Guest Post by Rachelle Ballard of Into the Woods Wellness. Rachelle has a Masters of Science in Exercise Physiology and Wellness; is a credentialed Yoga RYT and personal trainer, and a behavioral psychology, nutrition, wellness and mindfulness/meditation coach. Read the full article here.
You’re here. You didn’t press snooze this time and you actually made it. Here you are, actually standing inside the gym. It begins. The tread moves, the sweat feels like it begins too soon, but, that’s to be expected. You try to focus on your music and the latest article on ‘How Your Taste in Movies Predicts Your Next Job!’ . Right as you begin to develop what you pray is a ‘rhythm,’ you feel it. That pain. It’s right where it always is. You think of that quote on your inspirational Pinterest board: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” But the pain doesn’t leave. You debate vigorously, “is this pain or is this mental weakness?” The pain feels real, but is it real enough? Eventually, you call it a draw. You went further than the pain wanted, but you didn’t go as far as you had envisioned.
So, what’s true? Where does discomfort begin and pain end?
Your brain tells stories. Your body tells the truth.
Physiologically speaking, an emotional response in the brain — joy, sadness, grief, excitement, surprise, anger, etc. —has a true life span of 90 seconds or less. Ninety seconds is the longest an initial emotional reaction can be in the chemistry of our brain followed in turn by the body. So what creates the hours of tears we are capable of welling up after a touching commercial or those anxious butterflies that can create nausea for an entire day preceding an important business meeting? It’s the stories we tell. We feel sad, it feels good to feel sad, so we tell more sad stories to fuel our original sad feeling. We are euphorically happy while spending time with our best friends; so as to not lose that joyous feeling, we spend nearly the entire time reminiscing on past stories that remind us of more and more joy.
How does this help us in our relationship with pain in our body? Most of us are telling stories from a part of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. This is also referred to as the fight-or-flight response of the body (a.k.a stress). This means our stories are coming from a place of slight if not distinct anxiety. Our body, left to its own devices without the worriedly fueled sympathetic response, would be happily functioning on what is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This side of the autonomic nervous system is also referred to as homeostasis. It does not mean you are happy or elated all of the time, it merely means you’re…well, you. You’re ok. No stress, no lies, just you.
The difference between our mind, the storyteller, and our body, is the body has no reason for stories. It does not benefit from weaving a tale of ‘what-if’s’ and ‘if only’s.’ The body has no reason to lie to us. Why would it? The body just wants to feel and function well. Homeostasis is its constant goal. So how do we get back to baseline?
Now we know there are two opposing voices: our body, the truth; and our brain, the storyteller. How do we then separate the truth from the stories? One of the reasons yoga gets credit for being a connected and mindful physical practice is because it focuses on a great tool for truth-detecting: breathing.
Take a seat, right here, right now. Sit up tall without straining your back or shoulders. Close your eyes. Go ahead— no one will notice. It’s just for a moment.
S – Simply stop. Just pause right here, right now. Don’t do anything for just this quick moment.
T – Take a deep breath. And not just a deep breath, but a yoga breath. Try exhaling like you are fogging up a mirror with your mouth closed. It will make this soft humming, Darth Vader-ish sound in the back of your throat. Now try inhaling like you are gasping with your mouth closed. Try this 3-5 times. Slow your breath down this way, perhaps breathing in for 5-6 seconds and breathing out for 6-7 seconds.
O – Observe. With your eyes still closed, pay attention. Observe what sounds you can hear, and try not to tell stories about them. Observe what you can feel. Start with your toes and work all the way up to your head. Notice everything you can about your body without getting stuck in the ‘why.’ Observe your mind. Where does your mind try and go? What story does it want to tell right away?
P – Permission. Grant yourself permission for whatever you need. Do you need to take a break? Do you need permission to STOP again? Do you need permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling in your body or mind without guilt or judgment?
Do you feel different? Perhaps more at baseline than when you started? This is how we can start to develop a relationship with our body and therefore a relationship with the truth. Practice slowing down your stories so the truth has a stage to speak from.
When you’re running, lifting weights, doing yoga, dancing, or any number of physical activities, if you feel something cue in your body, take a moment and S.T.O.P. Think, “is this a story my brain is telling me because it’s uncomfortable or stressed? Or is this my body trying to tell me the truth? Am I using my body as a weapon for my brain’s bullying? Or am I using my body as a tool to progress into more awareness, more connectedness, back to homeostasis, back to self?” In the end, our body never victimizes us to its own betraying demise and our brain doesn’t have to be the author of sad endings and horror stories. We always win if we merely practice listening to the truth and tell better stories.
Taylor, J. B. (2008). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Viking Adult.
Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition.
Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. Physiological Changes
Associated with Emotion. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10829/
Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Jerath, Ravinder et al.
Medical Hypotheses, Volume 67, Issue 3, 566 – 571
Join us as we focus on wellness throughout the month of April with weekly health and wellness tips, recipes and workouts. See all our Health & Wellness Month posts here.