Welltalks: Stress, anxiety and the Parasympathetic Yoga Project
For many of us, yoga is an escape – from stress, from anxiety, from our thoughts or maybe even just from our desk. While we can all relate to that feeling of calm bliss that comes over us as we open our eyes after savasana, what is it that’s actually going on during that hour that melts away our stress? There’s some science to this, and to explain it, we sat down with naturopath Dr. Jessica Eastman and yoga instructor Paul Gelinas, founders of the Parasympathetic Yoga Project. The idea behind the project (first session is happening this Friday, April 21) is that it synthesizes the latest neuroscience research on stress, mental health, performance and productivity, and presents it in a simple, straightforward way through educational discussions and a curated yoga practice. It was designed to empower and equip participants with tools that assist with navigating stress, anxiety and negative self talk.
Can you explain in a nutshell what the Parasympathetic Yoga Project is?
Jess: It’s an education based, informative yoga practice that offers participants a better understanding of how stress impacts the body physically, emotionally, mentally and physiologically, and the negative effects it can have both on immediate and long-term wellbeing. For the first part of the workshop, we talk about how breath, awareness and movement, specifically yoga, can be really powerful tools in mitigating the impacts of stress on our bodies and minds. And then the rest of it is a curated yoga practice that leads participants through the experience of feeling a bit stressed in a physically demanding pose and then being relaxed in a restorative pose – providing an opportunity to put into practice and apply the concepts that were just explained.
Paul: We’re trying to trick people into absorbing information in more than one way. The practice allows people to actually feel what they’re learning.
Where did the idea come from?
Paul: Jess and I have known each other for almost two years and after many late night conversations on various subjects realized that combined, we have a really interesting perspective on how we can have a positive impact. There isn’t a lot of yoga education outside of teacher trainings – there’s a lot of teaching people how to sequence and how to adjust properly, but on the academic side, we’re just starting to see people studying data. I think yoga is integrated enough into our society that it’s a great access point for a lot of people, it’s a lot more accessible than it was even five years ago.
Jess: I’ve always been interested in creating something that can bring the knowledge that I have in mental health, medicine and general wellbeing to lots of people at once, as opposed to just one-on-one in my private practice. I’ve always been fascinated by and very well supported by movement in my life. It’s been really powerful in healing for me, so long before I ever met Paul I had this vision of wanting to create something like this to help people understand more about what’s going on in their bodies and how they can use yoga and movement in order to avoid being so negatively impacted by stress. We are also both strong believers in education and empowerment of our communities, so it gives us an opportunity to help people be able to do this on their own, to understand that they can use these tools to help themselves so they’re not reliant on their yoga teacher, doctor or nutritionist every minute to be OK.
Can you explain a bit more about the yoga component of the class?
Paul: We’re trying to create an ebb and flow with the sequences. With the difficult poses, we’re putting people in a stressed but controlled atmosphere then coming back to a really simple shape and seeing how the body changes. We want to really show people what’s happening physiologically in the body and ways to control these responses.
Can you give us a simplified overview of what’s going on in the body when we do a yoga class?
Jess: The short answer for that is when you are feeling stressed (from anything) your body shifts its nutrients, blood and oxygen to the parts of your body that would have historically helped you “run away from the tiger”. So you carry more nutrients, blood and oxygen to your heart, lungs and muscles, and as a result, the blood gets pulled away from your digestive system, your reproductive system, your immune system and part of your brain (for example the parts that allow us to remember, connect and be creative). If you are actually being chased by a tiger or even running for the bus, you can see the use for that, it’s valuable in a really short amount of time. But longterm, it’s obviously going to have detrimental effects on your body, your mind and your overall functioning. So the first thing that happens when you shift from sympathetic (running from the tiger) to parasympathetic (more relaxed) tone, which is what our class facilitates, is the rebalancing of oxygen, blood and nutrient delivery to all the parts of the body that need it, not just the heart, lungs and muscles. Immediately you feel calmer, more relaxed, you can remember better and you have more ideas. Longterm, you’re healing faster, you’re not getting sick as often, you’re able to digest your food better, your hormones are better balanced, you have a better libido, you’re happier, you can sleep better – basically all of the things that you want.
What are a few easy, basic ways that people can start to transition more into parasympathetic tone on a regular basis?
Paul: Mindful breathing. When we’re in a sympathetic tone, our breath tends to shorten and our muscles begin to tense. So simple awareness of breathing – taking five calm breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed – begins to allow the tension to release in the body and within a few breaths you can begin making that shift.
Jess: The cool thing about deep breathing is that you can control how profoundly it impacts your nervous system by focusing either on the inhale or exhale. When you’re focusing on and having longer inhales, it increases sympathetic tone – so it increases alertness. If you focus on lengthening the exhale, it increases parasympathetic tone, so will help you feel more calm and able to dial down your stress levels. You don’t even need to count, just focus more on the exhale, whether it’s from an energetic perspective, releasing whatever it is you’re feeling stressed about, or physiologically, it immediately impacts your nervous system and therefore your hormones and everything else down the line.
Paul: It also speaks to presence. Running around, doing whatever we do, thinking about how to get to the next place, or what we just did – taking those few seconds to breathe are sometimes the only moments we have to be fully present in a day.
Jess: Presence helps us get calmer and happier, and it’s breath that facilitates it.
Paul: We talk a lot about familiarity as well – if you’re used to being in a hectic environment, running around all day, it becomes your new baseline normal. The more you can get that calm you feel after a yoga class, the more you can come back to a feeling of tranquility. The more familiar it is the more easily you’re able to come back to that place.
For more information about the Parasympathetic Yoga Project, check out the April 21 event details here.