Unite and Ignite: Burn and Breathe Your Way to Better Health
When you ask someone how they’re doing, do you ever hear, “I’m great, life is so balanced and calm and stress free”? Or, when you’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting and you see the minutes going by, do you say to yourself, “I’m so relaxed and calm because there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. So I’m just gonna chill”? Yeah, me neither.
During times of stress and difficulty – whether physical, mental, or emotional – your central nervous system (specifically your brain) tells your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your blood rushes to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly.
But when these stress levels stay elevated for longer than is necessary for survival, and the stress response keeps firing day after day, it can affect your overall well-being and put your health at serious risk. In fact, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of visits to the doctor are stress-related. Fortunately there are practices to train your body and your mind to be able to manage and better cope with stress, thus improving your overall health and well-being.
Enter, “Burn and Breathe Yoga”!
Yoga is the uniting of body, mind, and spirit through breath and asana (the physical component of the practice). “Burn and Breathe Yoga” is a simple, yet challenging series I teach that’s designed to build heat in the body by mindfully connecting breath to movement, while at the same time maintaining a sense of inner calm. This 30-minute sequence includes sun-salutations, standing poses with some long holds, core work, stretching, and the opportunity to deepen your Mind-Body connection (a fundamental principle of yoga – the mind and body are one). While there won’t be any “complicated” poses (such as arm balances or inversions), your body will be working hard throughout.
Breath controls the body, mind, and spirit. The goal and challenge of “Burn and Breathe Yoga” is to maintain mindful breathing throughout the practice to cultivate a balanced state of being. If we can learn to breathe mindfully to create calm in our mind and body during an intense physical challenge, then we can practice that same mindful breathing to create calm in our day-to-day lives.
Why is it important to stay calm? Your mind and body don’t just “co-exist” – they are a unit. When your mental health is suffering, chances are your physical health is also suffering, and vice-versa. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms that take a toll on your health.
Some of the health risks of stress include:
Immune System – Stress hormones reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders making you more susceptible to viral illnesses and infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
Muscular System – Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed and then release when you relax. But if you are constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, body aches, and shoulder, neck, and back pain.
Digestive System – The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can upset your digestive system, causing heartburn or acid reflux due to an increase in stomach acid. Also, stress can lead to irregular bowel habits. It can either delay the emptying of stomach contents causing constipation, or speed up the process causing diarrhea. This combination of activity results in bloating and abdominal pain.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems – During the stress response, you breathe faster and more shallow in order to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. Because your respiratory system is running at such high speed, your heart rate quickens and your blood pressure spikes. Importantly, stress-induced breaths may feel erratic, which can lead to anxiety and panic.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. It’s a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. But when our body is focused on “running and fleeing” versus “digesting and breathing,” our natural tendency is to take shorter, shallow breaths – or even hold our breath – causing the muscles to constrict, creating even more tension in our bodies. In other words, a worried mind can send your entire body into a physical frenzy.
“Burn and Breathe Yoga” will help train your counter-stress response, also known as the “parasympathetic nervous system.” With regular practice, your chronic daytime stress-hormone levels can drop, increasing your heart rate variability. After only a few sessions, you can improve your ability to tolerate and manage stress, thus helping to transition your mind and body into a more relaxed state of being.
We all have unique bodies with different abilities, so feel free to modify when needed. And as always: If something doesn’t feel right, leave it out. I encourage you to explore – but not exceed – your personal limits.
When you have the tools to create calm and presence on the mat, you can create calm and presence off the mat, during any of life’s inevitable adversity you may face. Please take care of yourselves, listen to your body, and let’s breathe together.