unnecessary stress to ourselves. Mindfulness meditation is particularly helpful with this because rather than blocking or repressing any negative thoughts, we delve deeper to investigate what emotions and physical feelings are underlying those thoughts. We develop an ability to change the internal narrative of the constant mind chatter, or monkey mind, and use the breath to release any tension associated with neurological patterns in the body. Our mind chatter is amplified by an increased demand to multitask and be able to respond more instantaneously than ever before. It can be said that stress is caused most by our inability to accept external things that we cannot control. In a culture where we are encouraged to be driven and ambitious to make our dreams a reality, we are often striving for an imagined future, rather than appreciating the journey and the present moment. This imagined future introduces pressure to perform and anxiety about potential troubles that in turn prevents us from maintaining a healthy perspective. With regular yoga and meditation practice, our ability to access the PNS gradually evolves from an untrained unconscious reactivity to stressors, to eventually being able to unconsciously respond to stressors in an appropriate manner which allows us to maintain equanimity.

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