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Switching Off the Fight-Or-Flight Response with Yoga

by ShamaSaraPalmer

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Are you finding it difficult to switch off these days? It’s getting hard to switch off not only from your laptop, notebook, and smartphone but also from the worries that keep you awake in the middle of the night? All the stress that doesn’t let you sleep well, nor digest. And maybe in spite of all the yoga practice, you still find at times you can’t breathe too well either, your breath is often restricted and short, and your mind is so busy.

As a yoga therapist, I started to see that people who were coming to me for help with back pain, shoulder pain or neck ache, in reality, were searching for some kind of peace of mind, relief from the thoughts that they say race through their minds uncontrolled, day and night. When we can’t switch off, when there is this restlessness in the mind, the likelihood is that our nervous system is locked into fight-or-flight mode as if there was danger all around us.  

Instead of this fight-or-flight response, we must try to get into “rest and digest” mode, which is the state when we digest well, sleep soundly, our breathing is slower, and our heart rate is more rested. Basically, we feel balanced and centered, and that’s when we experience more of our love, compassion, peace of mind and acceptance.


Why do we enter into fight-or-flight mode?


fight or flight mode

The fight-or-flight activation of our nervous system has a purpose. It is there to protect us from danger. It gears up our bodies to be able to survive life-threatening situations: in times gone by that might have been to run from the tiger or fight the enemy. To give the strength and energy, the digestive system shuts down so the blood can move from the gut to the limbs, the heart rate goes up and the breathing becomes shallower and more rapid; this makes us faster and stronger.

Of course, these life-threatening situations are generally short and we can go back to “rest and digest” once the danger has passed. However, in recent times, our worries and challenges are not so short-lived. The challenges and complexities of modern life leave many of us trapped in fight-or-flight over prolonged periods of time. How can we be happy when our physiology is in fact locked into an alarm state of being?

Over time, we become locked in a cycle of alert to the extent that our bodies forget how to go back to a peaceful state of mind. As one of my students wrote on a rinent workshop I offered: “I didn’t realize that true relaxation normally eludes me.” Tense states in body and mind have become a normal thing. We can end up feeling wired-tired most of the time; that is, exhausted but still unable to switch off.


How to switch off?


pranayama exercise

Try these 6 little practices of yoga and Ayurveda, to bring balance and well-being back to your body, peace of mind and love to your heart.

  1. Maintain some regularity in your daily schedule and try to live in tune with the cosmic rhythms – of the sun, the moon and the seasons. This is the cornerstone of a more balanced state of body and mind. Try to keep to regular waking, sleeping and eating times, as far as possible rising with the sun, sleeping by 10 pm, and eating your main meal at lunchtime when the sun and your digestive fire are at a peak.
  2. Eating a wholesome, plant-based vegetarian diet free of stimulants can help to keep body and mind calm and contented. It’s true that we are what we eat. We absorb the vibration of our food. Yoga teaches us to opt for a sattvic diet; a natural diet that promotes balance and supports the yogic tenet of “ahimsa” (non-violence).
  3. Always eat breakfast: whole grains and a little protein will go a long way to balance your blood sugar, support your adrenals and keep your stress resilience stronger. Thereby, your mind will be calmer in the midst of challenging events and situations, and your body less easily activated into the fight-or-flight state.
  4. Turn off the TV and all other screens one hour before sleeping, listen to or read something inspirational, but not stimulating to the mind and adrenals. This will support a more peaceful sleep.
  5. Practice the “Yoga of A Little” on waking each morning. It is more challenging to do this at home, outside of the structure of a yoga retreat, but it’s possible with enough power of will.
  6. The “Yoga of A Little” includes a daily commitment to a little asana, a little pranayama and a little reading of inspirational teachings. Perhaps, for some, also a little recitation of mantra. Just set your alarm clock 15 – 30 minutes earlier and reap the benefits of resetting your nervous system for the rest of the day. Your days will carry a different quality. You will feel more relaxed, more centered, more connected and more focused. Daily practice strengthens the restful part of our nervous system, building stress resilience and realigning us more and more into the “rest and digest” state.
  7. All the above will prepare the ground for meditation, allowing a glimpse into and a reconnection with our essential nature, beyond and untouched by our worries, stresses, and daily concerns. Once we have touched this place within and found the way back there, life is never the same again. We might be pulled again out of our center into the turbulence that exists on the surface of our lives, but we will have a new perspective on our difficulties and we will know forever the treasure that is within us and the way back to it.

turn of fight or flight

Get an intensive immersion into the above 6 practices by going on a yoga retreat with LoveYogaHealing. A yoga holiday is a great support to kick-start our minds to switch off from the habitual, negative mind states, to reset our nervous systems for better management of daily challenges back home, and to awaken our natural, spontaneous joy and the zest for life we may have been missing for far too long.

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