Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ninety Seconds

I had a lovely visit with my chiropractor today. I am very stubborn about going to get adjusted, because I always think I can fix everything myself, but sometimes a professional touch is extremely helpful. Especially this month, since I've been working to get ready for Nationals (eek!), I've been trying to make good use of all the talented bodyworkers in my network...

So anyway, I was leaving the chiropractor feeling great - totally relaxed and de-stressed. As I got in my car, I was thinking about my plans for the rest of the afternoon. I thought, hmm, maybe I'll make that call to my car insurance company that I've been putting off. (I hate calling insurance companies.) Then I thought, nah, I don't want to put myself in a stressful situation and reverse all the good work that my chiropractor just did!

What's wrong with that picture?

Shouldn't I be able to deal with stressful situations and stay relaxed? What good is my relaxation and meditation if I can only stay calm when no one is bugging me? As Bikram says, let no one steal your peace, or you are the loser!

Now I have to give myself credit - I am an extremely level-headed person in most stressful situations. It's pretty hard to piss me off. I can usually just take a step back, take a breath, and be objective about things. But of course I still experience stress. And it got me thinking....

I just finished reading a book called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. Very interesting book. It's Dr. Taylor's personal account of a massive stroke that she experienced in the left side of her brain, and the recovery she went through afterwards. As a brain scientist, she was able to learn a lot about her brain through the stroke and the recovery process. She basically lost the left side of her brain - which in meditation terms is the "monkey mind", the ego, the storyteller - and was left with just the right side of the brain, which lives in the present moment. As she recovered, she was able to choose which functions of the left brain she wanted to re-develop - such as talking, puzzling, analyzing - and which programs she could live without - anger, frustration, judgement, and so on.

That's a pretty hand-waving summary, scientifically speaking, but I hope you get the idea. The book has all the details, of course.

Here's one of the passages that I found the most intriguing. From chapter 17:
I define responsibility (response-ability) as the ability to choose how we respond to stimulation coming in through our sensory systems at any moment in time. Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than ninety seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our bloodstream. My anger response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within ninety seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those ninety seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.
That's so amazing. Only ninety seconds!

For me, this information helps to solve a classic problem that comes up again and again. We always talk about how the goal of yoga is to become still, to cease the fluctuations of the mind. Nothing should steal your peace. And then here's the question (which is a pretty good question): what does that actually look like, in practice? If nothing steals your peace, do you become a completely unfeeling person? Does that mean you can't have any emotional reactions? And then how do you interact with the world?

I love this answer, because it jives with my experience so well. If some unpleasant stimulus comes at you - you get a nasty email, you get cut off in traffic, somebody shouts at you - you're still going to have a physiological response. Your pulse shoots up, you feel hot, your mouth goes dry. Essentially you're feeling the flood of chemicals being released into your blood stream. This response happens automatically. But after ninety seconds, that response can be finished, if you're willing to let go of it. You still have to take that hit, but then you can bounce right back, shake it off, and let it go. It's like if someone tosses a pebble into a lake. The ripples will appear right away, but after a short time, the lake goes back to stillness... unless you keep tossing in more pebbles.

And I love this, because it goes along really well with how we practice and teach in Bikram yoga. We're always playing with that dynamic balance between stimulation and relaxation. Sometimes when you start it seems totally nuts - "kick back more, keep kicking, kick harder!" followed by "completely relax." But it makes a lot of sense. Especially in the floor series, where we alternate between active postures and relaxation in savasana, we're training you to go back to peaceful relaxation even when you've got a lot of stimulation coming in. During the posture, you might sometimes feel frustration, irritation, or anxiety. (It happens.) But when the posture is done, you have to let go of those feelings and just relax. You're learning to take the hit, and then move on. Do the best you can, and then go back to stillness.

It's amazing how quickly emotions can come and go during a yoga practice. For example, my friend always looks sad before triangle pose and happy when it's over - ha! It's just a matter of staying with the present moment. Those chemicals don't stay in your body for long - only ninety seconds. If you're still angry after that time goes by, it's because the left side of your brain picked up the feeling and is running with it.

I definitely recommend this book, and the related website (here). It seemed pretty simple when I first read through it, but it's got a lot of depth and insight. My thoughts keep going back to it.

I could probably say more (a lot more), but I'll leave it here for now.

By the way, I still have not called my car insurance company. (Sigh.) I was too busy writing this blog...

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