Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stress? What Stress?

Just this minute I notice my weight is not balanced in my sitting bones. My hunching, my feet slipping forward, my tense shoulders are all part of this imbalance. Taking a moment, I draw my hips back in my seat, establish my ribs and shoulders over them, readjust my feet under my knees, inhale fully and exhale deeply. Then I turn my attention back to the gnarly scheduling dilemma I have been trying to untangle. Already my body feels more relaxed as my weight shifts down into the chair, to the floor and the enormously strong beams and supports below me. They, themselves, rest their weight on the earth below me. It took literally a moment to reduce the effects of stress on my body, and this reduced physical expression actually releases my mind from some of its clenching and spiraling.

The source of stress for me sits firmly in the realm of fear and the unknown. Usually this is a combination of anxiety over not knowing how something will happen or what the results will be, and a mixture of judgmental fears about whether the results will be good or bad; whether I, or a situation, will be successful or effective. Sometimes the fear in uncertainty is a result of my life experiences that cast a certain dye on patterns or behaviors, risks or situations. What happened earlier in my life might have been unpleasant and my anticipation of similar results will stand in the way of my clarity and view of this moment. Disengaging from that becomes part of the process of learning to focus on the present. Readjusting my physical alignment in conjunction with my breath is a terrific, immediate, accessible, free measure I can take any time I remember it!

Potential for stress is a constant of any human life, even that of a yoga teacher. Consider medical conditions, financial situations, family and relational complexities, work environments, struggles of all kinds to provide food, shelter or any level of amenity or certainty. Raising children can raise anxiety levels over the unknown from the most tiny detail (did they find the other glove?) to the larger details (will the school accept their application?) to the global concept (how will our nation's involvement in waging war change our prospects and way of being?). For some, just trying to squeeze a moment for a yoga practice into a busy life can bring more stress! Missing a class leads to disappointment, skipping a day or missing a month might add layers of self judgment and develop hesitations about practice.

The most surprising experience I have had in teaching stress reduction is that my students are fundamentally and profoundly willing to let their stress go the minute they join me in practice. I do not take this personally, rather see that all it takes is my invitation to take a minute on their own behalf, and they are able to do just that. "Inhale looking up slightly," I say, "and exhale letting your chin drift towards your own heart. Breathe there a few cycles, allowing the back of your neck to feel your breath, to release with gravity, and as you are ready, on an inhale draw your head back to a neutral chin position." There ... see ... how willing you were to let go, to give yourself exactly what you need? Just imagine giving yourself this small thing every so often... not that the stress will stop, but you will come to recognize it as something separate from your self, something that you can release any time, any where.

This slight change in perspective can have vast implications. One student asked "how to prepare for reducing stress?" My answer, "just let your attention focus on your breath and you have prepared and reduced stress all in one inhale and exhale!" In fact, take a few breaths, find your foundation (standing, sitting, walking, lying down) and know that as your body undoes the straps of stress that tie you to fears and anxiety, you can live more fully in any moment. Why not this one? When you turn your attention back to the argument, the mistake, the pressure, the impossibility, the unknown, your attention will be clear and your emotions much less stacked against you.

Addressing stress starts with acknowledging that, in all probability, you are almost always operating under some stress conditions. Gradually, learning to release the tensions and stress will help you see your patterns that are creating this stress reaction. Do you really need to feel so possessive of the supplies at work? Must you take that person's suggestions as criticism? Can you offer this suggestion as an opinion without telling that child what to do? Can you use words to explain what felt good or not good rather than shut down and add to the resentments in a relationship? Can you imagine that whatever happens you will have the where-with-all to see the possibilities available? All these little moments add up to a very heavy load to carry around. Give yourself a moment to let it go and see how different you can be. Even though the difficult times might last a while, your awareness and the effects you feel can change.

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