Fielding a constant stream of alerts, notifications, and texts, mental balance is the topic du jour. To de-stress has become the holy grail. But why is it so hard to do? “All of these devices keep us turned on all the time,” explained Eddie Stern, a yoga and spiritual guru who is the founder of the Brooklyn Yoga Club. “This constant arousal keeps us in a state of alert all the time.” Although this makes it hard for us to turn off, Stern maintains doing just that is not only possible but more necessary than we think. In addition to creating a meditation app with Moby and Deepak Chopra and tending to clients like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Chris Martin who rely on him to keep them centered, Stern has come up with some effective practical solutions for everyone. Here, the yoga guru answers our most pressing questions, and gives us the key to staying calm.
How did you first get into yoga?
I got into it at quite a young age. I took a yoga class when I was 15 at summer camp. By the time I was 20, all I was doing was practicing yoga and philosophy. Then I took a training program in India, and started teaching yoga when I was 21. Then I opened Ashtanga Yoga in Soho, and the Brooklyn Yoga Club.
How does yoga improve one's life?
It makes you a better person if you do your practices in such a way that you develop your awareness and your ability to sense things about your body, about your breath, and state of mind. To carry this awareness through all the practices that you do, so it becomes more of a front and center piece in your life. Yoga is not just to stretch your body but a way to connect with who you are. I feel now more than ever everyone is in a constant state of stress and panic. As a result there’s a collective shift in consciousness towards more holistic, down to earth lifestyles.
But why do you think there is an increasing amount of stress?
Stress is a neutral force, they are demands that the world around us is placing on us. If those demands become too high, it becomes distress. If it allows us to grow and is positive, it’s stress. If we perceive the load is becoming too big, our bodies will respond with excess adrenaline pumping out of our blood system. With these repetitive levels of perceived distress, what happens is these hormones start to build up in our blood stream. As they build up, cortisol starts to attach itself to receptors in the brain which impairs our ability to have executive functioning, or express compassion and empathy...We have a whole society and culture that is built on distress coming your way all the time. Smart phones, constant email and texting, trying to keep up with social media—all of these things keep us turned on all the time. This constant arousal keeps us in a state of alert all the time. That’s how we are with our notifications, and the need to be turned on all the time. On top of that, there are alerts on our phone, and when people turn them on they’re alerted all through the day, which turns on our overdrive.
So how do you turn off this response and move towards a calmer one?
Through conscious breathing and moving your body at the same time, like in tai chi or yoga. These practices are the best to move us away from the high alert zone, and into the safety zone. And to reduce inflammation at the same time.
What would your advice be to a naturally high stress person?
One thing that’s important to remember is the strategies we have to deal with in crisis situations work best when we practice them before the crisis situation. You can’t be a firefighter if you haven’t done the training. By doing breathing practices, meditation, and a little bit of yoga, every day, we are preparing our nervous system to respond properly. If you have a million emails and dishes to clean, the best thing to do is to pick up one fork, and wash that one first. If you can do one thing at a time, before you know it, the whole job is done. A practice like yoga meditation or breathing practices help us organize our minds so we do this one thing at a time. And when we only do this one thing we’re in the moment with it, our focus and attention is with it. And then the stress goes away. Having a daily practice is an important part of preparing yourself for not letting these low levels of stress get to you.
What is the key to keeping calm?
To breathe. Especially focusing on your exhale. When you exhale you’re moving into a state of calm and alert focus. Breathing is something we do all through the day, but don’t pay attention to. When we get scared or angry we hold our breath. We know breathing is attached to the emotions. If you can control your breathing through the exhale, you can begin to calm your emotions when they get out of control. Just paying attention to the act of breathing will automatically move you out from the hyper arousal and the ability to decide where you want your mind to be. The executive function means you decide where you want your mind to be. When we are in an emotional state, we can’t decide what we’re doing next. We want to move out from that emotional state at will. We want to catch ourselves when we go into an emotional state. We want to get in touch with this side. The act of consciously breathing brings us back in touch with ourselves. And it happens quickly.
Sometimes we let emotions control us rather than us controlling them. Do we have more power than we think we do?
I believe we can be in control of our emotions to an extent. Some emotions are helpful, others are destructive, and we need to be aware of which mental states are destructive and which support our larger purpose in our lives. A lot of the anxiety we have is due to the idea that we are separate from other people and our planet, but actually everything is connected in a very visceral way. When you live in such a way that you feel everything occurring is happening simultaneously in a certain moment, and everyone else is sharing that experience, the idea of separation can dissolve just a little bit. But not all emotions are bad. They’re there to indicate something is wrong. There are many levels of listening that can be developed in any kind of daily practice. If we can develop the ability to listen we’ll have a better idea of what is happening in a field of experience.
Do you think listening is the key to staying calm?
Yes, because when we’re in an argument we just want to yell because we’re upset, we’re very quick to interrupt and tell the other person what we think is wrong. We are just acting on our emotions. If we stop and listen, we get out of that hyper arousal mental state.
What is the most approachable way to start meditation?
When we talk about meditation, we’re talking the frame of mind that you’re going to allow yourself to sink into. Yoga is not about doing something, it’s about understanding what frame of mind you want to be in. The state of mind you get into when in meditation is an observing process. When meditators go into this process of observing their breath, something happens to their nervous system which naturally slows down their breathing. You go from 15 breaths per minute to about 6 breaths per minute. So another thing people can do is just breathing practices that will have an effect on your nervous system. It’s the same effect that meditators have, hereby bringing themselves into that state of mind. The app I developed with Deepak Chopra and Moby is about breathing, which brings your nervous system into an equilibrium. When you’re nervous system is in an equilibrium your mind follows and you’re in a state of calm and quiet. The feeling that everything is settling down. The thinking begins to settle down. This is a great way to access a meditative mind. You can just do this paced breathing.
So to start this process we want to go from 6 to 15 breaths per minute...
Yes, it definitely decreases anxiety. 15 breaths is the rate your heart beats in a state of anxiety. So even our normal breathing pattern is anxiety level breathing. For people who have low levels of stress all the time, their breathing is even quicker. So to start, we slow down the breathing from around 5 to 7 breaths per minute and the nervous system goes into an equilibrium. There's a ton of research on it.
For people who have already felt an incredibly amount of stress, is the damage reversible?
Yes, people have reversed heart disease. People have reversed high levels of anxiety. There is also the breathing app I have, but the important thing to remember is you have to do it regularly.
What’s your advice to start the new year on a good foot?
One thing I like to do is I make a list of three to five things in my life I really value. Then I check to see if I’m really paying attention to those things. Maybe a small change as simple as turning off my computer at 6 p.m. It could be any small little thing. I find simply by doing that, I’m living in accordance with the things I say I value. So my stress levels are lower.
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