Bringing The Body & Mind into Balance

This is a talk that I gave as part of #TimeToUnsilence Week, an on-line conference hosted by Luciana Carvalho Se, Founder of Mindcheck.

In the article I will:

  • Talk yogic and modern day science, giving quick easy accessible ways to bring our bodies and mind into balance,
  • Explain the importance of “maintaining well”; and
  • Share my experience and lessons of burnout.

What we know today:

That we live in a fast paced, noisy, intense, highly pressurised environment. That we are the “Burnout” generation. That there are millions of people globally who suffer with some form of anxiety. But…. that we are also increasingly more self aware, waking up to the importance of our holistic health (physical + mental, body + mind), and acknowledging the value in a balanced approach to health care — combining the east with the west.

I am first going to take us back in time to the ancient fathers of yoga… and their take on how to reach a balanced state or in sanskrit “samadhi” — state of bliss:

The first and foremost scripture of yoga is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — a series of threads of words written down in around 500BC towards the end of The Vedic Period in ancient india. The sutras systemised the holistic practice (into 8 limbs — ashtanga) and theory of yoga. Yoga meaning union — union to our true self…. Yoga works with the physical body in the asanas, but through working through the practice of the 8 limbs, yoga also works down into the subtle body where our prana flows, & then the causal — our purified being. In today’s world, we can interpret this meaning more simply as union between body and mind.

Book I, thread II Patanjali gives the goal of yoga:

The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.

“As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind”. The entire science of Yoga is based on this. In very simple speak — the ancient yogis believed that by moving inward (practising the 8 limbs of yoga) to a place of complete stillness, we liberate ourselves. And part of that liberation is a body & mind that is free from ills… to a place of calm and quiet and positivity. The yogis talk of three essential aspects of nature: sattva, rajas, tamas. This state of bliss/body mind union that is the “goal” of yoga can also be seen as a balance between sattva and rajas.

In today’s world, this could be interpreted as the balance between the two sides of our autonomic nervous system, our sympathetic and our parasympathetic, which is one of the main benefits of a modern day yoga practice in today’s world. And so the two worlds meet… the ancient yogis explained the practice of yoga through a spiritual lens (yogic science), today we intersperse that with a knowledge that modern day science has bestowed upon us.

Today we know that yoga & I mean here predominantly asanas, pranayama + meditation:

  • It helps balance the systems of our body — hormonal + nervous + energy — through breath & movement;
  • Mind a holiday — by focusing on the breath & gentle movement, our active frontal lobe gets a rest, quite literally a cooling. Thoughts quieten. & by that gentle focus, we are also distracting our mind;
  • The practice of postures together with breath is helping to put us into a meditative state & that’s a powerful place to be when it comes to healing — in this state, our brain is literally changing.
  • It short circuits our flight/fight response; Triggers the PNS, rest & digest, through the breath but also by stimulating the vagus nerve…. the powerhouse of the body; It helps to induce a state of relaxation — triggering the release of hormones associated with the PNS/rest & digest — builds resilience & helps recovery from stress — encourages our body’s default system to be PNS rather than SNS;
  • Helps re-instate homeostasis — supporting the body’s ability to go from rest & digest to fight/flight. Encourages a healthy heart rate variability — the fluctuation between heartbeats.
  • It does also positively energise, improve circulation by better flow of oxygenated blood round the body, releases endorphins, prevents ageing.
  • Changes in the structure of our brain — increase in grey matter density in areas of the prefrontal cortex that are responsible for planning, decision making, problem solving & emotional regulation. Strengthens connection between our MPFC & amygdala. The MPFC has the ability to moderate emotional responses. our alarm system, our amygdala shrinks, & connections to other primal parts of the brain lowered in practiced meditators. Increases the activity in the LPFC which is associated with happiness. Increase surface area of the brain.

In terms of anxiety:

  • Gives sense of control & safety in body;
  • Interoception — connecting of body to mind; anchors mind to body.
  • Brings you into the present;
  • Encourages compassion — soothes inner critique.

The ancient yogis & modern day scientists are saying the same thing, just in more “accepted” science speak.

The most empowering aspect of yoga is that we can manipulate our own minds and bodies. Yes, practice, belief, dedication is needed but in doing so, we are giving life to our own superpowers.

If we don’t maintain well:

A certain amount of stress is good — it’s our protective function, it helps us to perform… but if we find ourselves in environments which trigger this protective/high performing side, we can end up in a state of chronic stress, where our body’s homeostasis is out of whack — in short, we’re producing way too much cortisol, & not enough rest & digest hormones. The stress hormone cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hardwires pathways between the hippocampus (associated with memory) and amygdala (our brain’s alarm centre) in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes sensitised and predisposed to be in a constant state of fight and flight.

We’re also out of whack with our bodies. We’re receiving confused signals, we’re not in touch/aware of our body & our immune system is compromised….

Let’s start by taking a basic look at how the immune system works. When the body detects an intruder– called a pathogen– the immune system gets to work on attacking it and protecting us from it. This involves creating inflammation, in part to signal that defense and repair is necessary.

It is this inflammatory response that leads to symptoms like a stuffed up or runny nose, sore throat, or a fever.

Because of its many links to chronic disease, we often think of inflammation as a dirty word, but inflammation is an absolutely essential component of a healthy immune response. We just want to make sure that somebody is regulating it and keeping it from becoming excessive, overreactive, or chronic.

This is one of cortisol’s jobs. When you have healthy adrenal function, balanced cortisol levels, and a healthy immune system, cortisol helps to reduce inflammation and keep levels in check during an immune response, without getting rid of it completely.

Cortisol levels that are too high or too low lead to either an underactive immune system and insufficient inflammation to protect us against viruses, infections, and other pathogens, or an overactive immune system and too much inflammation (which can lead to issues like autoimmunity and allergies).

I mentioned earlier that one of cortisol’s roles is reducing and managing inflammation during an immune response. The thing is, when cortisol levels are really high the way they are in the early stages of adrenal fatigue, inflammation is reduced too much, and the immune system is suppressed to the point of not really functioning properly.

Basically, when we encounter stress, cortisol and the rest of our hormonal team are thinking this: something really challenging is going on, and we need all hands on deck! Let’s just move some of our resources away from the immune system (and the digestive system, and the reproductive system) for a bit while we take care of this problem.

But the problem is, when cortisol levels get too low, we are actually removing the watchman that keeps an eye on inflammation during an immune response. Basically, the immune system and inflammation are left to run wild.

When nobody is monitoring it, and the immune system is left to its own devices, a number of new problems can arise. This is the time for us to use “inflammation” as a dirty word again. Inflammation can become problematic and chronic, which can lead to a number of illnesses including fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, mood disorders and depression, and obesity, to name a few.

Dr Michael Lam + Dr James Wilson. He was first to scientifically tie in Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) as part of the overall neuroendocrine stress response continuum of the body i.e when the Hypothalamus pituitary gland axis runs amoc.

a state of acute adrenal weakness. The body’s compensatory mechanism to stress has been overwhelmed. To ensure survival, the body initiates a series of actions designed to conserve energy. An adrenal crash represents such an effort by the body as it down regulates and returns to the most basic form of survival — a vegetative state.

My experience of Burnout.

On 1 August 2018, I wrote a blog post entitled “Breaking the Cycle” — within it, I wrote that I am guilty of existing between a state of high performance and burnout. (I re-read it earlier in the week, in preparation for this talk and it almost winded me.) My years of immersion and interest in the fields of mental and physical health had given me a great sense of self awareness. However, that knowledge alone had not been enough from stopping me falling prey to the exact state of being that I so avidly “lectured” on how to avoid. I was at the time running Agora as a members club — on a mission to harness the power of the collective.

My reasons for burning out:

  1. Lack of boundaries;

2. Self pressure — burning up mental energy;

3. I did not balance the yang (fire) energy I have in abundance — learning to access the deeper yin energy in my body:

Symptoms:

  1. Complete listlessness, no motivation;
  2. Fatigue
  3. Tremors in arms, + eye;
  4. Inflammation — a minor back injury became chronic.

To prevent…

  1. Be aligned with your purpose;

2. Create your “Wobble Toolkit”.

— Yoga

I practised a combination of hatha, restorative, adaptive & yin.

I have talked of the reasons why I practice hatha yoga but I give a few moments here to yin which works into our connective tissues — our fascia. One of the reasons why fascia has been gaining more and more attention is that it can store memories and impressions of trauma of the physical body. It is often the case that even after the body is healed on the physical level, the fascia still stores that memory and therefore inhibits overall healing.

The other reason why fascia has been gaining momentum that it is proven to be acting as a communication system within the body. Up until recently, we were told that it is through nerves and synapses that communication happens within organisms. As fascia is now viewed as one “liquid crystalline continuum of connective tissues” which is interconnected, running through the entire body and so many believe that it communicates faster than the nervous system.

— Have a therapist — talk to someone;

— Have mentors — those that really believe in you;

— Get on your mat, breathe, meditate in whatever form you find works best for you;

— Focus — don’t spread yourself too thin. Create boundaries;

— Ground, spend time in nature;

— Spend time with friends, have a glass of wine, choccie, hot bath;

— Eat well — anti inflammatory foods. Boost with supplements (Equi + Heights) — knowledge is power;

Supplements I would recommend (informally):

Equi London is like 10 supplements in one, designed to support and balance the whole body (digestion, energy immunity, hormones, sleep, stress, skin etc) to help optimise wellbeing and give noticeable results. Original is the best one for this, as it targets all the causes of burnout and fatigue — adrenals, low iron, sleep cycles, mental function etc

Heights is a braincare company who make high quality science backed plant based sustainable supplements to nourish your brain so you can take care of your most important organ easily.

A consultancy with community and wellbeing at its heart.