Life on the run! For many of us this describes how we are living our lives. Cell phone in one hand, iPad in the other. Talking, texting, tweeting, rushing to work, fighting traffic, eating in the car, running the kids to school and soccer, bills to pay, noise, relationship woes, TV blaring bad news, crime, economy, government...we are one stressed out society! To add even more stress to your load, if you don’t learn to manage your stress it will kill you.
Holy heart attacks and hypertension, Batman! What are we to do?
Let us begin with understanding the basics of stress in the body. We have our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is one body response to stress—the fight or flight action of releasing an extra quick burst of cortisol for survival reasons. Cortisol is a hormone released from the adrenal gland at normal intervals for glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure and immune function. Extra cortisol will heighten memory and senses, increase heart rate and blood pressure, and lower sensitivity to pain. PNS is responsible for physical relaxation and emotional calming. We need both SNS and PNS, but we need them balanced. Excessive PNS will not support quick reflexes when you need to slam on the brakes in order to avoid the dog that darts in front of your car. On the flip side, overactive SNS will have the body producing too much cortisol. Cortisol sounds like good stuff; why not have more pumping through the veins?
High, prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream are dangerous. These are some of the negative effects of too much cortisol:
» Impaired cognitive performance
» Suppressed thyroid function
» Blood sugar imbalance
» Reduced bone density
» Decreased muscle tissue
» Elevated blood pressure » Reduced immunity and
» Slowed wound healing
» Increased abdominal fat, which leads to heart disease and diabetes
Getting the picture of how stress can kill us?
We may need a quick burst of cortisol, but once that need is met we need to relax to avoid the dangerous overproduction of cortisol. Can we actually train our brains and bodies to bring these necessary functions into healthy balance? Yes! How? Yoga!
Practicing yoga teaches the body and brain to achieve balance on many levels.
Breathing exercises, called pranayama, are an integral part of
a yoga practice. Inhaling shifts the nervous system toward SNS. The heart beats faster; the blood pressure rises. Exhaling shifts the nervous system towards PNS. The body relaxes, calming the heart rate and reducing blood pressure.
Poses or postures, called asanas, create the same dynamic. Certain poses will challenge us, initiating SNS. Moving from a challenging pose to a recovery pose, we shift to PNS. Inversions, turning our bodies upside down, defying gravity—SNS! Final relaxation, lying quietly and comfortably on the mat—PNS! Creating the rhythm trains the brain. Allowing the body to experience the shift from SNS to PNS in this rhythmic manner optimizes the body’s response to stress. Our bodies run on cellular memory. We will be able to draw on this cellular memory when stressful situations arise. Our brains will not shout the command, “control the cortisol; relax the body!” It will be an ingrained, unconscious pattern.
Speaking of unconscious, let’s go for more unconscious! All our stress and worries and fears are the result of our poor overwracked brains either in “blast from the past” or “freakout about the future” mode.
Be in the present! Yoga constantly reminds us and teaches us to stay in the present moment, thinking less and feeling more.
Are you new to yoga? Are you a power yoga junkie? Try a Restorative Yoga or Yin Yoga class for major stress relief. The power yoga junkie may find this class more of a challenge than the newbie because it means slowing down. Remember—it’s all about balance, baby! Restorative Yoga can be a super yummy way to end a stressful week. Props like bolsters and straps support the poses, allowing your body to relax and actually go deeper into the pose. Yin is similar in so much as the practice is very slow paced, allowing poses to be held longer, but typically without the props. Bending, stretching and twisting will release the tightness and achiness that stress puts in the joints and muscles.
Your yoga practice is not dependent upon a mat and a classroom and a teacher. Next time you and your stress levels rising, breathe deeply and shift your brain into “attitude of gratitude” gear...POOF...you are practicing beautiful yoga.
Written by Sheila Strobeck, instructor at Moksha Yoga Studio