Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mindfully Stressed

Ursus arctos middendorffi /kodiak bear/ KodiakbärImage via Wikipedia

It was going to be a busy couple of weeks anyway. The start of the summer season means yoga classes are filling up as vacationers return. The Lake Placid classes are just starting to get off the ground and a new class in North Creek started this week. My first triathlon of the season is next Saturday. After that comes the busy July Fourth weekend, then yoga workshops and kids classes kick in, all which need a few hours of preparation. My kids are finishing with school and we are juggling finals, end-of-the-year parties and other last-minute activities.

There was lots to do, but I was approaching the coming summer with a sense of calm purpose. I knew what I had to get done and I was working on it, a little at a time. My personal yoga practice had been reignited and my body felt great - open and strong. My nutrition issues have been worked out so I can go out for a run after a long day of teaching yoga without feeling like I'm going to drop of hunger or exhaustion. I just needed to stay focused for the next couple of weeks, then I could cruise through summer's organized chaos without a single spike in my blood pressure.

But that would be too easy.

My in-laws, who haven't visited since we moved here, decided it was time for them to come. They will be arriving on Wednesday and staying through - you guessed it - race weekend. While it will be very nice to see them, their visit means I will have to add cooking and entertaining to my list of things to do. Oh, I should probably clean the house before they get here as well. Having them here for race day also means that I will probably have two cameras on me, since my husband inherited the photography bug from his father. All the picture-taking is fine as long as they don't expect me to smile much. (My new race tactic is to frown at my competitors until they feel bad and let me pass them. I'll let you know how it works.)

I've really been looking forward to race day because after the triathlon I feel I am entitled to post-race recovery. For me, recovery involves a healthy beer buzz, a big inner tube and a sunny spot on the lake. The small indulgence of not doing anything for a few hours is one of the reasons I keep running for the finish line. Post-race recovery, however, hinges on my dear husband delivering me to the lake, opening beer bottles for me and minding the children while I float undisturbed. Now his parents will be here, competing for his attention and probably telling him I should get my own beers. My dream of post-race utopia melted away like a chocolate bar on the asphalt.

And it's never just one thing, is it?

After suffering from chest pains for a few days, my mother went to the hospital on Thursday. We got a scare when the emergency room doctor said the EKG indicated she may have had a heart attack. Thankfully two days of tests did not find any additional evidence of a heart attack and she left the hospital last night undiagnosed but feeling better. Meanwhile I spent two days worrying and juggling my schedule to take care of my parents' dogs while my dad went back and forth to the hospital. It wasn't hard, but I lost some time and when I had time I had trouble focusing until we knew she was going to be alright, and we all know time is something you can never get back.

Last night, shortly after my parents arrived home from the hospital, my brother called to tell us that my sister-in-law's father had died unexpectedly. My sister-in-law's family lives in Utah, so we don't know them well, but I love my sister-in-law dearly and I know she was not prepared to lose her father so young (he was in his 50s) and so suddenly. I can't help but to share the grief with her, as well as with my brother and my nieces and nephew.

After hanging up the phone, I felt like my mind had red-lined. Thoughts were spinning out of control and I was going into emergency shut-down. Yes, the calm, cool yogini was feeling some stress.

Stress is our bodies' response to situations that are threatening or somehow upset our balance. It is the result of our fight-or-flight response to danger. When we are in a dangerous situation - real or imagined - our hearts beat faster, our breath gets shallow and our senses sharpen, preparing us to defend ourselves or run away. Unfortunately, most modern-day tense situations require neither response and, since we never expend the built-up energy by fighting or running, the stress just gets piled on.

Not everyone responds the same way to built-up stress. Some people become agitated or angry. Other people, like me, shut down. I tend to space out, engage in a boring, mind-numbing activity like watching reruns on television or just try to sleep.

Many people suffering from chronic stress overload don't even know that they have a problem. They get so used to being stressed-out that they think it is normal. Unfortunately, it often takes a physical crisis brought on by the chronic stress to make them see what's going on and, maybe, make a change.

Yoga is the ultimate de-stressor. Yoga triggers the body's natural relaxation response, the antidote to stress. Practiced regularly, yoga retrains the body so calm feels normal. Then, the next time we are faced with a tense situation, we recognize the stress for what it is. We are mindfully stressed.

This morning, I woke up early but spent a couple of hours just laying on my bed, watching fragments of thoughts try, and fail, to form themselves into something coherent. There was a time, before all the yoga, when this kind of thing would trigger a bout of depression as I became convinced that I was useless and broken. Awareness and acceptance are great blessings. This morning, while watching my mind space out, I told myself that I was simply feeling stress and I stayed there so my body could rest after the effort of creating that wasted stress response. There was, after all, nothing I could do to stop my in-laws from coming (without creating an even more stressful family conflict), diagnose my mother's chest pain or take away my sister-in-law's grief. There was no fight-or-flight answer.

It was later than usual, but I did finally get out of bed and onto my yoga mat. As I went through my sun salutations, I discovered the physical side effects of the stress. My shoulders were tight. My low back was sore. It took a great deal of effort to breath slowly and deeply. I lost track of my place in the flow a couple of times as my focus wandered back to the half-formed thoughts.

The nice thing about being mindful of stress is you get to be watching when the stress dissipates. I was in Trikonasana (triangle pose) when the stress let go. My breath deepened. My shoulders and low back relaxed. My mind got quieter. I finished my practice and headed out to teach my Saturday morning yoga classes feeling relieved and refreshed.

We can't eliminate all stress. Even a hermit may find his heart beating fast when a bear decides his cave looks cozy. But we can do yoga. And we can be mindfully stressed.
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