The pride and privilege of teaching yoga is the vast wealth of information that exists to share. As a discipline, yoga practice has been around for a really, really long time. Even as recently as the 1970’s this work has been reviewed, sense checked, intuitively tested, revised and updated - so now yoga is as relevant, accessible and life changing as it always (and will forever) be.
Here in Lossiemouth, 10 intrepid new Yoga adventurers recently embarked on a journey. A brave and powerful journey to explore both the outer landscape of yoga and how this timeless practice can begin to have an impact on their own bodies, brains, exercise practice and in essence, their lives.
Of course, we didn’t tell them that. To lead with “this is hard, emotional, mental, physical work - which you won’t be able to stop once you get a taste” is perhaps not the best sales pitch. So instead, we offered a snapshot. An opportunity to find out what makes Yoga different. In a fitness club* environment, why take a yoga class. When the weights are calling and the group fit, body sculpting results of Grit is just 30 minutes away… why yoga?
On Sunday 20th January, we set out... What follows is some of the information we considered before taking a class and deeply feeling how these new ideas worked out in practice. Like true investigators, we studied, we considered (over coffee) then we tested.
*I am so lucky to teach yoga in this particular fitness club, where the holistic benefits of a rounded life are upheld, encouraged and celebrated. This team of brilliant humans will hold your hand when life is hard, wave your flag when you succeed, push you when you slack and keep you on track for that vision you have for all you want to improve. Ana Forrest says “evolve or die” Move forward, be better, live your life. We add, surround yourself with the best possible team to achieve your personal greatness.
How does a body work?
Intiutively, you’ll be aware that there are some things that your body does that you are in control of - like walking, squats, talking… and some things that happen for you - like your heart pumping and digestion (and hallelujah for that, amirite?) The key feature I want you to hold in mind as we go through the next part is this - ALL the things about your body simply ARE. Regardless - if you have control, perceive control, trust in the autonomy or feel frustrated by the lack of control - every single feature of the body I am about to explain is part of the wonderful complexity of a human, and will continue to exist without our judgement, preference or desire. When we start our information gathering, let’s start somewhere straightforward (So we can layer complexity as we desire.)
The brain is in charge and like a CEO of the central nervous system has all the control, with a very narrow window of access for the wider company below. From the brain a network of nerves emerges, in a tight bundle through the neck into the body. Once through this space restriction, the nerves blossom out into ever finer and more complex, delicate patterns until the whole body is served by the network.
This wider network (named the peripheral nervous system - PNS) oversees everything the body does and reports back, like a creepy but well meaning big brother. Under the umbrella of the PNS are the senses, and motor skills.
Let’s dive into this new layer and see where it takes us. The Sensory Division gets feedback from the five senses - say them with me now… touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste - as well as the more esoteric Proprioception (the feeling of being where you are in space) and the Vestibular system (broadly, the feeling of being the right way up and balanced.) I expect some part of your memory is nodding sagely right now and most of this feels pretty familiar. The senses collect information and relay it through the network of nerves to our Brain CEO, who decides what to do before sending messages to the Motor Division for action.
What does the Motor Division do, and why does some of it happen automatically?
Even when we are at rest, our body is moving. There is always something pumping, flexing, sliding, squeezing… With so much going on, a great deal of this movement needs to happen without our conscious direction. The brain simply sends information, in the form of hormones and nerve pulses and the heart pumps, bowels move, oxygen is transferred and waste is removed (among other things.) We can also call upon our body to respond to whims, like walking, eating and talking.
Recall the senses can provide input for the brain, your motor skills are the other giant arm of the tree we are going to consider. It’s a rabbit hole worth jumping in. Consider the hands when you get a sensory perception telling you that you're feeling extreme heat. The brain gets the message and quickly sends a signal to move the hand away from heat sensation. Motion in that case sits somewhere between controlled and subconscious activity. Moving away as reflex uses the same muscles as if you wanted to lift your arm deliberately to wave hello.
Subconscious movement might be more clearly defined as things like processing food, excreting waste or pumping blood - all things that your brain does automatically. Walking or speaking are actions that your brain can choose to do given the right input.
What's the difference, why does it matter?
Some of the things that your body does automatically are hugely beneficial - let’s give a big thumbs up for heart and bowels! Additionally some reactions automatically happen when your body is under stress which is great if you're being chased, in danger - or perceive danger. Drawing blood away from your core out to the tips of fingers or feet in readiness to fight or run. Likewise when we rest and the body automatically brings the blood in to the core allowing the body to rest and recover under the guidance of hormones like oxytocin and endorphins. Things work really well when they're in balance.
When Stress Stops being Helpful..
So often our automatic responses are out of sync, because the body has a perception of threat when there is none - in periods of stress, we become very used to a certain level of adrenaline in the system. The initial change in hormones creates the fight or flight response… if adrenaline is habitually high, it takes more to be actually in fight or flight and this has repercussions. When adrenaline is being produced all the time glands that produce adrenaline are overworked - leading to discomfort, distress and exhaustion. There's nothing wrong with being upregulated and then down-regulated there's no such thing as being too active, as long as this comes in balance.
A little like a sleeping pattern your body has a rhythm - a natural rhythm of working hard and then resting. Acknowledge the flow, like a wave rushing up to the shore, coming in strong and fast, and then moving away to peace.
Yoga helps as we specifically design classes to follow this rhythm. Using the body's natural time frame for becoming up-regulated and then down-regulated allowing the body to respond not only to stress - but also to respond to relaxation. Retraining the body to respond when oxytocin is released into the body, allowing recovery. What part can you do in retraining your body to recognize and respond to and down-regulation in an appropriate and timely way? The mind tries to relax after periods of stress and we can begin recovering much quicker if we notice, breathe and allow the rest to come.
Simply knowing that periods of stress and up-regulation are potentially frequent and are designed to come in waves - they don't last forever and shouldn't last forever.
Taking a yoga class sets this up ready for you - breathe, become aware, work hard, pause and rest. The body is in training to work more efficiently.
Acknowledging the flows of the body work for all sorts of exercise programs - once you know that it's happening! The body regulates itself through up-regulation and then down-regulation. Notice how you can allow that flow impact your daily life - can you deliberately rest before sleep not just to go to sleep. Take a run (or walk) then when you're back, warm down and take five minutes to just sit and breathe or stand. Keep in mind, not only stretching and strengthening of of muscles during a workout, but actually letting the oxytocin the endorphins released from your exercise and activity do their work. Allowing the body to down regulate and using the energy of down regulation to heal
Yoga classes include this activity of breath - up and then down regulation, come along to experience it and then maybe bring your awareness to other exercise programs you use.
And if you want more advice, grab me and ask!