Stress is not a modern invention. What is modern is chronic stress. Think about it. How many times a day do you feel ”stressed out?” And that’s just the stress you’re aware of. These days, stress is layered upon stress. While your stress levels ebb and flow, sadly, a constant low level of stress has become the norm. Once upon a time, stress tended to resolve itself quickly. Saber tooth tiger chasing you? Run! Guy in the cave next door tick you off? Fight! If you survive, everything returns to normal.
This is the type of stress our bodies were designed to manage. When we are being chased or in a fight, our adrenal glands secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones, which act on the autonomic nervous system, preparing the body for fight or flight. Judith Hanson Lasater, in her book Relax and Renew, describes the body’s physical reaction to these hormones in detail. “Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness and muscle tension are increased. The adrenal hormones cause metabolic changes that make energy stores available to each cell, and the body begins to sweat. The body also shuts down systems that are not a priority in the immediacy of the moment, including digestion, elimination, growth, repair and reproduction.”
She goes on to explain that these adaptive responses have been positive to the survival of mankind for thousands of years. But in today’s chronically stressed world, this is no longer the case. People today are less able to resolve their stress so directly. We worry and we hurry. We are bombarded by stimuli – information, advertisements, and news – all day long. To hammer home the level of intensity of this bombardment, a quick scan of one morning’s iPhone activity revealed that my friend’s daughter had sent 400 (!!) text messages all while she was scanning Instagram, Visco and responding to SnapChats. While my hours of high school homework might have been interrupted by the phone ringing (or daydreams about the phone ringing), my daughters’ phones only stop buzzing when turned off. For the record, this is not limited to the younger generations. My husband’s Blackberry interrupts family dinners almost as often as the girls’ phones do.
This cultural chronic stress is our baseline. Stresses like those faced by our ancestors are still real today. We still have flight or fight moments, in other words. According to Lasater, this chronic stress places our quality of life, and perhaps life itself, at risk. “The body’s capacity to heal itself is compromised, either inhibiting recovery from an existing illness or injury, or creating a new one, including high blood pressure, ulcers, back pain, immune dysfunction, reproductive problems and depression. These conditions add stress of their own, and the cycle continues.”
We simply must do something to manage our stress. If we don’t, we’re going to live life tired, sick, impatient and tense. We’re also going to live less – as in fewer days, months and even years. We need to figure out how to unplug, how to slow down and how to relax. “Therapy 101” teaches that we can’t change the world around us, we can only change the way we respond to the world around us. To return to our buzzing phone example, we can’t stop the phones from buzzing, but we can manage ourselves – whether the phone is on silent, when we look at it, when (or if) we choose to respond to the messages we find there.
If the world has us “practicing” being stressed all the time, we can choose to spend some time each day practicing being relaxed. After all, we get better at anything we practice, right? And the more we practice, the more second nature something becomes. In his book, The Wellness Book, Hebert Benson, MD coined the phrase “relaxation response.” This is a physiological state characterized by slower breathing, a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and slower brain wave patterns. Sound familiar?
Yoga and meditation rely on mindful breathing – deep, full, slow breaths to which we give our full attention. As you breathe this way, you can actually feel yourself settle. You can feel your heart beat become regular and even. You can feel the sharp edges of your emotions smooth out. You can feel your state of mind become calmer and more centered. Scientists have done studies of the brain wave patterns of yogis and meditating monks. You guessed it. They slow significantly and consistently as the person practices.
The choice to create some space from chronic stress is ours to make. Just as we can choose to unplug regularly from our buzzing phones, we can also choose to make the time to practice yoga or to meditate. Consistently practicing being in a relaxed state is absolutely good for us – body, mind and spirit. Even better is that this practice will help us notice when our stress levels begin to creep up. With this awareness, as we feel our stress rising, we can slip into “yoga breath” as we navigate the stressful moment and gently ease ourselves back to normal.
I don’t want to oversimplify things. And I’d like to make it clear before I go any further that I’m not a huge fan of the sweeping generalization. But my years on my own yoga mat plus another decade of helping other people move around on theirs has led me to a conclusion that sounds ridiculously simple and a bit like a sweeping generalization.
We have to move.
Are you feeling angry? Move.
Are you depressed? Move.
Brain scattered? Move.
Do you have a cold? Move.
Are you fighting cancer? Move.
Is your back sore? Move. Mindfully, of course, but move.
Your knee? Again, pay attention, but move.
Anything else sore? Let’s figure out how to safely get you moving.
Seriously, we are designed to move. Too much stillness – the sedentary, screen-oriented lifestyle that is becoming our norm – makes us sore, sick and sad. Plus irritable. Very, very irritable. We are not meant to be crochety and uncomfortable. It’s a lot harder to spread joy, light and love in the world when we’re not feeling good in our bodies.
So let’s get ourselves back to feeling good. Let’s move.
The September 19, 2016 issue of Time Magazine announces in huge letters on its cover the “exercise cure.” Mandy Oaklander, in her article called “The New Science of Exercise,” describes the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. People who do not move, sweat and build muscle are at a higher risk for cancer, worsened arthritis, increased low back pain, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety and early death from any cause. Whoa.
We’ve known literally for millennia that we need to move. Hipppocrates wrote in 400 B.C. that “Eating alone will not keep a man well. He must take exercise.” Dr. Robert Sallis of Kaiser Permanente Fontanta Medical Center in California, interviewed in Oaklander’s article, makes the argument that exercise should be prescribed by doctors in the same way that medicine is. He’s been doing so for years and says, “It really work[s] amazingly, particularly in my very sickest patients.”
Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky agrees. His research into the science of exercise reveals that when blood is drawn immediately after exercise, many aspects of our body and health show improvement. In fact, he says, “if there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.”
So how do we get this miracle drug of exercise? We need a combination of two things: aerobic exercise and strength training. And not too terribly much of either, by the way. The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week plus twice-weekly muscle strengthening. You don’t need to hit the weight room at your gym for this strength work. Moving your own body weight is enough. In fact, yoga is at the top of the list of recommended strength training exercises for optimum health. A vigorous style of yoga such as Ashtanga (the kind I practice and teach) offers both of these recommended types of exercise.
Over the years, I’ve had students describe healing of all kinds from their yoga practices. One describes no longer needing the inhaler she’d used for years because of asthma and allergies. Another describes freedom from back pain that has plagued her for most of her adult life. Another tells of relief from migraines and another of resolved digestive issues. I work with students who use their practices to keep depression at bay and to navigate anxiety and panic attacks. I’ve seen yoga dramatically change countless students’ bodies – some who just needed to reconnect with their physical selves and others as they healed from joint injuries, surgeries or years of living with chronic pain.
I pray that articles like the one on the cover of Time Magazine serve as a wakeup call to the people everywhere who have forgotten to make movement part of their days. And I pray that it keeps those of us who have embraced movement on our mats (or in our sneakers) where we belong.
The next time you have an ache or pain – whether it’s inside or out – I hope you choose to (repeat after me) MOVE!
At church on Sunday, I watched a mother with a tiny newborn walk down the aisle. Her precious baby looked to be just a few weeks old – still curled into fetal position and snuggled closely to his mother’s breast. Watching her hold him brought back vivid, quite tangible memories of doing the same myself. I remembered the weight my own brand new babies. They looked so small in their bassinets, but felt so heavy in my arms. I remembered the endless feeling of the days when they were little – how the hours until naptime could seem like an eternity. I remembered wistfully watching older children who could toddle, run and even climb.
I also remembered wanting to smack the older mother in the park in Brooklyn who warned me how quickly they grew. Holding my little babies, it felt like they’d never be big enough for the adorable “6-9 month” outfits folded in the dresser. It felt like I’d never be able to shower again (let alone shower in peace). It felt like I’d never again go to bed and wake up when I wanted. It felt like my husband would never come home from work to liberate me to do something “grown up” such as make dinner or clean the bathroom.
It turns out that mother in the park didn’t deserve to be smacked at all. Now, with one in college and two in high school, all I can think is how incredibly right she was. In hindsight, the pace of change and growth that felt so slow as to be almost imperceptible now seems blinding.
Yoga offered me another visceral experience of the way we experience long-term change. I don’t think I will ever forget my first yoga class. I still find it mystifying that I could fall in love with something for which I had absolutely no natural talent. Truly. I showed up wildly inflexible, pretty weak and healing from injuries so old I didn’t even remember that I had them. Daily, I am profoundly grateful that something deep within me moved during that class because my shoulders and hamstrings sure didn’t!
I remember working in Triangle pose. My teacher cued us to grab our big toe. Mine was simply not within reach. It wasn’t just an inch out of reach. The distance between my hand and my big toe felt like a full mile. (I have really long legs.) It was so far away that I decided not to even try to touch it. I had to tune out the specifics of my teacher’s instructions, set aside any and all aspirations and goals and just do my thing. This went on class after class, week after week, month after month. It went on for so long that, if asked, I would have said that nothing was changing and that the chance of change was almost nil.
But, as I promise my students today, simply showing up in your modification of a yoga posture over and over is enough. It was for me. And it will be for you.
Without my awareness, over the course of a year, my hand must have been moving microscopically lower and lower on my leg. The pace of change was so glacial that I did not even suspect that it was happening. All I know for sure is that on almost exactly the anniversary of my first class, I heard my teacher say, “Grab your big toe,” and I did. In an instant, the impossible was suddenly possible.
Only it wasn’t really an instant. The evolution (or, as it felt to me, sudden appearance) of my Triangle pose mirrors almost perfectly my maternal experiences. Like babies growing into toddlers, teens and young adults, my body had changed dramatically over the course of a long time. In hindsight, that change seemed sudden. While in it, it felt endless.
There is an expression I’ve heard countless times during the course of my 19 years of motherhood: “The days are long, but the years are short.” When working on a yoga posture, it might be more accurate to say, the minutes are long but the weeks are short. But the essence of this little pearl of wisdom is the same. Depending on where you are in the arc of your journey, you may indeed want to smack the person who has offered it to you. But there comes a moment when you understand that it is true.
It’s in that moment that your capacity for patience, persistence and sheer perseverance grows exponentially. It’s also in that moment that you begin to truly understand the notion of savoring the moment rather than peering longingly ahead to the next. Because, it’s at that precise moment that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the next moment (and the next and the next and the next) will be here before you know it.
Endings are beginnings in disguise. Even the saddest ending can be a beautiful beginning. Endings create space for new beginnings. Notions like this fill the magnet spinners at Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble. In fact, even I, who truly loves a good, inspirational quote, feels like saying “blah blah blah” to quotes like these around Labor Day. While it’s nice to have an extra day in a weekend, to be honest, it rarely feels much like a holiday. At our house, at least, the energy is opposite the bubbly happiness of other holidays. Rather, the day leaves us feeling slightly blue. On Labor Day, summer, our favorite time of year, comes to an end and we mourn a little bit.
But mixed with this mourning is an element of excitement. Labor Day is actually a perfect example of the fact that every sad ending is also a bright and shiny beginning. If you cohabitate with kids, Labor Day marks the start of a new school year. The possibilities are limitless and almost make up for the sorrowful farewell to lazy mornings and sunny afternoons. The hope is palpable: this is the year I’ll get … you name it! Great grades! New friends! A boyfriend! A part in the school show! Onto the varsity team!
Even if you don’t live with children, the day after Labor Day feels like a beginning. The pace at offices everywhere becomes brisker. New projects put on hold for the summer can begin at last. Even before the weather turns, windows in malls and magazine ads promise new styles and suggest fun additions to your wardrobe. Businesses like mine that get sleepy during the summer months brighten and bustle as clients and students return invigorated and enthused to be back from their summer adventures.
Labor Day has a lot to teach us about holding on and letting go. It’s tempting to cling desperately to things that we love. Days on the beach. Lots of togetherness. A slower pace. Time off work. It would be perfectly natural to hold onto these with a death grip. But, this is rarely a good idea. Better to hold them lightly, focusing instead on the gratitude that fills your heart to be able to enjoy them.
After all, while it would totally be possible to spend our free time at the beach during the school year, if we did so, we’d be exhausted. Also, we’d miss a ton of fun around here. Football games (lovingly referred to as marching band games at our house). Planting mums. Having dinner under the twinkle lights on our patio (it’s too light at dinner time in the summer). Leaf piles. Crew regattas. Picking pumpkins.
In short, you’ve got to be willing to loosen your grip on life’s gifts. Otherwise, you won’t be able to open your hands to receive the rest of life’s gifts.
Yoga also has a lot to teach us about holding on and letting go — with the added benefit of not having to wait a whole year between opportunities for practice. When I was new to yoga, there were things I couldn’t do. Lots of them. A push up. A headstand. Anything requiring my shoulders to move. Yet, month after month or year after year, my teacher would say, ”Why aren’t you doing that?” “I can’t,” I’d reply. “Of course you can,” she’d say. And I’d do it. The only thing holding me back, it turns out, was my belief that I couldn’t do it. I had to let that belief come to an end in order to allow my new pose to begin.
More times than I’d like to admit, a posture that I’ve been doing for years has disappeared on me. Sometimes, this is due to an injury. Sometimes, fear. Sometimes, the reason remains a mystery to this day. When I resist these “disappearances” by clinging to the notion that I (dammit) can do the posture, it makes things worse. When I acquiesce and walk the path that the practice (or my body or fate or …) has chosen for me, I learn more than I ever would have if I hadn’t had to relearn the posture. While it’s no fun, each time this happens the posture comes back better and stronger than before.
On and off my mat, I have learned that I must experience endings in order to receive beginnings. I suspect the same is true for you. Perhaps remembering this will help you and me both to wave a fond (very, very fond) farewell to summer. And to turn to face fall with open hands and an open heart. This is the best way to guarantee that we won’t miss a single gift this new season has in store for us.
My daughter and I have looked at many colleges over the course of the summer. We’ve looked at schools across the gamut. We’ve toured urban universities that look like a city block of sky scrapers and rural schools where the nearest mall is — well, there is no nearest mall. We’ve seen huge state universities and tiny private colleges. We’ve visited schools down the street from our house and others that are hours away from home.
At each stop, half of my awareness is on seeing school – is it pretty, safe, clean and filled with other kids who look like potential friends for my girl? At the same time, the other half of me is watching her. I’ve been waiting to see that little spring in her step and sparkle in her eye that means she’s found a place she can imagine spending her first four years of life without me.
Wouldn’t you know I’d finally glimpse that excitement in her at the school on her list that is the farthest from home?
Honestly, I felt the same thrill as we drove through the town and got our first peek at the campus. As the people in the Admissions Office welcomed her, were generous with their time as they explained to her all the ways the school was fabulous for her and then pointed out that she might even qualify for an academic scholarship she beamed. My heart swelled and, simultaneously, plummeted. I had to take a deep breath and blink several times as I literally muscled away devastating thoughts of her being so far from home — from me.
After those rapid blinks, something in me shifted into “yoga mode.” As we walked around campus, we laughed when we get lost. We commented on how nice everyone seemed to be – especially the girl who stopped to point us in the right direction. We found a great shirt in the bookstore. We sat on a bench to watch the students hurry by to their classes and both were excited that we’d found this place that was a really, really good fit.
In “yoga mode,” I was 100% in the moment. I was enjoying my daughter. I was sharing in her excitement. I was taking in the energy and beauty of a college campus that could have been a movie set. I was laughing and smiling and happy because each of the moments that we spent on that campus were just that – happy.
In “yoga mode,” I was not allowing my mind to wander from the moment. I was not imagining life when – to laugh with my girl – I’d need to be on the phone. I was not envisioning her empty bedroom. I was not letting myself think about how ready she is (or will be in a few short months) to spread her wings and fly. While none of these thoughts would have been fanciful, none of them would have been helpful either. They would have served only to dilute what was a long series of very happy moments with my daughter.
It wasn’t until the next day on my yoga mat that I realized what I’d done. As I moved into Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose), my mind skipped back to how happy she’d been on that campus tour. If you haven’t ever been in Kurmasana, it is not a pose that allows for daydreaming. It’s challenging and requires focus, breath and more than a little will power. When my breath caught and tears started to flow as I imagined my girl so far from home, it was the pose that brought me back to the moment. I tucked in my low belly, took a deep breath, stretched my legs a little longer and pressed my arms back into my thighs. I went deeper and – in that deep place – I found (again) the gift of “yoga mode.”
My body, mind and heart all settled into the moment. And it was good. It was good the way each of the moments we’ve been given in this life can be when we settle into them. Really, really good.