Stressful news comes in all shapes and sizes. For some it is sudden news of financial struggle, and for others it comes in the form of being laid off from a job. In last week’s parsha we read how Yaacov dealt with his own stressful news.
The defining moment had come. The brothers had to tell their father, Yaakov, that Joseph was alive. There was arguing amongst themselves as to how to deliver this news. For all these years, Yaakov believed his favorite son, Joseph, was dead. To bring out these facts now, including the background story, could have such an impact on Yaakov that the brothers feared it would kill him upon hearing the news.
A genius solution appeared. Yaakov’s cherished granddaughter, Serach, would be brought in. She would sing the story of what happened to Yaakov’s son Joseph through her beautiful, comforting voice. Serach’s song would tell the tale of Joseph’s sale into slavery and how he came to be alive. Her lovely voice would create a soft arrow that would go from the story of Joseph’s life and travel into the tender interior of Yaakov’s heart, allowing Yaakov’s body to remain alive as he took in this jarring news.
I know I have invented my own methods for slowing down the impact of difficult news. When I opened my email to read the feedback forms (criticism) from the women’s yoga retreat I ran at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, I covered my eyes and read the reviews through the cracks of light in between my fingers, stockading myself for the worst. If I started to read something really upsetting, I could close my fingers tight and block the view. Ninety-nine percent of the feedback forms came back outstanding; the crowd raved! But there was that one voice, ok, maybe several voices, that said I talked too much, as well as some other points of criticism that made me feel glad I was reading them through the cracks of light through my fingers.
I have a low threshold for criticism. Still, I have gotten better through the years, and I attribute my growing ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings to the consistent physical practice of yoga and breathing. Yes, breathing! Intentional deep diaphragm breathing lowers cortisol stress hormones and supports the neocortex part of the brain to make logical decisions during times of stress.
Not long ago, my 92-year-old mother (thank God) spent a day preparing for an unpleasant minor procedure to be done the following day. By the time she arrived for the procedure, she was all riled up, and her blood pressure was way too high to move ahead. My mother told the doctor that she was not going home until the procedure was done, no matter what. So, they brought in a nurse to breathe with her in an attempt to lower her blood pressure enough to complete the procedure. My determined mother became focused and quiet, taking deep rhythmic breaths with the nurse. As her breathing slowed, she moved out of her fight-or-flight state and into a state of calm. Within the hour, her blood pressure was rechecked, and this time the anesthesiologist felt safe enough to move ahead with the procedure.
Worrying about a single event coming up, as with my mother, is one thing. But we can find ourselves in an ongoing, constant state of fight or flight, not even being aware of it. This is all thanks to stress hormones. These hormones naturally lower by nighttime, but if we are living day to day as if there might be a disaster ready to happen at any moment, a high rate of stress hormones will circulate and won’t slow down enough to get a good night’s sleep. (1) This, we do not want.
Practicing the yoga poses and breathing deeply in an intentional way is a simple yet powerful tool for creating positive changes in our physiology, all while supporting our nervous system in an effort to calm down. Through the physical practice of yoga, blood pressure rates lower. Muscle tensions are released. Cortisol stress hormone rates come down. Heart rate variability increases, as does the release of serotonin in the brain, which naturally creates a sense of well-being. (2)
With tools to calm our physical body, there is more ability to tolerate the difficult emotions and feelings that will come in our life experiences and memories. In the story of Yaakov, the news was told to him slowly and sweetly. He was able to keep breathing, sustaining his own life. His intellect had a chance to process the shocking story of his son and he was able to contain and hold the strong feelings, setting himself up for success.
Whether you are new to the practice of yoga or a seasoned practitioner, now is the time to check out the yoga and meditation classes at Freedom Within Yoga Studio in Teaneck. For more information call 201-920-7408 or go to www.freedomwithinyoga.com.
(1) Dr. Nancy Lentine—has a private practice in integrative family medicine, specializing in the endocrine hormone system.
(2) Stephen Cope—is the founder and director of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary living, a research institute that examines the effects and mechanisms of yoga and meditation.
By Carol Berlin