By Shannon Stephens, Yoga Medicine Teacher
Stress is unavoidable. Balancing a career with family and meeting the demands that both present can feel overwhelming. Layer on conflict, sickness, tense situations, unforeseen crises, and all the big and little things that are beyond our control, and it’s easy to find ourselves wrapped in turmoil. While we can’t prepare for every scenario, with simple awareness and training, we can alter the way the body interprets and responds to stressful situations. Learning to tune in and observe our internal landscape is key to becoming calmer, more centered, and more resilient to stress. We have wonderfully intelligent bodies that are constantly seeking balance all on their own. Important functions such as heart rate and digestion are autonomic, or unconsciously controlled. There is a vast, intricate world beneath the skin, sending messages, delivering nutrients, managing, repairing, and quietly toiling away to keep the body’s internal environment in harmony.
We’ve all heard of the phrase, “fight or flight”. The sympathetic nervous system, often called the fight or flight response, is our body’s way of coping with an event that we perceive as threatening. When this response is activated, adrenaline is released, our heart rate is elevated, and blood is diverted away from the gut to prepare the muscles to run or fight. Certain systems shut down so that energy can be expended on surviving. Thanks to the comforts of living in this era, we typically don’t find ourselves being chased by bears; however, the same response is often triggered when we are faced with events, that on the surface, appear mundane. I recently returned home from a visit to Seattle where I was able to visit my sister and attend a training. My flight home left early on a Friday morning and traffic was thick. We pulled into the terminal around the time that the boarding process was starting. With my carry-on bag and boarding pass in hand, I gave my sister a quick hug goodbye and rushed inside, making my way to security. Already feeling the buzz of nervous energy that comes with running late, as I approached security I realized that time was not on my side. The line wrapped around itself to form a dense square of impatient travelers. I could sense the blood rising in my neck, the internal alarm bells ringing, my irritation level heightened. On the surface, I remained calm and collected but internally I was running a race. The real irony is that at the training I had just attended a good portion of time was spent discussing yoga, meditation, and pranayama as it relates to stress management. Despite knowing how to cope I remained in a heightened state until I boarded the plane – yes, I made it on but it was close! Sometimes you can’t see your hand in front of your face. A situation can feel so immediate and threatening that all the training in the world flies right out the window. Based on my reaction at Sea-Tac I clearly have more training to do, however I can say that little things don’t bother me the way that they used to. Time spent toning the parasympathetic response has made me more resistant to some of the stressors that life presents.
Like Robin to Batman, the lesser known parasympathetic nervous system is the yin to the yang of the autonomic nervous system. It’s often referred to as the “rest and digest” response because of its role. The PNS is responsible for bodily functions when we are at rest, regulating digestion, and various metabolic processes. This built-in mechanism tones down the sympathetic nervous system and helps the body to relax and recover. Based on my own experiences, and on behaviors observed in others (i.e. middle finger communication during rush hour), I believe most people could benefit by spending a little more time in parasympathetic mode. Remember, this is an autonomic response, so while we don’t have direct front door access, we do hold a key and can slip through anytime our lives aren’t truly threatened.
Magnifying the Parasympathetic Response
- Sounds simple, right? Well, it is, but our minds love distraction and there are plenty of opportunities for us to become removed from the experience of being in our bodies. Checking in doesn’t cost a dime. You don’t have to book a day at the spa or attend a retreat. You simply need to hit the pause button and notice what you’re feeling. What physical sensations are you experiencing? What is your current mood? Where is your mind? What are your thoughts saying? Is there something nagging at you? Ignoring discomfort of any kind may seem like the best solution, but it doesn’t do anything to train the body or mind in resiliency. When we shut down or mask what we’re feeling, we numb ourselves to life and become more susceptible to stress and illness, creating a cycle that becomes harder and harder to break. Simply pausing and checking in a few times each day is a small act of self-compassion with surprisingly profound effects. Body awareness provides a foundation for our overall health and wellbeing. By looking inward, we can shift the paradigm so that things happen within us rather than to us.
Lie down on a comfortable surface. Place a rolled blanket, bolster, or pillow beneath the knees. If you’re at work, find a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes and notice physical sensation, thoughts, your mind state, and the breath. Spend 2-5 minutes softening tension. When thoughts arise (and they will), try not to attach to them.
- Diaphragmatic Breathing. The longest cranial nerve in the body, the vagus nerve, meanders its way down the neck, into the chest and abdomen, communicating to every organ in the body. It’s an important component of the nervous system, because of the role it plays in parasympathetic activation. What’s so great about the vagus nerve is that we can gain access to it via the breath. Lucky for us, by simply breathing from the belly we can make changes to our internal environment that can be felt almost instantly. Vibrations released with the breath act like a massage to nerve. Slow diaphragmatic breathing is one of the easiest and quickest routes to the parasympathetic mode.
Lie or sit and place your hands still on the belly. Begin to expand the breath so that you feel your hands rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. Keep the body relaxed as you follow the breath. Visualize your lungs gently inflating on the inhale, and softly deflating on the exhale. Inhale for 4 and exhale for 6. Repeat several rounds and then inhale for 5 and exhale for 7. Repeat several rounds. Insert an easy pause at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. Keep the body relaxed. If the pauses create tension, simply leave them out. Practice for several rounds and then return to a more natural rhythm. Diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced throughout the day, at work or at home. Return to this practice when you feel stress creeping in.
- Yin Yoga. Yin yoga offers a long list of physical and physiological benefits, and there are numerous articles and texts that shed light on the power of the practice, but I’ll only talk about one very important component here: passivestillness. In the context of stress management, stillness is king. When we set ourselves up to become still we establish conditions for the body and mind to be at rest. When the body is completely at rest it begins its quiet job of cleaning up and restoring order. Training in stillness on the mat prepares us to move through life more calmly when we’re off the mat. Through Yin we learn how to be less reactionary. We become better observers and listeners. We feel more connected to our bodies and to the world so that when situations beyond our control arise, we are less squirmy and a little more grounded.
Supine Twist. Supine twists offer a great internal massage to the organs and gently lubricate the vertebral discs, leaving you feeling rinsed out. Lie on your back with knees bent. Gently rock the knees from right to left. Allow yourself to move like a sloth. Slow down so that you’re inhaling to one side and exhaling to the other. Repeat for 1-3 minutes and then let your knees fall to the right. Support the knees if needed and stay here for 2-3 minutes. Slowly return to rocking, then drop the knees to the left.
Cat/Cow. Come to all fours and gently move between the inhale and exhale. Extend the length of each breath and allow the body to coordinate itself so that you’re moving in time with the inhale and exhale. Notice the tendency to rush from one movement to the next. Focus on articulating the spine and creating length and spaciousness in the front and back side of the body. Repeat 1-2 minutes.
Prone Blanket Under Belly. I love to offer this variation of Sphinx Pose when teaching Yin classes that are ultra-restorative in nature. Roll a blanket up so that it’s 3-5 inches thick (adjust as needed). Place in the bowl of the abdomen, beneath the lower ribs and pelvis. Lie face down with the arms in sphinx pose or completely at ease. This version is less about the spine and more about the abdomen. Release any tension in the belly. Focus on stretching out the length of the exhale, making it as long as is comfortably possible. Become heavier and heavier with each breath, resting in the space that opens up. Stay here for 5-10 minutes, then for a few breaths in Child’s Pose.
Legs Up the Wall. A nourishing pose for the body, Legs Up the Wall helps to drain the lymphatic system, can relieve edema or swelling, and is great for circulation as it temporarily increases blood flow to the head and heart. Place a folded blanket next to the wall. Sit on the blanket with one hip near or touching the wall. Lie back and swing legs up. Shimmy and shift until you feel like your body is in a loose “L” – note, you don’t have to be right next to the wall. For some this can potentially be uncomfortable. Place your hands on the belly or along your sides. Close your eyes and tune into sensation in the legs and feet. Stay here for 5-8 minutes and ease out gently.
- Meditation. Research has proven that meditation can actually rewire the brain. While the techniques above are wonderful for noticing the body, getting out of our heads, and alleviating stress, the practice of meditation re-trains the mind to create new ways of coping and responding to stress. Habitual patterns can be broken and new, healthier patterns formed over time with consistent practice. There is a ton of exciting research out there and many styles to choose from. Your meditation practice should be something you look forward to, rather than a chore. Try different styles and see which ones fit.
Sit comfortably on a folded blanket, cushion, or chair. Close your eyes and rock gently forward and back until you feel the head, shoulders, and ribs stack over the hips. Drop your weight into your seat, allowing for a supportive base. Gently lengthen the spine out of the pelvis and notice the effortless support. Soften any tension in the jaw, neck, and shoulders. Direct your awareness to the breath without changing it. Feel the breath in the nostrils, the throat, and the chest. Notice how your clothing moves on the skin with each breath. Begin to count each breath, inhaling for 1 and exhaling for 1, inhaling for 2 and exhaling for 2, and so on, until you reach 10. If you lose track or when you get to 10, simply start back at 1. After 5-10 minutes let go of the counting and notice how you feel. Take time easing out of your meditation practice so that it can assimilate into the rest of your day.
In training the body and brain, keep in mind duration isn’t as important as consistency. A 10-minute practice 5 days a week over time is actually more beneficial than a 60-minute practice once or twice a month. The cumulative effects that come with frequent, steady training tone the body and mind, over time changing the way that we perceive stressful situations. Practice any or all of the steps above regularly and notice any physical, mental, and emotional changes. Reshaping the way that we behave and respond to situations takes time. Be patient and kind to yourself and trust in the simplicity of the practice.
Shannon teaches Yin, Meditation and Vinyasa group and private classes in Oklahoma City. Visit her blog at www.shannonstephensyoga.com.