We have an ancient nervous system. One that was designed for life in a simpler time. One that served us when we had to fight for our lives or run and hide. This ancient nervous system is not equipped to deal naturally with the pressures of modern life.
Our nervous systems are constantly stimulated with noise, traffic, television, radio, internet, smart phones, media, juggling work, family and other commitments, financial worries, caffeine and junk food. This means that our heart rate is often increased above resting level, our blood pressure is elevated, our breathing is fast, our digestion is slowed down, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline run through our bloodstream. These physiological responses don’t really serve us a lot of the time.
When we get stressed, we may feel angry and frustrated; we may feel aggressive towards drivers of other cars in a traffic jam, or towards our co-workers or our boss, in other words our bodies have entered the fight response; Or we may feel afraid, vulnerable and overwhelmed and want to run away, like when we have to give a presentation or have a long to-do list – we have entered the flight response. In reality, we can’t fight or run away if we want to remain a responsible citizen, keep our jobs or maintain any level of respect!
For our ancestors, the fight or flight response was useful and once we fought or ran, everything returned to normal and our bodies resumed normal operation. In modern times, because we can’t fight or run and use the stress response and utilise the stress hormones, we are left with headaches, high blood pressure, sleep problems, chronic tiredness, muscular pain and a weakened immune system. Stress plays a huge part in heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and many other chronic diseases.
Many doctors are now recommending yoga to their patients as a means of reducing stress in their lives. It is also recognised that yoga cab help manage anxiety and panic attacks.
So what can yoga do to manage out stress levels?
When our bodies enters the stress response, or the “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. To counteract this, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system or the relaxation response, where the body rests and digests. Sleep is not sufficient to relax the body deeply and relieve the body of stress. The relaxation response is when the heart slows, the blood pressure lowers, digestion and sexual function improves.
The practice of yoga eases tension, relaxes muscles and calms the mind. It reduces the effects of stress on the body by strengthening the nervous system, which has a positive effect on our immune system and results in a healthier, happier body and mind.
Yoga teaches us where we hold tension in our bodies. For example, we become more aware that we hunch our shoulders and clench our jaw when we are stressed. This awareness can lead to us learning to consciously relax our shoulders, and relax our jaw even in times of stress.
Yoga teaches us how to breathe deeply and efficiently. This helps us to energise our bodies and calm our minds. It can also help us to process our emotions, helping us to manage feelings of fear, anger and frustration.
Over time, yoga will make us more aware of our mental dialogue. We will begin to notice how we automatically respond to situations, and notice our thoughts during stressful times. This is the first step in developing the ability to detach from our thoughts so that we are not controlled so strongly by our automatic response and we can consciously choose to respond differently in a healthier, more appropriate manner and make positive life changes that will faciliate a more relaxed way of living.
Research suggests that it takes as little as 10 minutes to induce the relaxation response. It is recommended to induce the relaxation response every day for optimal health.