The Slow Movement

We are all moving at pace. We have to. This world and way of life demands it of us. So how are we supposed to not just exist but thrive, in a world where we are under persistent stress? The answer is actually quite simple. The answer is to change your perspective.

I write this having just finished a lecture on ‘The Neurobiology of Yoga’ presented by Dr David Vago from the USA. He spoke at length about the influence of Yoga and meditation on our stress response. Us ‘yogis’ have had our suspicions that these introspective practices were changing our mental ‘hardwear’ but now countless studies from Western Integrative Medical Specialists are supporting what Buddhism has had at it’s very core for centuries. Every time I find myself consuming new information it is followed closely by a period of reflection. During which time I try to digest it, relay it, and then apply it to life in a sensible way. Researchers can talk all day about the HPA axis, cortisol desensitisation and cognitive dysfunction but what does all of this actually mean for you, for me and for us in our daily lives?

Firstly; our modern mantra of ‘doing more, doing it faster and doing it better’ is activating our stress response. Secondly, the stress response is not necessarily a bad response. It is actually our perception of said stress that has greater bearing on our health than stress itself. Lastly, our Yoga and meditation practices are rewiring our brain to change how we perceive stress, how we handle our response to it and therefore the effect it has on our lives.

So what is this ‘stress response’? It is a physiological response that takes place within our brain and body when we find ourselves under threat. What is the threat? The threat can be anything that has the potential to distort our natural balance called homeostasis. It might be physical, emotional or mental. For most, what is actually causing us stress or strain arises from rumination over the past, anxiety about the future or disconnect from reality. What is precipitating this now, more than ever, is our chronic bigger, better, harder mentality. It is a widespread epidemic that has infiltrated our professional lives, family routine, and even our fitness regime. We are under pressure from colleagues and clients, under pressure from family and friends, and under pressure from our minds and its bias. All this affects how we see ourselves and the world. That’s a sh** tonne of pressure. But why do some of us cope with it better than others?

What is most fascinating about the ‘stress response’ is it is not the stress itself that is causing us to feel stressed, it is the perception of that stress. It’s our attitudes and vulnerabilities that colour our world and determine the lens through which we see and experience life. And so it follows that the same attitudes and vulnerabilities will determine whether or not we react to a stimulus in a way that causes suffering or a way that creates space to respond without feeling under threat. It’s all in our perception. For some people, running 5km is horrendously stressful; while for others it brings a great deal of happiness. So when is stress, good stress? When it is ‘eustress’. This is stress that brings us feelings of contentment, fulfilment and joy. So it’s our mentality, our inner view of the outer world, that is the most important factor when considering whether a situation is going to cause us suffering or not.

Life is full of examples where our mentality or headspace affects our experience. Take your morning routine. Most of us have a similar series of events each day, and yet when we have move through a morning with lack of sleep, a deadline to meet, a shortage of coffee and a flat car battery we find ourselves under stress. The result is a state of mind that lasts the entire day colouring every moment with a haze of grey. The same series of events could take place on a day where we did have coffee in the house and the entire outcome may have been different. Just one event has created a different attitude and therefore led to a different experience. Life is persistently like this. Every day we are subject to the turbulence of many different emotions, interactions, circumstances and they can all cause us to feel stress in varying degrees. But it’s when we are constantly caught in the spin cycle, without time to recover, that we experience chronic stress. The result of chronic stress is suffering. We suffer when the mind exhibits maladaptive traits and becomes stuck in a negative internal monologue that perceives almost everything as a threat. So if we can’t escape stress, and many of us can’t, how do we learn to manage it so it has as little impact on our life and health as possible?

This is where the practice of Yoga and Meditation come in. As a slow movement modality they systematically change our relationship to stress by altering the feedback loops in the brain. We have all heard the saying ‘mind over matter’, it’s really more like ‘mindfulness over matter’. During these practices we are developing what we call a ‘meta-awareness’. We build our ability to pause between stimulus and response and see the bigger picture. In that pause, however brief, we become aware of our thoughts instead of becoming subject to them. It is then, that we realise we are not defined by our thoughts, rather able to steer them in the direction we would like them to travel. Instead of just feeling under threat, we understand that we can choose how we perceive a threat.

These practices create a wedge, or space, to see reality as it is, instead of the distorted vision projected onto our minds. Yoga and meditation slow our awareness down to such an extent that we notice the fluctuations of the mind and with focussed attention observe we can in fact still the very fluctuations that used to disturb us. Instead of being stuck in a spin cycle, we are now enjoying the gentle ebb and flow of equanimity (steadiness). In time, we realise that the same tumultuous disturbance to our morning routine can be met with more resilience. It happens. We experience it. We let it go. In short we recover faster from stress. Our whole negative self narrative is transformed into what we are actually experiencing. How does this happen? These practices teach us how to be present and improve our response to the present. In the present there is less over-thinking, less rumination, less inference, less assumption, and less judgement. There is more breath focus, more body sensitivity, more self-awareness, more empathy, and more intention. The result is something called ‘allostasis’, or properly moderated stress.

We are all part of this world. We have to find a sustainable way to live, learn, earn and thrive. Life involves stress; there is no doubt about it. But there are ways to work with what you have and cultivate greater awareness for everyday life, physically, mentally and emotionally. How? Join the slow movement. Build the strength and flexibility of the muscles in your mind, as well as body. It’s a no brainer.

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