From burnout to happiness
I am sitting on the beach, observing the lightning blue of the Baltic Sea, inhaling the scent among the lime green dunes. Today, the sea is as smooth as a pond, crystalline and unmoving. I am, as always, amazed how it is possible to have this pristine white beach all to myself. There is no-one else here. At this time of year in Sweden, everyone goes on holiday. So, I can practice yoga on the beach by myself or with friends.
However, it has not always been so relaxed and easy-going for me. Many years ago I used to flee to the beach to escape from overload and turmoil, headaches, and relationship issues. At times my tears would mix with the white sand. When I look back now I cannot understand why I put myself through all the hardship. I did not need to, of course. It was something I chose for myself.
The root cause of modern stress
Trying to live up to other people’s expectations, and perhaps my own, was not bringing me happiness. Instead, it wore me down, piece by piece.
I did not need to be in a high-pressure career to be complete. Nor did I need a man or father for my children to create a good home. I felt happy about everything in my life. I loved my university career, I loved the house that I was renovating, I loved my kids. However, I was living more like a shadow of myself.
Everything was demanding of my time. Unhealthy relationship attachments drained my energy. I was caught in a split between my mind and my body. My mind told me I was very happy and getting everything I wanted out of life, albeit in a continuous struggle. However, my body was telling me No! You are on the edge of a breakdown! I believe I was in that place for years and I was only just coping. At the time, I was struggling with reflux, recurrent headaches and insomnia. I was de-energized, low and there were far too few smiles. I hardly ever laughed.
Release stress with yoga therapy
I was right on the edge so, I started going to the beach every day to practice yoga. I had practiced yoga for 5 years but now I became much more sincere. Gradually, color returned to my face, I became stronger. My experience with yoga therapy carried me through a tough period and gave me back my zest for life. However, my stress threshold had fallen and I was easily put off balance. Old unresolved issues lingered in my mind and body. However, my experience with yoga therapy helped me find how to release this locked-in stress and heal at a deeper level.
Yoga was born of India, both practice and philosophy, so I chose to do yoga teacher training there. India was also a place far removed from problems of my home world, and as full of promise as it was with people, colors and chaos.
The rickshaw driver that picked me up had Hindu Gods pasted, dangling and swinging from his windscreen. Weaving our way through the traffic he told me his life story with a big smile. I knew I had arrived in a more open, heart-warming, and colorful culture, with very different values. Materialism is important everywhere, but in India it seemed there was more life.
I chose India as I wanted to know what it was about yoga that had been so healing for me. Moreover, I wanted to explore healing at a deeper level. My studies had already shown me the body remembers stress and I wanted to unlearn my past stress. I had read yoga can make you younger. Could it really be true? Years of accumulated stress had blocked my energy flow and made me look older. Could it be reversed?
Yoga therapy teacher training
My first course in India was a yoga therapy course. It was a logical choice as yoga had already been very therapeutic for me. But, how far I could go with the healing process? I was aware that using yoga in the wrong way can cause as many problems as it heals. I wanted to know the precautions needed with yoga practice as well as the benefits.
Releasing my past stress with yoga therapy took only 3 weeks. Afterwards, I was radiating energy and health. When I returned home everybody noticed. I was glowing. I looked 10 years younger. My local doctor told me (laughing) “I get certain health problems at my age” while also telling me it was not something I needed to be concerned with just yet. I asked how old she was: she was eight years younger than me.
Health According to Yoga Philosophy
My experience with yoga therapy and its healing powers had me fascinated by the concept of health and ancient yoga philosophy. Previously, I had considered myself healthy but, I realized that my frequent headaches, lack of energy, negative thoughts, irritability and insomnia were all signs of an unhealthy lifestyle. I had been taught to view health as a condition of being able to cope with life. After all, I could manage to teach at university, do my fieldwork and write articles, renovate my house, and take care of my boys and social obligations. However, I did so with frequent recurring pain, little enthusiasm and absolutely no spare capacity. I was stretched to the limit.
According to ancient yogi science, I was not healthy. Health, in the yogic context, was only present when life energy ran freely in the body. It was about being free of pain, feeling energized, happy, and having surplus capacity.
I returned from India highly idealistic about the concepts of yoga-based health. According to the yogic sciences, health comes from reinvigorating your energy flow. Control your energy flow you, control your health.
When I explained to my academic friends my experience with yoga therapy and about health and energy flow ‘life energy, kundalini energy, and chakra energy’, I was met by overbearing smiles. Where was the science in all of this? As a scientist myself, I was not quite ready to throw out the scientific basis for what I did, even if I had experienced it in my own body. So, I began to study science of movement, breath, meditation, and how mindfulness can make a difference to people’s lives. I found plenty of support in contemporary neuroscience research.
The science of yoga
Stress alters the brain, creating long-term changes in behavior and physiology. Over-production of stress hormones is related a number of chronic health conditions. Examples are chronic pain, overweight, high blood pressure and life-threatening complications such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and cardiac problems. There are many more. Stress is also equally a cause of mental health problems like anxiety and depression, reduced cognitive functioning and personality change (anger, frustration, and nervousness).
A blend of modern neuroscience and the ancient yogic sciences can be an important ingredient of a life free of stress.
Modern science and yoga therapy
Modern science is increasingly aware of how ancient yogic sciences support balance of heart, mind, and body. Research in neuro-plasticity suggests our brains are not fixed but flexible. Connections responsible for how we experience the world, how we respond and behave, can be altered. Simply put, we can change.
However, the brain remembers it’s stressors. Each successive time we are exposed to a particular kind of stress the brain more easily drops into a stress-response. And the result is a turning up in the level of our stress hormones. The good news is, research in neuro-plasticity indicates we can also unlearn this automatic stress response. This is possible by re-training your brain.
I spent five years studying how, when facing strong challenges, yoga switches your stress autopilot back to calm-and-focussed mode.
I learned that under stress, the heart beats faster, muscles tighten and your focus becomes blurred. Mindful Yin Yoga, meditation, and deep trance Yoga Nidra calm and stabilize the mind. This is indicated in numerous studies by an increase in alpha-wave activity in the brain.
With regular practice, your brain learns to more easily find this state of calm focus, sometimes called relaxed alertness. In all, the practice of stress-release yoga helps build new positive-response neuronal pathways in the brain. And over time these pathways help alter your response to stress.
Yoga gave me health and happiness
Sitting here on the beach I am contemplating how my adopted yogi lifestyle has changed my life. I am become a person of strength, courage, and self-love. I have the capacity to feel great about not being in a relationship. There is enough value in simply being me.
Yet, I am the same person. I have the same values, the same fire, vigor, smile, the same fundamentals. Something has changed. My back is straight and I smile much more often. Repetitive migraine-like headaches, insomnia and acidic reflux are issues of the past.
I am still human, I can get irritated and I can get sad. The difference though, is it no longer stays with me. It flows around me like water around rocks in a stream. I am less at the mercy of other’s expectations, moods and projections. The inside of me has changed. I am calmer and in a better position to handle life’s challenges. The changes are subtle, yet utterly transformational.
My days are divided into different experiences. On the days I practice yoga, I wear amour protecting me against stress, exhaustion, bad moods and projections. The days I am not practicing yoga it is the opposite.
My experience with yoga therapy taught me it is not a quick fix like taking a pill, the greatest benefits come with sustained practice. Whichever form of yoga you choose to practice, wherever you go, be sure to take your practice with you.