Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Awareness and re-training your body's stress response

Awareness  and re-training your body's stress response / Learning to be mindful in your yoga practice and life/Balancing effort (stress) through breath, mental focus and loving patience. 

      There are so many benefits of yoga that are scientifically proven. 
So why is it that many people don’t “get-it”; don’t stay with it long enough to get real benefits?
 I think one of the main reasons is that it takes time to develop the mindfulness necessary. This means making it a habit until there has been enough time to get to know your own body and breath as well as imbalances/weaknesses- we all have them. 
       Another reason is not finding the right class for you; the right level and your comfort with the group and the teacher. Try a few to several different classes, until you find the right one for you.
 I recommend reading this article, below, to better understand what to expect of yourself, and be prepared.

To quote a recent article in Psychology Today Magazine, Yoga: Changing The Brain's Stressful Habits,  by Alex Korb, Ph.D.

  “Yoga can supposedly improve depressive symptoms and immune function, as well as decrease chronic pain, reduce stress, and lower blood pressure.  These claims have all been made by yogis over the years, and it sounds like a lot of new age foolishness. Surprisingly, however, everything in that list is supported by scientific research. 
As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful.  It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga's greatest neurobiological benefit.
Your brain tends to react to discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response and activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system.  The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like "Oh god, I'm going to pull something," or "I can't hold this pushup any longer".  And in fact, your anxious thoughts themselves further exacerbate the stress response. The physiological stress response means an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and elevation of cortisol and other stress hormones.
The fascinating thing about the mind-body interaction is that it works both ways.  For example, if you're stressed, your muscles will tense (preparing to run away from a lion), and this will lead to more negative thinking. 
 Relaxing those muscles, particularly the facial muscles, will push the brain in the other direction, away from stress, and toward more relaxed thoughts. 
Similarly, under stress, your breathing rate increases. 
Slowing down your breathing pushes the brain away from the stress response, and again toward more relaxed thinking.
After going back to my Dad's yoga class a few times, I eventually came to the realization that not only can you practice yoga in real life, but, conversely, you could go to a yoga class and not really be doing yoga…. focused on something else entirely.  Without the sustained intention of focusing on the present, and calming the mind, going to a yoga class is literally just going through the motions.
Enjoy your practice! Namaste, Christina

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