Culturally, our idea of relaxation involves flopping into an overstuffed chair and watching TV, or surfing the Internet, or going out for a drink. Even when we try to stop and do nothing, our minds keep chattering, endlessly planning future events or mulling over the past.
Stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, colitis, indigestion, insomnia and back pain are rampant. But is stress, in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing? In reality, it is how we view our stress, what mechanisms we use to deal with stress, that affects our physiological response. A healthy response to stress brings energy, alertness and creativity. It stimulates us. It challenges us. It inspires us. However, a negative response results in irritability, anxiety and fatigue.
For 25 years I was a nurse anesthetist. I was very good at what I did but stress was taking its toll. Clashing egos, 24 hour shifts on call, high risk patients and hospital ‘restructuring’ left me feeling stressed to the point of burn out. To survive I turned to yoga. And now after 20 years of teaching yoga and meditation, when I ask my students why they have come to class the most common answer is “to learn how to relax”. At what point in our lives did we forget how to relax?
Why is relaxation important? The stress response is part of our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism - our instinctual ability to quickly mobilize our body’s physical response to danger. As hunters and gatherers the stress response allowed mankind to survive the rigors and dangers of daily life. In our modern era, we seldom face the life or death situations our ancestors faced, but we continually face a myriad of disturbances which trigger a prolonged “fight or flight” response which over time increases the risk of significant disease. It is not the stressors but our reaction to stressors that becomes the key to balanced health.
The body and mind are intrinsically connected. They are so connected a relatively new field of medicine is the specialty called psychoneuroimmunology, another way of saying that body and mind, or psyche, nervous system and immune system influence each other. The yogis have known this for thousands of years!
Our yoga classes are designed to optimize health. Starting with asanas emphasis is placed on the moment, letting go of preconceptions and learning to accept yourself by stretching the body in coordination with the breath. These movements are designed to internalize your awareness, to become conscious of individual strengths and weaknesses, to find and honor your limits, to teach flexibility of muscle and mind.
Next, awareness of the breath is an important bridge between the physical and mental aspects of our being. To practice something you do so automatically may seem like an unusual concept but the breathing, or pranayama practices, are meant to use the breath to change the dynamics of the body/mind interaction. Some pranayama practices bring calmness and a relaxation response, while some energize, or stimulate, but all are meant to bring you into the here and now and balance our energy.
The third component of yoga is the practice of meditation. Meditation has been scientifically proven to be a phenomenal stressbuster, often lowering blood pressure more effectively than medication, and bringing balance and stillness into our frenetic lives. Unfortunately, many people approach meditation as if it is something that must be learned and accomplished in a short time, saying “I can’t do it, because I can’t stop thinking”. Meditation is awareness, pure awareness, of this one moment in time. As such, it is an art and a practice that requires a non-judgmental approach and a willingness to sit and witness our thoughts day after day no matter what arises. In our multi-tasking society, the idea of doing nothing may seem impossible - a waste of time, but to find a sense of balance it is essential.
So take your stress and place it in your yoga practice. Practice consistently and you will taste the sweetness of better health and balance in life! Yoga will be dessert!