By Michael Ketterhagen, PhD
Stress is considered one of the most subtle ways of destroying our health because it subtly destroys our immune system. Medical evidence shows that when we worry or get angry or get afraid of anything we create damage to our physical body.
We begin to activate the fight-flight system in our bodies by triggering adrenaline flow. That raises our blood pressure, thickens the clotting mechanisms of the circulatory system, accelerates our heart rate and breathing rate, freezes our digestive system, and puts us into a hyperalert state. Now all those physiological responses are good, if we need to prepare ourselves for an attack from an enemy, like maybe a bear or lion or person with a gun or even when we are preparing for the adversary on a sports field.
But when we are not in those life and death, win or lose situations and still have those chemical reactions, our bodies personally feel threatened and our immune system is called on to work hard to prepare ourselves for the worst. When we are in that state of high immune alert for a hours or even days or months, we wear out our defenses and our immune system starts to turn on us. We eventually become immune deficient and even might develop an auto-immune disease, like fibromyalgia.
Lately, the entire world has been put into a hyperalert state because of the pandemic of the Covid-19 virus. Add to that the peaceful and violent protests against many of the policing systems in our cities. The immediate response to this invisible enemy of the virus and the claimed systemic oppression of people of color is often overpowering. Sometimes people try to quell panic or agitate themselves out of the panic by ingesting things, like sugar, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. Those non-foods fill us with even more adrenaline. All this (Covid-19 and the protests) fill us with fear which depresses the immune system of our bodies, even more.
So, what do we do? Yoga says we must actively relax. That means not only establishing smooth, continuous, even, deep and quiet diaphragmatic breathing, but also actively become aware of ourselves relaxing without going to sleep.
When we actively and systematically feel relaxation flow through our body from our head to our toes without falling asleep, we will be actively reducing the hyperactivity of the body. We will reduce our blood pressure, start to digest the food we have eaten, reduce the heart and breath rate. All these will have very subtle and very powerful healing affects on our body.
Relaxing in the yoga tradition is not sleeping, not listening to music, not watching television with a beer or a nighttime glass of wine. Relaxing is the conscious effort of lying on our back on the floor with a pillow under our head and watching our bellies rise and fall as we inhale and exhale. Relaxing is feeling the release of tension, while watching our breath, gradually flow throughout our body.
This practice of systematic relaxation is essential during this time of panic, even if we say we are not bothered by what is happening in our United States. It is an essential component of a healthy life during an unhealthy time.
Relaxing is the way to total health of body, mind and spirit. Just begin to experience yourself breathing.