For the past few weeks, money has been on the mind. The restaurant world is always at its lowest lull during the first couple of months of the year, and Jerid and I are looking for an apartment together--which in New York City involves outrageous broker fees, proof of income, deposits--the works.
In my anxious, cyclical, 90-mile-an-hour inner voice dialogue, I decided the only option was to pick up extra shifts at a second restaurant, and I contacted an old boss. Last week, she got back to me and I committed to working weekends throughout the summer, but as soon as she texted me with a start date for the following week, I panicked. Like when there’s a pit in your stomach, and it’s not because you're nervous in a good way--it’s the pit feeling your body generates to signal that something is not in alignment.
I pondered and tossed thoughts around, and although I truly didn’t want to bail on a commitment, especially one which I had initiated, I also realized the pit in my stomach was there for a reason and to ignore it would only cause future problems. I asked myself, “Why on earth did I reach out to make this commitment?” and I then began to beat myself up about not tuning into my intuition earlier. But, it soon became so obvious to me why I did it: I was stressed! Of course I reached out, because when we’re stressed, we make impulsive, quick fix decisions because that’s what our brains as humans are designed to do.
When we’re stressed, we activate the sympathetic nervous system in the body which controls our “fight or flight” response signals. Our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure rises, and our bodies and brains move into a survival mode of being so that we focus on how to immediately get out of the current situation in the quickest way possible. The fight or flight response system was evolutionarily developed to protect us and keep us alive when being chased by animals or any other such life threatening situations. Maybe you’re thinking, “ Well this doesn’t apply to me, I'm not in fear for my life on a regular basis.” FALSE. The fascinating thing is that our sympathetic nervous system activates the same exact way whether we’re running from a lion or late for a meeting. Especially living in New York, the stress factors we consider daily parts of life--missing the train, traffic, finding an apartment/moving, long distance relationships (and by long distance I mean Gramercy to Crown Heights), saving money, fighting for space on the sidewalk--all these things actually trigger our sympathetic nervous system so often that we are in a chronic state of stress and fight or flight mode. Many of us have become so accustomed to these factors that we don’t even realize it’s not the normal restful state our bodies and minds strive to maintain.
So, at the time, I made the instinctual decision to protect myself by finding the easiest and quickest way possible to make more money for survival. And immediately regretted it because it wasn't in alignment with my self. Where yoga comes into play here is the breath. Slow and mindful breathing, arguably the primary focus of the practice, changes the nervous system's responses in our bodies and brains, and we move away from our fight or flight sympathetic system being activated to our “rest and digest” parasympathetic system being activated. Our body moves into a mode of healing and relaxation and our brains move into a mode of rational decision making instead of survival based decision making. When we consistently work on controlling our breathing, we literally retrain the brain. Studies have shown that we can rewire the relationship between the two systems so that our fight and flight response system is not so quickly triggered in our everyday lives and we’re more often than not residing in a rational, calm, rest and digest state of being.
The next time you sit on your yoga mat to begin your practice, I urge you to really hone in on those first few moments where you center your mind, focus on your breath, and turn inward. Know that those moments are the foundation from which we grow the practice, but also from which we want to operate our lives. What we do in those few moments are the exact tools we can use to calm ourselves down in any situation in which we feel “threatened,” keeping that parasympathetic nervous system active allowing us to better access our intuition, and make more calm, centered, rational choices that are in line with ourselves and our honest intentions.