Guest post by Yogasteya member Kathrine Conroy
Lying in bed, I toss and turn. I glance at the clock and it’s 3:45 a.m. My breath is short and my mind is racing. I’m glad I didn’t wake my husband with all my fidgeting. I really can’t help it…I am anxious.
Then, I remember what I have learned through my yoga practice. I take a few deep breaths and I instantly feel better. As my breathing slows, my pounding heart calms, my mind stops racing, the fidgeting stops, and soon I fall back to sleep.
B.K.S. Iyengar said it best: “Breath is the King of the Mind”.
The effect of the breath on the mind and body is profound.
In response to stress, the breath shortens, the heart rate increases, and the pupils dilate. This biological reaction is known as the “fight-or-flight” response, and is part of our evolutionary biology. In the cavemen days, this response was reserved for attacks from predators. Once a threat was perceived, dilated pupils allowed for better vision to spot the threat at a greater distance. The increase in blood flow to muscles allowed for faster running or better fighting, and the spike in blood sugar offered support in case the impending threat meant food would become scarce.
However, in our modern world, we’re not being chased by lions, tigers and bears much anymore, and yet our bodies can’t tell the difference between the stress of being chased by a tiger and the stress of our tight deadline at work. Our body responds in the same way to both perceived threats by initiating the “fight-or-flight” response. Our bodies were not made to handle the chronic stress of our modern lives. Hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and anxiety disorders are epidemic in our overworked, overstressed culture.
Particularly in Western culture, not being extremely busy is equated with being lazy. This is especially true, I think, in American culture. If we’re not all constantly working, there must be something wrong. Being stressed is a status symbol: stressed-out people must work really hard and be really important. Most important of all, they must make a lot of money if they’re working so much! In a culture that finds virtue in (and even glorifies) being busy, a healthy work-life balance is hard to find.
Finding time for the self-care we all need is challenging. When our inhalations become short gasps, finding a few minutes to take deep breaths is the most important thing to relieve the stress. Lengthening and balancing the inhalations and exhalations is the best thing we can do for ourselves in this situation. The best part is that there are no fancy props or accessories required. We can even do this at work or any other stressful situation without drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves.
I tell my students that the lungs are just like anything else—if we don’t use them, we lose them. It is important to take deep breaths for a few minutes every day. When first starting out, however, it may be challenging because the capacity of the lungs is low due to shallow breathing for too long. As lung capacity increases through practice, deep, full breaths become more natural.
So the next time you find yourself slipping into that automatic ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response, take a moment to connect with your breath. These practical approaches to dealing with everyday stressors will go a long way in helping you find balance and a sense of peace in your daily life.
Kathrine turned to yoga to deal with the stress related to higher education and completed her 200 hour training during her last year of law school. She is a firm believer in the healing power of yoga, having experienced it for herself…now if only she could convince her husband! Kathrine and her amazing husband live in Orlando, Florida. Connect with Kathrine on Facebook to learn more about her yoga journey!