5 ways yoga can help with stress
An ancient practice for modern times: how yoga can help us navigate the stresses and strains of everyday living. By Catherine Morrison
What is stress? We hear so much about it, but it can be subjective; what stresses one person out might not affect another person. The ‘stress’ we experience is a bodily chemical reaction that happens in response to a perceived threat. This may be a response to physical danger (feeling scared standing at the edge of a cliff), or an unconscious response that you might not even know you are having.
Physiologically, when our brain assesses the threat situation, it communicates with the rest of our bodies via the Autonomic Nervous System, which is made up from the Sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) and the Parasympathetic (rest and digest) Nervous Systems.
When we are in danger mode, we need more energy to deal with whatever situation we find ourselves in. Adrenaline kicks in, causing our hearts to speed up and pump more blood around the body; we breathe faster to get more oxygen, and sugars and fats are sent from our reserves to the areas where they are most needed. We are more alert, our senses are sharper and, temporarily, we are superheroes and ready for a fight. This is a useful response when being chased by the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger, but not as necessary when you are picking up the kids from school or in the office — two sources of modern-day stress.
While the body is busy putting all its efforts into getting out of danger, other vital systems (such as the digestive and immune systems) get put on the back burner. This means we need to get back into a relaxed state before we can continue to function as normal. So when we are constantly in the ‘stress’ state, it’s hard to take back control and allow ourselves time to recover. Eventually, we become exhausted, and experience various physical, physiological and social symptoms. Chronic stress also affects mental health. The good news is that whatever your source of stress a yoga practice can help.
We all know that exercise releases endorphins, which are naturally produced chemicals that help to relieve pain and make us feel happy. Practicing physical yoga also releases endorphins, and (usually) you don’t have to push yourself to your limits to get these benefits.
Yoga poses encourage the blood to flow, meaning that our vital organs get the nutrients and energy they need. Research has found that during a yoga session the joints in the body are being taken through their full range of motion. This can help to alleviate pain as well as helping conditions like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Yoga helps to break the pain cycle by encouraging movement and by giving us confidence that, little by little, we can start to find more flexibility and get more in tune with our bodies as a whole. There are phrases such as ‘carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders’ which have been passed down through generations.
Therapists from all around the world can attest to times when touching or releasing a body part will bring a person to tears, and yoga teachers have reported similar situations with students during practice. The movement towards this kind of therapy in western medicine for help with PTSD and other mental health conditions points to a growing understanding that we are bigger than our body parts – and that a more holistic attitude towards healing is needed.
The ‘whole body’ approach to movement — that is at the forefront of a physical yoga session — helps people to find areas of tightness in their bodies and work to release them. Often, this brings with it a release of stress and promotes a better sense of wellbeing.
Being aware of how you breathe, and practicing slow deep breathing, activates your Parasympathetic Nervous System. In some yoga disciplines you might be using different types of breath-work to get a more conscious response around triggering the Sympathetic Nervous System, using techniques such as breath retention. These types of exercises don’t feel relaxing at the time of doing them, but training your brain to have conscious control over a perceived threat allows you to have a more controlled stress response in everyday situations.
Meditating is a key part of yoga, not only traditional seated meditation, but also during the practice when essentially yoga is meditation as movement.
When we are focusing on our breathing and turning our attention inwards during practice, we are also reaping the benefits of meditation as we go. Meditation helps us to get to know ourselves better. With regular meditation practice, we are more likely to become aware of any ingrained subconscious ‘markers’ that have defined how we act and react to situations. Once we notice them, we have more power to start to be able to take charge of them.
Love it or hate it, chanting is part of yoga, even if it is just the occasional “Om”. Chanting itself is an ancient practice: all modern music is based on it and the general consensus is that for most of us, there is at least one type of music where just hearing it makes us feel good.
Research looking into the effects of chanting on well being found that chanting in a group increased feelings of social cohesion, and that chanting in general “focused attention, which may inhibit ruminative thinking and lead to increased positive mood.” Furthermore, studies into chanting and well being have found that it increases positive mood and that the vibration in the vocal chords when chanting “Om” stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, helping us to become more relaxed.
Yoga wasn’t (and isn’t) just the largely physical practice that is prevalent in Western culture today, and the core principle of not causing suffering in yourself or others is still very much alive. Stress is probably one of the biggest self-induced sufferings that modern people put upon themselves.
And, if you started to consider bringing the concepts of the Yamas (don’t hurt anything, be truthful, be happy with what you have, look after what you have and don’t be greedy) and the Niyamas (be clean, be content, keep learning and give everything 100%) into your day to- day life, you would find navigating your way through the tricky decisions that we need to make in everyday life a lot less stressful.
One final thought: it’s important that yoga doesn’t add to your stress! Like anything else, yoga can be added to your ‘list’ of things you need to do each day. The more obsessive/compulsive types among us start to feel anxiety if they haven’t ‘done their yoga’ for the day which can cause additional stress. We can push ourselves too hard, even cause physical injury.
We should always work at a level that feels right, focus on alignment over full posture, and don’t do anything that hurts. Practicing acceptance and gratitude at the end of each session allows us to let go of any negative emotions, recognise our own achievements and give ourselves a well-earned pat on the back for just turning up. For me, practicing yoga is probably the one thing I can do that pretty much guarantees I will see life with a better perspective; the more I practice, the more chilled and happier I am.
Catherine Morrison is a yoga teacher and wellness writer based in Leeds