How I changed my life. All by practising yoga...
Yep, sounds bonkers, I know, but I really mean it & can scientifically explain it (well, most of it anyway...)
I’ve always loved sport. For me the sweatier the better, and if I could end a session with mud splattered up my back as well, then I would put that down as a ‘win’. Once I had children exercise became the thing that helped me regain my pre-pregnancy body – I still loved it, but there was a now a new pressure attached to it. To start with this was fine – I thrive on a challenge and am elated by achieving a goal. When I first worked as a Personal Trainer approximately 12 years ago this is the attitude that I brought to my clients. If I’m really honest I was probably a little impatient with them when they didn’t find the time to fit in the runs and weights sessions that I prescribed to them between our weekly sessions. I had a ‘no pain, no gain’ or ‘grit your teeth and do it’ attitude to getting the results they wanted. Sound familiar?
Then, due to a major life change, I ended up getting an office job. Juggling 3 small children and a full-time job didn’t in my mind give me an excuse to take my foot off the sporting gas. I was a keen triathlete at the time, and I was swim training at night 2 times a week, doing long lake swims, bike rides and runs at weekends and shoe-horning plenty of additional runs in through the week. My job got busier... my children were just as demanding as anyone else’s children... and for some reason I still made myself wrong if I didn’t keep to my demanding training schedule. And this is the weirdest thing to admit: I really started to hate it when I did go out to train. I kept thinking it was just because I was ‘out of my groove’ and that if I could force myself back into the habit, I’d start to love it again. You won’t be surprised to hear that this just created a vicious circle of hate: self-loathing etc etc... I recognise now that this just created an added stress to my life.
I’ve seen lots of articles in the media recently about the effects of stress on the body, and have also done a lot of a research around this topic for a recent assessment for my BSc in Nutritional Science. If you haven’t yet read about it (or waded through the same scientific research papers as me) let me try and summarise it for you.
How that Extra stress in your life is more detrimental than you realise
A stress response can be triggered by many situations, for example environmental stresses can include the pressure of a looming deadline, being followed down a dark alley at night, consistently eating a poor diet, or not getting the optimal amount of sleep. Psychological stresses can include a constant worry of losing your job, or that your children may come into some danger, or as in my example, the constant internal pressure of sticking to a training routine that you have started to resent.
Once a stressor is encountered, and our homeostatic limits (mechanisms in our body to maintain internal stability) are challenged, the body works to restore these levels. Once a stressor is encountered, and our body responds via the fight or flight response our bodies are then normally resilient enough to recover from the effects of these changes, and that ability to recover is a very important mechanism - this is known as allostasis. However, when there is a constant reliance on the fight or flight response the body starts to develop a resistance to this message, which is known as adaption. In the adaption phase the body becomes resistant to the chemical messengers, and more chemical messengers are required to illicit a response. This is known as allostatic load, and is the second phase in the General Adaptation Syndrome created by Dr Hans Seyle. The below diagram gives an overview of Seyle’s theory, which shows it ending with the exhaustion phase where the high allostatic load starts to have a damaging effect on other organs in the body, which often leads to chronic illness, and highlights why stress can have such a detrimental effect on our long term health, happiness and wellbeing.
Dr hans seyle’s general adaption syndrome
Image taken from www.researchgate.com
How yoga helps stress levels
But, how does this relate to how yoga changed my life? Well. This is the interesting part (and I love it when I’m able to validate my personal experiences with scientific evidence). Yoga, and yogic breathing techniques have been shown, through various scientific studies, to reduce the effects of stress on the body. These benefits are diverse, and include (but most certainly aren’t limited to): reducing the physiological effects of stress and anxiety, decreasing cortisol levels (high levels of which can have profound physiological effects in the body, including imbalance in sex hormone levels, increased inflammatory responses and suppressed immune system to name a few), as well as increasing memory. This reflects the experience I felt in myself – not only has my health benefitted from the reduction of stress (Oversharing Warning: but constipation is no longer a companion in my life), I am not also better at dealing with stress when it comes along. I have a much greater awareness of what is happening in my body but more importantly I have a greater awareness of what is happening in my mind. It is this awareness that has been so transformative for me – practising yoga has given me the space and the time to reflect and be present to the question of whether I am allowing my mind to limit or to free me. It is the ability to subjectively question your thoughts that is the first step towards making the positive changes you consciously want, but subconsciously sabotage.
Ex-colleagues of mine who I haven’t seen for months told me that I’m glowing, and I feel that inside and out
Put simply: I am calmer, I am healthier, I have a more positive outlook on life, I am truly happier, and content.
The bit of my story that I can’t define is what changed to make me practice yoga consistently in recent years, so I apologise that this might sound a little un-scientific. I’ve mentioned in my ‘about’ page that I had tried yoga on and off over the years but never stuck to it, partly as I found all the deep stretches painful (aka I have a tight and stressed body), I couldn’t immediately do the fancy pants moves (aka I have a competitive ego), and I had never worked up a drop of sweat doing yoga, so for me it didn’t constitute exercise.... So, what was different this time? Maybe it’s because I had reached that exhaustion phase, or maybe it was just luck that in my cycle of trying different quick fix solutions to feel like myself again I stumbled on yoga and something just clicked (I did warn you that this part lacks scientific explanation). But whatever it was I don’t care, I am just eternally grateful.
whatever it was, I don’t care, I am just eternally grateful
Oh, and I have now practiced yoga in a way that has made me stronger and sweatier than any run or bike ride from my training of old – with the added bonus of loving doing it rather than resenting it.
The other important thing to remember is that there are many different styles of yoga out there, and many different teachers with different personalities and teaching styles. Not to mention that we change, and our bodies and minds need different things throughout our lives. So, if you have tried yoga before and it hasn’t resonated, I hope this may have inspired you to try again. At The Garden Studio we have a range of classes to suit different needs (use the links below) , or contact us if you have any questions that still need answering.
There is so much more scientific detail I can go into regarding the effects of stress on the body, and the benefits of yoga / breathing, but I’ll save that for another day, and another blog. But, if you are interested in reading more about the science part here are some resources that you can check out.
Grabowski, S.R. and Tortora, G.J., 2000. Principles of anatomy and physiology. Wiley.
Gothe, N.P., Keswani, R.K. and McAuley, E., 2016. Yoga practice improves executive function by attenuating stress levels. Biological psychology
Telles, S. and Singh, N., 2013. Science of the mind: ancient yoga texts and modern studies. Psychiatric clinics, 36(1)
Epel, E.S., Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E.H., Lum, P.Y., Beckmann, N.D., Zhu, J., Lee, E., Gilbert, A., Rissman, R.A. and Tanzi, R.E., 2016. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational psychiatry,