Yoga For Stress I
Your body’s response to stressful situations is effective and efficient. When you perceive a situation that is threatening your nervous system sends glucose to your muscles so that you have the strength either to fight an attacker or to run away from them. Your pupils dilate so that you can be alert and responsive to changes in a dangerous situation. Your heart rate rises and the force of contraction of your heart increases so that you have the energy to deal with the threat.
This is known as the fight or flight response.
When you are in a safe situation your body can rest and the other side of your nervous system comes into play: the hormones released when you are at rest manage your digestive system, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, sexual function and defecation.
None of these bodily functions are crucial when you are dealing with a threatening situation, so your body directs all of your energy to the things you really need to fight off or escape an attacker.
It’s a wonderfully balanced system.
The trouble is that too many of us are spending too much time in the stressed state for too long. Instead of being an effective short-term response to stress, for many people the fight or flight bodily response has become the default setting.
This means that we inhibit all those bodily functions that our body arranges to have happen when we are at rest and this has myriad repercussions for the health of body and our sense of well-being.
In the short term inhibiting digestion is not a problem, but in the long-term it can cause illness and pain (IBS, constipation, bloating and cramps). Likewise, it is good that our heart rate increases in response to stress, but in the long-term it can have serious health implications such as high blood pressure.
Your body might lose the skill of switching off the fight or flight response, so that you stay in it, even when it is time for your body to relax - this might mean that you suffer from sleeplessness or insomnia, or from pain from stressed and hyper-alert muscles. Your body has forgotten how to be at rest.
Stress also inhibits your immune system, so you might find that you get ill frequently, or take a long time to recover from illness. Long-term stress has also been linked to infertility, disruption of menstrual cycle and loss of sexual function.
Our nervous system needs to be in balance. Many of us have forgotten how to get that balance.
The good news is that yoga is very good for teaching us how to bring our nervous system to equilibrium, so that we can experience the fight or flight response when necessary (before a big presentation), but can return to a non-stressed state quickly afterwards. It can also help us to manage stressful situations so that we are more able to remain clear and calm in the face of daily pressures, rather than being run ragged by living in a state of permanent panic.
Different techniques will appeal to different people, but I hope to give lots of options on this blog over time. Really simple things that you can do wherever you find yourself. Try some out. Give them a chance to work (so be consistent, choose a practice and try it over the course of 2-3 weeks, don’t chop and change from one thing to another). Let me know how you get on and if you need any techniques for specific situations (like giving speeches, or insomnia).
Practice 1 – The Three Part Exhalation
Here’s a really simple thing that you can do anywhere. Begin by bringing your attention to your breath. Breathe in for the count of four and out for the count of four. Do this for 5 breaths. You might already feel a bit calmer.
Now divide each exhale into 3 parts. So breathe in for the count of four and then exhale and pause, exhale and pause, exhale and pause. Repeat for at least 5 breaths – up to 10 breaths if you have the time.
If you lose your focus, don’t worry, just bring your attention back to your breathing and re-establish your smooth inhale and the 3-part exhale. You will find your ability to focus grows over time.
Try not to bring too much force to the pauses (make it a gentle pause, not a strong feeling of holding your breath).
Be patient with yourself. Set yourself a timer or a number of breaths that you are going to do and stick to it. See how you get on.
When you have finished take 3-6 ordinary breaths, in and out for the count of four again.
Why it works: when you deepen your breath and lengthen your exhale your body sends messages to your brain that you are in a safe and relaxed place and it can therefore switch off its fight or flight response (thereby switching off all those things your body needs to do in an emergency and switching on all those things it gets on with while you’re relaxed).