When our mind is fearful, our bodies follow the fear and we experience the physical effects of stress. We all have heard that stress produces cortisol, the "fat hormone." We know that stress changes our bodily functions and when left unchecked, can harm us is many ways.
Why is it so difficult to manage our stress levels and how do we stay healthy?
Last year, I experienced fear and uncertainty that stressed my body for a prolonged period. I felt the changes in my body and I made the decision to begin Bikram (hot) yoga in order to help manage my stress. Unfortunately, I became apprehensive before class and stressed during class trying to master the difficult postures in 105-degree heat. I knew I needed to make some mental shift before I could continue. I asked the owner of the yoga studio, Mike, why I was having so much difficulty in class and if he had any advice as how I could manage my stress. He smiled and replied ever so calmly, "Most people who choose to take hot yoga are type-A personalities, and they come to class and attack the postures and compete with themselves like they have in other sports and other areas of their lives. What is hardest for a type-A person such as yourself is to consciously dial it back and do less." Sensing my disbelief, he went on, "In hot yoga, try keeping your breath steady and allow your body to experience less stress and demands. Do not push. Allow. By doing this you will, over time, be able to do more."
I thought about the wisdom of the philosophy of allowing versus pushing. How often in our lives do we push ahead and allow fear and stress to be our companion instead of breathing and calmness? I am not one to say that being calm and allowing is easy; it never has been effortless for me. I do, however, understand the inherent importance in the concepts of allowing and being centered -- even surrendering. Ask any professional athlete what the key is to their success and they will tell you it is when they can relax at the very moment they need the power and focus. It is that moment when all the training, the pushing and the visualization is brought together with calmness and focus -- a winning combination.
The five things to help your body do more:
- Reframe the concept of working out as my "relaxation time." Instead of being stressed every time I think about how difficult it is going to be, I simply say, "It's my 90 minutes of relaxation."
- Make preparations so the workout starts calmly; I prepare my water, workout gear and clear my schedule the day before, so I am ready to go -- no excuses and no last-minute rushing.
- Learn that the breath is where the true power lies. I deep-breathe all the time now, not just during workouts -- at traffic lights, before I eat, when I talk to my kids, when I'm on the computer and always when I feel fear or sadness.
- Stop judging myself. I look in the mirror at my eyes, not my body, and I stay focused on how relaxed I am. I stopped criticizing myself for not being able to do more.
- Stay in gratitude as long and as often as I can. I am constantly grateful that I am taking care of myself, I am strong enough to do this and I am creating perfect health. I am thankful for how much I can do.
Armed with the knowledge that my 90-minute hot yoga class was now my "relaxation time," and knowing that it is far harder to relax and breathe than it is to push myself harder, I entered the yoga room once again. Melinda, the 65-year-old Bikram instructor, explained the health benefits of the postures; she was fit, relaxed and her demeanor was soft and allowing. While I attempted to breathe regularly while holding a difficult posture, I watched how she enjoyed every movement -- in fact, she was enjoying every moment as well. When I followed her rhythmic breathing I began to smile and relax. When I allowed my body to relax, I stopped the self-judgment and I felt a surge of power that allowed me to do more.
Know that where your mind goes, your body is sure to follow. If we can try to relax and breathe during moments of stress, I think we give ourselves an opportunity to move past the negative and stress-producing emotions of fear, jealousy, anger and sadness with no regrets and greater ease.
For more by Linda Durnell, click here.
For more on stress, click here.