I’m visiting India this week – staying in Chennai. I was travelling in a rickshaw yesterday when we got caught up in a political demonstration outside the Governor’s Residence. The roads were gridlocked, there were people everywhere waving flags, it was hot and humid and the rickshaw I was travelling in was stuck behind a couple of enormous 4x4s which were full of men.
I started to get a bit nervous. I am the only Western woman that I have seen travelling in rickshaws alone and I had no way of knowing exactly which street I was on or how I could get back to my hotel on foot should I need to.
So here’s what happened: I started to imagine the terrible things that could happen to me... my handbag (containing all of my money and my passport) might get grabbed and stolen; I might draw the attention of some of the people milling around in the road and someone might take exception to me; I might get attacked or verbally abused... My mind went on creating horrible scenarios and simultaneously wondering what I should or would do in any of these terrible situations... would I run away? How fast could I run in my sandals? Or would I kick off my sandals in order to be able to run faster?
While all of this was going on in my brain, I noticed what had happened to my body. My shoulders had drawn upwards towards my ears and were tense; the muscles in my legs were tight; my chest was concave as my shoulders drew forward and my arms were crossed around my body hugging my handbag to me. My breath was very shallow and at times even stopped. I was physically braced against a totally imagined threat.
I was in the fight or flight stress response. And not because of any real danger (I am happy to tell you that I was in fact perfectly safe and with some nifty driving around and between the bigger cars the rickshaw driver soon had us on our way), but because of the danger I had dreamt up in my mind.
The trouble with the body’s stress response is that the body doesn’t know if a threat is real (you are actually about to be attacked and you know this because you can see the approach of your attacker) or imagined. So that any situation in which we imagine danger, threat or impending discomfort sparks off the fight or flight stress response in us. That's why we sometimes end up unable to sleep, with body tense and mind full of worries or why we sometimes end the day with tense shoulders or stress headaches - the troubles in our head have caused a physical response in our nervous system and it can be difficult to switch that stress response off.
Patanjali wrote about imagination in the Yoga Sutras:
“Imagination is thought based on an image conjured up by words, and is without substance”
What Patanjali is telling us is that we have a choice – we always have a choice. So I can choose to sit in my rickshaw and get tense, or I can choose to sit in my rickshaw and remember that it’s just my imagination running wild; I can remember to breathe deeply; I can soften my muscles and loosen my body. I can choose to perceive the situation in a different way and by choosing a different way take the fear and the stress out of the situation and stay relaxed and content, instead of feeling fear.
Think about the times that you might have imagined something terrible happening... How often you were right? Of course terrible things do happen, but rarely how we imagined them. Sadly, tragedy comes out of the blue. Imagining the worst that can happen neither prevents it, nor prepares us for real tragedy and pain when it does occur.
One of the gifts of yoga is not only this increasing capacity to notice ourselves and our habitual (and sometimes negative) responses to things, but to offer techniques for creating a more positive and healthy way of moving through life. Experimenting with different techniques will bring you the methods that work the best for you. Here is another practice that you might like to try.
- Set a Timer for 10 minutes.
- Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair with your back straight.This meditation might help you on nights when you feel too stressed to sleep.
- Bring your attention to your breathing. Consciously deepen your breath, paying particular attention to the length of each exhalation.
- Count 20 deep breaths.
- Invite your body to relax, starting with your feet and moving gradually up your body, so that your whole body feels relaxed, heavy and still.
- Now bring to mind a time when you felt stressed, uptight or anxious about something.
- Remember the scenario, run it through your mind.
- Remember how your body felt when you were feeling this way. What parts of your body were affected by the stress you felt?
- What was your breathing like? How was its rhythm? Was it deep or shallow? Fast or slow? Did you hold your breath? Where in your body did you feel your breath move? Where was it restricted?
- As you recall those anxious feelings and the effect they had on your body, enquire into yourself a little more deeply. Whereabouts in your body do you feel the stress? Is it a particular colour or shape? Does it have a sound or vibration? Does it feel hot or cold?
- Continue to enjoy deep and even breathing.
- Now consciously breathe into the space where you feel the stress.
- Imagine the stress (whatever colour, shape or feel it has) melting away. As the stress melts away, you can visualise it dispersing and moving out of your body.
- As you breathe, you might want to repeat the words ‘let go’ silently to yourself.
- Continue to allow the stress to melt away until your feel its edges soften and until you feel able to fully let go of it.
- Continue to breathe deeply until your alarm goes off.
It is also a good practice for when you are in the middle of a stressful situation.
You can teach your body to learn how stress manifests itself in you, to recognise the signs (as I did in my rickshaw) and through breath-work and focus, how to let go of it a little so that you are more able to maintain calm clarity even in the middle of stressful situations.