This weekend I volunteered at the annual Ride to Conquer Cancer providing free yoga for the riders. This annual event sees a couple of thousands bike riders take part in a fund-raising ride with proceeds going to cancer research. It’s a two day event with the riders completing 100km on each day. At the finish line on day 1, there is a tent offering free massage and another offering free yoga (that’s where you find me), so that the tired and weary may get a little bit of goodness and release some tight muscles.
This is a charity event and not a race. Some will complete the 100km in just a few short hours while others will spend most of the day in the saddle. But the word endurance still comes to mind. Google the word, and it responds with the following definition “the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way. // the capacity of something to last or to withstand wear and tear.”
Even the reason for the event, the fight against cancer, seems to be an endurance race. As a close, brave friend of mine describes her own situation: “This will be a marathon, with hopefully a medal at the end. It is not a sprint.” Most of the big health killers (cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes), relating to our lifestyles, require endurance to win the race of health and survival.
This post isn’t meant to be teary, preachy or otherwise bring people down, but is more the result of observing a growing interest in enduring, physical challenges. The amount of half marathon, marathon, triathlon, iron man posts, completed and pending I get in my newsfeed on Facebook is quite astonishing.
On the one hand, I understand humans developed as they have because there have always been people pushing the boundaries and challenging limitations, survival of the fittest. I have read and heard about traditional cultures and African tribes which include extreme long distance running as part of their survival. Humans are scientifically the most capable endurance runners, able to run down prey that eventually die of exhaustion. I even remember studying the origins of the marathon in high school history: a running messenger covered 240 kms in two days, then another 40km between two battlefields (although he apparently died upon completion).
Running is a stress trigger, amping up the adrenals for a fight-or-flight response. Since the days of cavemen, humans have been running, but back then they were most likely running to avoid danger. Although there is no longer any need to run away from the infamous sabre-toothed tiger, our body’s genetics have not kept up with that development and thus responds as it instinctively has done for millennia. Even in our inactive lifestyles, we seem to continue the running around and maintaining a fight-or-flight state whether we mean to or not. I particularly like the picture painted by Dr. Libby Weaver’s “Rushing Woman’s syndrome” - which I think could apply just as easily to the male population.
I also find it interesting that when you exert yourself to the extent that you need to breathe through your mouth and can no longer sustain nasal breathing, you are triggering a nervous and hormonal stress response. When your breathing is restricted to the upper parts of the lungs, you are likewise inducing a stress response.
How many people are actually able to relax and breathe through their nostrils during everyday life? How many people go about their day taking short and shallow breaths into their chest? How many people describe themselves as stressed? How many of these people are unhappy with their jobs or at least bitch about having to go to work, complain about traffic, deadlines, have to manage demanding work schedules or extensive social calendars? There seems to be quite a lot of “unpleasant or difficult process or situation(s) without giving way”.
So on the other hand, could modern lifestyle now be considered another form of endurance race?
Once upon a time I had a desk job too. I used to work in advertising. In the last year of working in that industry I would often get nose bleeds as I went down to get on my bike and ride to work. Not to mention anxiety attacks, poor digestion, chest tightness, restricted breathing and the occasional teary break down and wanting to stay in bed all day. Eventually I was diagnosed with work-related stress. I wasn’t the first, nor was I the last in that industry to be similarly affected. But it was weird, because I actually thought it was my dream job. I love people, I love working in a creative environment and I love making people happy. I do think there are people who can handle that sort of work and environment but I’m not one of them. Luckily I’ve had the opportunity to re-claim my life and return as a Yoga teacher. A job with a little less running around and a lot more focus on breathing. And I still get to work with people, make them happy and be creative.
I also used to have the sort of social life where I would prefer not to miss out on anything. The parties, the friendly get togethers, the dinners, the drinks, the dancing. Even having to pencil in official hang-out time with the besties. I can’t blame my work situation entirely. I see now, that I was just another one of Dr. Libby’s “Rushing Women”.
And I don’t think I am the only one, male or female, who is rushing. So it’s interesting to observe the rise of voluntary participation in endurance races. Of course I am deeply impressed by those amazing people who take it on. The dedication and effort they apply to these feats is truly impressive. But it does makes me wonder what it would be like if that sort of effort were invested into everyday life, or better yet, into aspects of life that would enhance relaxation and calmness? And I don’t mean more time on a couch watching crappy tv. But going for a walk, reading a book, just sitting back and listening to music. Or how about, just sitting. Looking at life. Observing life. What would it be like to dedicate the same amount of time otherwise applied in preparation for a triathlon, or maybe a half marathon, where most people seem to start, to simply relaxed breathing? No computer, no smart phone, no tv, no electronic stimulation. I’m not even sure I’d know where to start. Sitting on a park bench looking at the birds? For many, I actually think that would require “the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way”.
So are these races being completed by people who already have relaxed body, breath and mind? How long does it take for them to feel calm and relaxed post event? With the amount of lifestyle-related disease on the rise, perhaps it is time we reevaluate endurance races (scientific studies have highlighted short-term cardiac consequences of endurance racing). We certainly no longer need to run down antelopes to get dinner on the table.
As a yoga teacher I often get questions and comments about meditation, “How do I calm my mind?”, “Oh no, I couldn’t sit still for that long”, “Oh no, I'm too stiff to sit on the floor”. With all the running around we do in every day life, perhaps the new endurance would be to sit in stillness? Many people use the excuse of being too stiff and tight to avoid yoga, they are afraid of the pain and discomfort which would ultimately help them become less stiff and tight. Perhaps yoga is the (not so new) way to “endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way” while learning to maintain a relaxed state of being. A few hundred years ago, the yogis living in caves used physical yoga postures to keep their bodies limber and minds calm for sitting in meditation. Unfortunately there isn’t a medal after meditation or a trophy after Savasana. But perhaps, little by little, observing the improvements in your physical and mental health could be prize enough?
As one cardiologist puts it: “Survival of the fittest doesn’t really hold true today,… Survival of the fit will do just nicely.”
Suggestions for further reading:
- How much exercise is too much?
- Short-Term and Long-Term Injury to the Heart with Exercise
- Heart attack risks are greater for athletes who compete in endurance sports
- Diverse patterns of myocardial fibrosis in lifelong, veteran endurance athletes.
- When Exercise Is Too Much of a Good Thing
- Extreme Endurance Exercise: If You Do This Type of Exercise, You Could Be Damaging Your Heart
- Can Meditation Curb Heart Attacks?
- 10 Health Benefits Of Relaxation
- Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity