Stress has become a bad word in our culture. It causes illness and contributes to chronic pain. And we have too much of it. So we practice yoga: we meditate, do savasana, get relaxed, and then return to the world. Then, inevitably, stress rears its ugly head again. We can’t stop the stress!
The truth is, stress helps us to move and grow. When we need to have a difficult conversation, get through exam time, leave a bad relationship, or look for a new job, stress motivates action. I always think of the trees in Biosphere 2, an earth systems research facility in Arizona. Scientists created the perfect environment for trees to thrive in, but they didn’t consider wind. The absence of wind, which would normally put stress on the tree branches and encourage them to be stronger and create deeper roots, caused them to topple right over.
Stress involves the autonomic nervous system. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we are alert, awake, and in movement. Too much stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can put us in “fight or flight” mode. When this stimulation is sustained the way it is in our fast-paced culture, we can get anxious and sick.
When our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, we are calm and relaxed, and the “rest and digest” state turns on. Too deep and too often in this state, and we can topple over into listless depression like the biosphere trees. Healthy individuals should flow between these two states in a balanced way.
Many yoga practices help us to switch out of the sympathetic nervous system so we can calm down and process. There are also yoga practices, however, that are intended to stimulate an active, alert state. We really can’t stop stress from happening, but we can learn to tone our reactions to maintain a healthy, balanced nervous system.
Imagine a teacher asking you to try a handstand for the first time. What if you fall over? Your heart rate accelerates, and the teacher cues you to take a deep breath, which helps you to manage that fear. You lift a leg and consider going further. You don’t have to go all the way up, but you can test your boundary. You feel nervous but also excited to try the pose. You try a little hop. Not so bad! Feeling emboldened, you go for a second hop, and a third. Eventually, you come down into child’s pose. You listen to your heartbeat and breathe deeply. Soon enough, your heart rate slows back down.
In this case, you don’t simply maintain the calm, relaxed state at all costs. You take the opportunity to observe your edge of comfort and poke at it, knowing you have the tools (a deep breath, coming into child’s pose) to slide out of the stress state. You notice what it feels like to get keyed up and to observe the line between healthy nervousness and debilitating fear. We are literally practicing being stressed.
Sometimes, we absolutely (desperately) need time in deep relaxation. But there is also a place for strengthening and exploring a mindful stress response. When we can experience stress knowing we can return to a relaxed state, we get stronger, grow our roots deeper, and become very tall trees with no intention of toppling over.