Updated: Mar 12
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