The Complete Guide to Using Yoga for Stress Management – Part 1
Yoga’s unique perspective on dealing with stress
One of the things I really love about yoga is that it recognises we human beings are complex! When we look at something like stress and how to manage or reduce it, we need to understand that stress affects us in a number of ways and so usually a multi-faceted approach works best. Sadly there is no silver bullet or magic pill.
It’s estimated that 90% of all doctor-visits have stress as a contributory factor. Look at any chronic health condition and you can be sure stress plays a role – even in the unlikely event that stress didn’t play a role in the onset of the illness, you can be sure stress will be a symptom of whatever health complaint someone has. After all being sick, being injured, being in pain are all stressful issues to deal with!
So we know stress affects our bodies physically but we also need to address the toll stress takes on our mental health, our emotional outlook, our lifestyle habits, behaviours and routines. When stress gets really bad it can rock us to the very core making us question our priorities, whats important and the very meaning of our lives.
In yoga we understand that people are multi-layered. At the most tangible gross level we have the physical body, made of bones, muscles and connective tissue. Going a little deeper we have an understanding of the various systems of the body such as the nervous system or circulatory system and also how well energy or ‘prana’ flows through these. Deeper and subtler still we have the emotional, mental and spiritual layers encompassing all our dreams, hopes, thought patterns and moods. Finally at the most subtle level we have the soul – that indefinable ‘something’ that makes someone uniquely them. It’s helpful to think of these layers like those Russian dolls – each layer goes progressively more inward towards the core, with the soul lying right at the center. These layers are call koshas.
When it comes to learning how to reduce or manage our stress better, for the best results yoga asks us to take an integrated approach and address whats happening at all these different layers or koshas. Dealing with just one level is incomplete. For example, I may have a client who is only interested in working at the physical level and part of my role is to show them how their poor breathing patterns are contributing to their feelings of stress, or how their thought patterns or lifestyle choices are an exacerbating factor.
So let’s take a look at the 5 major areas we need to address when we’re learning to manage our own stress levels. I’ll deal with the first 2 in this blog post – stay tuned for the final 3 in The Complete Guide to Using Yoga for Stress Management – Part 2.
- Addressing the Physical – Come home to the body
Stress takes its toll on the body there’s no doubt about it. When our ‘fight-and-flight’ button is switched on we experience a cascade of physiological reactions that help us meet the perceived threat. The body releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which in turn lead to increases in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels.
It’s important to recognise that stress is a normal healthy reaction to a perceived threat. In a normal healthy body there is the ability to effortlessly shift between stress response and relaxation response, often many times throughout the course of the day. The problem these days is that our bodies are getting stuck in stress response mode and over time chronic stress can lead to problems with digestion, immunity and nervous system functioning. Stress can also manifest in the muscles and connective tissues as chronic tension, gripping, muscle spasm and pain.
What should I practice?
One key way therefore to manage stress is to address and reduce its negative affect on the physical body. Exercise, yoga asana (posture) practice and body scan meditations all provide excellent ways for us to get us out of our heads and into our bodies. These practices can help us become aware of and understand where we typically hold our stress in our bodies. For some, it might be a tightening in the chest, or a gripping in the gut, for others it might be a clenched jaw and sore, painful shoulders. Everyone’s physical holding patterns are unique.
How exactly does yoga asana help to reduce stress?
- Yoga postures help to reduce chronic tension, muscle spasms and pain by simultaneously lengthening and strengthening the muscles and connective tissue. This promotes better posture and joint bio-mechanics and improves circulation and blood flow to the area.
- Evidence suggests that our posture has a profound impact on our mental and emotional health. One great teacher Darren Rhodes puts it like this “Shape shift in order to state shift” – by actively changing the way we hold our bodies in space we can improve our mood and the way we feel.
- Yoga asana provides the perfect gateway to the quieter, stiller practices of meditation by helping to burn off restless energy and fidgetiness so that we can relax and focus. Asana practice also gives the mind something to chew on so its less likely to ruminate over other potential stresses.
- The asanas can teach us skills around resilience, equanimity and non-reactivity. We learn to stay with and breathe through difficult/challenging physical situations without automatically switching to fight or flight mode. We then take these skills off the mat and into the world.
“Asanas are a microcosm of life. They are miniature worlds filled with all the forms of the world at large. Our ability to thrive amidst those forms can be improved through the artful awareness developed in yoga practice.” – Sharon and David Gannon
- Befriend the breath
There’s a reason yogis bang on and on about the breath! The breath mirrors the mind and the mind mirrors the breath. Pause for a moment and contemplate the profound implications of that statement.
What it means is that by changing the way we breathe we can go a long way to changing the way we feel on a physical and mental level.
When we’re feeling stressed, unconsciously our breathing will tend to become shorter, shallower and we’ll feel it mainly just around the collarbones, throat and/or upper chest. This type of breathing in turn will lead to making you feel more anxious, stressed and panicky – it can be a vicious cycle. So when you feel your blood pressure rising, or the anxious thoughts are whirling, take some time out to manage your breathing.
“The fundamental nature of the breath is that it is in a constant state of oscillation. Just as the tides ebb and flow, we breathe in and out in an ongoing rhythm that ceases only when we take our last breath. The oscillation of the breath is a perfect mirror of the fluctuations of life. Life is a swinging pendulum, some changes bringing with them difficulties and pain and other changes bringing with them ease and joy. If we are open to this process, life will move us. If we are unable to integrate life’s changes, we begin to resist by restricting the breath. When we hold the breath and try to control life or stop changes from happening we are saying that we do not want to be moved. Breathing freely is a courageous act.” – Donna Farhi
What should I practice?
One of the simplest and yet most powerful techniques I teach my students is to learn how to breathe in a way that fully utilises the diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm is the muscle that attaches to the bottom circumference of the ribcage and separates the abdominal organs from the chest cavity.
When we breathe using the diaphragm, on the inhale you’ll notice your abdomen and lower ribs gently swelling outwards and on the exhale you’ll feel the belly soften slightly back towards the spine. When we breathe in this way it stimulates the vagus nerve which in term triggers the relaxation response.
When we practice diaphragmatic breathing we’re also aiming to breathe smoothly and steadily without jerkiness or hiccups and breathe in a way that is relatively quiet and without tension in the throat.
To make this even more powerful as a stress management technique, concentrate on gradually extending your exhalation, eventually building up to making the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
Yoga has a whole host of amazingly soothing breath techniques to calm stress-levels. Another one to try out and one of my all time favourites is nadi-shodhana or alternate nostril breathing. Here’s a link to it being taught online.
How exactly does breathwork help to reduce stress?
If you’re anything like me, there may be some initial resistance to doing breathwork. For a long time I found it a bit dry and boring and certainly not as entertaining as my physical yoga practice. This is where understanding the benefits of breathwork in tangible terms can really help. So if you’re sitting on the fence about whether to start including breathwork in your daily repertoire of self-help strategies here are 10 physical and mental benefits to inspire you:
- Breathwork enhances respiratory function.
- Breathwork improves blood and lymphatic circulation which becomes impaired with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
- Breathwork improves digestion and elimination helpful in disorders such as IBS and bloating.
- Breathing using the diaphragm puts the body into a relaxation response helping to combat fatigue, chronic stress and anxiety.
- Regular breathing practices maintain and develop suppleness/elasticity of the ribs, costal cartilage, and the muscles that support/mobilize the spine.
- Breath is an incredible tool for helping us to make peace with change and to recognise the impermanence in all things. As we watch the breath ebb and flow we are reminded that nothing is permanent including difficult moments, fears and periods of anxiety.
- Breathing techniques develop our ability to focus and concentrate. We learn to control where our attention and therefore our thoughts go to.
- The breath immediately brings us back into the present – we can only ever breathe for the now, this moment which in turn helps to settle the mind.
- Breathing teaches us to be less reactive – when we observe the breath we discover a gap between our observation of our immediate experience and whether we choose to respond to something. We notice and develop this through the natural pause that occurs between the end of one breath and the uptake of the next.
- Focusing on, and adopting specific breathing techniques can change our energy levels to promote more balance e.g. slower breathing tends to relax the nervous system, faster breathing tends to energise/stimulate us. The former serves well as a preparation for meditation.