Stress and Your Health: The Art of Slowing Down in a Fast Paced World

“The present moment is always small in the sense that it is always simple, but concealed within it lies the greatest power.” ~Eckhart Tolle

A few years ago, I found myself constantly throwing myself from one commitment to the next, barely present enough to remember my journey to and from each location. I assured myself that this was not uncommon, this is how most people move through life, was it not? Before long, the telltale signs of stress began to appear. I was mentally drained, I was experiencing chronic headaches and insomnia.

Around the same time, a good friend of mine had a heart attack. I spoke with him often throughout his rehabilitation. His doctor informed him that stress is one of the biggest factors in heart disease. “The effect of stress is like shards of glass on your arteries”, the doctor said. That image stuck with me.

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Just Sit Still: Taming the Puppy Mind with Meditation

Me meditating at Kits Beach in Vancouver

For years, I had the hardest time wrapping my brain around meditation. It seemed like a daunting task that required a great deal of skill. I remember saying to myself, “I really want to learn how to meditate”. So I asked one of my favourite teachers at the time how to do it. He said simply, “Just sit still.”

I was not impressed. This was certainly not the answer I was looking for. As a trained dancer, I am a technician. I was hoping for some advice on technique, some concrete, tangible explanation to what felt elusive and overwhelming . The answer I got felt like a cop-out.

I knew that meditation had a multitude of benefits, including reduced anxiety, increased serotonin levels (boosting mood and relieving mild depression), enhanced immune function and increased self-esteem. I was convinced I needed to master it.

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Yoga for Depression: Stand on Your Hands to Beat the Blues

I went for a coffee run the other day and ran into my friend, Grant, a fellow yogi and coffee enthusiast.  He mentioned that he was reading about the pose Handstand (Adho Muka Vrksasana) and that the listed benefits included relief of mild depression. He wondered if I knew the reason why?

Good question. Of course, I’ve read in all my yoga texts that inversions (such as Handstand, Headstand, Forearm balance, and my personal favorite, Shoulderstand) are known to relieve symptoms of mild depression, and I know from my own experience, that when I stand on my hands, I feel a little bit happier. But what are the physiological reasons behind that?

In a book by Amy Weintraub, Yoga for Depression, she spends a chapter on the exploration of inversions and depression. She includes a quote from Karen Koffler, M.D., director of Integrative Medicine at Evanston Northwestern Hospital, who claims:

“Inverted positions that are assumed in Yoga alter the blood flow (including lymphatic drainage) and flow of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). If there is increased blood flow to the area, there will be increased bioavailability of oxygen and glucose – the two most important metabolic substrates for the brain. It follows then that cells bathed in a solution that is rich in factors required for the creation of neurotransmitters (like norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin) will be better able to produce these chemicals.”

Well that makes sense. By reversing the effects of gravity and flushing the brain with oxygenated blood, it provides the perfect breeding ground for creating those natural “happy” chemicals in our brains; the ones that amongst other characteristics, regulate mood, emotion, sleep, appetite, attention and focus.

Modern medicine is only beginning to catch up to what yogis have known for thousands of years. By bringing awareness to the body through meditation, breath, and asana practice (including playful postures like handstand), we increase our vitality, energy and mental clarity, which in turn creates a ripple-effect into the rest of our lives.

From my personal experience as a teacher, the proof is in the pudding. I don’t need a study to tell me what I see in front of me on a daily basis.  When I’m working with a group of beginners, after a few short weeks of well-rounded practice including inversions, twists, hip openers and backbends, without fail, they look 10 years younger. There is a glint in their eye and their skin glows. (It always amazes me how quickly this happens.)

I think Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Guru and founder of Ashtanga Yoga said it best when he said,

“Do your practice and all is coming.”

And on that note, I’m headed to class. See you on your mat!