As we walk the tightrope between modern life and our animal instincts, the human race strives to find balance. This is true in our bodies, our minds, our environment, and in our lives. With our brains over-stimulated and our bodies more sedentary than ever, many of us suffer from the fatigue and imbalance that comes from chronic stress without sufficient recovery. A yoga practice is an excellent way to soothe nerves that are in a constant state of overdrive. Yoga can help give us the ability to live healthy amidst hectic schedules and bustling environments. Why does it seem that as technology evolves at such an epic pace we have less and less time at our disposal? Now more than ever we need to slow down, quiet our minds, and take a deep breath…
The impact of stress
Stress has become a chronic aspect of life for many of us and it takes its toll. The nervous system senses continued pressure and remains slightly activated, producing extra stress hormones over an extended period of time. This can wear out the body’s reserves, leaving us feeling depleted or overwhelmed. Over time the immune system weakens causing illness and fatigue, mood swings, lack of focus, and irritability. Stress is implicated in many health problems from migraines and insomnia to lupus, MS, eczema, poor digestion, weight gain, high blood pressure, and heart attacks. In milder situations, a little stress can keep us on our toes and help us to rise to a challenge. In today’s world, chronic, unreleased stress has become prevalent and is taking a tremendous toll on our bodies as it diminishes our wellbeing and enjoyment of life. In city living the constant noise, electricity, radiation, radio waves, electromagnetic rays, and infra-red surround us, creating an ever-present stimuli that challenges the central nervous system. We do not yet know the long term effects of this “white noise.” We may not be consciously aware of it, but our bodies register all that is going on around us. In our jobs and lifestyles we are often engaged in many tasks at once and feeling that we are constantly on the go. Even when we do have a moment to spare, we can’t seem to truly relax.
Learning about stress
In a challenging situation, the human brain responds to stressors by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. The hypothalamus (located in the center of the brain), signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. When this occurs, heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism increase, blood vessels open wider to allow more blood flow into large muscle groups, making our muscles tense and putting the brain on high alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases a dose of stored glucose to increase the body’s energy. Sweat is produced to cool the body. This chain reaction of physical effects happens to prepare the body to react quickly and effectively, enabling them to handle the pressure of the moment. Cortisol is a natural steroid that raises your blood sugar level and discourages inflammation, but it also suppresses the immune system. The adrenal hormones are catabolic, which means they foster biological processes that burn energy and break down cellular structures. If you activate the adrenal glands over and over again without sufficient recovery in between, your body becomes depleted and exhausted. Stress is necessary for humans to remain self-sufficient. In the jungle, ancient man conjured stress hormones when needed to fight a bear or a tiger, or to survive extreme weather conditions. In modern life, some stress situations sharpen us, clearing the cobwebs from our thinking and stimulating faculties to attain our true potential. Each stage of human evolution happens by adapting in order to survive extreme conditions and stressors in our environment, as at this time the body is prepared to act with increased strength and speed while the mind is sharp and focused. Stress and the human response to stress is necessary for survival. However, what we need now is to learn to adapt to our new world, to handle the increase in milder but consistent stress in a better way and to learn to release before it affects us in a negative manner. When we fail to counter a stress situation, these chemicals and hormones remain unreleased in the body and bloodstream for a long period of time. This leads to a long list of symptoms such as tense muscles, unfocused anxiety, dizziness and rapid heartbeat, and compels the mind-body to go in an almost constant alarm state in preparation to fight or run away (known as the fight or flight response). Accumulated stress can increase the risk of both acute and chronic psychosomatic illnesses, causing everything from headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, frequent cold and fatigue, to diseases such as hypertension, asthma, diabetes, heart ailments, and even cancer.
How yoga affects stress
To recover from the exhaustion associated with chronic stress, we need to do things that turn off the adrenal hormones and promote secretion of anabolic hormones. Moving into the alpha state is very important. The alpha state is considered the ideal waking state, where we reach the pinnacle of our creative thought process while the body is in a healing cycle. Alpha state is often attained during savasana; final resting pose in many yoga practices. Yoga’s deep, symmetrical breathing, along with balancing postures, helps enhance the body’s natural functions, keeping the spine supple and stimulating glands and circulation of blood and lymph throughout the rest of the body. Breathing encourages muscles to be lengthened and toxins to be released. Pranayam (breath exercises) and poses such as cat ,where we roll along the spine while breathing, can help to flush and clear the lung tissue. Yoga innately helps us to create balance, to know our bodies and recognize when we are not balanced both on and off of the mat. On a purely physical level, hatha yoga creates strength, flexibility, and grace. Part of yoga’s philosophy is to take the approach of strengthening and healing the body in the process of healing and cleansing the mind. Yoga views the body as having many layers. Asana (physical yoga postures) affect the body but also these deeper layers, en route to creating a whole, balanced self. Hatha yoga practice creates unobstructed energy flow.
Stress, the body, and yoga
Stressed out individuals tend to carry a great deal of physical tension in their bodies. Yoga helps to unlock and release these tensions before they can accumulate over time and become chronic physical and psychological conditions. The benefits of yoga postures (asana), breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana) include increased body awareness, the release of muscular tension and increased coordination between the mind and body, which leads to better management of stress and cultivates an overall feeling of well being. During the resting poses in yoga, such as child’s pose, abdominal tension is released. This allows internal organs to unwind, promoting deep breathing and enhancing digestive and reproductive functions. This deep rest affords the central nervous system much needed time in parasympathetic mode (relaxed calm state, free of the “fight or flight” stress response) in order to recover and rejuvenate. Creating focus through a series of specific bodily poses also helps us to truly take our mind off of work and other stressors. In normal conditions the body follows a natural breath pattern that is slow and fairly regulated. Under stress, when the body shows symptoms such as tightening of muscles, distractions, anxiety, hyperactivity and angry reactions, breathing becomes quick and shallow. With restricted breathing the inflow of oxygen is diminished. Lungs are unable to exhale the stale airs and residual toxins build up inside the body. Stiff muscles restrict the circulation of blood so even less oxygen comes in and fewer toxins are removed. This in turn affects the healthy regeneration of cells and can accelerate aging and disease. Medical studies show that the oxygen-starved cells are the major contributing factors in cancer, immunity deficiency, heart disease, and strokes. A change in breath pattern creates a change in the metabolic process, emotions, endorphins, internal chemical reactions, and the release of specific hormones. Mind affects body; body affects mind.