Stress. Coping. Cleansing. Spring!!!

Happy Sunday afternoon to you!  It is a bright, brisk, chilly- did I mention brisk?  Sunday afternoon here in NYC.  It is a clear day, with deep, turquoise-y blue above us, and just a faint yet exciting peek at Springs first flowers flirting from the ground at our feet.  Ahh, Sunday.   It is a day some of us use for renewal, restoration, catch up, cool down, sleep in, sleep over, buy food, eat food, surf the web, update our blogs (ahem), and of course, indulge in the ultimate gift to ourselves, that being our yoga practice.

I have not blogged in over two weeks, some of your regular readers have reminded me, and I have really missed it!  The last blog post was a way to showcase the photo shoot I recently did.  The talent of the photographer, the afternoon lighting and the beauty there can be in self expression all converged on that day to create a satisfyingly complete yoga-photo-document experience.  I have entered this picture below into a contest sponsored by Yoga Journal where they have asked for original reader photos in yoga poses. There will be a chance to vote for the favorite picture. Once the voting starts I will let everyone know. I am sure there will some incredible photos to choose from.

In the interim, lets talk about a few things. In the interest of staying true to the wonderful seasonal change we have experienced -at least on the calendar -lets talk about stress, coping, cleansing and spring.  As my students can attest to, this mornings Vinyasa class was all about twisting, binding, cleansing and celebrating Spring. It was a fabulous class with amazing energy, tremendous focus and impressive displays of determination. In short, my students are awesome:)

Stress.  We all have it. We actually need it to some degree. Some of the earliest clinical work done to study stress and its effects on the body concluded that there is a very intricate mechanism within the nervous system and various other systems of the body designed to keep us alive, functioning and alert to danger.  What usually happens in Western – lets face it – NYC culture, is that we have lost the mechanism to counteract stress, and as such our bodies, via our nervous system and various other systems (digestive, endocrine, muscular, etc), contain undue amounts of stress that no longer serves us productively.  We not only manage it poorly but fail to create and access a viable outlet for it.  So how do we cope?  And by cope I mean how we choose to handle situations sometimes beyond our control that can create a stress response in the body. Do we talk to someone?  Do we go for a long walk?  Do we smoke, drink or use chemical substances to take the edge off? Sure sometimes that glass of wine really does do the trick, and there is plenty of research to prove the positive effects of moderate alcohol intake. But lets talk about yoga and how it can not only be a safe place to experience stress, but also a place to allow stress to dissipate and become manageable. In other words, yoga as both a place to experience stress, to cope with stress, to cleanse the body, and embody the beauty and wonder of rebirth in this our glorious season of Spring.

Sometimes in a yoga pose we can add a twist, as you see here in the low lunge to the left.  Lets suppose that you have been holding the low lunge, or several postures prior to where you are now, and your instructor tells you to “add a twist”. And what you would like to do is tell your instructor “No YOU add a twist!  My legs are burning!  Cant you see that?  You have had us here on this leg FOREVER!  You corrected someone, then you had sip of water, then you gabbed about x,y and z, and now you want me to add a twist????  No way.  There is no way.”  But instead of verbalizing that, you do indeed add your twist.  and in a couple of breaths, you find a deep stretching sensation that feels so divine you forget what you were so angry about, and begin instead to enjoy, maybe even deepen (gasp!) the pose, and truly feel like time has stood still, the world is in the palm of your hand, and the next downward dog or child’s pose is the best one you have ever had in your entire life.   Let me explain…By inviting voluntary stress onto the body – holding a posture for longer than we would like, adding twists or binds on top of it – we excite the nervous system, and momentarily overload it.  Then, with breath, with compassion, with strategy, we release what we have, and we experience the safety  and calm of regaining control and composure.  That is the stress response aspect.  What happens during that whole process is the coping aspect.  This means what we tell ourselves, what we think we can do versus what we think is beyond us and our interpretation of that.  This also means how we decide to handle a posture that might be too advanced for us, or one that feels like it is just at our level but to truly experience it might bring discomfort to the point where we are just not sure if we can bear…that is learning how to cope.  So indulge in the possible train of thought that might sound like this when your instructor asks you to add a twist to that low lunge:  “OK. I can do this. I have done this before.  It is going to be intense but it is temporary and I can come out if at any point.  I can also use my breath. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do?  Inhale, exhale.  Hey this is feeling pretty deep…and pretty good…a couple more breaths and I am there. I can actually deepen this a bit.  Ah, yes, that’s -well that is amazing! Time to release… ahhhh sweet downward dog.  That was great.  And we get to do the other side.  Awesome.”  Or perhaps you follow the path of detachment, like the Buddhists or other spiritual folk. Whatever your coping style, if it is positive in nature and adds to the nurturing of your body rather than its destruction, you are on the right track. Its in yoga class that we get to safely have this experience, which can in time, better equip us for what we may encounter outside of the yoga studio.

In summary, what this leaves us with is a feeling of cleansing and renewal.  Our hearts might be a  little more open – either via our chest opening in a back-bend, or softening in a restorative pose. We might start to resemble those first few flowers that flirt with us from the newly un-frozen earth. We show a little more of ourselves each time, knowing that stress is no match for our breath, our focus and our knowledge that we can experience discomfort and come out the other side feeling  something like bliss.

“It is the truth we ourselves speak rather than the treatment we receive that heals us.” (O. Hobart Mowrer, 1966)

“Things do not change.  We change.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)

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