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 is that it synthesizes the latest neuroscience research. It includes stress, mental health, performance and productivity, and presents it in a simple, straightforward way through educational discussions and a curated parasympathetic 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 parasympathetic yoga practice that offers participants a better understanding of how stress impacts the body. Physically, emotionally, mentally and physiologically, it can have negative effects both on immediate and long-term wellbeing. For the first part of the workshop, we talk about how breath, awareness and movement, can be really powerful tools. They mitigate the impacts of stress on our bodies and minds. The rest of it is a curated yoga practice that leads participants through the experience of feeling a bit stressed and then being relaxed. This provides an opportunity to apply the concepts.
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. After many late night conversations, we realized that 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. 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 to lots of people at once. I’ve always been fascinated 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. Along with how they can use parasympathetic 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. This helps them 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 we come back to a really simple shape and see 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 stressed, your body shifts its nutrients, blood and oxygen to the parts of your body that would have helped you “run away from the tiger”. So you carry more nutrients, blood and oxygen to your heart, lungs and muscles. As a result, the blood gets pulled away from your digestive system, your reproductive system, your immune system and part of your brain. If you are actually being chased by a tiger, 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. This 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 hormones are 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 shortens and our muscles begin to tense. So simple awareness of breathing. Take five calm breaths when you’re feeling overwhelmed. This 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 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. You don’t need to count, just focus on the exhale. Whether it’s from an energetic perspective, releasing what you’re stressed about, or physiologically, it immediately impacts your nervous system.
Paul: It also speaks to presence. Taking those few seconds to breathe are sometimes the only moments we have to be fully present.
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, it becomes your new baseline normal. The more you can get that calm feeling, the more you can come back to tranquility. The more familiar it is, the more easily you’re able to come back.
For more information about the Parasympathetic Yoga Project, check out the April 21 event details here.
For more ways to combat stress, check out the ancient breathing technique: pranayama.