Why are we feeling anxious all the time?
Let’s understand the fight or flight response. In 1915, American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon noted that when we were in a dangerous situation, our bodies released adrenaline that would lead to bodily changes. Physiological effect includes increased heart rate and increased respiratory rate. This could help us send more oxygen to the heart and increase oxygen in blood. This happened automatically and it helped us survive by getting ready to fight or run in the hunting society. When the threat had gone, our physiological system was back to a normal state.
Our physiological system remains unchanged while living in a modern society
Now, we are in an information society. Our stress is no longer caused by natural threat, but we are constantly stressed by work, personal and family commitments. We are always busy and sometimes we can’t even spend an hour in a week just for ourselves. This keep-our-life-running mode seems to be always there. We can’t stop. Overly intense or inappropriate activation of the fight or flight response may cause distress and anxiety. This automatic reaction shifts our thoughts to find the threat and then escape. We may misinterpret the threat and be catastrophizing, such as ‘something really bad is going to happen to me.’ Our bodies seem to get ready to react all the time.
How does yoga reduce anxiety?
We understand that we increase heart rate and respiratory rate when we are in a difficult situation. Sometimes, when we are no longer in a difficult situation, fight or flight response continues to activate. To counterbalance it, we find ways to reduce heart rate and respiratory rate and bring ourselves back to a balanced state. To slow down and be not over-active, we practice yoga and bring our awareness to our body. We listen to our body to stop or slow down the movement mindfully. When we regulate our breath, we can regulate our heart rate. Lungs and heart work together. Gradually, we notice the body signals, such as feeling agitated, anxious or rapid breathing. When this happens, that is the time we need to slow down and pace ourselves. We then can ask ourselves, ‘Is that a threat?’, or ‘Is that not a threat?’
Research showed that yoga reduced anxiety and improved overall wellbeing. Practicing yoga gives yourself time to watch your thoughts and feel your body sensation, instead of reacting to what’s happening around you. This reallocates your attention to breathe, slow down and pace yourself. Understanding fight or flight response helps us regulate our body physiologically and psychologically. Yoga practice is one of the effective grounding strategies for anxiety. When you already know the grounding strategy, you can effectively use it when you need.
It is so relaxing after a yoga class but I could never explain why. Sometimes I was quite emotional at the end of the class and I felt so weird. After I become a yoga teacher, I still find it hard to articulate in words how yoga connects body and mind. I can feel the cause and effect but I am not able to put it in words. Recently, I come across the effect of yoga/mindfulness while studying a counseling unit in occupational therapy course. It is great to see yoga/ mindfulness becomes an evidence-based tool for physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Research on the effectiveness of yoga/mindfulness to manage mental health is emerging.
Connect to body
First, let me explain how yoga connects to body. Yoga stretches out the muscles and enhance relaxation in the musculoskeletal system. For example, we sit long hours everyday. Hip flexor is tight and muscles are shortening. Lunge pose helps extend hip flexor and lengthen the muscles in this muscle group. This reduces stiffness, tightness and enhances relaxation. We start noticing muscular tension or cohesion in yoga movement. For example, many yoga students experience tightness in hamstrings, or discover legs and arms coordination.
Connect to mind through body awareness
Then, it comes to connect to the mind through body awareness. This refers to body relations to different parts of the body (left and right, front and back, top and bottom) and body relations to the environment (gravity and anti-gravity). For example, in downward facing dog, your palms and feet give you sensory feedback to adjust and fine-tune the body posture. If your wrist is tiring, you press down the fingers onto the mat to distribute the body weight. Your wrists then feel better. Body awareness is essential for body and mind connection. In many yoga postures, it requires your awareness of anatomic alignment of pelvis, spine and trunk to hold the posture. These holding postures require your self-discipline, concentration and motivation.
Once you walk through the first few sessions (a bit of struggle) alive, you start feeling the flow of inner energy awareness of the yoga movement. This allows you to understand yourself and your experiences. The continuous self-adjustments create a pattern and help you respond to certain situations on the mat as well as off the mat. For example, in a difficult situation, breath…...Body-mind connection is important because our mind have unlimited thoughts and feelings. We constantly want to do a lot. However, our body is muscles and bones. We can only do that much at a time. We need to find the balance. Pace yourself.
Practicing yoga requires you to concentrate, stay at the present and let go of other thoughts in order to hold the posture. Yoga is one of the mindfulness practices. Mindfulness refers to watching your current emotions and body sensations without judgment. This self-regulation ability allows us not to think about the past (rumination) and the future (worries). Yoga/mindfulness improve our personal resources by directing attention to reduce negativity and draining activity. Instead, we can improve our cognitive resources for daily tasks.
Yoga is a psychological process, from body sensation to body awareness to self and environment, from body awareness to self-understanding, from self-understanding to non-judgmental. The ultimate goal is to experience inner peace and inner strength.
(It’s time to reflect 2019 and welcome 2020. I have a mixed bag of feelings and this year-end reflection doesn’t seem very joyful. Below involves what’s happening in Hong Kong and you may not want to read it.)
In 2019, it is complicated. Living in Perth, I basically do what I want in everyday life. My study and yoga teaching occupy almost all my time. Yet I have time to do some fun stuff, having weekend brunch, walking my dog, meeting friends and family. I call this a simple good life and it is enjoyable, yet I feel so unsettled. I have been watching news about Hong Kong protest in horror and Hong Kong people pay high price for their civil rights. I know I live in a parallel universe. I am not very well when my family and friends, or anyone in the Hong Kong community are not well. I am not able to express my sadness in words.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If I had experienced what Hong Kong people went through in 2019, it would be:
It’s heartbreaking. The authoritarian state turns the society upside down and continues to stay strong. I know I need to be part of this civil rights movement. I am a believer of the butterfly effect. A small positive vibration can change the entire cosmos. Although I was not able to be at the forefront of the movement, I conveyed a message of yoga poses for mental health to the Hong Kong community. That’s the best thing I’ve done in 2019, if anyone in Hong Kong can feel better in this constant unrest.
I cherish a simple life more than ever. I love my social capital from the yoga community and my family. However, life can never be simple when I see what’s going on in the world on a destroying path. I have to do something. I have to do something bigger.
Everyone has a place in the world. I can make yoga and occupational therapy solutions accessible and help people face practical aspects of life. Inner strength and physical strength are key elements for any bigger-than-life missions. Yoga helps people connect body and mind, finding pace to reach your goal. In occupational therapy, people learn new ways to cope with daily challenges after injury or disease. Down the path, I’d like to focus on community rehabilitation and chronic disease management, blending yoga and occupational therapy together.
Although I am an agnostic person, I am going to learn from a serenity prayer. “ God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I hope I have clarity of mind to pour my time and energy to what truly matters. That will be my challenges in coming 2020.
Scoliosis (abnormal curvature of the spine), osteoarthritis (wear and tear of the joints) or degenerative disc disease (ageing process leading to rupture) are associated with low back pain. Surprisingly, many causes of low back pain are non-specific. That can be quite annoying. You may be standing in pain, sitting in pain laying flat in pain for no reason. It is frustrating as you are no longer able to concentrate on work or study. You need to keep adjusting your position so as to reduce the discomfort.
Daniel Lieberman thinks non-specific lower back pain is caused by hours of sitting in modern lifestyle. Even I am a yoga teacher, I can’t avoid long hours of sitting when studying anatomy in my occupational therapy course. With prolonged chair rest, we do not need to use our muscles to support body weight. This weakens core muscles of the back and abdomen. In addition, many hours of sitting mean bending hips for many hours. With the shortened hip flexors, we overarch our back to compensate while standing and walking. Regular stretching and strengthening back muscles are important to our back health.
I’ve read a research article about the effect of occupational therapy and yoga in non-specific lower back pain. Occupational therapy intervention includes sleeping position for back health, postural training of sitting, standing and lifting and core strengthening exercise. After 10 week of training, it shows that people with non-specific low back pain indicate improvements in back strength and range of motion of the spine, with the combination of occupational therapy and yoga. Here are a few yoga poses shown for lower back pain.
1. Reclining hand-to-big toe pose
Tips: It changes the pelvic tilt when lifting one leg up towards the ceiling. Keep your spine in neutral position. Ideally, lower back touches the mat and chin to chest. So, it doesn’t hyperextend the lower back and the neck.
Benefits: Reposition the lower back for a better alignment to relieve back muscles tension
2. Extended triangle pose
- Externally rotate the left thigh muscles when you take your left hand towards the left foot. Activate your legs.
- Open up the right shoulder to deepen the side body stretch
- Strengthen the thighs muscles to carry upper body weight or lift a heavy object
- Strengthen the abdomen to support the muscles surrounding the lower back
- Stretch the side body to relieve lower back pain (stretching the muscle attached to lumbar spine)
3. Bridge pose
- Maintain the knees and ankles hip width apart when lifting the buttocks off the mat.
- Pressing down the arms when lifting the buttocks off the mat
Lengthen hip flexors to balance out this muscle group. The hip flexors have attachments to lumbar spine (lower back), pelvis and femur. Shortened hip flexors cause unnatural curve of the lumbar spine and compression.
You may be worried about making any move because of the pain. Listen to your body and just do what you feel good. With limited range of movement, muscles become shortened and tighten. Other parts of the body will compensate the shorten muscle group. The idea of back pain relief is about strengthening and stretching the muscles associated with the back.
Daniel Lieberman, (2013), The Story of the human body, the Penguin Group
My semester break begins. I have time to reflect and write again.
Over the past couple of months, I basically studied all the time when I wasn’t involved in teaching yoga. I declined family and friends gatherings and also lost a bit of sleep. I wouldn’t be able to push myself so hard to learn without studying a master degree. In return, I learned prognosis of the most common diseases in Australia and how different health conditions impacted individual’s daily living, as well as framework of occupational therapy.
A lot of knowledge and learning experiences worth sharing but one comes to my mind - occupational imbalance. In occupational therapy, occupation doesn’t only mean jobs. It includes productivity (e.g. jobs), leisure and self-care. Occupational imbalance refers to an individual’s lifestyle without meeting satisfactory level of his/her physical, psychological and social needs.
We had an interesting activity in class. List all activities you do and the time required in your typical day. Everyone is different, but this is a general idea of how much time adults spend on productivity and self-care in a day.
During the weekend, you have 16 hours to do home maintenance and financial management (buy groceries, clean the toilet, mop the floor, do washing and pay the bills). These are the routines and I haven’t yet mentioned any ad hoc life events, seeing GP, specialists, etc.
These tasks are part of our life in a modern lifestyle. I don’t think I can change much about it unless I pay for someone to do it. I now study full time and need to save money for my yoga dream. Probably it is not a good option for me. I just think how lucky I was as a teenager/young adult that my family took up a lot of responsibilities so I could be able to enjoy my leisure time.
It’s important to keep track of the time and be fair to our body and mind. How much time do you spend for your leisure? Do you have one hour for yourself each day (1 out of 24) and simply do something you enjoy rather than something you have to get it done? This may not happen to you right now. Sometimes life is out of control. However, it’s important to be aware of it and plan for leisure. Things can get better. At the end of the day, we all want happy and healthy life. It's all about balance.
Find occupational balance in our own way. Yoga is a self-healing process, improving physical and mental wellbeing. Body movement and mindfulness connect body and mind. Gardening offers you social support networks and daily routines. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to enjoy the sun and fresh air. Simply having a cuppa and a good chat with friends improve quality of life. Little smiles add up. These are all important elements to balance your life, taking up responsibilities without feeling overwhelmed and depressed.
Of course, personal growth and/or career development is important too. In fact, this is part of the mental wellbeing. Human beings can’t live without hopes and dreams. Little achievement is an achievement. After all commitments, let’s squeeze some time for consistent work. Let’s squeeze some time for leisure.
How do you find time for leisure? Would love to get some more ideas!
Rachel is the founder of VAI YOGA and an occupational therapist. Her yoga teaching focuses on blending two powerful healings, yoga and occupational therapy solutions, to help people face practical aspects of life.