Something funny happened to me yesterday.
I was down in the yard where we keep our chickens and rabbits doing some chores and straightening up. Cleaning coops and scooping poop are not jobs I particularly enjoy, but they go along with the territory of keeping animals. I often listen to audiobooks or podcasts while I do animal chores which somehow makes it easier.
Yesterday, I was listening to an audiobook that I just purchased and cannot recommend highly enough. It is called The Body Keeps the Score and is written by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and research scientist who has devoted his life’s work to the area of post-traumatic stress. I’m only in the first third of the book, but so far it has been pretty freaking mind-blowing. I highly recommend.
Anyway, there I was listening to my audiobook, wrapping up some chores with the rabbits when I inadvertently disturbed a mouse nest. Ironically, the nest was tucked into the folds of an old yoga mat that I had repurposed into a wind break for the side of one of the rabbit cages. The mat had worked well for a time to keep the wind off our beloved Angora rabbit, Dolly, but it had gotten so weather worn that it needed to go.
As I pulled the mat off the side of the cage, I saw what looked like a ball of fluff in one of its folds. As I grabbed it with my gloved hand to pull it out, about 4 mice scurried out and scattered. I of course let out a scream that was so loud, I’m sure my entire street heard it. I hurdled the electric fence and ran out of the animal yard so fast that I shocked myself at my own speed (but thankfully the fence did not).
Of course, this whole time the audiobook was still streaming calmly through my headphones, describing the intricacies of how different minds and bodies respond to stress. What I had just experienced with the mice was your run of the mill (slightly comical) fight or flight response. And I had most definitely opted for flight. Because, you know, one-inch long mice are scary!
There was no conscious decision making involved. My mind registered the perceived “threat” of baby mice, and my body ran. After a few moments of course, my heart rate slowed, and that illogical (but visceral) feeling of terror wore off. The “threat” of the mice had gone, and I laughed heartily at myself.
It was a funny little scenario, but certainly the fight or flight response is not always so amusing. What the audiobook was explaining (and what I have experienced myself at different times during my life) is that sometimes that fight or flight response just won’t shut down even when there is no real threat anywhere in sight. For the person experiencing this, the threat is real and the danger imminent, even if the “threat” is something that exists only in memory or imagination.
Post-traumatic stress is a huge, debilitating example of this, and I am in NO way undermining what PTSD sufferers go through. It is absolute torture. But I do think that untold numbers of people also suffer from an overactive fight or flight response, albeit to a much lesser degree. We walk around perceiving threats that just aren’t there.
The threat of another person’s disapproval for instance. Or the threat of an opinion, belief, or worldview that is different from your own. The threat of being wrong. The threat of being exposed as a fraud. The threat of failure. The threat that if the world really knew who you were deep down, you would be condemned, damned, abandoned. The threat of a tiny, sort of cute little rodent that is smaller than your thumb.
The fact of the matter is that all of these threats aren’t actual threats at all. But that doesn’t necessarily stop them from feeling threatening. And when we feel threatened, we adopt a fight or flight response. When we feel constantly threatened, we constantly adopt a fight or flight response. And that is an excruciating, exhausting, and depressing way to live day in and day out.
Probably the best part of yoga in my mind is the calming effect it can have on an out-of-control fight or flight response. Please do not misunderstand me for a moment; I do not believe that yoga alone (or any modality ALONE) is some sort of cure for whatever ails you mentally or physically. And as I have already discussed in this previous blog post, yoga should ABSOLUTELY NOT replace whatever medical treatment and intervention may be called for (please do yourself a favor and RUN from any yoga teacher who starts dispensing advice like that).
But what yoga does well is provide a space for you to bring your whole self to the table, even that part of yourself that feels constantly threatened, the part that feels it must always remain on high alert. And then yoga gives you concrete, basic ways that you can reduce (maybe even re-wire?) your knee-jerk stress response. In so doing, yoga gives you some relief from the stress that stalks you. And a little relief can go a very long way.
The thing that initially drew me to yoga and the thing that draws me still is that relief. Maybe that doesn’t sound very deep or enlightened, but it’s the truth. Yoga gives me relief. It makes me feel better.
It’s probably just a coincidence that an old, dilapidated yoga mat infested with tiny rodents was the impetus for this post. But it’s a nice little metaphor anyway. Just like that mat, your yoga doesn’t need to be new or pretty. It can have folds and creases that hold all sorts of little beasts that scare and surprise you, that make you want to scream or laugh or cry.
Yoga can hold all of it. Yoga isn’t threatened by any of it. And because it isn’t threatened, yoga holds more options than just fight or flight.
Yoga gives you, the practitioner, the option to be where you are without feeling like you have to fight for your life or run from it.
And that, my friends, is a pretty huge deal.
That is liberating and life-changing.
That, in my mind at least, is yoga at its very best.