Life can be stressful. We are constantly on the go, working long hours, travelling long distances, trying to get ahead and often running on empty…
In constant motion, we find that we are chronically stressed. Whenever we feel stressed our nervous system is activated. When this happens our blood pressure and heart rate increase, our breathing changes and energy sources within the body (think fats and sugars) are put to work preparing the body for action. This is the work of the sympathetic nervous system, our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ system.
All of this is well and good as long as (once the source of our stress has passed) our body is able to let go and unwind. It does this by lowering our heart rate and blood pressure, reducing the amount of stress hormones released into the body and relaxing our muscles. This is the work of the parasympathetic nervous system, our ‘rest and repair’ system.
The problem is that the body cannot always tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. That is, it is likely to respond to stressful thoughts about your job/relationship/money (imagined threats) in the same way it does to a dog lunging at you with bared teeth (real threat)! This means that many peoples’ stress response systems are chronically activated, which can cause disease.
Stress is a contributing factor in:
- Heart attacks
Stress hormones can deplete the functioning of our immune system and deplete the density of our bones. That the body will respond in the same way to imagined threats as it does to real threats points to the power of our thoughts. The realization of the impact of our thoughts on our stress levels is an important one. It means that we can mediate our stress levels by changing the way we think about the things that happen to us. Yoga is a really great way of tapping into this process because it encourages us to slow down and pay attention to our experience. Over time we realize that many of the things we ruminate over are not as earth shattering as we tell ourselves they are.
Stress reduction and yoga
Importantly, yoga also teaches us about breath awareness. Breathing allows us to influence the functioning of our nervous system in important ways. Slow deep breaths and breathing patterns that emphasize long exhalations activate our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repair). We also begin to realize that the way we breathe impacts the way we think.
Busy breath = busy mind. Calm breath = calm mind.
By tuning into the information we get from our senses we realize that we can consciously turn our attention inward, to what is happening inside of our bodies. This allows the white noise from our environment (and let’s face it, there’s a lot of it) to fade into the background so our senses aren’t as overloaded and we become less overwhelmed. This internalization of awareness that holds the key to yoga’s healing powers.