Yoga, Breath and Stress

06-Bob-Fulkerson low res social mediaStress, Breath and Yoga: Lizard Brain and Open Hearts

By Bob Fulkerson

Scientific studies and centuries of experience have demonstrated a regular Yoga practice can result in profound improvements in our lives.

In my Yoga teacher training at The Expanding Light Meditation and Yoga Retreat in 2002, I was taught to connect with my breath at the beginning of each practice session. The teachers said this helps one to quietly go inward, preparing body, mind and spirit to the Asana (yoga poses) that follows. As I studied, I learned much about the relationship between breath and spirit.

In Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, the word “prana” means life force, energy, and breath. The ancient Greek word “Psychein”, where we get the word “psyche”, means soul or  “to breathe”. In Latin, the word for wind, “anemos”,  is closely related to the words for soul— “anima”—and spirit: “animus”. In Hebrew, the word for breath “ruauch” also means “spirit”.

The Yoga I learned to teach at Ananda is rooted in traditional Hatha Yoga. The Sanskrit word “Hatha” relates to the breath. The “Ha” is for inhalation and the “tha” represents exhalation. In Sanskrit, “hatha” means “now”, as in the first Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: “Hatha Yoga Anusashanum.” Scholars have translated  this in several different variations in English, but it essentially boils down to: “Now we come to the study of Yoga.” This reminds us to pay attention to the eternal moment of our current breath, to stay mindful of each Asana or each activity we are currently focusing on.

The “Ha” aspiration  in the first syllable of “Hawaii” also relates breath or spirit in that native language. The people of Hawaii used the term “Howlie” to describe Captain Cook and the first white people they encountered. It means “the people without breath or spirit.”

I heard the Newe (Shoshone) word “Shun-da-hai” for the first time at my first sweat, led by Western Shoshone Spiritual leader Corbin Harney, in Ruby Valley in 1988. He said the word means peace, blessings, or prayer. Corbin’s prayers always began with an aspirated, audible “Ha”. At sunrise circles, I noticed the Shoshone people blowing (breathing) outward at the end of the prayer. A Numa (Paiute) speaker told me their traditional blessing is “Na-nish-na-heit” (which I’ve spelled phonetically). The “heit” is an exhaled, aspirated sound.

“What is God? God is the breath inside the breath.” –Rumi

Lizard Brains

Stress is the number one killer of Black men in the United States, and leads to disease and premature mortality in every racial group. Stress contributes to most major health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even cancer. Even people like me, born to more privilege than 95% of the world’s population, live with varying degrees of stress generated by a seemingly endless list of anxieties from finances to relationships to the demise of our planet.

To understand stress, we must understand the body’s central nervous system. From moment to moment, we’re either winding up or winding down. When we’re winding up, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, which is why we survived on the savannah 50,000 years ago and could outrun, outfight or otherwise survive predators and kill for our food. The other part of our central nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system, which kicks in as the perceived threat diminishes and the body gears down.

When we perceive danger, the sympathetic nervous system generates commands to the body to prepare it for a critical situation (“fight or flight”). The heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, breathing increases, pupils dilate, adrenaline and cortisol increases. Basically, we get hella fierce. The digestive system shuts down to save food and energy. The limbic section of the brain takes over, which has not evolved since we were reptiles. When we’re triggered in this lizard-brained state, we’re highly susceptible to unskillful behaviors like road rage and pointless arguments.

One of the most pernicious side effects of stress is the elevation of cortisol, known as the “death or stress hormone” for good reason. Elevated cortisol can eat brain and muscle tissue. Elevated cortisol levels also add to unwanted weight gain by stimulating the appetite and ensures efficient conversion of calories to fat, which then tends to get stored in the abdomen.

The parasympathetic nervous system is the other half of our central nervous system. It allows us to rest between stressful “battles.” Because there’s no reason to run or fight, blood flow to the muscles decreases.  Digestive juices flow again. Adrenaline and cortisol secretions are greatly reduced. Blood flow increases to the reasoning centers of the brain. This is why simply stopping to take deep breaths in times of stress can allow us to think more clearly in a critical situation—and why acting when triggered leads to bad outcomes.

Open Hearts

 Bob Fulkerson
Bob Fulkerson

The good news is that research on the physiological effects of Yoga shows that we can correct the chronic imbalance in our central nervous system that results from living with too much stress. Scientific studies have demonstrated that by practicing yoga, we generate “feel good” neuropeptides such as serotonin.  A yoga practice also helps improve circulation of lymph and tone the spleen, leading to more efficient removal of toxins and strengthening the body’s immune system.

Yoga is not about flat abs or looking good. It’s more than mere asana (postures) on the mat. The Eight-Fold Path (“Ashtanga”, meaning “eight”) of Yoga laid down in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a 5,000-year old remedy to modern ailments in line with every religious and spiritual tradition I’ve come across, from the Buddhism to the 12 Steps to western religion.

Yoga is not meant to supplant medical science or medical treatment for physical ailments. Be sure to tell your doctor about your yoga practice. At its root, Yoga (from “yoke”, or “union” in Sanskrit) is about self transformation.

The ancient connections between breath and spirit, common to most languages and continents, can be summed up by BKS Iyengar in “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”:

The wise yogis studied this connection between breath and consciousness      and advocated the practice of pranayama to stabilize energy and consciousness…Prana is energy, when the self-energizing force embraces the body. Ayama means stretch, extension, expansion, length, breadth, regulation, prolongation, restraint and control. (P.153.)

With gratitude to: Patanjali; Dyksha and Gyandev McCord at The Expanding Light Yoga School at Ananda;  Dr. Timothy McCall, MD, of the Yoga Journal; William Broad (The Science of Yoga); my teachers Robert and Judith Gass, Corbin Harney, Norm DeLorme; and the long line of yoga teachers and students Ive been blessed to know.

“By your stumbling, the world is perfected.” Sri Aurobindo

The Yoga Center presents Welcome to Yoga for Stress Relief (1)-page0001

Effectiveness of Meditation in Reducing Stress

Effectiveness of Meditation in Reducing Stress

Recent research on the benefits of meditation in reducing stress-related illness has convinced many corporations nationwide – including Adolf Coors, Marriott, Poloroid, Hughes Aircraft, Pacific Bell, and NASA – to use meditation training as an integral part of their stress management programs. Meditation has been the subject of hundreds of clinical studies in recent years. Below is a summary of key studies:

1) Meditation significantly controls high blood pressure at levels comparable to widely used prescription drugs, and without the side effects of drugs. Hypertension, AMA Medical Journal

2) Meditators are able to reduce chronic pain by more than 50% while increasing daily function and markedly improving their moods, even 4 years after the completion of an 8-week training course. Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD Stress Reduction Clinic

3) 75% of long-term insomniacs who have been trained in relaxation and meditation can fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed. Dr. Gregg Jacobs, Psychologist, Harvard

4) Meditation decreases oxygen consumption, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, and increases the intensity of alpha, theta, and delta brain waves – the opposite of the physiological changes that occur during the stress response. Herbert Benson, MD Harvard Medical School

5) Relaxation therapies are effective in treating chronic pain, and can markedly ease the pain of low back problems, arthritis, and headaches. National Institutes of Health, 1996

6) Reducing stress can dramatically reduce heart disease. In a five year study of heart disease patients, those who learned to manage stress reduced their risk of having another heart attack by 74%, compared with patients receiving medication only. Reducing mental stress also proved more beneficial than getting exercise. Dr. James Blumenthal, Duke University

7) Twenty eight people with high levels of blocked arteries and high risk of heart attack were placed on a program with regular practice of meditation, yoga, a low fat vegetarian diet, and exercise. Twenty people in the control group received conventional medical care endorsed by the AMA. At the end of a year, most of the experimental group reported that their chest pains had virtually disappeared; for 82% of the patients, arterial clogging had reversed. Those who were sickest at the start showed the most improvement. The control group had an increase in chest pain and arterial blockage worsened. Dr. Dean Ornish, San Francisco Medical School

8) Two groups were compared: meditators and non-meditators The meditators were less anxious and neurotic, more spontaneous, independent, self confident, empathetic, and less fearful of death. Atlantic Monthly, 1991

9) Twenty out of twenty two anxiety prone people showed a 60% improvement in anxiety levels following an eight week course in meditation. University of Massachusetts

10) A study of women with severe PMS showed a 58% improvement in their symptoms after five months of daily meditation. Health, 1995

11) High school students who study relaxation techniques stay in school more often and have fewer incidents of suspension. The Education Initiative, Mind/Body Medical Institute, Harvard

12) In a recent study, 77% of individuals with high levels of stress were able to cool down, lower their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, simply by training themselves to stay calm. Health, 1994