So there you are in Frog Pose: Belly is facing down, back is arched, elbows and forearms are holding you up. Your knees are splayed out to either side of you, creating a right angle with your thighs and shins. The boniest bits of your knees and ankles dig into the hard surface beneath you as your feet turn out in opposite directions. It is a deep groin and hip opener, but it's feeling like a near-death experience.
When we are faced with a deep stretch or strength-building posture, our bodies feel challenged and our minds may begin to protest:
This is too hard.
How much longer?
I can't do this.
How much longer?
Physical discomfort puts our brains into fight or flight mode, a reaction that occurs in response to a perceived danger, like coming face to face with a bengal tiger. It fires off when we feel stress, or tension from demanding circumstances. In fact, this survival mechanism can activate anytime you experience something that is even minorly unpleasant, like being stuck at the end of the grocery line or driving through traffic, let alone a serious threat. It is important to learn how to control our reaction to daily stressors, so that we are not in a constant state of fighting or fleeing.
In yoga,"fight" response thoughts may sound like mental digs, whispering negative thoughts that are directed at yourself (I have no balance), or even your instructor (She's talking too much) or neighbors (He's crowding me). Your "flight" reaction kicks in as your eyes search for the clock, or when you take a break in the middle of the difficult posture by reaching for your towel or water bottle. But before you start looking for the nearest exit, try these five tips for managing stress, whether you are on or off your mat.
Physiological effects include a heightened heart rate and quicker, shorter breaths. Our muscle fibers need deep inhales and exhales to get the required amount of oxygen for optimal performance. Deep breathing alleviates negative emotions and anxiety, and lowers stress levels. It is an effective tool that can be used anywhere and anytime you need it.
Quiet the mind
Focusing on your breath gives your brain a job, so that it is not hung up on the physical discomfort or internal chatter. Without the extra narration, your mind and body will feel calm and more open to receiving the task at hand.
Identify what you are feeling and then move on. Impatient? Frustrated? Don't sweat it. Here is a great place to practice non-judgmental awareness and self-compassion: You are human and emotions are natural. They come and go. It's okay.
Lean into the challenge
Demanding physical sensations* are made tolerable by not avoiding. Look the discomfort right in the eye. Direct your breathing and your focus to the area that is feeling the most stretch. Be curious about it; observe it; learn about it. These actions are powerful antidotes to the fight or flight response, giving us a calm-confidence in any anxiety provoking situation. And if you happen to be in a balancing pose like Dancer, most of all, have fun with it.
*Please note that stretch sensations are good; pain is bad. If a pose is producing pain, ease off immediately to avoid injury. Yoga shouldn't hurt.
Smile! You've made it through and you are onto the next posture. In the real world, we are faced with daily trials of varying degrees that push us outside of our comfort zones or push our buttons. Rather than feel ruffled, look forward to these challenges and give thanks, Yogis, for these are just the opportunities that stretch, expand, open, and strengthen us. After all, off the mat is where the real yoga happens.