By Alix Norman
Overnight, we seemed to go from a fairly stable economy, a prosperous up-and-coming little island, to the stress capital of the world. Our collective anxiety levels soared as we were assured on a daily basis that it would only get worse: jobs would beslashed, salaries would plummet, relationshipswould crash and burn. And, unfortunately, a great deal of it has, indeed, happened. Accordingly, we’re seeing a whole new side to life, with mental and physical problems as a result of stress manifesting all over the place. Everything from depression to insomnia, anxiety attacks and cardiovascular issues are on the up. It certainly sounds like we all need to take a collective breath and get things back into perspective.
And that’s why yoga – especially in times of crisis – is probably just the ticket.
Yoga is a medically recognised discipline when it comes to stress relief, a proven method for getting your affairs – be they mental, physical, spiritual, emotional or social – back into order. “Research provides evidence that yoga can help people in their quest for a healthier stress response,” explains Elina Pavlides, founder of the Life Centre in Nicosia. Wonderfully calm with a real warmth, she’s been practising the discipline – as well as teaching it – for over 10 years and, if her demeanour is anything to go by, it’s a method that truly makes a difference.
“Yoga can balance every area of your life,” she says, “it’s about breath, mindfulness, silence, flow. It’s about acknowledging yourself: you’re observing what comes up and then taking it into your life and looking deeper.” Quoting from a study conducted by Newcastle University and published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation, she explains how researchers proved that just six weeks of practising Hatha yoga provided amazing benefits: activating the parasympathetic nervous system (known as the PNS, this is the ‘calming’ side of our autonomic nervous system) without balancing the influence of the Sympathetic nervous system (the SNS, which is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response).
“When you’re living with a heightened SNS, it can really bring you down,” she says; “something I’ve seen happening more and more since the crisis. The most obvious sign is the increasing number of clients who complain of constant stress, something you can see when they first arrive – tapping fingers, inability to relax, complete restlessness. There are, I think, huge issues in acknowledging the pain and loss that the crisis has caused; not just in the loss of material things, but also in the loss of that sense of control, the dignity.” And this, she says, is exactly where yoga comes in. “The crisis, in many ways, is also a huge lesson for us. Maybe it’s our chance to let go of the things that are not really essential in life…”
Having been through challenging times herself, Elina’s more than qualified to speak knowledgably on the subject: “What we’re doing in yoga is helping people cope with the challenges life brings; specifically in benefiting our heart rate variability.”
This, she clarifies, is key to a balanced response to stress. “Yoga has been proved to increase participants’ heart rate variability: a very good thing!” she continues. “It’s a way that scientists use to measure our response to stress: focusing on breathing techniques we see very positive effects, the elongation of exhalation increasing our PNS response. And it’s this that distinguishes yoga from other exercise disciplines – the emphasis on awareness of breath, and the integration of the physical and mental. You’re training your challenge response in a way that translates into daily life: conditioning your nervous system to bring you back into balance.”
More than willing to put some of this hard and fast research into action – I, as much as anyone, could do with a being a bit less jittery – I’m all ready to experience a moment or two of calm. We start with the ‘legs against the wall’ pose, focusing on the breath, the elongation of the neck, relaxation of the spine. As Elina calmly moves me into exactly the right position I can feel the constant underlying tension in my shoulders begin to release. It’s a tautness I’d never even realised was there… until it wasn’t. Sure, my neck cracks all the time, and my jaw is always stiff, but I’d just learnt to live with it. Now, in one simple pose, the rigidity was gone.
As we move smoothly into ‘child’s pose’ – a restorative position that replenishes the nervous system – and Elina straightens my back, softening my arms, and I feel a moment of calm usually only experienced when, after a long day at work, I take that first sip of Earl Grey. The focus on the moment, the breath and the body in combination brought with it a huge sense of relief, a groundedness and peace. We end with Savasana – lying still, sinking into the floor. It’s just heavenly. I breathe…
“Yoga, for me, is a refuge,” Elina concludes, “a flow. It’s a space inside myself, a place I turn to when I’m feeling drained or facing difficulties; a discipline that trains your mind to respond positively, to acknowledge and have compassion. For yourself.”
And it works. It really does. I know this because, driving home, I’m just not my usual self. Trapped in a honking, Tourette-ridden traffic jam, I’m completely unphased: it’s a huge change from my normal response! This, says my mind, is not worth stressing about – you’ll get home one way or the other. And my body, in yogic calm, agrees. “Breathe,” it says. “Just breathe.” And I do.
The Life Centre in Nicosia runs a variety of Yoga and Pilates classes, as well as offering a number of Therapies and one-to-one sessions; the first class is free to newcomers.
Celebrating 10 years of operation, the Centre is also organising a Yoga Charity Event on Saturday, October 11 at the Spilies (caves) in Acropolis Parkwith all proceeds donated to theAntileukemia Association, ZOI. An ideal taster session for those who feel they might benefit from the discipline, the event is open to all and will include Baby Yoga, Kids Yoga and Yoga for Adults of all levels as well as a number of educational and entertaining activities.
For further information on the Charity Event or the Life Centre, visit www.life-centre.org , email [email protected] or call 22 377630