More so than ever, many of us are experiencing constant stress. It’s a hot topic these days, as the research has shown that stress is literally killing us. Students are constantly coming to me asking for tips, techniques and ways to be unstressed, “just like myself.”
Firstly, the assumption that yoga teachers or experienced meditators don’t experience stress could not be farther from the truth.
I personally experience stress daily- from deadlines, to getting upset in traffic, to disagreeing with my roommate (I originally came to yoga to help with the stress I was experiencing from corporate sales). The main difference between a student and a teacher is that the teacher has learned how to manage stress and learned to notice when they are experiencing stress. It’s not like the tension isn’t there, it’s just seen and then regulated appropriately- and don’t forget, it’s is the teacher’s job to model how to be on the outside in order to help others create calmness on the inside. So do your best and try to not to compare yourself to how someone else “appears” to be on the outside. Let’s spend some time looking at what stress is, what causes it and how to help manage it.
Remember, learning to manage stress is a process which takes mental and physical training, and won’t “just happen.”
What is stress?
Stress is a chemical response in the body to danger and is a primary reason why humans have survived for millennia. When the body is in danger, strong hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) are released to the aid in “fight or flight,” literally giving the body the needed strength to fight to another day. Our modern day dilemma however, is that our bodies respond to perceived stress the same way they respond to real stress, meaning our bodies are constantly dumping heavy amounts of illness causing unused hormones into the bloodstream. I want you to realize that there is external and internal stress and that they are different. External stress is real and means you are actually in danger, internal stress is perceived and means you think you are in danger. Learning to decipher between the two is the beginning of liberation.
What causes perceived stress?
In one word: resistance. Resistance to what is, tension between what is actually happening compared to what you want to be happening. Traffic is a great example of how we constantly stress ourselves out. When sitting in a traffic jam, there is literally nothing you can do about it. You can’t move, leave, go around or be anywhere else. All you can do is sit. You now have two options; accept what is happening or resist what is happening. It’s not rocket science but it’s sure as hell not easy. When experiencing stress, here’s what you can choose to do in a tough situation; accept it, leave it or change it. Now ask yourself these questions when sitting in traffic: Can I change this situation? No. Can I leave this situation? No. Can I accept this situation? That’s for you to decide, one answer will create stress the other will not- this is where learning to self regulate begins to develop. You can take this basic example into all areas of your life, when you resist what is, you create stress, when you accept what is, you release stress. This by no means implies that you can’t take action to change something you don’t like. It does mean, however, that you can learn to stop resisting what you don’t like and take actions to change how you feel.
So, if stress is resistance to what is, the first step to managing stress is to learn to accept what is. “What you resists, persists.”
There are many ways to learn how to learn acceptance and stress management skills.
Here are a few:
1) Breathe consciously:
When we are upset we breathe quickly and shallow, when we are relaxed we breath low and slow (think of a dog relaxing on it’s side, breathing into its abdomen). You can see right away that how we breathe is connected to how we feel and how we act. If the emotions can affect how we breathe, than the breath can affect how we feel. When you begin to experience stress, inhale your hands up to your face, squeeze your hands and then exhale out all of your tension. Do this a few times, even multiple times a day. This technique is called the “quieting response” and mimics the benefits of mediation in less than 10 seconds. (Here’s a 30-second Video Clip demonstrating how to do it)
2) Practice yoga:
The practice of yoga is a great teacher for learning acceptance. The poses teach us accept we are at a certain place in our physical abilities, and that we have a choice; accept where we are or resist. Accepting where your body and thoughts are in yoga is the beginning of change. As you learn to sit in a challenging pose and relax into the discomfort, you are really just teaching yourself to relax into discomfort in life once you leave class.
Meditate for 15 minutes a day and watch how quickly your life begins to improve. You will quickly begin to see how many random thoughts you have going on, and then begin to choose to either listen to these thoughts or let them go. Again, you are either choosing to accept them or choosing to let them go. Meditating can bring you relaxation and acceptance, in turn lowering your stress levels, improving your relationships, sleep and even sex life. Here’s a great scientific article backing up the effectiveness of this ancient practice.
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There are some great resources and books out there that have been my guides for years. The Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, A New Earth by Echkart Tolle, Diamond Mind by Rob Narin and The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis.
I’ll leave you with this: “Those who think they can and those who think they can’t are both correct.” If you believe you can start to notice when you are experiencing stress and begin to choose to accept your situation, you are well on your way to reducing your stress levels and improving your life. If you don’t believe you can begin to make these choices then, well, I would argue that you are also correct. The choice is yours and the choice is black and white; accept or resist what is going on around you, the former is a much easier path- I promise.