It has been really interesting in class this week exploring with my students just how our yoga practice can help with stress relief. As I have had some amazing feedback about addressing this aspect of our practice in class I decided to bring it all together here for people to refer back to should they wish.
With this week being National Stress Awareness week (around the first Wednesday in November), it was the perfect time to highlight the amazing benefits that yoga brings in terms of lowering your stress levels and equipping you with tools to manage and reduce your own stress levels and to cope better in the face of stressful situations.
What is stress?
Without getting too technical, stress is an emotional response to an overwhelming situation or life event. It is the feeling of not being able to cope with or manage the pressures that we encounter in our everyday lives. Given that most of us, myself included, lead very hectic and “yang” lives it is no wonder that we can often feel stressed out and overwhelmed. What begins as an emotional response soon starts to have a physical effect on the body. Whether this manifests as a feeling of tightness in the chest or shallow breathing, perhaps a stiff neck and shoulders or headaches and anxiety or just feeling tense and on edge, there is no doubt that stress is toxic to both the mind and body.
So how can yoga help?
On a very basic level the first step towards keeping stress at bay is taking time out for yourself. When you set aside time to practise yoga, whether that be in class or at home, you are prioritising your own wellbeing and practising self-care. This is already an important part of managing stress, acknowledging that your needs are important. In terms of the yoga itself, as a holistic practice it works on both mind and body and thus it is well placed to help undo the effects of stress on both a physical and mental/emotional level.
1. Deep Breathing
For me personally the most transferable tool that yoga offers is deep breathing. I say transferable in the sense that you can use it anywhere and it does not require a yoga mat in order to benefit from its positive effects. Whenever I feel myself getting stressed or feelings of anxiety start to build I instinctively take a deep breath, as perhaps you do too without having realised. Deep breathing is a natural way to slow your sympathetic nervous system which calms both body and mind and is a simple way to help release stress and calm yourself when you start to feel tense. Yogic breathing techniques such as, for example, Abdominal Breathing, Full Yogic Breath and Alternate Nostril Breathing, all of which we practise regularly in class, encourage us to breathe slowly and deeply which in turn lowers your body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol and brings more oxygen to the brain which helps you to feel calmer and more able to cope with any stressful situation you might be presented with. You can use yogic breathing to even greater effect by practising 2-to-1 breathing, again something we looked at in class this week. With this technique you inhale for a count of 2, for example, but exhale for a count of 4. By doubling the exhalation compared to the inhalation you are triggering an even deeper feeling of relaxation within the nervous system. Obviously you would need to be sitting quietly for Alternate Nostril Breathing but the other breathing techniques I mentioned you can practise on the go, for example, when sitting in your car at the traffic lights, when standing in a queue, sitting on the sofa at home or at your desk at work.
Another way in which yogic breathing techniques can help to combat stress is that they help to focus the mind and encourage a present-moment awareness. When focusing on your breath you are not worrying about the past or feeling anxious about the future but instead you are focusing on each moment as it unravels and thus practising mindfulness.
This mindful-awareness also relates to a traditional meditation practice and also the practice of the yoga postures themselves. When we hold the body in various postures we bring our focus either to the breath or to sensations in the body both of which encourage us to stay present. This aspect is greatly emphasised in our Yin Yoga practice where we hold postures for 3 to 5 minutes but also relevant to Hatha Yoga where we also include static, or held, postures.
3. Physical Postures or Asanas
The physical postures in yoga are key to creating a feeling of ease in the body and bringing your body back to balance by encouraging the release of physical tension which can manifest in the body as a result of stress. Stretching releases tight muscles which has the effect of both relaxing your muscles and increasing blood flow to the part of the body you are stretching. This in turn encourages the release of two mood-boosting hormones, oxytocin and endorphins, which together create that blissful “feel-good” feeling that you get after stretching. The physical postures also help to reduce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline by calming the “fight or flight” stress response in the body and in turn stimulating your body’s natural “rest and digest” relaxation response. Different postures can help relieve stress in different ways: forward bends have a calming effect on the body and are introspective in nature turning your awareness inwards and slowing you down; inversions encourage blood to flow to the heart and head which helps to trigger the relaxation response in the body; yoga balances can help to focus and concentrate the mind, keeping the mind present, and postures that deeply stretch various parts of the body help to release muscular tension and create a feeling of ease and comfort in the body.
There really are so many ways in which yoga can help to combat stress, almost too many to include in a post like this, but I just wanted to touch on how what we include in our classes each week are helping you to stay stress-free or at least helping you to manage your stress levels better.