“Conflict cannot survive without your participation”
– Wayne Dyer
In an ideal world, arriving to a yoga class goes something like this:
We float through the door, greeting everyone with a smile, beaming positivity. We gracefully gather our props and set up our space with reverence. We take several slow, deep, grounding breaths and envision an expansive intention for our practice. Then, as we step onto our mat, we release all of our worldly cares and become completely present.
In reality, we arrive to our class in a much different way:
As we walk through the studio door, we’re checking our phones frantically to see if any more work emails have come through. While we set up our props, we’re simultaneously planning dinner and trying to figure out who is going to pick up the kids from soccer practice. Waiting for class to start, our thoughts are cycling at warp speed through the events of the day. Even though we’re sitting quietly in a peaceful setting, we’re still kicking ourselves for the deal that didn’t go through, still fuming at the terrible driver who cut us off on our way over here. Our minds are seething, and our bodies are tense.
This is what it means to be a human.
As much as we’d all like to believe we live off of “love and light”, floating through our day with positivity and equanimity, that’s just not the case.
Conflict is a part of being human. We are like the ocean waters, our moods changing as tides, one minute feeling calm, the next tumultuous and obscure. Sunny clear skies can be instantly replaced by storm clouds.
Our brains are problem solvers. We take in information and want to react immediately.
External events stimulate our internal insecurities, fears, and ego. As a result, we don’t often problem-solve with objectivity. We transfer our own “stuff” onto external situations, often making those situations even more difficult for ourselves and others.
Our problems range from micro to macro, from spilt milk to sick relatives. But we often have the same intense reaction to smaller-scale conflicts as large ones. Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” response: a physiological reaction that addresses what we perceive as life-threatening situations.
Say someone cuts us off in traffic. Our eyes and ears send that information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that helps us process emotions. The amygdala then sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which we can more or less identify as the brain’s command center. The hypothalamus then activates the fight or flight response via the sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline gets pumped through our body, giving us the energy to change lanes before we even have time to think about it. This all happens within a matter of milliseconds.
Then, the hypothalamus either triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to slow down and decompress from our intense adrenaline rush. Or, if the brain perceives that there is still a problem, the hypothalamus sends a signal to our adrenal glands to produce cortisol, a stress hormone which keeps us on high alert.
Because we’re often moving from one conflict to the next, humans rarely get a chance to fully engage the decompressive and restorative effects of the parasympathetic nervous system. Instead, our adrenal glands continually pump out cortisol.
Because we activate the fight or flight response so frequently and also because we rarely take the time to decompress, many of us essentially live in a constant state of stress. Not to mention our daily coffee fix, which stimulates extra doses of cortisol and epinephrine.
Though a truly effective mechanism for dealing with life-threatening situations, fight or flight proves ineffective for the types of conflicts that many of us deal with daily. Fight or flight can be activated in relatively harmless situations, like when we arrive late to a meeting, or when we don’t get an immediate response after we’ve texted a loved one.
Most of us also lead extremely busy lives. According to Forbes, 47% of Americans didn’t use their vacation days in 2017. We are never really giving ourselves enough time to fully turn off.
Often, the ways in which we decompress are not truly relaxing.
When we are immersed in conflict and feeling stressed, we often neglect our health and our bodies by doing things that feel good in the short term, but tend to hurt us in the long term. When the going gets tough, we naturally gravitate towards sugar, fried foods, caffeine, and alcohol. Rather than going on a run, we grab our ice cream and sit around binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”
There’s a reason we reach for the ice cream instead of the apple. Junk food and TV send pleasure signals to our brain, and we feel temporarily happy and comfortable. But that quick fix isn’t sustainable, and we have to eat more and more sugar, keep watching more and more TV to hit those dopamine triggers. Soon enough, negative thought patterns take over and we feel worse than when we started.
The good news is that there are tools to help us understand and deal with the myriad types of stress and conflict that we are experiencing daily. Through sitting in silence or meditation, we can develop awareness of our inner state and the qualities of our thoughts. Through yoga, we can integrate our mind and body to help us moderate our stress responses. Both meditation and yoga can help us relax and restore by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Meditation is the ultimate awareness practice. When we sit still, focus on our breath, and notice the constant cycling of the mind, we step into an observer role. We start to watch and even study our thoughts, rather than running along with them on the hamster wheel.
As we sit still, we can notice the quality of our thoughts: Are they racing at warp speed? Are they angry, sad, or fearful?
We can scan our bodies, observing our posture: Are our shoulders tense, our jaws clenched? Our eyelids squeezed shut?
We notice our breath: Are we holding our inhalations? Is our breathing short and rapid?
We can try to observe what our thoughts are most fixated on. Next time you sit down to meditate, try to count the top 5-10 themes that pop up in your mind, such as work, relationships, what’s for dinner, etc. Notice those primary areas of thought, and after your meditation, write down whatever you remember.
This thought-theme practice serves to help us observe the cycles of the mind. If we can better discern where we are spending the most mental time and energy, we can more easily identify and release negative thought patterns.
The key is to observe all of these aspects of self without judgment. We don’t want to add any extra stress to our systems by feeling guilty about how stressed we are.
Yoga is an amazing movement practice to help us to move through our conflicts and anxieties. Through yoga, we give ourselves time and space to simply be present. We allow past regrets and future anxieties to fade away. When we engage in intentional movement and breathing, We simplify our complex lives down to what is really happening, right now.
As we move through asanas, we become aware of tension that we’ve been holding in our bodies. This tension that has naturally accumulated from stress.
Yoga helps us control and deepen our breathing, reduces blood pressure, and brings down the heart rate, all of which support the parasympathetic nervous system.
We can utilize our movements and breathing to release the lingering effects of the fight or flight response.
Yoga also helps increase flexibility and build strength, so that our bodies are equipped to deal with stress on many levels. An asana practice helps us become familiar with controlled breathing and intentional movement, tools which we can recall during difficult moments in our day.
Yoga helps us transmute our stress into feelings of wellbeing, calm, and purpose.
Stressful situations arise all the time. When we’re going through the motions of the day, we can’t necessarily get to a yoga class or sit and meditate in a quiet room.
If you find yourself immersed in a stressful situation, simply take one long, deep breath. Use that breath to ground yourself and remember that you have agency over how you react to conflicts.
Remember that at any time, you can find your breath. It’s always there to bring you back to yourself.