Ha-Tha, balance your action and relaxation: what is different about yoga and regular exercise?
When I meet with my patients in the clinic, almost everyone gets a one minute breathing session and advice on considering yoga in their exercise regimen, especially if they are stressed or overwhelmed in their lives. Let me be honest, there are very few who can truly say that life is a piece of cake, especially after the transitions we have seen over the last year.
The common reply I get is, "But I regularly go to the gym or run 5 days a week." So, what is so different about yoga that I keep promoting it? Simple, I do this because of personal experience. Of course there is ample evidence to back yoga's role in stress management.
I have had my fair share of challenges in life. At one point of time, I had severe anemia, needing iron infusions, fatigue, brain fog, sciatica, foot drop in the left leg, prediabetes, and hypothyroidism. I was so scared that the fatigue and brain fog would get me into an accident that I dared not drive without my caffeine first. Today, it has been more than a year that I don't necessarily depend on caffeine. I do still enjoy a cup of tea with company but that is not mandatory. Multiple things helped me along the path including the iron infusions, hormones, vitamins/ herbs, but the thing that showed immediate best benefit for me was Yoga. The tool that helped me get the energy boost I needed while not turning me into a fire breathing dragon was Yoga.
This was because I understood how to stimulate as well as calm the nervous system as required. This is the thing that got rid of my sciatica, my chronic leg cramps, and knots in my upper back. I have been able to get away from my hormones. My sugars have also stabilized. Of course, I try to follow the Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle recommendation the best that I can and work on the acceptance and letting go of things that I can't. That is the magic of Yoga.
Chronic stress activates our sympathetic nervous system. This was the part of our brain that helped us survive by running away from tiger in the woods. So it had its purpose, of course, but it was supposed to be used only once a while.
But nowadays most of us are constantly in the survival mode. This chronic stress is not healthy for the body.
As you can see in the picture, it can affect several different organs and body systems.
Overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system can make us age quicker. It can make us obese and tired. It can increase our feelings of discomfort and pain. It can make it difficult to function optimally at our job or enjoy life with family and friends to the fullest. It can contribute to so many other chronic problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, memory loss, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders like hashimoto thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, hormone imbalance and all the discomforts that come with that.
Sympathetic overactivity is sad Parasympathetic is peace.
Which one would you choose?
For longer, healthier lives we need to tone our vagus nerve or stimulate our rest and digest system, which is parasympathetic nervous system. But sympathetic nervous system is required for the stimulation to get things done, keep life going and of course save us in the situations where we actually need saving like fire in the house/ someone actually threatening us.
Balance of both of these is important for healthy active life .
This is what Ha - Tha means ( sun and moon or sympathetic and parasympathetic system ). Ha Tha yoga helps us achieve this balance in life .
All kinds of exercise are essentially healthier than inactivity, but other forms of exercise, especially if done without awareness of discomfort in the body or awareness of breath can trigger more sympathetic than parasympathetic activity. This, in the long term, may not be a great option. Also in Yoga different area of the body are stimulated, like your liver, your digestive system, kidneys, pancreas, unlike just running / just lifting weights without attention to stretching. Yoga is more than just twisting into pretzels and is not necessarily difficult as seen in some pictures of yogis. It can be as simple as is the requirement of the person and his or her bodily condition on a particular day. As my teacher Cassandra says, if you can breathe, you can do yoga.
I have seen in some of my patients/ friends that exercise is a way of getting away from the craziness/ overwhelm in life, which I think is much better than opting to emotionally eat/ use other substances, but this benefit can be optimised for health if we bring in awareness to the body's structure, comfort level and breath . This is always the key in Yoga. Yoga means yolk which means to connect , connect with our bodies, connect with the breath , connect with the present moment. The teaching that asanas have to be steady, and comfortable is ingrained in my mind. This is a way to exercise the body while being kind to it and understanding the body's needs. When we observe how our body performs under the challenge of different yogic postures on the mat and we can teach or body to relax in the challenge of the pose with slowing the breath, we can do the same when faced with a challenge in real life. This works like a charm for me, my yoga buddies and many of my patients.
I hope this post inspires people to consider looking into yoga practice for health and stress management. Yoga is mindfulness, its active way of mindfulness, so if it is difficult to sit down to meditate, why not incorporate some yogic practice in our schedules? Also, it does not need to be a full hour of practice. Even though that is the most beneficial way to do yoga, it can be done in shorter sessions and will help us get energised for the day or unwind from the day.