Bramacharya: Stress, Fear and Fight or Flight

The fourth yama 'Bramacharya' in yoga refers to the right use of energy, both on the mat and in our daily lives. While it traditionally referred to the sexual energy of young men on the spiritual path, in the modern day householder yoga tradition it is important to look at 'right use of energy' as a broader concept.

This week we're looking at how much energy we spend on stress, and the physical response to stress and fear.

Fight or Flight

Our ancient programming was built around very different lifestyles to the ones we lead today. If the good lookin' fella in the photo was looking at someone in a 'mmm dinner' kind of way, the sympathetic nervous system, aka the 'fight or flight' response may save their life. Without even thinking, their body would release hormones to increase heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and blood sugar (among other things) and activate all the systems needed to give the body the strength/speed required to increase their chance of survival.

In terms of our daily lives (perhaps with the exception of law enforcement/ armed services/ firemen/ bear wranglers etc) this response is meant to be triggered only occasionally when we're in danger.

Unfortunately our stress response mechanisms have not been able to keep up with the exponential multiplication of stressors that we now face every single day.
Our bodies cannot tell the difference between life-threatening stress like being on a tiger's lunch menu, and the every day stress we feel about money, traffic, work/life/family balance, success, the economy, relationships, the environment, politics, family conflicts, parenting, illness and disease.
In addition, the body's automatic systems can not differentiate between a real and imagined threat and therefore responds the same to both. As a result many people's fight or flight response is being triggered throughout the day by anything from being cut off in traffic to an insensitive comment or insult from someone, and is then continued into the night by fear and anxiety caused by ruminative thinking and anticipation.

While there will be times in life where we need the strength or action of the sympathetic nervous system in a dangerous situation, it's important for our mental and physical health that we do not constantly live in this fight or flight. Living in this agitated and stressed state for the majority of our waking hours can be linked to heart disease, insomnia, depression, chronic fatigue, anxiety and chronic pain (to name just some of the issues).
We must acknowledge that stress is inevitable, that the unexpected will happen, and that things won't always go how we'd like them to. However we do not have to resort to the extreme of fight or flight for every notification on our phone. We have the ability to control and manage our response to these events and, as a result, relieve our stress.

In a yoga practice we learn to be mindful of our body and internal chatter. Over time we learn to identify the times where we overreact to every day events in the sympathetic nervous system, and can apply methods to calm the body and mind, reducing stress and anxiety. Over time we learn to pause before reacting to events, and this moment of pause will often give us enough time to reframe our view of whatever situation we are faced. We learn to respond rather than to react.

There are many techniques that we learn through a regular yoga, meditation and pranayama (breathing) practice that help to reverse the well-established habit of overreacting to daily stress. We learn methods to release the built up tension in our bodies that years of stress has created.

The methods and techniques we learn on our mats, make their way off our mats and into our daily lives, and can have a long lasting, positive effect on our overall health and happiness.

5 Ways To Practice Attention and Presence

If your focus on asteya and attention have you aware that you're often distracted or lost in an online world, here are 5 easy ways to start bringing your attention back to the present moment. 

Pause and breathe:
If you get to the end of each day (or week) and wonder where it went, add some breath breaks into your day. Simply stop what you're doing and focus on taking three slow breaths. This will help you relax both body and mind, and allow you to be present and appreciate what's around you.

Do one thing at a time:
We often believe we're getting everything done by multitasking, however the truth may be that we are really just distracted and bouncing around feeling busy but not achieving much! Pay attention to completing one task at a time.

Turn off notifications:
Shock horror!! You may not know immediately that your third cousin half removed just liked your meme. It's ok! Really! You'll both survive if you don't notice it until later in the day when you intentionally check your accounts. Turn off all but the most urgent notifications, and keep your phone out of sight when doing something or interacting with others. I acknowledge that on occasion we might receive an urgent/important phone call or text, but consider how often you respond to your phone as if it's urgent every single time it lights up, even if it's just an instagram like or a spam email. Every time our phones light up and the notification box appears, it steals our attention from the task at hand, or worse - from the person we're interacting with.

Cuddle a (friendly) dog:
One of the best ways to learn being attentive and present is from the masters of presence! Cuddle or play with your dog. Be in the moment with them and enjoy that special time. They'll love and appreciate it and you'll feel more relaxed and happy too!

Go outside in nature:
Whether your access is to a park, the beach, or the woods, go outside! Listen to the sounds of birds, waves or wind in the trees, or watch the sun set. Take in everything about that moment from the temperature of the air to your presence in that space and the colour of the sky. Each time your mind wanders, bring it back to enjoying the moment.

Journal: What's Stealing Your Attention?

Our journal questions this week are on being present and our attention. Pick one or all of them (there are quite a few this week) to write about freely without self-editing. Grab your pen or laptop and dig in!

Asteya Journal

What distracts you the most in life? How? Do you notice or is it subconscious? Write about some of the ways and times you get distracted.

When you have a moment spare in the day such as riding an elevator, waiting for an appointment, waiting for the bill to come at lunch etc what do you do? Is this a choice or habit? Does it make add to your day in a positive way or simply make time pass? Would you prefer to act in a different way?

Which online activities take up the most of your attention? How do they make you feel? Do any elevate you or do any leave you frustrated, stressed or empty? Which are absolutely necessary and which end up passing time without you even realising?

How do you show someone you're listening to them? Do you always do this? How might the other person feel if you are only half paying attention to them when they're talking to you? With this in mind, what might you do in future interactions to show people that you are present and paying attention.

Asteya: What's Stealing Your Attention?

Last week we began our exploration of the third yama, asteya/non-stealing. We started the practice by thinking about ways that we steal time and energy from ourselves and from others. In my post, I said that our most valuable resource is time. This week I'd like to expand on that; consider for a moment if our most valuable resource is not only our time, but also our attention.

AsteyaHaving a whole library, TV, encyclopedia, weather station, gaming console and access to the thoughts of millions of people in a device smaller than a single book is incredibly convenient, but how often does technology divide or perhaps steal our attention, often without us even noticing?

As a society we are more distracted than ever. While sometimes this distraction may not hurt anyone, at other times it can hurt other's feelings, cause accidents, or make us miss out on the best parts of life.

When we watch TV while eating, we steal the enjoyment of a meal from ourselves, and perhaps the pride of the person who has spent time carefully preparing it.
We steal our attention from the important task of driving any time we respond to our phones while on the road.
We steal the enjoyment of a concert when we focus on capturing the perfect picture or videoing the act rather than simply watching and being present.
We steal our presence from those around us by scrolling on our phones instead of paying attention the person in front of us.

"The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention" ~ Thich Nhat Han

This week, on and off the mat we'll be exploring asteya or non-stealing of our attention and presence. I believe this practice connects the very heart of what our yoga practice is for; learning to be present in the moment.

Start today by removing all distractions when you sit down to eat. Practice presence with others by committing to leaving your phone, laptop and other technology completely out of sight while interacting with friends and family. On and off the mat commit to being present and attentive to whatever you're doing or whoever you're with.