For Your Health: Be Sweet To Yourself
Yoga is a practice of intimacy. And by now you might have noticed that we are our most intimate relationships.
We are the ones we are talking to most often. We are the ones usually talking back. And we are the ones we think about almost non-stop.
This can be embarrassing when you first see it. Seeing it is the first step to freedom.
Our Autonomic Nervous System has two parts. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). You can keep them straight by remembering “s” for “stress.”
The SNS continually asks the questions, “Am I Safe?” As long as she gets the answer back, “Yes,” then the PNS can run the show. The heart rate stays low, the blood pressure is appropriate, food is digested and long term optimistic projects like reproduction can be considered.
For physical survival, we are wired to crave safety, and just to make sure, our first primal emotion is fear. When the SNS receives the answer of “No” to its inquiry of safety, the Fight or Flight* Response is launched. You might remember this from 6th grade science. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream increasing in heart rate and blood pressure. Concentrations in the plasma of the protein fibrinogen are increased to encourage clotting in case of an attack. We get a quick 30 minute boost in the immune system and a shot of glucose for energy. Long term projects are ended and shut down. The expression, “he was so scared he shit in his pants,” is literally true as the digestion clears itself out and closes shop.
Once we are out of danger, the SNS is designed to relax and turn the reigns back over to the PNS. Yet so many of us get stuck. Recent reports suggest that stress is the leading cause of disease in America.
The Yogis have long suggested that our problems are all in our heads. Sutra 1.2 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, “yogas-citta-vritti-nirodhah,” or “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”
Within the Sutras, the very first suggestion of how one might approach this is Sutra 1.33: maitiri-karuna-mudita-upkesanam-sukha-duhka-punya-apunya-visayanam-bhavantas-chitta-prasadanam. Ravi Ravindra’s translation is, “A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virutous, and impariallity towards the wrong-does.”
Cultivating friendliness, compassion, joy and goodwill must have been just as difficult 2000 years ago as it is today because the very next suggestion is, Sutra 1.34: prachchhardana-vidharanbhyam-va-pranasya, is “or from attention to the outwards and inward flow of breath.”
Back to you and your thoughts. If in your research, you discover that it is true that you are the one you are most often thinking about. The next step is to notice how you are thinking about yourself. Most of us have a great deal of practice of self abuse. The smallest things launch a campaign of internal cruelty. Leaving your wallet at home or locking your keys in the car or missing a credit card payment can generate the most caustic harshness. When you look at yourself in the mirror, is there always something to be fixed? Lifted? Tucked?
Can you imagine that this continual flow of harshness might cause the Sympathetic Nervous System to feel that its under attack? You can live a beautiful rich life in all respects, but if the internal dialogue is continually suggesting that you are fat, stupid, poor and unworthy, the body is going to respond as if its in danger. When the body is under continual attack, new “rest levels” are set. The resting heart rate goes up, the blood sugar levels raise and a weakened immune system can result in chronic illness.
Is this making sense? We have the power to perpetuate a feeling of stress. And we have the tools to unravel it.
Let the wisdom of the Sutras help.
1. Find a comfortable seat. In a chair or on the floor. Choose a common negative thought you have often. Begin to repeat it over and over and over to yourself for a least a minute. Notice how your breath and body respond. Write our results.
2. Repeat the exercise. After about 30 seconds, find the negative thought’s opposite. And switch tracks. Notice the body’s response when you switch. (e.g “I ‘m not a good teacher” to “I am a good teacher.”)
3. Go in there again, same or different negative thought. Now, try to hold onto the thought as you deepen your breath. Literally make an effort to cling to it. See if you can.
4. Try the same thing with a positive thought. Try to hold onto a positive thought while deepening your breath.
You are more than your thoughts, negative and positive. But the negative ones are slowly choking you to death. You can only come to this conclusion on your own. So be a good Yogi scientist and do your research.
* A much more sophisticated understanding of this response is “Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fold” as presented by Peter Levine, PhD in “In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.”