- Image by HeartMath (www.heartmath.com) via http://empoweringwellnessnow.com/how-stress-affects-the-body/
Your alarm goes off. What do you feel? Immediate dread as you desperately search for the snooze button? Or do you pop out of bed full of energy? Either way, after hours of lying in bed, your shoulders shrug and round forward as if trying to pull you back into that warm, pillowy mass of comfort. Your mind is already spinning with thoughts about your day, so you resist the temptation. Your back and thighs yell good-morning as you put on your socks and shoes. Your muscles ache. You feel creaky. As you eat your breakfast on the go you realize your jaw hurts. You must have been grinding your teeth in your sleep. Why do you carry all of this tension in your body?
Stress. The very reason you love vacations so much. You deal with it on different levels, several times a day. Whether the stress is perceived or real, your brain reacts and a chain reaction occurs in your body. Your heart speeds up, your breath quickens, your muscles tense. Think of the last scary or startling film you watched, your last nightmare, the last time someone said to you the ever-dreaded words “we need to talk.” Even if you know there is no real threat, you begin to experience physical symptoms of stress. Even something as lovely as your first trip with your significant other leads to your digestive system shutting down…completely. Your body knows everything.
Your mind is powerful. Everything you’ve ever experienced builds the person you are, even from childhood. You’ve heard it before-you are what you think. Every ad, every fight, every memory influences you. You become locked in habitual thought and tension patterns and never even realize it, or at least not often enough. So how do you break the chain? Mindfulness. Begin your day, before you even get out of bed and definitely before you start thinking, with some deep breathing. Give yourself 5 minutes to tune out. No, no, don’t fall back asleep. Sit up with your feet on the floor. Place your hands on your knees. Focus on your breath and the sensations in your body as you begin to fill up your lungs from top to bottom. Allow your exhales to be just as long as your inhales. As you begin to turn your senses inward and come toward meditation, say to yourself, ‘I wake up today with peace in my heart and a smile on my face,’ or whatever version of that you prefer. There is no benefit in worrying about the past or where you might be tomorrow. All you can do is live each moment with full awareness and confidence.
Easy enough, right? Then your day begins and goodbye mindfulness, hello stress. It’s not easy starting new habits, and it’s even harder quitting old ones. Need some help? Come to a yoga class. It can be extremely difficult to relax in a world that is full of stimulation. Advertisements break up mindless TV shows reawakening your ego’s desire for more, work deadlines loom in the back of your mind, Facebook and emails are calling out for your attention. Some people even need a book or the TV on just to eat. Life has become more convenient and more complicated at the same time. As a yoga teacher, it’s easy for me to sense distraction in others, especially during class. Sometimes it’s the students’ eyes glazing over when I start talking about pranayama (breath), or I see their gaze darting around the room in the middle of practice. I can almost read their thought bubbles! The most awkward is when I see them staring blankly out at nothing during Savasana even though I’ve put on my best soothing voice… I’m not judging, I just hope to get everyone to a point of mental stillness and peace. I realize habits take time to break and one yoga class won’t do it, but what it does do is create a space where you can learn new habits.
Here is what you will find in most yoga classes:
- You’ll tap into learned muscle tension and consciously relax those areas-if only, at first, because the instructor tells you to. Just as your body created the habit of tensing your shoulders, hips, etc., you can create the habit of relaxing them. Some of these tendencies started when you were little and can take time to unlearn. Yoga will help to make you aware of the areas in your body you hold tension and how you feel when you begin to open those areas. Take note, without judgment, and realize you are opening up more than tight muscles. You’re also letting go of emotional tension and memories that are associated with causing strain in those areas in the first place. Ahhh…that’s what those crazy teachers are talking about when they say you store emotions in your hips and chest.
- You’ll focus on your breath and by simply learning how to control it, your attention will shift from your thoughts to your present moment, and your anxiety will melt away.
- You’ll expose yourself to positive energy and words and break negative thought patterns. Often people want to make fun of this ‘spiritual’ side of yoga, but you will feel awesome after spending time with a happy, positive person or community of people. After an hour on the phone with Negative Nancy, do you feel confident and powerful, or do you start grumbling yourself?
- You’ll find that you are so focused on figuring out how to get your hips square and your tailbone tucked and your mula what? engaged that there is no time for anything other than the now. And if all goes well, maybe you become so zoned out (or should I say zoned in?) that your mind is clear and for a moment you experience true meditation. Peace at last…
In the end, your heart rate slows, your digestive system starts pumping smoothly, your muscles relax, your cholesterol goes down…even the cells of your body get a longer life-span! It’s true. Stress affects you down to your microscopic cells, causing cellular damage (shortening your telomeres which is what leads to…well, let’s keep this positive). Think about that the next time you feel your blood pressure rise.
Be kind to yourself. It takes time, but with a regular yoga practice you’ll find you’re no longer depleting your energy store by holding stress in your body. Instead, by learning how to relax physically and mentally, you’ll find you have more energy-even after a vigorous workout! You’ll begin to recognize when your breath is shallow, where you’re tense and how your posture is suffering; and you’ll know how to quickly make the right adjustments. Through physical and mental training, your body will begin to recover from stress more quickly and you can save your energy for all of the things that truly matter in life.
There are many types of yoga classes available so don’t be discouraged if you tried one and didn’t like it. Vigorous styles such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga, or any dynamic Vinyasa Flow can really help to focus your mind and release both physical and mental tension.