I have had a bit of a hiatus as I had a baby last year and this coincided with moving to a new town and starting a new life. There will be more on that to come in this blog very soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share that I am now the yoga columnist for The Third Space, which is a new wellbeing magazine for the not-for-profit centre. This article is on overwhelm, so it’s applicable to just about anyone who’s ever felt stressed, really!
Under The Waves
I recently watched a video of a Big Wave surf competition. As the title suggests, it wasn’t for the faint of heart. The surfers had to be pulled into the waves by jet skis. Medical teams circled overhead in helicopters. If it all went well, they got to experience the ride of their lives as they glided down a wave the height of a tower block to rapturous applause from the spectators standing a sensible distance away on the beach.
But if it all went wrong, that’s another story. They might be underwater for anything from thirty seconds to a few minutes, churned relentlessly in what surfers affectionately (and euphemistically) refer to as a ‘washing machine’ until at some point the wave breaks and they are returned to the surface. Naturally, part of their training includes learning to hold their breath for long stretches, but if you ask any surfer about the key to surviving such a wipeout, they’ll tell you that it’s to stay calm and not struggle.
Big Wave surfing strikes me as an apt metaphor for dealing with life’s more turbulent times. There’s something inherently Zen about how the surfers have no choice but to meet a dramatic wipeout with complete surrender. To struggle under the weight of a giant wave could potentially lead to serious injury or even death. They yield fully to the weight and mood of the water. They trust in the knowledge that at some point, they will be spat out on the other side, even though they don’t know when that might be, or what might happen in the meantime.
In an ideal world, we’d all instinctively handle life with such grace. But this not being an ideal world, most of us will need to find a tool or two to help us achieve such equanimity. It’s not surprising that as the pace of contemporary life becomes more and more relentless, people are turning to yoga in their numbers. It’s not just that yoga gives us a strong body or a healthy glow, though these are appealing by-products. It’s also that yoga can-with time- give us a greater ability to surrender to the flow of life.
There’s science to back this claim up. Modern life goes at a 24/7 pace. We are constantly connected to communication devices and mass media. Whilst this does have a positive side- it’s easy to stay in touch with friends, its convenient to buy things using only face recognition- it also takes its toll. We work round the clock because we’re always reachable, driven by a fear that we’re somehow dispensable. We’re inundated with images and messages insinuating that we’re not enough, and as a result, we hold ourselves- and others- to impossible standards.
The result, from a physiological point of view, is that our sympathetic nervous systems end up running the show. Also known as ‘fight or flight’, the sympathetic nervous system is what kicks in when we’re in danger. It floods our system with adrenaline, which in turn increases our heart rate, causes muscles to tense and breathing to become more rapid. It shuts off ‘unnecessary’ functions like digestion in order to conserve energy. If we were outrunning a predator, this would come in handy. Unfortunately, the ‘predator’ these days is often the permanent sense of overwhelm that hangs over many of us. And the long-term effects of stress are well documented; on one end of the scale are poor sleep and digestive problems and on the other, heart disease and cancer. Chronic stress impacts relationships, mental health and decision-making abilities. It’s arguably the greatest killer in the western world.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, serves the opposite function. It allows the heart to slow down, digestion to work properly and sleep to be deep and refreshing. Also known as the ‘rest and digest’ function, when stimulated it encourages the body to heal and repair itself. So how dowe stimulate it? Things like yoga (especially the more ‘yin’ styles) breathing practices and meditation consciously work to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and make us feel calmer. And just as the long-term effects of stress are quantifiable, so too are the long-term effects of being calm. We make better lifestyle choices, enjoy more fulfilling relationships and when life’s inevitable problems do occur, we navigate them with more clarity and ease.
We can’t avoid the wipeouts, in other words, but we can certainly learn how to stay calm under the waves.
Sticking with the ocean theme, Ujayii breath-or victorious breath- sounds like the ocean and has a deeply calming effect and can be done anywhere. To make the sound, simply breathe as if you’re trying to fog up a pane of glass, but with the lips sealed. You’ll make this gentle sighing sound on both the inhalation and the exhalation. Tuning into the sound, try and deepen your breath to the count of four on both inhale and exhale. Many yoga practitioners use this breathing style on the mat, but it works just as well when you’re summoned to the boss’s office!