There was a surprise waiting when I went to yoga Sunday morning. We regular students keep our mats rolled up on a bank of narrow shelves in the back of the studio. The shelves had gotten so crammed full that if one mat was pulled out, a half dozen other mats came with it. They call ‘em sticky mats for a good reason.
While our teacher Natalie was on vacation, some of her helpers moved dozens of nameless mats up to the tiny front check-in area and piled them on the floor. When I arrived, a half-dozen people were scrambling through a candy-colored jumble in search of their mats. I stood back to let the crowd thin out.
Within a few minutes, only one woman was left ahead of me. She was bent forward at a ninety-degree angle, pushing, pulling and struggling. She straightened up, turned towards me and heaved a big sigh. She was young and beautiful, but her brows were kitted and her mouth contorted. “This is so stressful,” she said. “And I came here to get rid of stress.”
“Take your time,” I told her. “It’s only a mat.”
She smiled weakly and turned back to her plight. About ten seconds later she retrieved a bright fuschia mat and hurried into the classroom.
There was a time when I would have reacted exactly like that. I would have forgotten that I was young and beautiful. I would have forgotten that I was healthy and strong and had two incredible arms and legs. I would have forgotten that it was a blazingly brilliant Sunday morning in Coconut Grove, and that I had just walked in a light breeze under mahogany trees filled with dancing leaves and trilling mockingbirds.
Yep, I would have started yoga class upset and frustrated because my mat had been moved and it took me an extra minute or two to find it.
Stressing out is virtually our national pastime. Eight in ten Americans report workplace stress. Seventy-five to ninety percent of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Almost half of us lie awake in bed at night due to stress, and about two-thirds of us will have hypertension by the age of 60.
Granted, people sometimes face serious and stressful problems–a life-threatening illness or the loss of a loved one. But how many of us are stressed because we arrive at yoga class and the mats were moved? Or because we jump in our cars to go to the grocery store and an accident ties up traffic for five minutes? Or because we’ve misplaced our keys? Or the dryer won’t start?
Our stress response is provoked over and over all day long, from things no less trivial than these. Then, the “stress wiring” in our bodies becomes stronger and more efficient. Over time, it takes less and less of a circumstance to push us into a stress state. The “set point” for our stress response to kick in actually lowers and we respond by pumping out stress hormones from smaller and smaller provocations.
In short, we create a hair-trigger stress-response system by reacting so dramatically and consistently to trivial inconveniences. We’re not very happy campers, either, while we are going about creating both acute and chronic health problems.
What’s the answer? One obvious solution is immediately available to all of us. If something is going on that you can’t control, let it go. Arguing with reality never succeeds—we always lose the debate as well as our health and well-being.
If the mats have been moved or the traffic is tied up or your flight is taking off late, let it go. If the rain is messing up your hair or if the lack of rain is drying out your flowerbeds, let it go. Two or ten or twenty extra minutes, frizzy hair, and wilted flowers are not worth compromising our happiness or our health.
Next time something unexpected happens and you’re delayed or inconvenienced, you might want to remind yourself that you are uselessly (and perhaps harmfully) stressing about something you can’t control.
When it was my turn at the mat-pile, I found two identical Mandukas—thick, grey, high-end talismans owned by those who take yoga very, very seriously, or like me, just need some extra knee cushioning. I considered what to do for a few seconds, then heard Natalie’s sweet voice. Class was starting.
It was time to take my own advice. I grabbed one of the two mats, pushing aside thoughts about whose sweat and grimy footprints other than my own might be lingering on it. When I get home, I told myself, I’ll have a hot, soapy shower and scrub the mat clean. Then I’ll write my name on it with a black marker so this won’t happen again.
“After all,” I reminded myself, “It’s only a mat.”