It’s coming fast, I thought. So fast, right at me. Swim swim!!
In that moment there was no wave to catch and carry me to shore. And while I was swimming like mad, I realized that I was not swimming very fast at all. Mad yes, fast no. My whole body was moving – legs and arms splashing in the water – but I could not out swim this thing.
I really thought it was a shark.
And then it swam right past, and I saw that it was just a crazy dolphin in a hurry. Not a shark. Thank god, it was not a shark.When I reached shore my legs and arms were shaking, heart was racing. I just laughed and laughed a little bit more! It was a crazy experience that left me feeling both frightened and alive. Very alive.
As a yoga teacher I would have expected myself to stay all calm and serene, but the truth is that I did not have time for deep breaths. I was in fight and flight mode.
The Tiger, the sympathetic nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating those physiological changes in moments of panic. In flight or fight, our heart rate goes up, our breath becomes shallow, blood vessels constrict and muscles tighten. In situations where you need to react immediately and instinctively, such as meeting a shark in the water, this is an appropriate response.
But after that moment of panic has passed, its important that our bodies return to a quieter, more relaxed state in order to maintain balance. This is the natural process.
Winnie the Pooh, the parasympathetic nervous system
Unfortunately, in today’s society, many of us operate out flight or fight mode as our default state. Over time, fight and flight will deplete our internal organs from the raw materials they need to produce key hormones and transmitters, eventually leading to burn out. If you carry a lot of stress then chances are that you need to actively work on restoring this cycle.
Yoga helps us to activate parasympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “rest and digest” response. This system activates the more tranquil functions of the body, those that help us maintain a healthy, long term balance. Our heart rate will drop, muscles relax, digestive enzymes are released.
When we hear the word “yoga,” many of us will first think of the postures (yoga asanas). While certain asana can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, there is so much more to yoga that plays an important role. Namely, breathwork (pranayama) and meditation. If you already live an active life, for example, a slower yin class to help to maintain a healthy balance.
Keep in mind that our rest and digest response is slower than fight and flight and not always automatic.
So what can you do?
Go to yoga as often as you can and establish a suitable home practice. Just 15 minutes a day of breath work and some asanas can be enough.
Test out different styles like Hot, Flow, Yin and breath work to keep you body balanced and happy. And outside your yoga studio, try to find time to do something you really enjoy. It might be paining, making music, a slow walk in the mountain or just laying in the grass looking at the clouds.
Or you can go surfing! Like me :). Connect to the ocean, to the power of the water element. Breathe with the waves.
Unless you meet a shark. Then I would suggest that you allow your fight and flight response to kick in.