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.
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
A yoga student told me how happy she was when she walked her dog and her grandson was riding on scooter. Then her grandson decided to walk the dog and she had to ride on his scooter. I am glad she is able to manage it and thanks to her for sharing this funny story.
Balance exercise is one of the four types of exercises along with strength, endurance and flexibility. If we don’t use it, we lose it. Yoga helps improve balance and it’s quite fun to do balance poses. With good balance, we are able to maintain the capacity to do things we enjoy. It also prevents falls and avoids severe injuries. Falling over can cause disability or death.
Balance is all about falling the center of gravity within the base of support. When we come into all fours, we increase the surface of support. Our body weight is more likely to equally distribute between hands, knees and toes. When we stand on the feet or one foot (walking), surface of support is smaller. However, when we learn how to shift body weight (center of gravity) to the base of support, we can balance with one foot, two hands, or even one hand and hold for a few seconds. Stability is enhanced by center of gravity, which means body weight is equally balanced and distributed in all directions.
The base of support
Examine your feet if there are any inversion (turning sole of the feet inward) or eversion (turning sole of the feet outward). Do you lift a few of your toes up when you stand on the ground? Feet being so far away from central nervous system require you to bring awareness to your toes to connect to the earth. The first step to balance is to equally distribute body weight to four corners of the feet. Press the toes down. This is to increase the surface for balance. The more surface we get, the more balance we have.
The center of gravity
The center of gravity of our body depends on different body movements. When we stand on the right leg, we need to shift the body weight to the right. Strong abdominal muscles help falls the center of gravity within the base of support (right foot).
For example, in tree pose, stand on right leg, shift body weight to the right side so center of gravity falls to the surface of right foot. Press down right foot, crown of the head reaches towards the ceiling. Hug everything in, press left foot firmly against the right thigh. Do it slowly.
Half moon pose
How about half moon pose? It’s one leg on the ground and torso is held horizontally. We still need to find the center of gravity and how it falls to one leg. In this case, When standing on right leg, we need to rotate the left hip. Opening up the left side of the body allows the center of gravity falls within the right hip, right leg and right foot.
In some cases, we are worried about falling over rather than poor balance. You may find it easier to balance next to the wall even you are not actually touching the wall. Practicing balance pose also helps us learn how to manage fear and stay focused. Both yoga for grownups and chair yoga for seniors involve balance poses in each class.
Do you have good balance? Is balance exercise in your regular workout routine? If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you.
From moving around on all fours to standing upright, human evolution allows us to free our hands to make and use tools. Standing and walking upright also keep us cool as only head and shoulders get exposed to direct solar radiation, rather than the entire back and neck. However, there are a few downsides of human evolution causing body pain.
When our hominid ancestors still moved around on all fours, the feet ad hands were absorbing force. Pressure created by gravity was more evenly distributed along the spine. 4 million years ago, when we started walking upright, our spine gradually lengthened and became more S-shape in order to balance our torso over our hips and feet. Standing upright and having a curved spine increase stress on certain points of the column, such as back pain and neck pain.
When we know which part of the body gets stressed, we can choose yoga poses that will de-stress it afterward. 3 chair yoga poses strives to balance opposing parts of the physical body along the spine, the front and back, the left and right. It is essential to keep our bodies pain-free and function properly.
1. Forward bend
Directions: Place four corners of the feet on the ground. As you Inhale, lengthen the spine; as you exhale, bend forward. Slowly walk your hands towards the shin or ankles. Feel the weight of the head.
By hanging your head upside down and bend forward, you take the pressure of gravity off your spine, increase the space between the vertebras, taking pressure off nerves and relieving pain.
Directions: interlace the fingers and place your hands behind the head for gentle support. As you inhale, lengthen the spine; as you exhale, present the heart to the sky. Bring your awareness to the upper back, rather than the lower back.
This opens up the shoulders and chests. As we have a lot of forward-facing movement in our everyday life, hunching over a keyboard, then steering wheel, then cutting board, this is a great counter pose of our daily life to increase mobility of the spine, improve postures and alleviate back and neck pain.
3. Twisting pose
Directions: Place four corners of the feet on the ground. Then take your right knee over the left. There are two options. 1. Open twist (more gentle), put right elbow on right knee; close twist; 2. Close twist, put left elbow on right knee. Place your palms in your heart centre.
Twisting pose helps realign the shoulder girdle and the spine, as well as the pelvis and the spine. When twisting your body to the right, your right shoulder blade moves closer toward the spine, contracting the muscles that bind it to the ribcage and spine. At the same time the left shoulder blade moves further away from the spine, stretching the muscles that bind it to the rib cage and spine.
Chair yoga is great for seniors who are looking to gentle exercise. It is also great for busy executives sitting too long everyday. In modern lifestyle, we don’t climb trees anymore, and we lose the flexibility and strength of climbing trees. Spinal health takes the same approach. If we don't use it, we lose it. Forward bend, backbend and twisting are essential to our spinal health.
Download a printable version of chair yoga poster at Etsy.
Daniel Lieberman, (2013), The Story of the human body, the Penguin Group
Blogger - Rachel Lau
Yoga brings me physical strength and inner strength to face practical aspects of life while working in the corporate for over 10 years in Hong Kong. My passion for yoga encouraged me to leave the banking world and completed a Certificate IV in Yoga Teacher training in Byron Bay.
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.