“Our bodies simply can not cope and heal at the same time. It’s fight/flight or rest/digest – not both at the same time.” – Pamela Miles
I learned this concept of coping versus healing from my Reiki teacher, Jennifer Kerns, and it immediately clicked with me. In the past I had been reserved in using the word healing in relation to my work with ayurveda because I felt it implied something magical as opposed to practical. And though, there is nothing wrong with magic, the word seems to imply that something is happening separate of one’s self, as opposed to something one can be actively engaged in. And in Ayurveda, one is ideally, cultivating awareness within body, mind and beyond.
My mind has been changed because I now understand that Ayurvedic practices do set one up for real healing. The only healing there is, is the kind that that comes from within. Stay with me. “The body is not just a machine, but an intelligence,” as my teacher Dr. Sunil Joshi is known to say, so I say our job is to get out of the way so that this intelligence can function as nature intended. Healing is a state of being that provides certain signals to the physiology.
Coping is also a way of being. We’ve all heard of the term ‘coping mechanism,’ and know that the implication is usually negative. Coping is something I think of one doing to try to maintain homeostasis in the midst of a crisis. For some of us, our daily life is a state of emergency. I understand that for some, of course this may be literally true. For the sake of this conversation, I am implying that the way many of us feel holding down a regular job, family and self-responsibilities are causing a stress response in our body. A coping mechanism could be having a drink at the end of the day to relax, to something much more serious. And it could also include simply continuing to live in this fight or flight mode all the time because we don’t know another way to be.
Without any healing time, without repair time for mind or body, the cells and our state of mind will experience burn out sooner or later.
“There is growing evidence to suggest that many disease states are accompanied by chronic elevations in sympathetic nerve activity.” (2)
What is healing?
To be in a healing state physiologically, our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is stimulated, while coping, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is turned on. In my yoga classes, especially the more restorative classes, I talk a bit about the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s often called the ‘rest and digest’ system, this is how it was even taught in my anatomy and physiology classes.
The PNS is anabolic, which means it is concerned with rebuilding and replenishing. The nerves stimulate digestion, and the immune system and organs of elimination – the liver, pancreas, stomach and intestines. The SNS is then so called the ‘fight or flight’ response. It redirects more blood (full of adrenalin) to the muscles, heart and the brain, so you can move faster and fight harder. This system is catabolic – meaning it strips the body of energy reserves needed in the situation to keep you alive.
In reality, though, our ‘fight or flight’ response is turned on more often than we really are presented with real danger. What we call samskaras in yoga and ayurveda, meaning tendency or impression, one might call a habit of the nervous system to respond in a certain way. Humans are creatures of habit, right down to the cells. The more you have felt stress in your life, the more often your body will start to react in that way to any perceived danger. Your SNS is just trying to keep you alive. Not realizing it’s actually continually depleting your reserves of nutrition, or an ayurvedic terminology, ojas. Our ojas is our natural immunity, our aura, and our energy reserves.
So, are you coping? or are you healing?
For example, if you are having trouble sleeping, this is a sign that there is not a balance between the PNS and SNS. Sleep is our body’s automatic switch into healing mode, and if this is compromised, it’s even harder to get that valuable PNS time. We perpetuate the cycle when we reach for a big coffee on those mornings when we don’t get enough sleep, and this only perpetuates the coping cycle.
I think it is important that you know I do not exclude myself from these experiences. My aim is not to make anyone feel guilty about coping, but to share my understanding of practices that help us make choices to move us into a place of healing eventually, and regularly. It is possible to break the cycle! Just having awareness about these two states of being is the first step to feeling change. Meeting or having a community encouraging change is also important to make it last, and feel sane.
Is the answer to fight or flight, to retreat?
I am realizing more and more that this is what we are actually doing at The Ayurvedic Center, and that this is what I am encouraging and educating in all of my clients. By this I mean turning on the parasympathetic response, and creating a space for healing – we are not doing he healing, but allowing our clients space and time for their own healing. Because for some reason, it’s something our society does not really value, or seems to take for granted.
Good food works on YOU, massage on YOU. You are front and center, not a disease. How would you feel about a retreat for the nervous system. And a break for the mind. Space for the soul, dare I say??
Ayurveda has given me tools, and yoga practice helps me have awareness to know when I am in a coping or healing mode, and what to do about it, every day. These tools are pretty much laid out in dinacharya, rtucharya, the daily and seasonal self care practices, as well as the 8 limbs of yoga.
The ‘getting out of the way’ can be much more active than it sounds, and the Ayurvedic rules about how, as well as what, to eat, along with understanding the causes of disease, and knowing self care practices (included in dinacharya linked above) give us the practical tools – for making practical magic. Tools which help us become more sensitive and subtle, so we can listen to the signals from the source.
Bur firstly, as another of my teachers says, we might do good to spend a little more time on the couch.
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1. Pamela Miles. How does Reiki Help?