The Changeling: The physical response to emotional stress

How many people wake up to discover that their body is no longer the body they remembered when they could remember their body?  After more than thirty years of practicing and teaching yoga, I have heard countless new students say with sincere surprise, “I used to be so flexible,” or “I always had such good posture, when did this happen?” 

When a mother discovers that her child has a crooked spine, droopy shoulders, or any structural abnormality from head to toe, she panics with concern for the good of her child: so why then do so many adults routinely walk around with distorted spines, chronic pain in the neck and much worse, as though it were normal? 

 It seems at some point for people, pain becomes an acceptable part of life. When physical change sneaks up on you and creates an unfamiliar distortion in your posture it’s as though something has taken over your body while you were sleeping.  I call it THE CHANGELING;  the physical reaction to emotional stress.

It begins when we go through an emotional crisis but feel the need to bury the feelings. In spite of our intentions; our body knows, remembers and reacts while slowly conforming to the distorted image of a changeling.

What happens when trauma, in the form of deep sadness, worry, or anger shocks us so unexpectedly, hitting us so deeply that it throws all of our reference points of our existence off track?  Several physical changes happen, your stomach contracts, affecting the internal organs and causing a the muscles in your back to constrict, your chest tightens causing restrictions of the heart and lungs, Your breathing becomes short and tight all without you, the host to this, barely aware of what’s taking place.  Imagine this response to stress striking again and again.  It is a process that begins in childhood and develops slowly over time, little by little. 

We may cope with a hard situation in various ways.  Some people tend towards an extreme angry reaction while others experience emotional restraint and suppression.  Regardless of how we attempt to handle the upset, after a few tears and a stiff upper lip, you try to get back to the business of the day.  A few days later, you bend down to move something, tie your shoe or reach over to pick up the phone and you feel something go a little funny in your back or neck.  Suddenly you find yourself in such intense pain, triggered by the slightest breath, and you are unable to move.  Days, or perhaps weeks later you begin to feel better but something has changed.  We can put on a happy face for our family or friends, but with time our body can no longer act as if we have not been affected. 

 You notice that your back is beginning to slump and it hurts to stand up straight.  You’re muscles tighten around the area of trauma to protect the injury and you feel like you just may stay that way. 

Once injury occurs, many students shy away from yoga and give way to the negative response that overrides the path back to a centered body and mind. If we let this attitude take over, our body freezes and fear finds a home in us as the Changeling covertly transforms us through our posture.

We become crystallized in body, time and Attitude.  You look in the mirror and reflected back is a body that you no longer recognize.  Bitterness, fear, and sadness are reflected in our face and body and start to shape how we carry ourselves.  

Throughout my study and practice of Hatha Yoga, the Asanas become my teacher.  They confront my weaknesses and imbalances both mentally and physically. The holistic practice of Hatha Yoga and meditation completes a perfect circle. First we are faced with the CONFRONTATION from the limitation we notice from posture, to REVELATION as we see that the posture is telling us something to RESOLUTION, as the pose becomes the answer to the challenge. 

The body responds from its deepest level, exerting its expression from the very core outward to the muscles and skin.  It is daily practice that unfolds and opens the body to allow the energy of life to flow continuously free.

Even as a Yoga Teacher I was almost taken over by the Changeling.  In the fall of 1993 I moved from Southern California to a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery high in the Catskills of New York to teach yoga to guests and residents.  Deer ran around like cats and dogs and the seasons shared in all of nature’s magnificent moods.  One year later I moved to New York City to study the Japanese art of Shiatsu. The move from a warm leisurely lifestyle of Southern California to the enchantment of the Catskills and then, into the invasive sights, smells and noises of the big city, was a shock to my very being.  My body went through unfamiliar changes.  My shoulders began to twist inward, my upper back was closing in and my face began to express the tension of New York City overload. 

It was through these extreme changes that I was guided to understand stress and to learn how to deal with it.  Without a warm beach to escape to, or my usual relaxing hike to release my mind, I turned to my saving grace of the last thirty years, Yoga.   With each distorted twist of my spine, turn of my shoulder and collapse of my back, I untwisted, lifted, and breathed my chest open.  My face relaxed, my mind calmed down and I was ready to meet the day with new strength and confidence.  I was free as long as I could do yoga.

All yoga teachers must observe in their students, rounded backs, a sunken chest, forward necks and gnawing jaws.  My own personal experience deepened an understanding of the benefit of yoga and its connection to many of the oriental healing modalities.

Yoga practice may start as a “good workout” but soon it begins to transform our thoughts, then it changes we response to stress and ultimately our practice begins to align our body and mind to a higher mind.  This is the true meaning and intent of Yoga. I am convinced that organs, muscles, and emotions mingle together in a divine conspiracy to wake us up.

For those of us who do practice yoga we have an opportunity to realize when our body has been changed through injury or emotional trauma.  First we need to be aware that something has taken over the well being of our body and mind.  We then can realize that yoga postures practiced with intelligence reintroduces our body to the way that it was intended to be, returning us to an alignment that will keep our energy flowing and our mind calm and always pervious to change. 

New students must develop patience and awareness through the focus of the breath in order to slow down and discover the art of relaxation. Like Michelangelo revealing David from the marble, letting go of unnecessary muscle and mental strain reveals the beauty of the pose waiting to unfold.

 Experienced students must remember to keep a beginner’s mind as they return to the same poses many times over with the freshness of the very first time. 

We may be able to fly through repetitions of the sun salutation and move from pose to pose quickly with the grace and beauty of a dancer, but how do we handle the pose of our body and mind during times of stress when we are most vulnerable?

 Our emotional life is often revealed through the pose of our unguarded stance.  It is through Mountain pose (tadasana), the posture that defines how we carry ourselves when we are outside of the yoga class.  Mountain pose in its subtle complexity brings us to an alignment beyond emotion, beyond environmental stress, and challenges the dictates of aging.  It grounds us to the earth and aligns us upward toward the heavens.  Mountain Pose naturally evolves into all poses.

 When grief takes you over and the thoracic spine begins to round, simple backbends will counteract the tightening of the lungs and the breath will expand the chest.

Forward bends will help to calm the nervous system, quiet the mind, and slow down the heartbeat.   Together these two extensions help to lead the way to naturally unwind and relieve depression.  The postures are the molds that we pour ourselves into and the breath unravels from the core of our being. 

The changeling can win only when the intimidation from new stress goes unchallenged.  It takes great courage and patience to face the fear brought on by these challenges.  Yoga and Meditation develop a harmony within us that is more powerful than the stress that quietly overtakes and transforms our body and mind into the unwelcome Changeling.

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