You feel stressed with work pressure, your mind is going round and round the same issues during the day, and you wake up at night worrying about the deadlines. “Don’t worry” your friends say “it will all turn out fine as usual … you’ll manage … relax!”
Relax?? Just the word itself makes you hyperventilate. They must be kidding!
Fight or flight
Work pressure, financial worries and emotional unrest can all be sources of stress that send your body into the ‘fight or flight’ mode. This is a very useful mode sometimes, but not when it becomes chronic, and we have a permanently increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, racing mind and decreased blood flow to the digestive system. The problem is also that we are sometimes unaware of being in this heightened state of worry, alertness and excitement.
Chronic stress can lead to many health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, a weakened immune system, etc. It is important to include activities in our daily lives that will counteract this chronic state of alertness. Dr. Herbert Benson used the term “relaxation response” to describe the state of recuperation after the fight or flight mode. Interestingly, to promote the relaxation response, he says we need: 10 to 20 minutes in a calm environment, a focus for the mind, and a passive (non-judgmental) attitude.
Of course meditation and breathing practices correspond to these criteria, and so does a practice that involves yoga postures. The interesting element is the non-judgmental attitude: if we get frustrated by our lack of flexibility for example, or compare ourselves to the person on the next mat, or with the person we would like to be, the ego — and stress – spoil the benefits of our yoga!
I frequently see the “fight or flight mode” change into the “relaxation response” in my yoga classes. Often students start the session with their mind filled with issues that have annoyed or worried them. They leave the class with a calmer, clearer and stronger mind. The only thing they have done is focus for an hour on their body and breath!
Today I would like to share 3 things you can include in your daily life: one movement, one practice for mindful walking and one breathing exercise. You will get the best results if you practise these every day. Let me know how you get on…
1. Do this preferably in bare feet, but even when you are alone in a lift or waiting for the bus. Inhale and lift your heels so you come to stand on the balls of your feet; exhale and slowly bring the heels down. Repeat for about a minute, paying attention to the coordination of breath and movement. Make sure you keep the weight behind all the toes, and not only behind the big toe or little toe, which can be an unhelpful habit you have developed. Once you have mastered the weight distribution and slow coordination of movement and breath, add the arm movement: bring them up to shoulder height and to the side as you rise onto the toes, lower them with the exhalation. This movement promotes calm, expands the chest and strengthens the feet. As always with yoga: don’t do it if it hurts.
2. While walking, consciously observe your surroundings: sounds, smell, colours, shapes, light and shade. As soon as you catch yourself thinking about something, bring your attention back to your surroundings. Try to practise this every time you walk. This is beautiful practice: as opposed to being in our thoughts all the time, we discover many things we normally never notice!
3. At your desk and need a little pause? Close your eyes or gaze at something non-specific and breathe in for 4 counts, out for 4 counts. It does not matter how fast or slow the counting is, just choose a comfortable rhythm and continue for at least a minute. With any breathing exercise it is very important never to force the breath. As soon as you feel dizzy or empty-headed it is essential to breathe normally until it passes. So the emphasis is on comfort and joy!
Tell me how you are getting on – leave a comment below