By Turi Hetherington
The relentless stressors of 2020 have taken a toll on our collective physical and mental health. In addition to the staggering number of lives lost, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association reports 84% of adults feel at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress (e.g., anxiety, sadness, anger).
Many report they have gained or lost an undesired amount of weight, are drinking more alcohol to cope with stress and are not getting their desired amount of sleep (too little or too much). These reported health impacts signal many adults may be having difficulties managing stressors, including grief and trauma, and are likely to lead to significant, long-term individual and societal consequences, including chronic illness and additional strain on the nation’s health care system.
I could go on with reports and statistics (see links below if you’re interested in more stats) but for your physical and mental well being I want to shine a light on how the practices of yoga and meditation, as well as spending time in nature, can trigger a shift from fight/flight to rest/digest and help recalibrate the nervous system. Let’s start with a big breath in…. and slow breath out…..
The word yoga comes from yuj, to yoke or to join. It can be thought of as yoking together body, mind and spirit as well as yoking together seemingly opposing forces – in and out breath, flexibility and strength, steadiness and ease. When you can recognize opposing forces at play in your practice you have a greater capacity to be with opposites in your daily life. Rather than being thrown off balance by a wave of polarity you can cultivate an inner strength that allows you to respond in ways that feel in alignment and in harmony for you. This grows your capacity to ride the waves. As the saying goes, you can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf them.
In addition, turning your attention from looking and seeing the outer world to feeling and sensing your inner world (with nonjudgmental acceptance) is an act of self-compassion. Your body has innate intelligence. If you are not in touch with this aspect of your being, your yoga practice can unlock it.
I especially like practicing and teaching gentle yoga because just like when you drive super fast to get from point A to point B there is a lot you don’t see in between. But when you ssssllllloooowww down you can tune in to the subtle sensations and appreciate the incredible vehicle you’ve been given. This also helps to calm and soothe your nervous system.
As with yoga, slowing down is one of the benefits of meditation. However, just because your body is still it doesn’t mean that your mind will be. That’s a myth. The brain is a thought machine. You can’t just turn it off like you can turn off the flow of water from a faucet. It’s more like the flow of water in a river. You can choose to flow with the thoughts or you can sit on the banks of the river and watch them float by.
You can also do this with sensations and emotions that arise. You can recognize their presence (if you ignore them, they are likely to return… again and again), release your grip on them, and choose a response that feels in alignment and in harmony, with how you want to be in the world.
Your meditation practice can also connect you to your essential nature of peace and ease that reside within. It is not something that needs to be cultivated; rather, it already exists within. Your practice simply helps reveal it and more easily access it. Over time it becomes home ground, a safe place from which you can meet and greet challenging circumstances and situations in life.
Meditation comes in many forms and could be the topic of many blogs. For now I will keep it simple and share the wise words of Buddhist nun, and one of my favorite authors, Pema Chodron, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.”
“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.” – Pema Chodron
These subtle, and not so subtle, shifts – from getting hooked by sensations, emotions and thoughts to recognizing them, releasing our grip on them and choosing a response – produce a shift in our nervous system. It’s a shift from feeling threatened, which triggers the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, to feeling calm, which triggers the rest and digest response of the parasympathetic nervous system.
For me, and millions of others nationwide who increased outdoor activity during the pandemic, nature provides much needed solace as well as renewed energy and joy. Just like nature, humans embody earth, water, fire and air, thus tuning into these elements can bring a sense of harmony to body and mind.
In addition, nature welcomes all. A tree doesn’t choose who can and cannot sit under it or eat the fruit it bares. Nature welcomes and provides for all.
“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” – Alice Walker
Nature can also tether us to the present moment as we notice birdsong, the fresh scent of earth after the rain, the warmth of sunlight on our skin, the colors of sunset or the brilliant starlit sky.
These mini-meditation moments are calming and soothing to our nervous system and reflected in an artist’s brushstroke and a poet’s words.
“When the mind is festering with trouble or the heart torn, we can find healing among the silence of mountains or fields, or listen to the simple, steadying rhythm of waves. The slowness and stillness gradually takes us over. Our breathing deepens and our hearts calm and our hungers relent. When serenity is restored, new perspectives open to us and difficulty can begin to seem like an invitation to new growth.
This invitation to friendship with nature does of course entail a willingness to be alone out there. Yet this aloneness is anything but lonely. Solitude gradually clarifies the heart until a true tranquility is reached. The irony is that at the heart of that aloneness you feel intimately connected with the world. Indeed, the beauty of nature is often the wisest balm for it gently relieves and releases the caged mind.”
– John O’Donohue, Irish poet and philosopher
Perhaps the simple act of reading about yoga, meditation and nature brought some solace to body and mind. Imagine what it would be like to dedicate 90 minutes a week to yourself for gentle yoga (aka compassionate intelligent movement) and meditation from the comfort of your own home, plus daily doses of nature?
If you’re ready to foster your resilience, release residual tension in the body and mind, and reveal your inner resource of peace and ease, I invite you to join me for A Gentle Journey, an 8-week series combining gentle yoga and yoga nidra meditation. The journey begins June 1.
Resources on the pandemic’s health impacts: