How stress can benefit your life
To attain yoga – a union with self and life – we must first at least learn to listen and respond to the needs of our body. Too often we ignore our bodies. I understand this ignorance as a result of being told from a young age that going without and denying our body its requests is a good and rightly thing to do, somehow believing that our bodies’ needs are sinful temptations that should not be succumbed to. Some old texts of yoga could even be interpreted in such a way as to promote this belief. So we push and work and strive onwards, regardless of the headaches, IBS, back pain, menstrual cramps, indigestion, impotence and breathlessness, because that’s the done thing. Most people exist in a high level of stress and believe that it’s a healthy norm.
We have somehow been led to believe that giving in to what our bodies need (essentially what ‘we’ need) and desire is bad, selfish and indulgent. Sayings like “don’t smile too much, you’ll break it”, “can’t it wait?”, “who do you think you are, the queen?” and “don’t be a wuss” are clear examples of this.
It’s as if culturally, we believe that when we are struggling, stressed, anxious and tirelessly striving and fighting to be perfect (perfect meaning without needs), then we are good and life is as it should be.
But, it is impossible to be without needs; in trying to be without needs what we actually do is starve ourselves, we malnourish ourselves. And this creates a circle of yet more stress. Daily, we deny our bodies’ needs to eat organically, to sleep enough, to receive touch, to rest, to move, to fulfil dreams, to orgasm, to dance, to sing, to express, to be angry, to cry and many more, because “there isn’t time”, or “I can’t”, or even “I shouldn’t”. In denying our bodies’ needs we actually confuse our body-mind relationship. Eventually, this cutting-off from our body, the seat of our intuition, instinct and emotional intelligence, will lead to ill-health.
I often observe in friends, students and myself that when we ignore our bodies’ signals, the body will only go on to give us bigger and bigger signals. What began as a small one-off panic attack when Jean rushed between work and the shops, after months of being ignored-repeated-ignored, became a three-week migraine and long-lasting depression. This one-off panic attack went on to become a chronic problem, as adequate attention and lifestyle changes were not made to better suit her real needs. We all have examples of this scenario in our own lives. And yet, we still often continue to ignore-repeat-ignore. This is mostly because we’ve been taught that we are too busy and that other stuff is far more important and immediate than these horrid feelings! So we’ll just push them aside with all the others that we or our parents have previously pushed aside and make an empty promise to deal with them later.
I can see in the older generations of my own family that the ‘later’ keeps being pushed further and further back until eventually dementia or cancer set in and an overspill of everything that was not given attention pours out from the back storage, flooding the present. Because of this backlog that you may already have when you first start listening to your body and gut, it may not be one hundred per cent clear what it is that your body is telling you. This is because there may be a lot of stuff in the ‘queue’ and because you have thus far been ignoring it or telling your body that it’s wrong or weak. But with time and ongoing attention, you will create a clear and trusting inner dialogue. The practice of yoga quickens this process of coming in touch with the self. Yoga works from many angles at once – mind, body, breath, voice, heart and spirit, which accelerates your process of self-knowing. It’s sort of like cleaning an extremely dirty surface, if you just go at it with a sponge and some water you will do it eventually. But if you take a scourer, a brush, cloth, liquid soap, lemon and a friend or two then you will get there a lot quicker.
To become aware of this inner guidance system we first need to begin to trust our feelings. Our gut is the home of our feelings, emotions, instincts and intuition. Stress and anxiety manifest here also. This area is the part of our body that developed first within the womb. This ‘brain’, also known as the second, abdominal brain or enteric nervous system, operates independently from the brain in our head and ninety-five per cent of the body’s serotonin is made here in the gastrointestinal tract. Modern science is now telling us how important this area is for our whole health and intelligence. When we feel stressed or anxious it’s a natural, healthy signal that is trying to help us realise what does and does not benefit us. So, instead of thinking of it as a weakness revealing your unhealthy inner mutiny, try taking time to feel and listen to the signals your gut sends you when arranging that next meeting, or trip, or date or visit. And let it guide you. It is surprisingly accurate. I see in your gut a barometer that lies dormant waiting for you to find it. A barometer is a scientific instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure; it can forecast short-term changes in the weather. Your gut can measure pressure too – emotional, environmental and relational pressure – and forecast what may or may not be a beneficial action for you to take or situation for you to be in. If you then choose to respond to that information with aligned action, your life will become fuller, easier, more peaceful and less stressful. Your body and emotions will guide you out of painful and unhelpful situations to ones that truly support and fulfil you.
A few tips to begin listening.
Mostly trust that the body is responding with an emotional and/or physical reaction because it has your best interests at heart. And then follow its lead. Listen and respond to the basic needs of the body:
- When you are tired, rest. If you feel tightness or tension, stretch and move. If you’re hungry, eat, if you are thirsty, drink, if you’re in panic, breathe deeper and if you need the toilet, go.
- If you have a symptom of illness, listen to it and give it your attention. If you are sick, take rest and support from a holistically-minded doctor, nutritionist or therapist.
- Express your mood. When you are feeling joyous and excited, allow yourself to express it. Do the same if you are angry or frustrated.
- Honesty in relationships. If you need to put somebody straight and speak your truth, then find a way to do it.
- Observing patterns and honouring them as guides – if you feel sick every time you go to work and always come home feeling exhausted, maybe that job’s not the right one for you.
- Take action – make and take positive baby steps to improve a situation that is not serving you. Adjust your working schedule. Set boundaries with your loved ones so you have more space for you. Explore other career options. Tell your partner you want to have children. Start a yoga class every Monday night. And so on.
Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015