Soothe stress with yoga
Lessons from yoga in how we can navigate the challenging times of the modern era. By Deana Morris
Can there be any doubt that yoga is a mighty tool in managing stress in our lives? Yet even those of us with long-established practices still experience stress and no doubt most of us, at some point, have wondered: “Why? I do more yoga and yet I still feel stressed.”
If you’re a yoga teacher you may be familiar with the expressed expectation that you must now somehow float through life in a state of love, light, calm and relaxation, free from stress and the pressures of the material world. Oh, if only that it was so!
Of course, we are not. We worry about our loved ones, our health, how we will pay our bills this winter, just like everyone else. Yoga is not a magic wand.
The Mental Health Foundation published research in 2018, surveying across all age groups, which showed 74% of UK adults experienced stressed at some point over the past year so intense they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope.
And that was before the coronavirus pandemic, the war began in Ukraine and the looming economic downturn that today seems inevitable. We seem to be rattling through unnerving historical event after unnerving historical event at a pace so fast the G-force of their collective impacts threatens to flatten us.
What is worth remembering is we have been in comparable situations of challenging times. Just 100 years ago, following the First World War, the Spanish Flu epidemic tore through the world and in 1929 an economic depression began in the UK.
Read Juliet Gardiner’s ‘The Thirties: an Intimate History’ and you’ll see echoes of where we seem to be about to venture and some clues as to how we may could face our times to come.
Yoga may not have had much traction in 1930s’ Britain, but non-working lives were well documented and studied in mass observation projects. Coming together in communities was a big part of society’s survival system and that level of community support was a wealth we wouldn’t recognise in our modern lives.
Practicing yoga on our mat, focusing on our practice as a whole, teaches us much about how we handle life and its inevitable stresses. Days when we are gracefully flowing through our warrior sequences, in tune with our breath and steady in our stance, can feel wondrous. And yet there are the days when we’ve two left feet and neither can tell left from right, our monkey mind appears to have drunk its body weight in espresso coffee and we’ve all the grace of what my mother refers to as a ‘fairy elephant’.
But they are all good. We can take heart that our practice has results during the easeful days, we learn from our wobbles and become stronger physically, and hopefully wiser, for them. There are no bad days on the mat. We are always learning.
There are many pursuits where we can come together to move our bodies, but what yoga also offers is the opportunity to go within in stillness. Whether we use breath, mudra, mantra, mindfulness, or a combination, to bring our attention to one point of focus, the practice helps us manage stress as we experience those glimmers of a life where our intellect triumphs over emotion-driven mind.
Stress, as we all know, impacts more than our body, it also affects our ability to regulate our emotions and our rational thinking. That ancient part of our brain — that deals with fight, flight or freeze — takes control.
In several studies over recent years researchers have monitored the experience of participants in mindfulness programmes and have reported research participants positive responses. Meditation is such a flexible friend you can take anywhere, within reason (maybe not while operating machinery or driving!). And it can be so simple.
Two minutes of silent contemplation of the breeze in a tree counts and is a lovely way to incorporate another well recognised stress-buster — nature.