Do you suffer from anxiety, poor digestion, or lack of focus? When life’s demands overwhelm us, Angela Wilson, Manager of Evidence-Based Yoga Curriculum for Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living, explains in her R&R retreat lecture Cultivating Inner Strength, our nervous system gets out of balance. Through the practices of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness, however, we can build resilience in order to be fully aware of all our experiences.
As Angela explains, there are two main branches of the nervous system. There’s the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the fight-or-flight response in reaction to stressful situations. It’s a hot, reactive state, which increases heart rate and primes the body for action. The other branch is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated when the body is relaxed. The parasympathetic supports a cooling, restful and state. It soothes the system, aids in digestion, and can be fostered through yoga practice.
Because our culture is extremely active, the sympathetic nervous system tends to be turned on high for most of us, which can make us reactive, defensive, and stressed. Yoga buffers against stress, Angela points out, by calming the body and breath, priming the body for relaxation. Then the body is in a relaxed state, the mind is too, and that allows us to be more receptive and expansive; it is through these qualities that we become more open and resilient, able to cultivate inner strength.
But as Angela also points out, there can be too much of a good thing. Though it’s necessary for our well-being to be able to access the parasympathetic nervous system, we also need some heat in our life. If the qualities of the parasympathetic become too dominant in an individual, for example, that can lead to lethargy and depression. Ultimately, cultivating inner strength is a matter of balance: “Both systems are necessary for optimal functioning,” Angela says, “and both systems need to be in balance.”
Specialized practices—breathing techniques, yoga postures, meditation—calm the body, breath and mind, bringing us into balance. The more we engage in these practices, Angela points out, the deeper our resources for finding self-nurturing and self-empowering tools. These practices build what Angela calls “a bank account of resilience”: whenever life comes out at us, we can replenish our coffers with powerfully enriching practices.
Angela suggests the simple yet powerful practice of metta, or loving-kindness, meditation as a tool to cultivate inner strength. After offering loving-kindness to ourselves as a way to replenish our being, we can also offer it to others.
Here’s how to practice metta meditation:
Sit tall, close your eyes, and begin focusing on the natural rhythm of the breath. After a few moments of centering, silently say to yourself the following affirmations for a few cycles:
May I be safe and peaceful.
May I be contented and pleased.
May my body support me with strength.
May my life unfold gently and with ease.
Have you practiced metta meditation? How do you cultivate inner strength?