Our body is like an advanced version of a self-driving vehicle e.g. Tesla. The natural evolution process has trained us to create autonomic systems in our body that can take care of itself. For every driver-less vehicle running on autopilot, there is also a capability for the driver to manually operate the vehicle. In our case, the mind, also termed as monkey in Buddhism, is sitting on the driver’s seat managing the vehicle, and sometimes it gives wrong inputs to the advanced vehicle. We, the soul, are the passengers on a journey, with the monkey on the wheels handling an extremely advanced vehicle, our body.
The challenge then is – how we, the passenger, can train the mind, the monkey, to manage autonomous responses in our body, the Tesla, in an optimised way. Age old yogic practices comes to rescue and shows different breathing techniques to tackle this problem.
When we encounter any situation that puts us in danger, let’s say a tiger is after you, our advanced vehicle then initiates the autonomic system of flight or fight, pushing all the energy in our legs so that we can run as fast we can. This is fine, if the situation is going to last for a short duration but it is not sustainable for a longer duration. This action deprives other areas of the body, as the larger share of energy is provided to a selective part of the body based on the circumstances. After a while, the body needs to trigger a complementary autonomic action when it comes to rest or digest, to perform functions that it does only when the body is at rest. In medical science, the autonomic system that controls this is called Autonomic Nervous Systems (ANS) that acts largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, etc. The Sympathetic Nervous System comes into action when the body is in flight or fight mode and the complementary nervous system is called Parasympathetic Nervous System, and activates when the body is in rest or digest mode.
When we are at work, every other task, email, meeting or conversation that leads us to stress or panic situation, triggers the flight or fight response and we are facing the tiger or different versions of tigers, 24 by 7 and 365 days of the year, living in dominance of sympathetic nervous system because of the pressure at work or at home. This means that the body is constantly under control of fight or flight response, with minimal chance for the rest and digest to trigger.
It is important to note that both the systems are equally important, without flight and fight we would not be able to survive as our body will not see the incoming danger situation. However, living only in dominance of one brings lot of wear and tear to the overall system.
This is where the breathing exercises come to our rescue to help train the monkey that frequently hits the panic button triggering flight or fight systems. The breathing exercise activates the parasympathetic nervous system and applies brakes to bring us back into the rest and digest state. Research in recent times have shown that the heart rate in itself may not be a good health indicator, whereas Heart Rate Variability is a better measure to track well-being i.e. consistent and regular change of state from flight/fight mode to rest/digest and vice versa.
There is a controlled breathing (Prānāyama) technique in Yoga known as Anulom Vilom. It involves holding one nostril closed while inhaling, then holding the other nostril closed while exhaling. The process is then reversed and repeated. Alternate nostril breathing is said to have many physical and psychological benefits, including stress reduction and improved breathing and circulation. There’s scientific evidence that supports some of these claims.
Practicing Anulom Vilom breathing first thing in the morning may help start your day from a better place and serves as a great relaxation technique to provide a sound sleep. The yogis mention that regular practice of this breathing exercise for 60 days cleanses body’s nervous system bringing freshness to life.
Along with the breathing exercises that helps tuning autonomic systems, what really works for me is my belief system. I just know that there is someone looking after me and whatever happens, happens for a reason. These two things help in accepting things as they are, never lets the stress accumulate and most importantly bringing gratitude in daily life.
I have recently emerged from a very rough experience of Covid. At one point, at 2am in very cold December, when the oxygen levels were going down, with heavy breathing and heart rate completely out of control, I thought I am not going to make it. Sitting next to a radiator and seriously concerned about the welfare of my family, I did Prānāyam and Prayers to calm my nerves, and left it to my belief system and faith in Him to sort it out. At that moment the only thing I wanted was to see through the night and look for the first rays of the morning.
Fortunately, I made it and have completely recovered. This blog has been written to help friends and colleagues working in different areas of the organisations across geographical locations and are currently going through stress either due to lock down or other health challenges.
I am currently working as Principal Enterprise Architect within Architecture and Strategy, leading on Enterprise Architecture for British Telecom’s Data Analytics Transformation. If you would like to know more then please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. The concept of Me, Monkey and Tesla has been taken from The Keshav Way by Vinay Sutaria.