Time to review your life and elicit the Relaxation Response.

Our body's are amazing. They will give us very early indications of illness; tiredness, aching joints, headaches, sore throats. But instead of listening, we eat sugary, carbohydrate foods to give us short bursts of energy, we take paracetamol, suck on soothing sweets, or sip soothing drinks.

There is a good reason why you are unwell and why your body is giving you these indications; it is saying STOP and LISTEN! The problem is that the more we suppress feelings; be they physical or emotional, the more numb we become so that we no longer recognise when we need to address our health and well-being.

I have been astonished at advertising campaigns of late that suggest that you can carry on with life whether you have pain, injury, illness or are suffering in any way, just by taking a pill or rubbing on some cream. No wonder we are in trouble.

If we took time off work to recover, I bet our overall productivity would increase compared to ploughing on, suffering, slowing down and spreading germs around the work environment so that the overall productivity in the office slows down too.

And what is the most common cause of illness? Stress.

I have been pondering what the cause of stress really is. Through my mindfulness journey, I have been made aware of how desire is seen as a form of craving and that craving causes suffering. I am aware that as a society we crave money or objects. Economic growth is the epitome of craving. If we always want more; more holidays, nicer cars, better homes, new clothes etc... then aren't we always suffering? Isn't all of this causing stress? Because to get more, we have to work harder, to earn more money to get what we want.

Recently I read Satish Kumar's book Soil, Soul, Society. Kumar provides insights on how we can make shifts in our life that have far reaching implications for the planet and all people. He recommends that we return to a way of life in which we reconnect with the soil through caring for the environment, nourish our soul through maintaining personal well-being and care for society by upholding human values.

After reading the book, I felt compelled to review the 8 limbs of yoga that are considered a way to systemise yoga as a holistic practice and explain the inner workings of the mind. Yoga in its true form means "The art of right living". The practice allows us to get to know ourselves and the inner workings of our mind which controls perception and reality. And this way of right living relates very much to Kumar's recommendations.

I have been practicing yoga long enough to recognise real and lasting change. In particular that whilst I still have a long way to go, I crave less. Clothes are my weakness but I know that holidays are out of reach as is a nice car. But I chose not to suffer because my daily practice of yoga and mindfulness maintain a level of contentment that releases me from desire and leads me to acceptance. It is only when listening to the experience of others that desire knocks on the door and says "don't you want a holiday like that or a car like hers"? This is when we most need to practice the art of right living.

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."  William Morris. I believe this is a good place to start.

Rene Descartes postulated that the mind and body are inexorably separate. It was not until the late 60's that western scientists entertained the possibility that physical problems might be rooted in emotional or mental activity or that stress could incite apparent medical repercussions. Today there is wide acceptance of this, hence the current fascination with mindfulness.

The trouble is that mindfulness is being used in the corporate world as another way to encourage you to push on through and manage the stress you are being forced to endure. What if instead, you listened to what arises in your mindfulness practice? Emotions that may be suggesting you use the word NO more often or ENOUGH!

It is estimated that 24% of the population of England has either GP diagnosed or undiagnosed hypertension. That is nearly quarter of the population! And the major cause of hypertension? Stress. This is no small matter. Hypertension often leads to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. With so much stress in the work place, it is no wonder that this percentage is on the increase. People today suffer heart conditions on average 13 years younger than their parents.

Dr. Herbert Benson M.D, a cardiologist and researcher coined the term the Relaxation Response to refer to the following physiologic changes:

1) A drop in heartrate
2)A drop in metabolic rate
3) A drop in respiration rate

In Benson's research he studied a group of Transcendental Meditators and found them to elicit the relaxation response with meditation alone. The group did not have high blood pressure to begin with so this remained largely unchanged but it was perhaps as a result of long term meditation that they had healthy blood pressure in the first instance.

Benson surmised that to elicit the relaxation response one required two things:

1) A mental devise or focus. This can be a sound, mantra, fixing the gaze at an object, muscular activity, the breath etc...
2) A passive attitude - not worrying about how well one is performing the technique and simply putting aside distracting thoughts and returning to one's focus.

It is possible to maintain a mental focus even when jogging and to return to the focus whenever the mind wavers. We are encouraged to do this in our yoga practice too using Ujjayi breathing as our focus or in mindful movement with physical sensations. We can elicit the relaxation response knitting, singing, being still or in any activity that requires us to focus. You could say that this all comes under the umbrella of mindfulness and you'd be right.

I would suggest that a daily yoga, mindfulness, exercise routine, hobby, even part of our job or commute to work could all be made to conform to the Relaxation Response and that in so doing perhaps we can all find calm, wisdom and clarity to feel relief from stress, to address it head on and perhaps to make choices in life that release us from suffering.