Relax, just do it!
Study after study these days is hip to the importance of the relaxation response. You know, the feel good you get post-savasana, meditation or certain pranayam (breath practices). Why is this important? Shouldn’t our energy be focused on moving more, getting fitter, losing weight, to stay healthy? Yes, and er.. no. Public health enemy number one these days appears to be stress (and its direct links to heart disease, obesity, and so on) which is why that restorative yoga class might be a better antidote than another week of full-on cardio. It’s not that the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight mode we tend to run on) is bad in itself. In fact, the increase in blood pressure, breathing rate and blood flow to muscles can enable you to perform better = faster thinking, more creativity, greater dexterity.
But the point is to be able to come down from all that quickly to find stress relief. Yoga and meditation work in cultivating resilience. That’s why during a flow class where you feel your heart rate pumping, sweat dripping, legs burning, the yoga teacher will likely still be talking to you calmly, encouraging you to breathe sweetly and steadily through the nose, maintaining ujjayi breath. And you’ll always be brought to the same destination – meditation and/or savasana (final relaxation). After stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, meditation cultivates the opposite to find rest with less narrative, less mental busyness, so that we might experience bliss, truth, consciousness, a place beyond.
I had you until that last sentence right? Let me put it this way. Meditation seeks to strengthen the mind so that we might react less. By reacting I mean stuck in the endless cycle of he said/she said, I am not good enough, WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.. those endless reruns of our day, week or year that keep us from being in the fullness of the present moment. How many times a day do we choose to make ourselves or others smaller by negative self-talk?
I had a meditation teacher once who talked of the monkey-like mind’s delight in telling stories as ‘The (insert name) Show”. I have past seasons of The Kayla Show, past hurts, disappointments, anger, lack of forgiveness that can loop endlessly if I so allow them. I also have future seasons of said Kayla Show that I’ve already written in which I suffer multiple long, painful deaths from cancer or similar, have no money for retirement, and no family to speak of. Enough already! Rather than buying a ticket at the drive-in of your mind, imagine if you could simply be the screen and not the movie playing? You could be able to recognize these stories as they arise, label them thinking or emotion or sensation, and so find greater rest, greater self-awareness. Doesn’t that sound awesome? That’s the meditation practice.
And so when we think about this practice in terms of stress, we begin to see it’s life-preserving potential. There is a great TED talk about stress being bad for you only if you believe that to be the case. By changing your mind about stress, you can change your body’s reaction to stress. A typical stress response is for the heart to pound and the blood vessels to constrict (hence the link of stress with cardiovascular disease). Joy, courage or excitement likewise cause the heart to pound but the blood vessels stay relaxed. If we can recognize the physical symptoms of stress as they arise and use our minds to gain better control over them, might we be less likely to die of a heart attack at 50? Quite possibly.
In essence rather than trying to eliminate stress entirely, we might simply cultivate a healthier response to stress. By cultivating the parasympathetic nervous system or relaxation response in a daily yoga and meditation practice, we become better at self-soothing: slowing the heart and breathing rate more efficiently and effectively. We learn how to change patterns of thinking and self-perception in the way that the brain relates to the body. From our meditation cushion, we sit with (rather than hide from) anger, jealousy, grief, lust until we are able to let go the story, to not suppress but simply watch it. In so doing, we react less. We experience clarity, compassion and presence more.
We create a biology of resilience that may enable us to live longer. Who doesn’t want that?
Love After Love
The time will come,
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, who you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.