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Most of us can remember getting so absorbed in a suspenseful movie or masterful novel that the rest of the world dropped away and we were completely identified with the plot and characters. It’s just as easy to get caught up in our own stories and reactions – particularly when we’re feeling threatened in some way. For instance, imagine that you’re giving a presentation at work and a client sharply criticizes your ideas. Depending on your personality style, your immediate reaction may be to feel angry and leap to defend your perspective. Or if you tend to dislike confrontation, your impulse might be to leave the room or to avoid a sparring match with the client.
Whether you react with anger, anxiety, or avoidance, the thoughts in your mind create stress in your body. Your brain perceives a threat and triggers an instantaneous fight-or-flight response in which the following changes occur in the body:
• The heart beats faster.
• Blood pressure increases.
• The breath becomes shallow and rapid.
• Blood sugar rises.
• Adrenalin and cortisol production surge.
• The immune system weakens.
• The production of sex hormones decreases.
• Digestion is halted.
The fight-or-flight response evolved thousands of years ago and helped our ancient ancestors survive in the hard-scrabble landscape of large predators such as saber-toothed tigers. We needed our body to react immediately to either flee imminent danger or fight. But today, the stress in most people’s lives doesn’t come from life-threatening situations but from the seemingly endless pressures of modern life. Daily challenges like a long commute or a difficult boss can activate stress hormones – and because these conditions don't go away, the hormones don't shut off. Instead of helping you survive, this kind of stress response can actually make you sick
Numerous studies have shown that chronic stress exacts an enormous toll on our mental and physical health. The stress hormone cortisol, for instance, has been linked to an increase in fat around organs, known as visceral fat. The accumulation of visceral fat is dangerous, since these fat cells actively secrete hormones that can disrupt the functioning of the liver, pancreas, and brain, causing problems such as insulin resistance, inflammation and metabolic syndrome. Chronic exposure to other stress hormones can also weaken the immune system and even change the structure of chromosomes. Prolonged stress accelerates aging and makes the human body more vulnerable to illness, including, heart disease, stomach ulcers, cancer, insomnia, depression, panic attacks, migraine headaches, and autoimmune disease.
Our Thoughts Are the True Source of Stress
Yet while stress is considered an epidemic problem, it doesn’t actually exist in the environment or in external situations. At the Chopra Center, we define stress as our response to what is happening. It’s not the overdue bill, traffic jam, or fight with our spouse that causes stress – it’s our thoughts and the story we tell ourselves about an event or circumstance that create the emotional upset, racing heart rate, shallow breathing, and other symptoms of the stress response. The analogy of a surfer is useful here: If you’re a skillful surfer, every wave is an exhilarating adventure or at least an opportunity to learn something new. If you’ve never learned how to surf, on the other hand, every wave is a terrifying potential disaster.
Fortunately, learning how to transform your response to life’s inevitable challenges doesn’t require any athletic ability. It’s a skill that anyone can learn, and there are many valuable practices that can help you go beyond the fight-or-flight response. You can learn to experience a restful response – a mind-body state that is as natural as the stress response, but infinitely more peaceful and healing. Let’s look at two of the effective tools and techniques for cultivating a state of calm, restful awareness: meditation and yoga.
Meditation for Stress Relief
Meditation is a simple yet powerful practice gives you access to the inner silence and calm that lies beneath the mind’s noisy internal dialogue. Meditation allows you to experience profound relaxation that dissolves fatigue and long-standing stresses. Contrary to a common misconception, meditation is not about forcing your mind to be quiet; it is finding the quiet that is already there. The silence of pure awareness is extremely refreshing to the mind, which finds it increasingly easy to let go of conditioned habits of thought and behavior that no longer are serving your highest interest.
In the state of restful awareness you experience during meditation, the bodily reactions are exactly the opposite of those created by the stress response: the breathing slows, blood pressure decreases, and stress hormone levels fall. Even as your body is resting deeply in meditation, the mind is awake, though quiet. The term restful awareness captures the unique combination of physical relaxation and an alert yet quiet mind.
As numerous scientific studies have shown, a regular meditation practice produces tangible benefits for mental and physical health, including:
• Lowered blood pressure and hypertension
• Slower heart rate
• Decreased cholesterol levels
• Reduced production of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline
• More efficient oxygen use by the body
• Increased production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA
• Improved immune function
When you emerge from your meditation session, you take some of the stillness and peace with you as you move through your day. All of your thoughts, actions, and reactions are infused with a little more calm and mindful attention.
How does meditation work?
We are all engaged in a continuous internal dialogue in which the meaning and emotional associations of one thought trigger the next, usually without our being consciously aware of the process. In meditation we disrupt the unconscious progression of thoughts and emotions by focusing on a new object of attention. In the practice of Primordial Sound Meditation taught at the Chopra Center, the “object of attention” is a mantra that we repeat silently to ourselves. A mantra is pure sound, with no meaning or emotional charge to trigger associations. It allows the mind to detach from its usual preoccupations and experience the spaciousness and calm within.
The more you practice meditation, the more you are able to experience expanded states of pure awareness. In the silence of awareness, the mind lets go of old patterns of thinking and feeling and learns to heal itself.
Learning to Meditate
At the Chopra Center we believe that to receive the full benefits of meditation, it’s best to learn from a qualified teacher. That way, you know exactly what to do at any point in meditation and with any experience that comes along. Often when people try to learn on their own or from a book, they learn incorrectly and soon give up in frustration because they aren’t experiencing the expected benefits. For those who are interested, the Chopra Center offers instruction in Primordial Sound Meditation, a natural, easy practice that dates back thousands of years to India’s Vedic tradition. You can look for a certified teacher in your area at www.choprateachers.com. Another way to get started is by participating in the Center’s 21-Day Meditation Challenge™, which you can also learn about at www.chopracentermeditation.com.
Yoga’s Healing Benefits
Yoga offers another powerful healing practice for releasing stress and the damaging effects of the fight-or-flight response. This ancient practice, which originated in India more than 4,000 years ago, connects mind and body through a series of postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. By stretching and toning the muscles, flexing the spine, and focusing the mind inward, yoga calms the nervous system and reduces stress.
The Medical Perspective
Yoga is quickly becoming popular in the West as people experience its many healing benefits. The latest figures show that approximately 16 million America are taking yoga classes or practicing yoga at home. Many physicians recommend yoga to their patients as a complementary treatment for a variety of conditions ranging from osteoarthritis to high blood pressure. While the medical research of yoga is still in its infancy, there is a growing body of studies showing its benefits for health and wellbeing. Here some of the ways in which yoga can improve physical and mental health:
Getting Started with Yoga
You don't need a lot of expensive equipment or to be in tiptop shape to start practicing yoga. All it takes is loose clothing, a mat (some classes will provide mats) and the desire to learn.
There are many different styles of yoga. Most use a series of postures designed to stretch and strengthen muscles and also use focused breathing to quiet the mind. One of the most popular styles in the U.S. is hatha yoga, a relatively slow-moving, gentle style. Other styles such as Ashtanga and power yoga are more vigorous. The Chopra Center teaches a unique style of yoga known as the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, which focuses on body-centered restful awareness.
The intention of the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga is to integrate and balance all the layers of our life so that our body, mind, heart, spirit flow in harmony. As we expand our awareness through the practice of yoga, we become more capable of perceiving the richness that life offers.
I suggest that you start by researching the different kinds of yoga classes that are offered in your area. Choose the style that fits your goals and level of fitness. You can also get started by using a good instructional book or DVD at home, although it’s usually better for beginners to start with a class. If you are pregnant or have any serious health conditions, talk to your doctor before you begin. Once you start a class, let your teacher know about any injuries or health issues.
Whichever style of yoga you choose, take it slowly at first. Don’t try to force yourself into difficult poses at the beginning. After a while, you will develop more flexibility, strength and stamina. Your teacher shouldn’t push you to do poses that aren’t comfortable. If your teacher is going too fast, talk to him or her, or look for a class that is a better fit.
When you practice yoga or meditation (or ideally, both) regularly, you will begin to experience a sense of calm and wellbeing that extends beyond the yoga mat into your daily life. You will gradually stop dwelling on stressful thoughts and feel more lighthearted and joyful, even in the face of life’s upsets and disappointments.