Everybody’s heard of the fight-or-flight response, right? You know, that physiological reaction to a threat: adrenaline and cortisol release into the body, our heart rate increases, blood vessels contract, and non-essential functions such as digestion are stopped. It makes us ready to fight or get the heck out of dodge.
That’s great, if we’re fighting a tiger. It’s not so great if we’re stressed about paying a credit card bill. These days, there aren’t many real tigers in our concrete jungles, yet most of us live in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Long-term effects of sustained stress are common: high blood pressure, heart conditions, digestive disorders, and sleep disorders, to name a few. While these conditions aren’t always the direct result of prolonged stress, they are exacerbated by it. The good news is that the ancient yogis created a systematic approach to taming our pseudo-tigers.
Here are five ways yoga helps counter the fight-and-flight:
1. Yoga creates tension to relieve it. Poses that affect areas where we carry our stress can have a releasing effect. Most of us hold tension in our shoulders and necks, or in our lower backs and hips. Yoga postures that contract then lengthen the muscles in these areas can create a great opening experience.
2. It provokes the parasympathetic nervous system. If the vagus nerve sounds vaguely familiar, it’s the nerve that runs from the brain through the side of the throat and into the body’s organs to send “rest and digest” messages. To prompt it to calm the fight-and-flight responses, it simply needs a little massage from forward folds and consciously long exhales. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system reduces blood pressure, improves digestion, increases insulin activity, improves the immune system, and decreases heart rate.
3. It creates focus through distraction. An active yoga practice provides an opportunity for the mind to become focused on the physical tasks at hand: staying upright in a balance pose, or holding a challenging strength pose. During this time, we train our minds away from the outside noise to become inwardly focused. Unconvinced? Try standing on one leg while recalling everything on your “to do” list.
4. Yoga emphasizes slow, deep breathing. Consistent and rhythmic breathing provides regular movement of the diaphragm, which slows the heart rate and reduces blood pressure. In a flow practice, we connect breath and movement. Other forms of yoga also incorporate varying breathing techniques to fully explore the benefits of breath-work.
5. You get to know you. One last way in which yoga teaches us to overcome stress is through meditation and self-reflection. By tuning out the worldly chatter and tuning into ourselves, we learn to notice and interpret the feedback our body is constantly sending us. We realize, for example, that our jaws are clenched. We notice that our shoulders are hunched. Once we become aware of it, we can learn to stop it. Understanding our emotional and physical responses to external factors empowers us to become more objective in our daily lives.
So the next time you’ve got a tiger nipping at your heels, take a breath, and grab your yoga mat. It’s the most powerful tool we’ve got to tame our tigers.