Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stressed vs Un-stressed

Lately, I've been instructing students to "soften" their faces while practicing, especially during difficult poses (especially during Gomukhasana...which all my students seems to dislike. A lot. Judging by how much face-softening I have to remind them to do). I've found it a really useful reminder to myself, if I find myself straining during a pose; first I check my shoulders and then I check my face. Inevitably one, or both, places are tight and unnaturally tensed.

Thinking of unnaturally tensed, got me to thinking about the fight-or-flight response, and it's opposite the rest-and-restore repsonse. The Sympathetic Nervous System is what controls the body's response to danger or stressful situations; blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, breath gets more rapid and shallow, muscles tense. In theory, this is a good thing, especially if you need to outrun a predator, because the body is prepared to act quickly and intensely (more blood rushing to the muscles, muscles ready to work hard, mind focused). However, nowadays, this system is triggered by stressors that don't necessarily required a mighty jump or speedy run--deadlines, excessive responsibilities, irritating co-workers.

The Paraympathetic Nervous System is supposed to counteract the Sympathetic by slowing the heart rate, dropping blood pressure, calming the mind and relaxing muscles so the body can rest and be restored. Unfortunately, if the body is overloaded by stress, the Sympathetic mode never completely shuts down. The demands on the body become too great, and the results can include a compromised immune system, slow-to-heal muscles, high blood pressure, insomnia, etc etc.

Yoga, of course, is a great jump-starter of the Parasympathetic, but only if you let it. When I see yogis straining and grunting as rivers of sweat pour down their muscles, I pause. Of course, with enough work and sweat, yoga will give you a hard bod, but is that really the point? To me, yoga is slow and the work is very subtle and deep. The hardest exercise is keeping your thinking mind at bay so that you don't strain and overdo while trying to achieve some elusive, physical goal. The purpose is quieting and centering...that's what makes it yoga and not Pilates.

So, I Set That Woman Down and I tell myself to soften my jaw (or my tongue--such an evocative instruction). The pose doesn't become easier, but suddenly I can feel myself settle and open. Nobody is falling in love with Cow's Head, but, with the reminder about the face, I can see the elbows stretch away a little bit more, necks lengthen and the side ribs lift.

Let's save the Sympathetic response for when that saber-toothed tiger attacks...


Jen said...

My students like this reminder too, especially about relaxing the throat and tongue.

Have you ever clenched you jaw so much that there are little imprints of your teeth on the tongue? You can sneak a peek at your students the next time you practince Lions Breath.

Meg said...

What a great post. I find yoga is so helpful in combatting anxiety and stress, thank you for explaining!

Nadine Fawell said...


I am feeling very grumpy about attainment yoga at the moment, probably because my previous sins in this department are coming back to haunt me.
And if the Tiger attacks, we have all learnt lion breath: we can roar back!

sara_kate said...

I am reading Donna Farhi's book, The Breathing Book and she has an interesting exercise in there which boils down to the fact that if you focus your gaze, "hard eyes", your diaphrahm automatically contracts!! Try it, it's incredible! Softening the eyes relaxes the diaphragm and makes deep breathing easier... Thereby inducing the parasympathetic response! It was an amazing insight.

Total Health Yoga - Kris said...

I love Donna Fahri's breathing book. She really demonstrates the power of the breath and not in the typically forced pranayama sense.