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Why Yoga? Here's One Reason posted 7 May 2018







In social situations when what I do for a living comes up there are a variety of different responses that people give when they hear I am a yoga teacher.

Some look puzzled as if they cannot understand why I do not have real job.  Some look like I must be dim-witted or stupid.   Baron Baptiste tells a story of a conversation he had with one of his sons.  His son was talking about teachers at his school.  He said that the teachers who were no good taught gym and that teachers who were no good at gym taught yoga.  Baron warned him to be careful because it was a yoga teacher who was buying his birthday presents!

Typically some people, generally men, say they can’t do yoga because they’re not flexible enough!!  Others hitch their pants up over their bellies and say they should do something like that.

Many people start talking about what they do for exercise since they regard the conversation as having taken a turn to the physical rather than the vocational or spiritual – or perhaps to justify their non-participation in yoga because they are actively engaged elsewhere or perhaps to say they have no need to degrade themselves with something so gentle as yoga.

Some say they have done some yoga as if they have experienced all that yoga has to offer.  There are so many different manifestations of yoga (as asana, as meditation, as worship and so on) that a few classes of one type hardly constitutes knowledge of “what yoga is”.

As everyone who practices at Apollo Power Yoga knows, yoga can be very dynamic, athletic and challenging but we also know that there is a feeling in our bodies and minds after class that is different from the way we feel after other forms of exercise.

Some people crave the feeling they get when exercising really hard by running, cycling, playing rugby, practicing martial arts or some other form of high energy activity.  One of the reasons they have that craving is because of endorphins which are chemicals released in the human body.  Endorphins trigger the opiate response in the body and have the effect of masking pain.

That is correct.  Hard physical exercise that stresses the body through over-exertion or high impact activity creates a chemical response that is akin to taking drugs but the effect is generated because the activity is creating pain that your body feels the need to mask or protect you from.

Having played rugby for 20 years of my life and having run as my primary form of training for rugby and as my primary form of exercise for a decade after I stopped playing rugby, I am all too familiar with the sensation of my own chemical cocktail of feel-good hormones.

I can recall experiences on the rugby field where I was injured but played on and the extent of the injury was hidden from me because of the chemical responses in my endocrine system. 

The first year I played open grade rugby my team had limited resources among the tight forwards where I played.  About 20 minutes into a game I felt a strain in my calf.  I played on with the strain feeling progressively worse but I felt that as long as I kept moving and kept it warm it would be OK.  A few days afterwards I was feeling a bit better about the injury and was almost ready to train again.  That night I experienced tremendous pain in my calf.  I sought medical advice.  My GP referred me to a specialist who said I had a torn calf muscle and a blood clot.  He gave me blood thinners and anti-inflammatories.  I hobbled around on a cane and was unable to play for some weeks.  It was a dumb idea to play on.  It worsened a calf strain into a tear and ultimately caused a blood clot.  Those things cause strokes or even death if they get into your brain!

I can recall the difference between running at an even training pace over a particular route and running the same route hard-out.  The former was rather “meh” and the latter was exhilarating.  I did not understand at the time what was happening to me but, looking back from the vantage point of what I now know, I understand that the stresses I placed on myself by running hard or by playing on through the pain of injury were causing my body to hide my pain behind the veil of endorphin-induced pleasure.  It was not that in feeling good I was doing no harm.  Rather, the good feelings were a response to the harm I was doing.

This brings me to Hans Selye.  Selye lived from 1907 to 1982 and was an Austrian endocrinologist (he studied the endocrine system and the nature of our hormone responses to different circumstances and the effect of our hormones upon us).

In 1936 he published works on what he described as the general adaptive response (GAR).  He asserted that when the body is exposed to stress the sympathetic side of the nervous system (typically referred to as the fight/flight response) is activated and generates hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to prime the body to deal with the stress.  These hormones lift the body’s heart rate and blood pressure and stimulate the body’s muscles for fast action and strength.

If the stress circumstances continue then the body’s parasympathetic nervous system activates to return many of the body’s normal functions to their usual levels while the body’s energies are directed towards dealing with the stress factor.

In this period, called by Selye the resistance period, there continue to be markers of high stress in the body such as elevated blood-glucose levels, elevated blood pressure and heart rate, faster breathing and high levels of cortisol and adrenaline.

Even though there are some signs of normalcy about the person, their body is on high alert.

The final phase in the GAR is called exhaustion.  If the stress factors continue and the body expends all its energy in attending to them, then the outcome is a collapse – call it adrenal fatigue or burn-out.

Someone who is exposed to continual stress factors through work or their relationships or through financial difficulties or whatever may be drawn to hard, high intensity exercise that generates a chemical masking effect and even may produce a feel-good sensation.  This hard-out exercise expends the nervous energy generated by the stress experience but does not resolve the stress response which continues.

The hard exercise, while consuming the spikes in energy produced as a result of experiencing stress, does not remove the body from a state of high alert.

Ultimately, hard, high impact exercise will not resolve the issue of stress in the life of the individual.  When I was in my 20s and working as a lawyer I felt the stresses of my life and work.  Rugby was an outlet for the excess energy generated by my circumstances.  I played golf too.  Fewer cupboard doors were kicked in but I still experienced outbursts of anger and temper tantrums.

I could hit as many golf balls as I liked and I could play rugby as much as I could but the stress factors of deadlines at work and the need to be correct in my advice and to solve problems that were not clear and needed hard thought and a lot of legal knowledge did not go away.

History shows that I got out of the stress environment of legal practice.  However, I found new things to worry about and maintained old patterns to resolve feelings of stress.

This is where yoga enters the picture.  My own experience is that I am a calmer person now than I was before I started practicing yoga.  One of my sons, who has lived through the before and after yoga versions of me, observes that I am a calmer person now than I was before I started practicing yoga. 

What yoga does that other forms of exercise, that simply burn off stress energy without removing the body from high alert, do not do is rewire the body’s endocrine system to generate an inner state of peace.

Yoga, through breath focus and low impact movement, creates a shift in the body from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic side of the nervous system.  In place of cortisol and adrenaline, yoga functions on and stimulates serotonin and similar hormones and neuro-transmitters that create inner peace and peace with respect to one’s circumstances.

It is not that I have removed stress from my life.  A major stress factor that I have been triggered by since my teenage years is money.  Starting up Apollo Power Yoga was an expensive process and keeping it afloat in the first two years when expenses exceeded outgoings was very hard.  Sustaining a lifestyle (mortgage, school fees etc.) predicated upon Margo’s income as a partner in a successful law firm when earning the income of self-employed yoga teachers is very difficult for our family.  I am daily exposed to financial stress factors but I am not triggered by them as I was in earlier times.

Breath is absolutely the key to this.  Breathe through your nose and with attention and awareness to your breath and you will shift your endocrine response from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic side.  Some students new to yoga reveal their inexperience by habitually breathing through their mouths. 

I used to justify breathing through my mouth in yoga because I have a deviated septum (I was not born that way but had my septum smashed violently to one side courtesy of the thuggery of an opponent in a rugby game) which

effectively blocks my right nostril and makes breathing through my nose less easy than if both nostrils were unimpeded.  Yet, I now breathe through my mouth very little as I have trained myself in ujjayi breathing and, deviated septum or not, I can breathe effectively through my nose.  Everyone can. 

Even if it is not your normal pattern, persist, be patient and cultivate the technique of breathing through your nose as you practice yoga, as you go about your day and as you sleep.

Couple ujjayi breathing with spiritual focus in the teaching of our style of practice at Apollo Power Yoga and you will have both a means of regulating your body’s response to circumstances but you will gain new perspective on your circumstances.

That new perspective is highly relevant.  When running I would fume over the things that were bothering me.  I would use my own point of view to reason my way to me being right and to justify myself.  With yoga I use perspective to diminish problems and create acceptance rather than resistance.  Through yoga I hope we all make it rather than that I win and others lose.

After a rugby game I felt fatigued all over.  My shoulders would be raw and sore.  My ribs and back would feel beaten up.  My muscles were sore from hard impacts.  My joints were sore from sudden, violent misalignments in the course of the game.  The only way that felt “good” was because of the temporary chemical response inside that hid all that was going on for me.

After a hard run, especially a race where I had pushed myself to my limits I also felt fatigued.  As with rugby, the chemical cocktail left me in a feel-good state but only for a short time and it did not change my perspective on circumstances.  I could be impatient and irritable with circumstances within five minutes of returning from a run.

After a session in a gym pushing weights I would not even feel good.  In fact, I could feel quite angry after a gym session (I was never good at pushing tin and generally felt inadequate and frustrated by weights sessions – as well as bored).

In savasana I feel something different.  I feel physically tired (if I have been practicing a vinyasa class) but in no pain and utterly relaxed.  The state of calm I experience over the closing stages of yoga practice is not fleeting as was the “feel good” after other forms of exercise.  Rather, I carry that forward with me through the rest of the day.  My whole relationship with the world around me changes having practiced yoga asana or having meditated.  My understanding and belief is that this is due to changes wrought at the level of my nervous system and the state of my consciousness.

Yoga is not my way of letting off steam or getting away from it all.  Yoga is my means of creating a state of being that leaves me less susceptible to stress factors and that brings me into acceptance with the world rather than in conflict with it – not perfectly so and not all the time.  I am as flawed as anyone else and prone to being triggered occasionally but I am different and, I believe, am improved from the experience of having practiced yoga.

Practice yoga to gain access to a new experience of yourself in your nervous system and to gain a new appreciation of yourself with respect to your circumstances and live life free of the experience of stress and free of the danger of adrenal fatigue and burn-out.


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