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.
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.