As we walk the tightrope between modern life and our animal instincts, the human race strives to find balance. In our bodies, our minds, our environment, in our lives. With our brains over-stimulated and our bodies more sedentary than ever, many of us suffer from the fatigue and imbalance that comes from chronic stress without sufficient recovery. A yoga practice is an excellent way to soothe nerves that are in a constant state of overdrive. Yoga can help give us the ability to live healthy amidst hectic schedules and bustling environments. Why does it seem that as technology evolves at such epic pace we have less and less time at our disposal? Now more than ever we need to slow down, quiet our minds, take a deep breath…
Stress has become a chronic aspect of life for many of us; and it takes its toll. The nervous system senses continued pressure and remains slightly activated, producing extra stress hormones over an extended period of time. This can wear out the body’s reserves, leaving us feeling depleted or overwhelmed. Over time the immune system weakens causing illness and fatigue, mood swings, lack of focus, and irritability. Stress is implicated in many health problems from migraines and insomnia to lupus, MS, eczema, poor digestion, weight gain, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. In milder situations a little stress can keep us on our toes and help us to rise to a challenge. However, in today’s world chronic, unreleased stress has become prevalent and is taking a tremendous toll on our bodies as it diminishes our enjoyment of life.
In city living the constant noise, electricity, radiation, radiowaves, electromagnetic rays, and infra-red which surround us, create an ever-present stimuli that haggars the central nervous system. We do not yet know long term effects of this “white noise.” We may not consciously be aware of it, but our bodies register all that is going on around us. In our jobs and lifestyles we are often engaged in many tasks at once and feeling that we are constantly on the go, and that even when we do have a moment to spare we can’t seem to truly relax.
What is Stress?
In a challenging situation the human brain responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus (located in the center of the brain) signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and release them into the bloodstream. Heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism increase, blood vessels open wider to allow more blood flow into large muscles groups, making our muscles tense and putting the brain on high alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases a dose of stored glucose to increase the body’s energy. Sweat is produced to cool the body. This chain reaction of physical effects happens to prepare the human being to react quickly and effectively, enabling them to handle the pressure of the moment. Cortisol is a natural steroid that raises your blood sugar level (so the muscles have plenty of fuel) and suppresses inflammation, but it also suppresses the immune system. The adrenal hormones are catabolic, which means they foster biological processes that burn energy and break down cellular structures. If you activate the adrenal glands over and over again without sufficient recovery in between, your body becomes depleted and exhausted.
Stress is necessary for the human to remain self-sufficient; to survive. In the jungle, ancient man conjured stress hormones when needed to fight a bear or a tiger, or to survive extreme weather conditions. With a concrete defensive action stress hormones in the blood get used up entailing reduced stress effects and symptoms of anxiety. In modern life some stress situations sharpen us; clear the cobwebs from our thinking, and stimulate faculties to attain our true potential. Each stage of human evolution happened by adapting in order to survive extreme conditions and stressors in our environment, as at this time the body is prepared to act with increased strength and speed while the mind is sharp and focused. Stress and a human response to stress is necessary.
However, what we need now is to learn to adapt to our new world, to handle the increase in milder but consistent stress in a better way and to learn to release before it affects us in a negative manner. When we fail to counter a stress situation these chemicals and hormones remain unreleased in the body and bloodstream for a long period of time. This leads to a long list of symptoms such as tense muscles, unfocused anxiety, dizziness and rapid heartbeat, and compels the mind-body to in an almost constant alarm state in preparation to fight or run away (known as the fight or flight response).
Accumulated stress can increase the risk of both acute and chronic psychosomatic illnesses, and cause everything from headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, frequent cold and fatigue, to diseases such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, heart ailments and even cancer. Many medical doctors and psychologists go as far as to say that 70 – 90 % of visits by adults to primary care physicians are for stress related problems.**
How Yoga Affects Stress
Enhance the body’s natural functions:
To recover from the exhaustion associated with chronic stress, we need to do things that turn off the adrenal hormones and promote secretion of anabolic hormones. Certain yoga poses, such as inversions help to stimulate glands in the brain (Pituitary, Pineal). Moving into the ALPHA state is very important. The alpha state is considered the ideal waking state, where we reach the pinnacle of our creative thought process while the body is in a healing cycle. Alpha state is often attained during savasana; final resting pose in yoga practice.
Yoga’s smooth, deep, symmetrical breathing, twists, stretches and balancing postures help to enhance the body’s natural functions, keeping the spine, house of the nervous system supple, enhancing flow of fluids in the spine and stimulating glands and circulation of blood and lymph throughout the rest of the body. Muscles are lengthened and toxins are released. Pranayam (breath exercises) and poses such as cat where we roll along the spine with breath can help to flush and clear the lung tissue.
Yoga innately helps us to create balance; to know our bodies, to recognize when we are not balanced both on and off of the mat. On a purely physical level hatha yoga creates strength, flexibility, grace. Part of Yoga’s philosophy is to take the approach of strengthening and healing the body in the process of healing and cleansing the mind. Yoga views the body as having many layers. Asana (physical yoga postures) affect the body but also these deeper layers, en route to creating a whole, balanced self. Hatha yoga practice creates unobstructed energy flow.
Stressed out individuals tend to carry a great deal of physical tension in their bodies. Yoga helps to unlock and release these tensions before they can accumulate over time and become chronic physical and psychological conditions. As we release physical blockages, toxins, and limitations from the body we also do so in mind, spirit, and emotions. The benefits of yoga postures (asana), breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana) include increased body awareness, release of muscular tension and increased coordination between mind-and body which leads to better management of stress and cultivates an overall feeling of well being
During the resting poses in yoga such as child’s pose, abdominal tension is released. This allows internal organs to unwind promoting deep breathing and enhancing digestive and reproductive functions. This deep rest affords the central nervous system much needed time in ‘para-sympathetic’ mode (relaxed calm state, free of the “flight or flight” stress response) in order to recover and rejuvenate. Creating focus through a series of specific bodily poses also helps us to truly take our mind off of work and other stressors.
In normal conditions the body follows a natural breath pattern that is slow and fairly regulated. Under stress when the body shows symptoms such as tightening of muscles, distractions, anxiety, hyperactivity and angry reactions, breathing becomes quick and shallow. One tends to hold one’s breath frequently. With restricted breathing inflow of oxygen is diminished. Lungs are unable to exhale the stale airs and residual toxins build up inside the body. Stiff muscles restrict the circulation of blood that so even less oxygen comes in and fewer toxins are removed. This in turn affects the healthy regeneration of cells and can accelerate aging and disease. Medical studies show that the oxygen-starved cells are the major contributing factors in cancer, immunity deficiency, heart disease and strokes. Breathing also affects our state of mind and consequently makes our thinking either confused or clear. Lengthening and deepening breath in yoga creates a more balanced state of being. A change in breath pattern creates a change in the metabolic process, emotions, endorphins, internal chemical reactions, and the release of specific hormones. Mind affects body; body affects mind.
Mind Body Connection:
The sensitivity that comes through a yoga practice helps to develop a level of skill in cultivating, observing and choosing one’s posture, breath, emotions, and diet more wisely. As we practice we learn to listen with our bodies. Whenever we experience an emotion, our bodies register this emotion and mirror it. The next time you get angry, stressed, or afraid, stop and notice exactly what is happening in your own body in that moment. Which muscles got tense? How has your breath been affected? How did your posture change? Is your heart beating faster? What affects you and why? Are you able to notice it as it happens?
Over time yoga helps us to let go of unwanted emotional and physical patterns. Yoga practice is great for providing recovery and can also help you deal with stressful circumstances without having such a strong negative reaction. The mindfulness – mind-body awareness cultivated with yoga practice allows us to realize emotions as they arise; sensing what is the cause of the emotion and how that emotion affects the body/mind. As Patanjali says in his Yoga Sutras**, “Yoga quells the fluctuations of the mind.” It slows down the mental loops and patterns of frustration, regret, anger, fear, and desire that can cause stress. No matter what age, we can release past traumas, feelings of guilt or inadequacy, denial, patterns of feeling unable to communicate or connect, patterns of addiction, (all of which lead to more guilt and denial). We need to clear out these patterns in order to stay freshly alive or else there is an accumulation, a blockage, both physical and mental. We need to continually release these psycho/somatic holding patterns. As we release blockages, toxins, and tightness physically, we also do so in mind, spirit, emotions.
Awareness from the inside out and from the outside in are necessary. They are one in the same. Through a regular yoga practice we develop a balanced state on a consistent basis and this translates into our lives off the mat. We become better equipped to handle everything that comes our way in life; to handle life with more grace, ease, and presence, from a more objective point of view. By staying open we keep on top of the game, in the moment, able to truly enjoy each day to the fullest. The way we deal with coworkers and friends or family will innately be transformed. The very way we perceive things around us and who we are as a person from moment to moment will be transformed. Our sense of self-perception is the root of our own life. From here the world around us takes shape. As we become more aware of ourselves we are able to be less judgmental, more open, more honest, and take things less personally. True wisdom comes from within, from self knowledge and a clear eye.If you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll be likely to live longer, and fuller, with better health. Yoga and meditation offer some of the same benefits as antidepressants-without the side effects.
It is no wonder yoga has soared to such heights of popularity. Through yoga practice we begin to find a sense of wholeness. We become more aware. We create balance in our bodies, in our minds, in our lives. As we evolve individually and come closer to an open, authentic state of being, we also evolve as a species, creating a better world for us all.