STRESS CAN MAKE YOU SICK
Stress begins with a physiological response to what your body-mind perceives as life-threatening. For our ancestors, this may have been defending against the aggression of a hungry animal. For modern-day humans, this may be living with the fear of losing a job in a sagging economy, or the health crisis of a family member.
Whatever the stressor, the mind alerts the body that danger is present. In response, the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, secrete catecholamine hormones. These adrenaline and noradrenalin hormones act upon the autonomic nervous system, as the body prepares for fight or flight. Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness, and muscle tension are increased. The adrenal hormones cause metabolic changes that make energy stores available to each cell and the body begins to sweat. The body also shuts down systems that are not a priority in the immediacy of the moment, including digestion, elimination, growth, repair, and reproduction.
These adaptive responses have been positive for the survival of the human race over thousands of years. For our ancestors, a stressful situation usually resolved itself quickly. They fought or they ran, and, if they survived, everything returned to normal. The hormones were used beneficially, the adrenal glands stopped producing stress hormones, and systems that were temporarily shut down resumed operation.
To his detriment, modern man is often unable to resolve his stress so directly, and lives chronically stressed as a result. Still responding to the fight or flight response, the adrenals continue to pump stress hormones. The body does not benefit from nutrition because the digestion and elimination systems are slowed down. Even sleep is disturbed by this agitated state.
In a chronically stressed state, quality of life, and perhaps life itself, is at risk. The body's capacity to heal itself is compromised, either inhibiting recovery from an existing illness or injury, or creating a new one, including high blood pressure, ulcers, back pain, immune dysfunction, reproductive problems, and depression. These conditions add stress of their own and the cycle continues.
THE RELAXATION SOLUTION
The antidote to stress is relaxation. To relax is to rest deeply. This rest is different from sleep. Deep states of sleep include periods of dreaming which increase muscular tension, as well as other physiological signs of tension. Relaxation is a state in which there is no movement, no effort, and the brain is quiet.
Common to all stress reduction techniques is putting the body in a comfortable position, with gentle attention directed toward the breath. Do these techniques really work? Scientists have researched the effects of relaxation and report measurable benefits, including reduction in muscle tension and improved circulation.
Among the first to study relaxation was Edmund Jacobson, M.D. In 1934, he wrote You Must Relax about the benefits of his progressive relaxation techniques. He reported success in using his approach to treat high blood pressure, indigestion, colitis, insomnia, and what he called "nervousness."
One of the foremost writers and researchers in the field of stress reduction today is Herbert Benson, M.D., who coined the phrase "Relaxation Response" to describe the physiological and mental responses that occur when one consciously relaxes. In The Wellness Book, he defines the relaxation response as "a physiological state characterized by a slower heart rate, metabolism, rate of breathing, lower blood pressure, and slower brain wave patterns."
David Spiegel, M.D., author of Living Beyond Limits, reports, "In medicine, we are learning that physical problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, can be influenced by psychological interventions, such as relaxation training. Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report recommending these non-drug approaches as the treatment of choice for milder forms of hypertension. Mind and body are connected and must work together, and this should be a powerful asset in treating medical illness."
Indeed, body and mind are connected. Relatively new in medicine is the specialty called psychoneuroimmunology, another way of saying that body and mind-or psyche, nervous system, and immune system-are connected. This specialist understands that the health of the psyche is reflected in, and partly created by, the health of the body, and vice versa.
Among those whose scientific study supports the body-mind connection is Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease. He studied those with atherosclerotic heart disease and concluded that daily periods of relaxation are essential in preventing further deterioration. Ornish also created a unique lifestyle program which includes diet, yoga, and meditation.
The word yoga comes from Sanskrit, the scriptural language of ancient India, and means "to yoke" or "to unite." Dating back to the Indus Valley civilization of 2000 to 4000 B.C.E., yoga practices are designed to help the individual feel whole. Ancient yoga texts present teachings that include the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the practitioner. The physical aspects of yoga--poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama )--are the most popular in the West.
Traditionally, a yoga class or personal practice session begins with active poses followed by a brief restorative pose. In this book, I'll place the entire focus of practice on the restorative poses. The development of these poses is credited to B.K.S. Iyengar, of Pune, India. Author of the contemporary classic Light on Yoga and numerous other books, Iyengar has been teaching yoga for more than sixty years. Widely recognized as a worldwide authority, he is one of the most creative teachers of yoga today.
Iyengar's early teaching experience showed him how pain or injury can result from a student straining in a yoga pose. He experimented with "props," modifying poses until the student could practice without strain. Iyengar also explored how these modified poses could help people recover from illness or injury. It is because of his creativity that the restorative poses in this book-most of which have been developed or directly inspired by him-are such powerful tools to reduce stress and restore health.
I often refer to restorative yoga poses as "active relaxation." By supporting the body with props, we alternately stimulate and relax the body to move toward balance. Some poses have an overall benefit. Others target an individual part, such as the lungs or heart. All create specific physiological responses which are beneficial to health and can reduce the effects of stress-related disease.
In general, restorative poses are for those times when you feel weak, fatigued, or stressed from your daily activities. They are especially beneficial for the times before, during, and after major life events: death of a loved one, change of job or residence, marriage, divorce, major holidays, and vacations. In addition, you can practice the poses when ill, or recovering from illness or injury.
HOW RESTORATIVE YOGA WORKS
Restorative poses help relieve the effects of chronic stress in several ways. First, the use of props as described in this book provides a completely supportive environment for total relaxation.
Second, each restorative sequence is designed to move the spine in all directions. These movements illustrate the age-old wisdom of yoga that teaches well-being is enhanced by a healthy spine. Some of the restorative poses are backbends, while others are forward bends. Additional poses gently twist the column both left and right.
Third, a well-sequenced restorative practice also includes an inverted pose, which reverses the effects of gravity. This can be as simple as putting the legs on a bolster or pillow, but the effects are quite dramatic. Because we stand or sit most of the day, blood and lymph fluid accumulate in the lower extremities. By changing the relationship of the legs to gravity, fluids are returned to the upper body and heart function is enhanced.
Psychobiologist and yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., consultant to the University of California, San Diego, in sleep research and biological rhythms, has done preliminary research on the effects of inverted poses. He found that they dramatically alter hormone levels, thus reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He attributes these benefits to a slowing of the heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels in the upper body that comes from reversing the effects of gravity.
Fourth, restorative yoga alternately stimulates and soothes the organs. For example, by closing the abdomen with a forward bend and then opening it with a backbend, the abdominal organs are squeezed, forcing the blood out, and then opened, so that fresh blood returns to soak the organs. With this movement of blood comes the enhanced exchange of oxygen and waste products across the cell membrane.
Finally, yoga teaches that the body is permeated with energy. Prana, the masculine energy, resides above the diaphragm, moves upward, and controls respiration and heart rate. Apana, the feminine energy, resides below the diaphragm, moves downward, and controls the function of the abdominal organs. Restorative yoga balances these two aspects of energy so that the practitioner is neither overstimulated nor depleted.
[The following is one of many restorative yoga poses presented in Relax and Renew]
SIMPLE SUPPORTED BACKBEND
Many of us sit at work for much of the day with the spine rounded and the arms forward of the torso. As a result, tension accumulates in the muscles of the upper back and shoulders. In response, most of us have the urge to stretch our arms upward and bend backward. That is just what this pose helps us to do, but in a supported way.
Setting Up. To begin, sit on the floor in front of the long side of your bolster, knees bent and feet resting on the floor, with a long-roll blanket by your side. Move slowly and with caution. If lying back causes discomfort in your lower back, begin by lying on your side over the bolster and then turning onto your back. If you can lie back, place your elbows on the bolster. Then use one hand to support your neck as you take your head back. Now lie over the bolster so that your middle back is supported and your shoulders rest comfortably on the floor.
The length of your torso will affect your comfort in this pose. Some short people have long torsos; some tall people have short ones. If you are long from shoulders to hips, place a double-fold blanket on the bolster to increase the height. This modification will allow you to rest lightly on your shoulders without crunching your neck against the floor. If you are short from the shoulders to hips, you may be more comfortable with less height. If you use props that are too high for you, your head will hang without support.
Be careful not to put too much weight on your cervical spine (neck). Place the long-roll blanket under your shoulders. If too high, unroll it until you are comfortable. This support helps to maintain the natural curve of the neck and allows your throat to open and relax. Keep your knees bent throughout the pose to protect your back and relax the abdomen. If you find it more comfortable, let the knees rest against each other. Rest your arms on the floor, either above your head or out to the side, whichever is more pleasant. Breathe naturally.
Stay in the pose for thirty seconds to determine how you feel. If you experience any discomfort in your lower back, slightly move off the bolster in the direction of your head. If this falls to relieve it, slightly move off the bolster toward your feet or place your feet on a folded blanket. Make sure that your chest is open and your ribs lift away from the abdominal organs.
If none of these adjustments make the pose feel good, roll carefully to one side and sit up. The following adjustment usually does the trick: Reduce the degree of the arch. Place the short side of a block against the front of the long side of the bolster. Sit on the block and use the support of your hands on the floor to lie back. Continue to use the roll under your shoulders to enhance your comfort and to protect your neck. Your tailbone and part of your buttocks should be supported by the block. There should be some arch in your back, especially at the level of your shoulder blades. Close your eyes. Place the eyebag over them.
Being There. Breathe slowly and evenly. Feel held by the props. Your arms are wide open and free. With each inhalation, your front body opens; with each exhalation, your belly and organs soften and your mind quiets. As you gradually relax, allow your back to sink into the props. Imagine you are lying in a beautiful and safe space. Open to this place and receive the beauty and wholeness of this moment.
Coming Back. Practice Simple Supported Backbend for one minute, gradually increasing your time in the pose. To come out, remove the eyebag. Push with your feet and slide toward your head. Rest for a few breaths with your lower back flat on the floor and your legs supported by the bolster. Then roll to the side and sit up slowly.
Benefits. Simple Supported Backbend is an antidote to our habitual posture of rounding forward. The front of the body is energized and the abdominal organs are stimulated. This backbend will leave you feeling refreshed.
Do not practice this pose:
Judith Lasater, Ph.D., P.T., has taught yoga since 1971. She holds a doctorate in East-West psychology and is a physical therapist. Her extensive articles on the therapeutic aspects of yoga have appeared in numerous books and magazines, including Yoga Journal. She teaches yoga classes and trains yoga teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and three children. Relax and Renew was published in 1995 by Rodmell Press, Berkeley, Calif.; 800/841-3123. Image of cover of Relax and Renew. How to order a copy of Relax and Renew.
(Copyright © 1995 by Judith Lasater, Ph.D., P.T.. Photos by Fred Stimson/San Francisco. Illustrations by Halstead Hannah. These excerpts are reproduced on The Yoga Group's Web site with permission from Rodmell Press. All rights reserved.)
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