We can understand stress to be made of two distinct parts: stimulus and response. A stress stimulus is anything that brings any system away from balance. This happens in every cell, every organ, and every system of the body. Reactions to stressful stimulus can be automatic on the cellular or organ level. They can be overt; we can choose to remove ourselves from stressful situations. Stress reactions occur to prevent our bodies from irreparable harm. Our minds are very powerful though. We have the ability to react to events in modern life, such as relationship issues or career deadlines, as we would react to a bear attack. We react to these events physically and mentally as though our lives were threatened by them. Unfortunately, we are exposed to similar stimuli over and over again. We live in fight-or-flight mode. Removing stressful stimuli often is not an option, and even when we can remove them, that does little to change how we react.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response to a threat. Its antagonist is the parasympathetic nervous system. That system is responsible for rest and repair. It is our base state when we feel safe. Our thoughts and emotions can have a direct physical impact on your body and brain. We may be habituated to jump into fight-or-flight mode when we get “stressed out,” but we can choose to climb out of that rut. The first step is self awareness. Being antagonistic, we can only operate one system at a time, so actively relaxing and choosing safe reactions engages the parasympathetic system.
Mindfulness can be defined as acting with awareness of the internal and external environment. Mindful movement in the form of asana is a wonderful way to train the mind and reverse the habits and physical damage caused by chronic stress. Come into the present moment. Begin with the breath. Notice the cool inhales as they travel down to the bottom of your lungs. Notice the warm exhales as they disperse in the air in front of you. Notice the sound of your breath. In and Out. Feel your heart beating. Inhale arms up. Exhale fold. Inhale halfway lift. Exhale plant the hands, step back, chaturanga. Inhale urdhva mukha svanasana. Exhale adho mukha svanasana. Breathe with intention. Notice points of tension in the body. Notice the mind wandering to yesterday, tomorrow, to the other side of the room. That’s okay. The mind wanders. Gently bring it back to the body. Notice the heart beating a little faster now. Notice your thoughts as they arise. Notice your emotions. Release them as you return to your breath. You are safe. You are home in your body. This is true on the mat and off. Remember you can always return to your breath, your heart, your hands and feet, whenever stress is pulling you away.
We are more than ghosts living in biological machines. The mind is inseparable from the body, and our thoughts constantly change our structure. We can begin to choose this structure by choosing how we react to the world.