I talk frequently about how breath work helps to balance and control your fight or flight response and engage your rest and recovery response. Today I want to talk about how that effects our training. We need to activate that fight or flight response when we train, especially in combat sports.
So why would we want to do something that may bring us into rest and recovery?
Both branches of the nervous system are functioning when you are training, not just fight or flight.
There are very appropriate times for us to be chill in our training. In between rounds. In between sets. And post training. This improves our ability to be offensive, be defensive, and capable of understanding new techniques as well as processing information.
On the flip side we want our sympathetic system in the driver seat to control our responses and reactions to things happening to us during our training, this keeps us safe. That is often called lizard brain, or instinct.
“A psychologist raised a glass of water and asked “How heavy is this glass of water? She replied "Weight doesn't matter. The weight doesn't change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.” “The stress and worries in life are like that glass of water."
Mental and emotional stress effects all areas our life. We often create coping mechanisms to deal will these side effects. Many of us, and the clients that I work with, revert to overtraining or just overdoing things to combat stress. However, this only adds more stress. It is like filling the glass of water that you are carrying up more and more. If our body/mind are not processing stress appropriately or you are relying on unhealthy outlets, then it will slow you down in training and risk of injury is increased.
This is not just something that happens in athletes. You could look at your everyday life and see how you take on more than you probably should to combat uncomfortable emotions that you might be feeling like anxiety, heartache, lethargy, sadness, anger, or even happiness. What we are talking about here is the problem with everyone feeling like they always have to be doing something to validate their existence so they pack in the busy and hard work overwhelming their nervous system creating external validation.
Breath work takes some of that mental and emotional stress and processes it with very little of our own participation. By taking time to intentionally breathe we are exercising our nervous system. (Basic breath work can make a difference, but specific practices designed for how you are feeling in that moment is the most amazing thing).
Breath work is akin to your mental emotional landscape like weightlifting is to your muscles. We exercise silence, patience, and challenge in our breathing techniques so that we can (more appropriately) deal with our stressors internally and externally. By facing the challenge of silence, discomfort, and patience in our routines and practices we become mentally equipped for the stressors that everyday life, and training, will offer us. As you do this practices and overcome the challenges of being still with your emotions you will find the there are patterns to the way that you think and feel. It is in the identification of these patterns that your whole world will start to change. Internal validation will come, and external validation will be needed less and less.
This may sound like it is not linked to your recovery and training, but once you are aware of the the mental noise, you will begin to see differently. And especially so if you have a whoop strap and log your stress and breath work practices.
Breath work gives us what we need, sometimes regardless of the practice's intention. It is aimed to create balance in the system and that can look like an energetic practice making us feel sleepy or a relaxing practice making us energized. Your nervous system knows what to do and when you take that glass of water, drink it all, and set the cup down your body will process for your best possible outcome.
I was 18 years old when I first started doing yoga. I was working on starting a modeling career and they advised me to start yoga to lose weight. I was living with my fiancé in an abusive relationship, I smoked cigarettes, and I drank alcohol fairly regularly. I certainly wasn't what you would call Zen. Looking back I was a ball of anxiety who was just so used to functioning the way I did.
After my first yoga practice, (a video cassette in an upstairs room of the house), I felt an immediate sense of relief. Like I was in a quiet room inside another quiet room and there was no one around me that could permeate that space. I did it everyday, to such an extent that my fiancé would get irritated with my daily practice. (Isn't it weird how someone who loves you will decide that something you are passionate about and makes you a better functioning human is annoying?) But I imagine my sense of peace confronted his alcohol and cocaine abuse.
At this time I did not have the knowledge of why yoga was impacting me in such a powerful way. I just assumed it was the stretching.
I slowly stopped smoking, I stopped drinking, I went to bed early so that my practice the next day would be enjoyable. Everything I did became a devotion to my yoga practice. Everything I did became a devotion to me. It was profound. In the final moments of my relationship, I remember my ex yelling at me and punching the wall next to my face and I do not even think I flinched. It was like I was watching the events understanding the absurdity of his domestic abuse and how absurd it would be to engage.
It felt like the fuckin matrix.
"A punch slowly passed by my cheekbone while I popped the red pill in my mouth and swallowed it gladly." That was the night I left that relationship. The lessons didn't stop there. They came hard and fast in the following years. Healing from abuse took experiencing more abuse and learning how unhealthy my perception of love had become. It took repeated behaviors and failures that I feel to this day. I would slip and fall, and when I realized I was off track I would go straight back to yoga. It was my place of solace, the place where I could realize myself again. The only thing that changed was that I would catch myself slipping a little quicker each time.
My life slowly became less messy.
In my mid twenties I was signed up for my second Yoga Teacher Training. A few weeks prior to this training I injured my back in yoga and felt a lot of stress about entering a training and not being able to perform at the level I was used to, (as if yoga is a performance).
The training was one weekend a month for 9 months. We were required to create practice sequences according to what we learned in each session, explain our reasoning for the sequence, and log each practice. There was a certain number of practices that we were required to complete. I was uncomfortable at not being able to get the movements in and kept making excuses to my mentor River about how I couldn't do the homework. River took the time to listen and then encouraged me to use the 3-4 postures I could do and breath work to get the homework done, emphasizing that it is not necessarily the amount of postures you do, but your intention behind them that creates a powerful practice.
During the training River said "If you practice breath work regularly, your life will change. We don't know how it will, but it will."
And it has.
This is where I fell deeply in love with breath work. It was like sinking deeper into myself than I had ever gone. I witnessed my discomfort to the stillness and the varying things my mind would create to project the discomforts.
It was only within the last 7-10 years that I really started to understand the reason that I felt so good after my first yoga class was because of the breath. Targeted breath practices regulate your nervous system and create the reaction inside of you that is needed at that moment in time for you to heal, energize, rest, or recover. Practices do not necessarily need to be the perfect every time, but they do need to have the knowledge and understanding of the nervous system behind them... no bro science here please :)
Solace comes in layers. For many in the yoga world, it starts with more intense styles of yoga and as they gradually move through the layers of themselves they are drawn to slower variations of yoga that will, eventually, lead to stillness.
It can start with yoga, going to the gym, hiring a nutritionist, beginning therapy, Wim Hoff breath work, hiking, biking more places, martial arts, or mobility practices. Something that presents a physical challenge that leads you to emotional reactions of all kinds. This is where we can begin to see ourselves and assess what serves us and what doesn't, and then seek out answers to our problems.
I think we all have the ability to live our best lives if we choose the red pill and everything that goes with it. It takes a lot of the right things falling into place to overcome adversity. We need our community, money, access, and a safe place to land within ourselves.
The more tuned in we are to US the easier it will be to find and secure the rest of the things.
Peace comes from within ~ Buddha
Years ago, my bff and I began saying this to each other and actively began practicing the ability to reflect on how we participated in each discomfort that we experienced. The effect has been both devastating and profound. I am constantly amazed at how I can look at changing my reaction and engagement with the circumstances of my life. It has changed the way I engage in relationships, it has changed my approach to money, it has changed the way I respond to peoples criticisms and expectations of myself. This simple belief and sentence has been a catalyst for some deep and meaningful shit in my life.
There are things in life that can make self reflection difficult to focus on: anything from money to jobs to relationships, family, and living situation. Basically life. I am a firm believer that you can have both a life and self reflection. It just requires sacrifice and carefully gauged expectations. We are not required to be perfectly enlightened or miserably unhappy.
THE EFFECT OF MENTAL RESTRICTIONS ON OUR MENTAL HEALTH
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Our mental restrictions that create time restrictions or our time restrictions that create mental restrictions?
There are so many fast tips to being happy out there that are actually just more restrictions on how much we should enjoy life to one day earn the ability to feel free within ourselves. Suffer and you shall gain glory. These restrictions may help us feel in control, but the truth is that the more restrictions we place on ourselves the more we have to tiptoe through our own lives. The more external things that we need to manage rather than managing our internal relationship to our external world.
We get told over and over again that our happiness is dependent upon our bodies, relationships, jobs, food, exercise, community, money, etc. LIES! Our happiness is dependent on how we choose to relate to the things outside of ourself.
There are a myriad of things that can help us begin this process, but the first one is taking time to be quiet enough to listen.
We often function by all or nothing mentalities which builds mental restrictions for things in our life that we would like to work on. Gauging our reality and pushing the boundaries gently to give ourselves space to understand our emotions and our reactions can help us feel more rejuvenated. We just have to insure that we don't try and commit to a 30 minute practice each day if we have young kids, or two jobs, or one demanding job. It would be more appropriate to say "I will take 6 slow breaths at 1130am before I eat my lunch reflecting on how I might feel at that moment in time". That sounds much simpler right?
So, where do you begin?
Just do it.
Maybe try not beginning it like a New Years resolution with so much gusto that you will certainly burn out within weeks.
Here is how you can begin: 15 minutes a week. That is 3 minutes a day. Or 5 minutes 3 times per week.
You can even begin a guided practice and set a timer for 3 minutes and once the timer goes off you stop the video and move on with your day remembering that it is not the completion of the video that defines your practice, it is beginning the practice that matters and sticking to it for the time YOU designated.
Making our habits manageable is the only way we can and will achieve our goals. James Clear wrote a book called Atomic Habits and he gives some very good tips on how to create new habits in a way that you can stick too.
Next week I will chat about why I choose breath work and yoga as my reflection modalities and what other options are out there for you!