Have you ever felt like this: You’re having a bad week, or money has been tight for a while. Work conditions aren’t ideal. Family relationships are wearing thin and it feels like there’s nowhere to stand that both honors your feelings, and spares the feelings of people you love but don’t always see eye to eye with.
Then you go to the doctor and learn your cholesterol is dangerously unbalanced. You start noticing puffiness under your eyes where once you only worried about laugh lines. Your shoulders are so tight it’s changed how you carry your bag.
Your doctor, massage therapist, or friend reminds you that yoga helps with all those things and you think, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to get back to yoga class.” You make a mental note to look up the schedule.
Maybe you even google schedules one night while avoiding email. Nothing seems quite right. It’s too late, too early, or too far. You know you need to get to a yoga practice, but it seems so complicated and insurmountable.
The very stress you’re hoping to mitigate is mistakenly making it seem like a massive ask: lots of effort for very little or very unreliable reward. “[L]ow-grade inflammation … could mistakenly cause the mesolimbic dopamine neurons to produce less dopamine. Lower dopamine levels in turn decrease the motivation for work, by reducing the perception of reward while increasing the perception of effort involved,” writes Dr. Liji Thomas, MD in News-Medical.Net, summarizing an April 2019 article outlining a new model and theory of how inflammation and motivation are related in Trends In Cognitive Sciences.
How do we know this is a mistake, though? This is very important, since we also want to be able to trust our feelings and choices. We know it's a mistake because no one has ever come out of Savasana feeling worse than before. And now, we know it’s a mistake because of new research that reveals the actual biochemistry that leads to us feeling this. Yoga and other “MBIs” (Mind-Body Interventions) actually reduce the molecules - cytokines, NF-kB, interleukins, C-reactive protein, and tumor necrosis factor - that lead to the “mistaken” dampening of dopamine production mentioned above. The lowered dopamine levels that make it seem impossible to get to yoga or even roll out our mat, because it feels like too much effort for too little reward.
Several new studies (linked in the last paragraph) are revealing the actual biochemistry that underlies these feelings that we call depression, anxiety or lack of motivation. This is really good news, because sometimes just seeing behind the curtain takes all the power from the man who pulls the levers behind it.
If you’ve ever had surgery or been very sick, you know in the first days of healing you really don’t feel like doing much except binge watching Master Chef and napping, and this makes sense: healing wounds, fighting infections, repairing the damage they do takes mad resources. So your body has systems that say, “Hey, this couch looks really good for a while.” The cytokine-dopamine connection is one part of this system.
But since cytokines are also part of general inflammation that we call stress, this system that seems clearly useful in the days or weeks after major illness or injury can get triggered by everyday stress or stuck in the on position and leave us feeling low and lost.
What results can then be even further self-reinforcing when coupled with unhelpful, inaccurate judgments about laziness, indolence and apathy - talk about motivation drain! These judgements are shame inducing and shame creates stress, which creates inflammatory molecules that reduce the dopamine and leave us feeling defeated. Cycles upon cycles result.
How to climb out of this rut if you happen to find yourself in it? First of all, know that most of us have or will at some point. Dissolve isolation and feelings of helplessness with knowledge, connection and practice. Baby steps define the path out of this trap of stress and you can take the first one or four right now!
- STOP. Close your eyes. Focus with intensity on the sensations of your next 3 breaths. Just three. I’ll wait… come back when you’re done.
Did you feel like your breath was deeper at the end? If not, repeat, focusing just on your exhales. You have already started to change the biochemistry of feeling depleted.
2. Let this knowledge affect you, really feel it. Imagine your best friend telling you: if you are feeling low energy, depleted, defeated, depressed or unmotivated, this is real, you are not lazy and you aren’t imagining anything.
3. Let this knowledge affect you, really feel it. Imagine your best friend telling you: if you are feeling low energy, depleted, defeated, depressed or unmotivated, you can change this. And you can begin right now.
4. Find free MBI practices (we’re partial to yoga around here, but maybe you have another fave…) that you can do while you still have this browser window open:
-Free practices at badlandsyoga.com - some are movement, some are breathing so you can find an audio that you really can do right now.
-Check out the videos on Badlands Yoga’s fb page
-Simply lay down with your legs up the wall or on the couch. This is a “pose” called Viparita Karani. Couple it with Bumble Bee breath - humming as you exhale - for a powerful one-two punch that will bring your mind home to your body and soothe them both.
5. Go for a walk. Yes, this is a mind-body practice, especially if you leave your phone at home and notice everything growing, notice the sky, notice your breath, notice what your mind wants to run off to, then notice bringing your mind back to nature and your breath. You are a part of nature.
6. Have a favorite pose or set of poses? Bust ‘em out! Give yourself 2 Sun Salutations and see how you feel, or just cat-dog pose, or a cobra and a child’s pose. Do Warrior I (lunge with your arms up) looking at where the wall and ceiling meet across from you and wonder what makes you feel strong. Do Warrior II gazing over your front hand and ask yourself what you want to focus on. Do Warrior III and imagine the next few minutes unfolding without stress.
7. Create a concrete plan for building on this. Choose the yoga class you will attend in the next 24 hours and put it on your calendar non-negotiably: this IS important, vital, worthy. Nothing in town? Find low or no cost online options or, if you have the option, invest in high quality, personalized instruction. Three options we offer:
-Badlands Yoga’s Online Studio - $5/month and a $1 forever option if that’s truly out of reach.
-Private Online Yoga Sessions - This is personal and so more expensive, but it’s completely tailored to you, your needs and abilities. You can sign up at Momoyoga.com/BadlandsYoga or drop us a line. Of course if you’re in the 505, coming in for a small group yoga class is a great option, too.
-AudibleYoga.com - more yoga than you can ever do, all at your fingertips, on your time, at your location. All audio, so you can focus on your practice and feelings. Free trial when you sign up.
8. Commit to the first 15 minutes of your day (or nearly the first if you’re raising bambinos who claim those moments) being focused on continuing these practices. You don’t need an hour or two every day - 15 minutes most days will create profound effects.
9. When you go to class, have a lesson, do an audio or a video remember one or two things that seemed particularly pleasing or profound. Make these techniques your “15 minutes” for the next few mornings. Don’t worry about doing it “right.” If you’re doing it, you’re doing something right and refining all these techniques is the work of a lifetime. You’ll have informed questions to ask your teacher the next time you attend - and you’ll be more likely to actually go.
Most of all know you are not alone, lazy or to blame. Choose to become present in this moment. Act a little each day to build on that choice. Track what you do so you can see your connectedness and effort. This will give you more knowledge so you can choose new and supportive things, empowering action you can track which will give rise to more knowledge… and you’ll be in the midst of cycle that leads to healing and health.