Whilst I had a few dabbles with yoga in my younger years, my real introduction to it was in my early 30’s. I entered the practice through the doors of the hot and sweaty kind – the Bikram’s and the heated Power Vinyasas.
I loved it and was fairly quickly smitten.
I got up early to do the 6am classes, to enable me to fit in a lengthy and challenging work day, and burn the candle at the merrymaking end of the day.
I worked hard at the practice too - wanting to progress and achieve posture after posture. During my tenure, I did the Bikram 60-day challenge twice, back to back, and the Power Living 40-day challenge 3 times.
Off the mat, life was equally as challenging with a number of ‘those’ life events, happening in fairly close succession, adding weight to my work hard/play hard ethos:-
1. A migration to Australia
2. A lengthy residency application
3. A challenging relationship break-up
4. The theft of a large sum of savings and personal belongings
5. A house move
6. A redundancy
7. A new job
8. An up-close encounter in New York with the terrorist attacks of September 11
9. The loss of a friend
10. Signs of a weakening immune system
I actually just picked the top 10 but so what - right?
We all go through challenging periods in our lives - don’t we?
I think there is a more interesting conundrum:
“Was my choice of challenging yoga attracting me to challenging life choices and experiences?”
“Was my challenging life choices and experiences attracting me to challenging yoga?”
The Right or Wrong Yoga?
Let me make it clear up front that I am no yoga snob. I genuinely believe that all yoga has its place.
However, at this time in my life, the type of yoga I was practising, along with the way I was approaching it, was doing me more harm than good.
I was spinning enough plates, off the mat. The last thing I needed was something else, that enabled me to put more of a strain on my already overworked body and mind. In this instance, on the mat.
A more sensible choice would have been a style of yoga that nourished my overworked nervous system. However, when I did venture into a more relaxing or restorative class, I found the practice a painfully long and teeth-gritting experience.
So why was I drawn to the wrong kind of yoga, for me, at this time?
What’s Driving You?
To start to answer this question, let’s first of all take a look at the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The ANS controls involuntary functions of the body, operating for the most part below our level of consciousness.
It has two key divisions that are most relevant to this blog:
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The SNS is often referred to as our ‘fight or flight’ or ‘stress’ response, and is responsible for managing real, or perceived, threats to our survival.
When the SNS is engaged our body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and enters a heightened state of physical and mental alert – ready to face the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger.
It alerts our heart rate, blood pressure, clotting mechanisms and voluntary muscles to a high alert status – preparing us for action. It also signals non-essential systems to slow or shut down, such as the digestive system, elimination, pain response and immune systems.
Amazing system that makes perfect sense when you think about it?
We need things like our heart to pump faster and muscles primed, but don’t need to digest food or ward off coughs and colds, to get us out of danger.
Heightened or prolonged stress can come with a whole host of negative impacts to physical and mental wellbeing. Here irritability, anxiety, insomnia, muscular aches and pains and repeat illnesses are just some of the many symptoms. Left unchecked stress can lead you down the road to burnout and to more serious conditions.
The SNS is not all bad though, and does have its uses. In small amounts it can be beneficial in helping to meet life’s challenges or in summoning up motivation, productivity and energy.
In fact, when you wake up in the morning you are naturally given a dose of cortisol - to help get you out of bed in the morning and to get you through the day. This diminishes as the day concludes, to enable you to come down at the end of the day and sleep.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The PNS is often referred to as our ‘rest and digest’ or ‘relaxation’ response. It is the aspect of the autonomic nervous system that promotes optimal body and mind functioning, maintenance, restoration and repair.
Whilst it makes sense that we want the PNS to be where we spend a lot of our day, too much time here may result in feeling unmotivated, bored or sluggish.
Left unchecked this can lead you down the road to rustout. Here you can also experience some of the same negative symptoms, as with too much stress.
So, in theory, we should be aiming for a place, on the scale of the ANS, where our wellbeing and enthusiasm for life are in synergy.
High on Stress
When I left the Corporate World, I decided to take some time out.
The plan was to put some space between the past and the future and take the opportunity to travel, to train further and to spend time with friends and family in the UK. I didn’t return to Australia, but that’s a different story.
I love to walk and, after 15 years living away from the UK, the English countryside was a real treat. I would take a walk most days, as a break from my studies and the work that was winging my way.
I began to notice something interesting happening during my walks.
One of my last roles in the corporate world was to manage teams that looked after major incident, problem and change management and service continuity. We did this internationally, for the non-retail aspects of one of the largest Banks in Australia.
When out walking, I became aware that my mind would sometimes re-enact a major incident recovery scenario in my head. This happened enough for me to start to question why?
6 months after resigning, I was using my memories to up the pace of my walk and, in-turn, up the gears of my autonomic nervous system – back to a place where I had grown accustomed to functioning.
Whilst the pace of my life had changed considerably, seemingly, my mind and my body were yet to catch up.
If we are programmed to experience stress (the SNS) and then return to a place of homeostasis (the PNS) then what happens when this system goes awry?
If our bodies stay polluted with stress hormones, such as cortisol, and we are still chasing stress in unexpected places?
Is it plausible that we can get used to that mode of operating and to essentially become addicted to stress?
I think it is. I have experienced this in my own body and I hear it a lot from the people I work with.
For some people, it is like they have a hungry little stress monster inside of them that constantly needs feeding. Chasing the high of an overflowing to-do list, last minute deadlines, stressful jobs …… the wrong type of yoga.
The same can also happen in reverse. What if there is no monster inside and nothing to spur you on. All you crave, day after day, is more sleep followed by a day in your PJ’s, with a boxset and a tub of ice-cream, to enable you to numb out the world. Dynamic yoga anyone?
Is it all in your mind?
Much of what you experienced in life, good or bad, is going to make its way into your mind and impact how your mind works.
Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe how the brain is constantly being shaped and organised by our experiences. In very basic terms, what we use strengthens and what we don’t weakens – think of it like a muscle.
If neuroplasticity is an area of interest, I would highly recommend watching ‘The Brain that changes itself’. The full documentary is available on YouTube.
The good news is that aspects of the mind can be positively changed and enhanced.
For example, a 2010 study published by neuroscientist Sara Lazar, of the Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, demonstrated the positive effects of meditation in the field of stress management. Lazar and her team scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they received 8 weeks of training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
The results were fascinating, with the new meditators showing measurable changes to the areas of the brain researched. This included shrinkage in the amygdala, a portion of the brain involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. The decrease in the size of the amygdala correlated with lower stress levels reported by the group that learned meditation – the more they reduced their stress, the smaller the amygdala got.
The downside of course is that the same can happen in reverse. Negative thoughts, experiences and stressors can all result in the formation of maladaptive behavioural patterns.
If Sara Lazar’s work demonstrated that the amygdala can shrink, in response to something like meditation, the same can happen in reverse - extreme or prolonged stress likely to see the amygdala strengthened, enabling it’s owner to get stressed faster, more often and stay stressed for longer.
Another consideration is the nucleus accumbens which is a region of the brain associated with motivation and reward. Research by the American Physiological Society, has shown that it receives inputs from stress hormones, such as cortisol, suggesting that it too can be altered in response to stress.
An article from The Brain from Top to Bottom suggests that the nucleus accumbens also increases dopamine and reduces serotonin, in response to stress. .
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which, when released in the brain, gives rise to feelings of satisfaction when anticipating or receiving a reward.
Serotonin is often called the ‘happy chemical’ as it regulates mood and feelings of happiness. Low levels of serotonin is linked to sleep disruption, anxiety and depression.
The downstream effect of all this is that an oversized amygdala will be seeking out stress at every corner and the nucleus accumbent giving us a dose of dopamine, as a reward for finding it. But it is fleeting, resulting in the need to seek out more stress to achieve another dose.
As a result, stress has been likened to a drug addiction with some finding their stress habit equally as hard to shake.
Are you High or Low?
Our inner and outer experiences will of course have an impact on where we are on the ANS.
However, what I have come to realise, through my personal experiences and my work, is that we all have a place where we have become accustomed, or like, to live on the scale of our ANS.
When I run workshops on Stress Resilience, I often ask participants to plot where they are on the scale and for most it is an easy exercise. We generally know whether we have too much or not enough going on in our bodies and our lives.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where the PNS (rest and digest) is 1 and SNS (flight and flight) is 10 – where are you?
If you are unsure, I would recommend asking someone close to you. They will usually be able to answer this for you!
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
People with Type A, Type C and Type D personality traits are thought to be more likely to be drawn to a high number. Those with Type B personality traits are likely to be lower down the scale.
Understanding your personality type is another way of understanding yourself and your tendencies a little better.
If this is an area you would like to explore, many therapists can provide guided insight into traits and support in achieving any changes you would like to make.
Personally, I am Type A and C dominant which can be a lethal cocktail for setting the bar too high and in overdoing.
Finding a Happy Medium
Whilst we are always going to be moving up and down the scale of the ANS, in response to our inner and outer choices and experiences, I believe we should be aiming to strike a balance between the two.
Call it a zone, if you will, but here we strike a balance between feeling our best and performing at our best.
We are not so high on the ANS that we start to lose sight of our sanity and our wellbeing or so low that we lack motivation to achieve our goals.
There is a concept, from the Viniyoga tradition, which provides a framework of two energetic qualities called Brahmana and Langhana.
This framework suggests that we should choose, before any class, whether we should practice in a way that expands or reduces our own lifeforce.
Brahmana translates to expansion. Practising yoga in a way that increases Brahmana enhances vitality and yang energy. Essentially revving up the SNS.
Langhana translates to reduction. Practices that promote Langhana cultivate calmness and yin energy. Essentially initiating the PNS.
Let me give you a few examples of how this might play out in yoga.
Brahmana (expansion) Langhana (reduction)
110% effort 80% effort
Intention to strive Intention to stay centred
Strong Yoga Restorative Yoga
Fast pace Slow pace
Dynamic and continual movements Opportunities to pause and rest
Challenging postures Achievable postures
Energetic music Relaxing music
Short or no relaxation Rest and relaxation
Whilst some styles of yoga are more Brahmana and/or Langhana by nature, you can cultivate either quality with the right intention, pace, environment and energy – no matter what yoga you choose.
What I am also proposing is that the same applies to daily life. Whilst some days will be more Brahmana and/or Langhana by nature, you can also influence its quality with right intention, pace, environment and energy – no matter what your life shape is.
Have a read of the list again, this time from the perspective of the choices you are making, or have made, for yourself today?
Sometimes a seemingly quiet day can feel overwhelming if we approach it with Brahmana.
Equally a full-on day can feel like a breeze when approached with Langhana.
Same day – different approach - different result.
The same happens in reverse. What we do, and how we do it, drives back into our nervous system and in to the workings of our minds.
A continuous loop of our mind and nervous system driving our choices, and our choices driving back into our mind and nervous system.
My life led me through a crash, a recovery and into the vocation that is my life today – which I appreciate is a rather quick summary of a three-year growth stint!
Whilst this eventually resulted in some fundamental life changes, it wasn’t until I had returned to health and was at my most successful that I made the shift. It was the passion for the future rather than a desire to shed the past that inspired me.
Today, I still have that hungry little stress monster buried deep in-side of me. Whilst not as consuming as it once was, it still shows up from time to time.
Fortunately, I have become much better at spotting it, nurturing it and putting it back in its place faster.
Of course, not everything in life is in our control and there will be times when we lose control. For the most part there are aspects to daily life that are in our power to influence, along with how we respond to them.
Whilst changing your career, your relationship, your home, your country may seem like valid goals and may be necessary, it isn’t always the external that needs to change. And trust me, you take yourself with you.
Changing inner programming, both from a physiological and psychological perspective, whilst by no means easy, can be a more sustainable goal.
If you relate to this blog then then you may like to explore the following 7 summarised points, that aim to help you take your foot off the pedal or put your foot down, depending on your needs:
1. Where do you like to live on your ANS?
2. What choices are you making that are conspiring to keep you there?
3. Do you genuinely need to change any of your outer circumstances?
4. Are there any traits you can adopt or let go of?
5. Can you change your approach to your outer circumstances – right intention, pace, environment and energetic quality?
6. What can you do today that either revs you up or calms you down?
7. Can you choose a different yoga?
The more we will learn to balance our yin with our yang, the easier it will become for us to live in a place of balance. Think of it like strengthening a muscle.
A word on guilt
One of the reasons we hinder our progress is guilt.
Taking time for ourselves, whether it be to slow down or to speed up, can be a challenge for many.
A day on the couch or a visit to the gym can lead to feelings of guilt whilst we put aside the to do list.
During my own recovery, one of the many professionals that helped me return to health, suggested I have one evening a week where I did nothing. I remember the first night thinking to myself “what can I do whilst I’m doing nothing?”
Time management and productivity guru Laura Vanderkam in her article ‘how to let go of your guilt and actually enjoy your downtime’ suggests that we create a downtime fund.
Turning leisure activities into assignments that top up the fund, essentially tricking the mind into thinking that it is another task to achieve.
I absolutely concur with this thinking and include regular assignments into my own schedule – meditation, yoga, dog walks, time with friends, a relaxing bath, a positive movie or podcast etc. Whatever fills you up?
Let doing these increase your serotonin levels, and become the things that the reward centre of your brain craves.
Your mind, your nervous system and the quality of your life will all thank you.
Not everything in life, or in yoga, is of course within our control. However, there are many aspects to both that we can influence, in the choices we make and how we approach them. Shining a light on our tendencies, along with utilising the qualities of Bramanha and Langha, can see the same experience achieve a very different result, both on and off the mat.
This blog was written for Cytoplan and is also available on their website: