These days, most of us are living in a state of always being busy, rushing to keep up with work, family and social pressures - especially during the silly season. And though we may think we are helping ourselves, even some of our “relaxation” activities are producing more stress, such as competitive sports and high intensity gym workouts.
Even Yoga. Yep, I hear it all the time from people I chat with from all over the place. “Yoga makes me feel MORE stressed out!”. There are many things that can make yoga quite an intimidating and stressful experience for some: the fast pace, “fitness” focus, and pressure to keep up with the instructor and others in the class, doing things that might not suit your personal style, in order to “look” a certain way in a pose. As a result, many people take one class and never come back.
So if our lifestyle is “go, go, go” and our playtime is the same, are we ever really switching off? Or are we keeping ourselves as busy as possible to distract us from our day-to-day worries? Maybe we’re afraid to actually slow down, because we don’t know what will happen when we’re truly quiet, still and alone with ourselves. But let’s take a look at what this does to our health in the long-term.
Fight or flight?
Two of the nervous systems in our body are: ‘sympathetic’ and ‘parasympathetic’. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is our “fight” or “flight” mode, which is important for responding to stressful situations or danger. The body tenses up and becomes more alert, shutting down all functions that are not necessary for survival. Your heart rate speeds up, your muscles contract and adrenaline is released.
But living in this state all the time would be detrimental to our health - which is why we have the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to restore the mind and body to a state of calm. It slows your heart rate back down and relaxes your muscles.
While both systems play an important role, keeping a proper balance between these two is VITAL for our health.
The Stress Response
Today, we live in a highly stressful world that tells us it’s wrong to “waste time”. There are the pressures as mentioned above, and on top of that the media tells us that we’re constantly in danger. We aren’t able to sit still, and most of us aren’t sleeping enough.
When our fight or flight mode is constantly stimulated like this, the balance of SNS and PNS is thrown out of whack. Stress accumulates in the mind, affecting our emotions and eventually manifesting in our physical body as illness, or injury. Anxiety is now the most common mental health condition in Australia - with one in four people experiencing this at some stage in their lives.
So, you can see taking time to slow down, to truly REST is not a waste of time - in fact, it’s more important than ever in the times we live in. Stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system allows your body time to heal and replenish. And the positive impacts aren’t just physical, but mental, emotional and spiritual as well. Remember, “only when we finally quieten the mind, we are able to hear the whispers of our heart.”
4 Simple Ideas For De-Stressing Your System
1. Breathe. Sounds silly, as we do it all the time right? But the way we breathe can have a huge effect on our nervous system. Sensors in our lungs tell the vagus nerve about our breathing: whether it is fast and forced, or soft, calm and slow. The vagus nerve then sends a message to our brain, and our nervous system reacts to our state of breathing. Gently lengthening the exhale and breathing in a soft, but deep and full manner can induce a feeling of calm. We also need to create space for the breath to move inside us, so we can breathe at our full capacity, allowing space in the torso for your diaphragms to move up and down, and ribs and belly to expand. Here is a simple way to breathe better at any time, in any chair, anywhere!
2. Free up your psoas. Your psoas is one of the hip flexor muscles that runs from your thoracic spine all the way to the top of your thigh bone (femur). It will often react to a state of stress or trauma, and over time, it can become chronically shortened. Because the psoas is connected to the diaphragm AND to our nervous system via connective tissue (fascia), it puts pressure on both of these when it becomes short. This in turn can send a message to the brain that we’re in a stress response, and may lead to heightened feelings of anxiety. Here’s a simple pose to help you free up your psoas.
3. Practice Chin Mudra. A mudra is a hand gesture used to affect or redirect the flow of energy or prana in the body. When the index finger is joined with the thumb, this represents connection of self to God, or the spirit or universe, whichever you call this by. By facing your hand down towards earth, you encourage a sense of grounding - which can be really helpful for reducing stress levels and bringing us back down to earth from high mind stimulation.
4. Slow down your yoga. Slower paced yoga classes (like this calming Chair Yoga practice) can offer an opportunity for balance between stimulating and calming poses. Yoga is about more than just performing one shape after another - when we stay in poses longer, pause between sequences or poses, or take time for a lengthy Savasana, we give space for absorption and integration of the benefits of our practice into our system, along with self inquiry and exploration, allowing us to notice, listen, and peel back the layers to our true self.
And isn’t that what Yoga is really all about?