First published at Yogamatters.com
Finding calm in life can seem more and more elusive in our busy, often oversubscribed lives. Our expectation of how much information we can take in and how much we achieve is often at odds with the recovery our bodies and brains really need to function optimally and feel a sense of ease in our immediate environment.
We humans are characterised by the capabilities of our big front brains, the central cortex with its frontal lobes allows us to dream, imagine, create, plan, analyse and use language. When calm and relaxed, these functions can tick along and allow us to move through life joyfully, but when stress or anxiety rise, we move into the survival fight-or-flight mode and our whole relationship with the world around us changes.
Stress can have us feel like we’re living ‘neck-up’, where thoughts, ruminations and worries dominate our internal landscape. This is a fall-back to the self-protection our mind-body perceives we need, even if we’re stressed about work, money or relationships. Our stress response is still acting as the full-on physical one we would have needed in the wild, but in the modern world, most is concentrated inward and shows up as stress-related symptoms, like anxiety, muscle tightness, insomnia, digestive issues and inflammation.
This comes with a state of hyper-vigilance, the useful continual scanning of your jungle or forest environment for potential threat, but less appropriate in your living room or the wild plains of the office. The trouble is that chronic stress keeps us stuck in this ‘unsafe’ mode. If we also come from a background where our early years did not feel fully nurturing, attuned and safe, then we can be constantly reacting to old settings in our physiology that just keep reacting over-and-over again.
From a calm and collected place we can make plans, reflect on our needs and feel the space to have options and be adaptable to change. This quickly shift as soon as we move to the heightened state of stress; here we think and act from an impulsive, knee-jerk, reactive and short-term viewpoint, often feeling we have ‘no choice’ and may even regret decisions made in this state.
The reason Mindfulness has become so popular in our overwhelmed society is its focus on presence and what is truly happening in the here and now, not a story or projection of it driven by hyper-vigilance and impulse. If we have the capacity to stop and notice our breath, then we must be safe, even if old patterns are telling us otherwise. Mindfulness – experiencing the present moment, as it is, without judgement or criticism – can help us find calm by creating clarity and a trust in simply letting the moment unfold. A yoga practice where we use this focus for ‘embodied awareness’ can create the inner safety we need, but there are other aspects we can also create this consciousness around.
Soothing through nutrition
When we feel agitated, there can be a pull to soothe excited brain chemistry through the quick-fix ‘highs’ of sugar, caffeine and/or alcohol, but these are just a temporary relief that can keep us coming round in circles. Stress uses up energy quickly and this can create signals to fuel-up just in case we need to stand and fight or run away. The resultant cravings and even raised appetite can having us ploughing in snacks and food choices our reflective self would rather not consume.
Some simple measures can help a sense of brain-body satisfaction that is grounding and calming:
- Set up a foundation for your day by sitting down to have a nourishing breakfast – preferably with protein to support your adrenals (for stress coping) and to balance blood sugar (for energy regulation). Good examples are goat’s cheese or smoked salmon with avocado on rye, full-fat Greek yoghurt with nuts, seeds and berries, nut butter on sourdough rye toast.
- Include plenty of green leafy vegetables for the minerals, sulphur compounds, antioxidants and soluble fibre that allow us to modulate our reactions to stress.
- Reduce sugar to support your gut environment – you can also take a good quality probiotic supplement such as Optibac Probiotics for Every Day Extra Strength (http://www.revital.co.uk/optibac-for-daily-wellbeing-extra-strength-30-capsules-18218) as low levels of beneficial gut bacteria keep the stress response firing off.
- Eat greens, nuts, seeds, figs and brown rice as rich magnesium sources. This mineral is needed for all calming in the nervous system and muscle release and tends to be low in those with anxiety, depression, insomnia and IBS. You can also take 400-600mg of magnesium citrate at night in a supplement such as Lamberts Magasorb (http://www.revital.co.uk/lamberts-magasorb-180-tablets-150mg-526) which may help to relieve these issues.
- 40g of dark chocolate a day has shown to help us cope with stress!
Good vagal tone
Our ability to come down from stress, calm and soften through the whole mind-body relies on action through the vagus nerve. Vagus means ‘wandering’ (like vagrant or vagabond) and refers to its meandering path from the lower brain down to the solar plexus and wrapping around all organs in our chest and abdomen. When ‘vagal tone’ is good, we can access this self-soothing mechanism with ease, but poor vagal response can mean we struggle to come out of anxiety loops.
Several simple techniques for activating your vagus nerve can provide a quick relief when your nervous system has gone into hyper-drive:
- Washing your hands in warm water
- Taking a bath
- Being around people who create positive emotions and joy
- Being with a group of people who make you feel safe and connected
- Loving-kindness meditation (metta bhavana) – you can listen to my version here from my De-Stress Meditations: Calming in Belly and Heart album: link
There is a well-established link between yoga and vagal tone, not least in the basic felt experience that us yogis feel when we practice, particularly mindfully and with full body awareness. There is a rise in the science to support this; one study of a 12-week yoga programme showed greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a control group who just did walking exercises. The study increased levels of the neurotransmitter GABA that soothes the brain, stills the mind and is associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety (J Altern Complement Med. 2010; 16(11): 1145–1152).
Two yoga practices that are great to do to separate out periods of high activity and coming down to recovery time, involve placing the body into positions where a busy front brain can come to rest and calm.
These variations on Viparita Karani (waterfall practice) raise the legs above the hips, above the heart, above the head to allow full rest in the nervous system as the heart is relieved from pumping blood up from the lower body. Instead gravity simply allows the waterfall effect to also soothe the front brain as the chin is naturally drawn in towards the chest (jalandhara bandha). The supported chest opening allows full breath into the front ribs and the whole pose allows slow breathing to evolve without force. Slow breath has also shown to encourage good vagal tone ( Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, Article ID 743504).
Forward bend to chair
Forward bends can have a surrendering effect if we can let go of the ambition and need to get further that can so often be at the root of anxiety and self-criticism. Coming to a chair rather than needing to move further in can give the spine a chance to decompress with space between vertebrae and allow us to settle into the effects of gravity. Bringing the forehead onto folded arms, the chair seat or a block there if needed, creates pressure through the forehead that activates the trigeminal nerve there, which in turn self-soothes via the vagus. Softening your eyes and jaw into your breath allows full release and you may even find yourself drooling as your calming parasympathetic nervous system engages.
Mantra and sounding have shown to increase vagal tone, with research showing that chanting ‘Om’ is effecting, as shown through Heart Rate Variability, our adaptability in nervous system response (Int J Yoga. 2011; 4(1): 3–6). Even simply sounding vowels or any singing can have a calming effect, an ‘ahhhh’ sound opens up the jaw where we can hold much tension; clenching here keeps up the stress response, so opening our mouth to make noise in any way can be a release.
Placing of our hands on our body (nyasa in yoga) provides clear sensory feedback that we are here, as well as offering nurture and care that we can feel our body and breath respond to.
- Hand on heart signifies compassion and draws attention to where we may feel depleted (in the heart chakra, anahata) when we don’t feel the support we need or look after others more than we receive.
- Hand on belly connects us into the centre of us, where we intuitively feel ‘what is true right now’ and can learn to trust our gut instincts. Feeling our breath creating a rise and fall in the belly also allows us to drop stress held up into the shoulders and chest, unlocking our diaphragm for full releasing out-breaths.
- With this support, simply feel your breath moving between these two areas, rising on the inhalation and falling on the exhalation. Simply feel the experience in each moment, without needing to deem it good or bad, rather feeling it in tones, flavours, colours, textures – any nature that allows you to feel expanse and a sense of friendliness and kindness to yourself.
Charlotte Watts is a 500 hr trained Senior Yoga Teacher (Yoga Alliance) who teaches classes, workshops and retreats and co-teaches the module for Teaching Yoga for Stress, Burnout and Chronic Fatigue for Yogacampus. She is also an experienced, award-winning Nutritional Therapist and author of many books, her latest is The De-Stress Effect (Hay House 2015).
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