A few weeks ago my husband and I went away to a wellness retreat soaking in whole days of clean eating, deep breathing, quiet soul searching, and doing excessive amounts of what we love: exercise. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some chips and guacamole and pool-side sitting down doing nothing too…but our mission on this particular vacation was clear: we needed to reset our life. Planned months in advance, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Months, years and decades of hustling, doing, being, fixing, failing and trying tend to get a body, mind and spirit out of whack.
After finishing a grueling spinning class I hustled to the locker room, changed my clothes, and then raced down the hallway to the yoga studio. As per my style, I didn’t want to miss anything and yoga is not something I normally make time for. In my hectic, face-paced life I figure I need the biggest calorie burn bang for my available time buck and that usually results in running, cycling, and high-intensity interval training. Whatever will make me sweat the fastest and work my heart the hardest gets the glory.
Well, that story was about to change.
Relaxing into the calm, peaceful state of the yoga studio I watched a family of javelinas meander past the floor to ceiling windows. Laying back on the mat I closed my eyes, breathing in the quiet calm that comes from choosing to live in the present moment. Now. Does anyone actually live there? I wondered.
The instructor quietly asked where we had just come from. When I responded spinning, she made an off-hand comment how it’s sometimes difficult to transition our bodies from a high intensity class to a yoga class, because our mind is still in the fight or flight state aroused by the high intensity class. Cue my first light-bulb moment.
Don’t most of us live in the state of a high-intensity class? Doesn’t life, marriage, parenting, work and managing our relationships sometimes feel a whole lot like a high intensity workout?
Ninety-five percent of my life is, and has always been, focused in and on a high intensity environment. I thrive there and as I’ve reflected on it and studied it the last few weeks I see how much of my life, and my response to circumstances, make total sense.
Bear with me for a minute while I get scientific-y on you. Our nervous system is the basically the master control center of our body. Think Joy, Anger, Sadness, and Disgust operating the controls in central command. The central nervous system has the responsibility for issuing nerve impulses and analyzing sensory data; the peripheral nervous system is responsible for carrying these nerve impulses to and from the body; and the autonomic nervous system is composed of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and is responsible for regulating and coordinating the functions of vital structures in the body.
When we exercise at high intensity, or find ourselves in high stress inducing situations that activate our sympathetic nervous system, our heart and blood pressure increase, respiration accelerates, adrenaline is released from the adrenal glands and we have a fight or flight response. When our fight or flight response is activated, we can perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival. By design. We narrow our focus to those things that can harm us, and fear becomes the lens through which we see the world. But our fear can also become over exaggerated. Irrational. Real to us, believe me I get it, but not exactly always helpful.
You can imagine (or if you’re like me, you know) that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate a positive attitude or belief when you are stuck in survival mode. Our heart is not open. Which, as I learned at my second yoga class, was abundantly clear. Because in today’s world we aren’t usually (thank God) facing actual threats to our physical survival, but rather our psychological survival. And quite often, once our fight or flight response is activated we can’t actually fight. Or flee. Far more often (if we’re not prone to road rage, aggression, and quite literally taking it out on someone else) we have to sit down and take it. We must “control ourselves.” “Deal with it.” And there is overwhelming evidence that the cumulative buildup of stress hormones can lead to disorders like high blood pressure, headache, chronic fatigue, depression and autoimmune disorders, just to name a few.
What I realized for me, personally was that over the last number of years I’ve taken the very real stress hormones activated from my own psychological fight or flight situations + stuffed them into the center of my heart + believed lies that they were about me, my character, my worth, my value and = ended up heart sick.
Put simply, my heart center was inaccessible. Hard. Despite my fitness and strength, I had zero ability to stretch my body into a heart opener without feeling burning, searing, and ripping pain in the center of my chest. All those feelings, grief and loss; the unexpressed emotions and repressed self-blame had wrapped an invisible chokehold on my heart and I lost awareness and connection with the center of who I am. I am quite certain, those fibers thought they were protecting me.
Dr. Suess said: “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” I needed rest. I needed a reset. I needed to be around people who saw the light in me, the good in my heart, and the potential I have to give, not merely the ways I’ve somehow disappointed them. I needed to see people encouraging one another, truly uplifting each other to be their best, instead of finding or choosing to believe them for their worst. Or rejecting them because of their gifts or their strength. Jealousy, bitterness, resentment and critical spiritedness will devour us. And it will kill our relationships.
We live in a world and a time where we’re expected to be all things to all people at all times, and if we don’t measure up then there’s sometimes hell to pay. It’s not right. Or good. Or helpful. Or fair. But it is. And so we live in our world running on our sympathetic nervous system constantly firing our fight or flight response and not knowing what it’s doing. How it’s hurting us – or helping us. There are incredible benefits to fight or flight: It sharpens mental acuity, thereby helping us deal decisively with issues and moving us to action. But it can also make us hyper vigilant and overreactive when a state of calm would be far more productive. Yoga engages our parasympathetic nervous system, in which our heartbeat slows, blood pressure reduces, respiration levels, and our body experiences rest and relaxation. Where we come back to know that we know that we know that we know.
Because we forget. We try so hard and run so fast and when we fail, we let others tell us who we are. And then “sometimes our whole idea about ourself is borrowed from those who have no idea of who they are themselves.” Osho
Steve Maraboli said: Your greatest self has been waiting your whole life; don’t make it wait any longer.
Grab hold of who you are. Your whole self. The fierce and the free; the strong and the soft; the tender and the brave. Find your reset. Stretch, loosen and free the fear and the lies and the words you have allowed to literally set up residence in your body and tie down your spirit and begin again, with an open heart.
You are beautiful. Your gifts are valuable. You voice is needed. You are not defined by your greatest weakness but you are seen for your strength. Your beauty. Your uniqueness. Your light. You are more than enough. Now go. Live. Be. In this moment. Now.