This is a concept that I often refer to in my yoga classes. The idea that we develop courage whilst remaining calm is a central concept in the practice of yoga, being bold enough to back ourselves, push beyond the comfort zone, often mentally and physically, whilst remaining relaxed and steady is a fundamental life skill that we seek to cultivate within yoga practice.
In the techniques of yoga we are often putting ourselves into challenging physical & emotional situations where our bodies and minds and challenged. By remaining calm in these situations, we keep ourselves steady and present, enabling us perhaps to stay longer, go further, deeper with the practice.
Key to these concepts are the two interrelated branches of the autonomic nervous system, the Sympathetic (Fight or Flight) Nervous System and the Para-Sympathetic (Rest & Digest) System. Due to the intense pressure of many modern lifestyles, many of us are hard-wired into our Sympathetic Nervous System, constantly on the go, ready for action, fuelled up with caffeine and needing alcohol to relax. This manner of living is common for many and leads to adrenal fatigue, anxiety and depression. Essentially, we keep going, until we can’t, and then we crash.
The ‘Fight or Flight’ mechanism is useful, but many of us spend too much time there, and we need to know how to transition back into this Para-Sympathetic Nervous State - where our bodies release the enzymes for digesting food, sexual functions, deep rest & healing.
Within yoga practice, we are often seeking to induce the Para-Sympathetic Nervous Response, and ultimately develop mastery over our Autonomic Nervous system, so we can smoothly transition between the two states. We can be alert and active when necessary, but then smoothly transition back into a restive, rejuvenating state.
It’s All in The Breath
The control centre for these nervous responses in contained within our respiratory system. By engaging our abdominal breath, we can quickly shift into our para-sympathetic nervous system, activating the relaxation response, whereas a chest breath is designed to hyperventilate the blood with oxygen and get us ready to run or fight.
The Gold Standard Breath in yoga is the 'Full Yogic Breath' - or 'Full Diaphragmatic Breath', where we engage both the abdomen and the chest to utlilise the full capacity of our lungs - ultimately, long slow deep breathes using our full capacity will give us plenty of oxygen, whilst remaining in the parasympathetic nervous experience.
If you want to dig deeper there is a lot more to learn here, the science of breath (pranayama) is rich and magnificent, ultimately breath is the magic carpet upon which yogis can float into the ethereal realms. We can talk more about this another time, but for the sake of this post what you should know is;
Long Slow Full Yogic Breath = You Remaining Courageous and Calm
Be the Peaceful Warrior
Few Yoga Postures demonstrate this better than the Warrior Pose or Virabhadrasana series. These postures require mental attention, balance, and activation of the major muscle groups in legs, core, chest and shoulders to maintain. Hold Warrior for 30 seconds or more and the heart will be pumping and the legs can start wobbling. Yoga teachers will often cue the breathe here - In addition to Full Yogic Breathe the Ujjaya breath is particularly wonderful, stimulating the vagal nerves in the front of the throat and supporting us to remain in the para-sympathetic nervous state - in what can be an intense position we are asked to maintain courage, and remain calm.
Having this experience in a yoga practice, even just for a few moments at a time, builds neurological intelligence, which we can then apply to other aspects of our lives. This is why we practice.
Steadiness & Ease
A fundamental concept in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is 'Sthira-Sukham Asanam’ - “posture (asana) [should be] stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha),”
This Sutra points to the posture carried through the practices of yoga - but like most things in yoga, it is a concept that we can carry out to all aspects of our lives.
In my opinion and experience, when the going gets tough in my world, maintaining a steady application of effort and a comfortable mental attitude is the best way to achieve the best results. Ie: Stick with the tasks at hand without flogging myself into exhaustion or freaking out and running away.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr
As the timeless gem of the Serenity Prayer suggests: Life can be a complex game, presenting us with fresh challenges on each new day, often throwing us curveballs and unexpected twists and turns, with few moments of notice given.
Life asks us, to be ready each day, to face whatever comes, to do our best, nothing more, nothing less. With this attitude of courage and calm, we can steady ourselves, and ready ourselves to fully experience whatever comes next - yoga is a magnificent system with which we can learn these life skills.