In The Complete Guide to Using Yoga for Stress Management Part 1 we looked at yoga’s unique approach to stress management and how the physical yoga practice and breathwork can help to both reduce stress and its negative side effects.
In Part 2 we’re going to go a little deeper. Yoga teaches us that it’s not enough to treat the symptoms; we need to investigate the root causes of why we get caught in chronic stress in the first place.
To some extent I think its human nature to want to find the most immediate and least effortful way possible out of our suffering. We have a sore neck, so we go for a massage – it helps ease the pain for the moment but we never address the underlying cause of why our necks are so sore in the first place. We feel we need to lose weight and we go on a diet – again this might have a positive temporary impact but will be short-lived if we never stop to look at the real reasons why we overeat.
Yoga often asks us to look into the deeper reasons behind why we do the things we do. When we step onto a yoga mat the practice asks us to tend to our tendencies – to look at our behaviour patterns, our habitual ways of thinking and to start to see how these things affect us at all levels, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Why do we get stressed? Why do we react the way we do to certain situations or scenarios? How can we use this self-knowledge to help us learn how to cope better?
As always, yoga offers some powerful and yet very practical tools to assist us in unraveling the cycle of chronic stress. None of these practices are quick fixes but they can go a long way towards helping us live a calmer, saner and more peaceful life.
- Manage your monkey mind
One of yoga’s most ancient texts says that if we want to get to the root cause of our suffering we need to address the state of our minds:
“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; for it becomes your destiny.” ~ The Upanishads.
Bruce Lee put it another way. “As you think, so shall you become”.
Simply put, if we want to understand and manage our stress levels we need to look at our thought patterns. For a start, it’s helpful to know that from an evolutionary perspective our bodies and brains have a hard-wired ‘negativity bias’ for survival. Our sense organs are constantly scanning the environment for potential threats and our mind is constantly busy trying to interpret this incoming information. We’re wired to believe and expect the worst.
Stress occurs when we perceive that the world is threatening in some way to our survival. One of the reasons that stress can become chronic is that our bodies don’t know the difference between a real physical threat (such as stepping in front of a bus) and a mental or imaginary stressor (such as worrying about a difficult conversation we need to have with our partner). If left unchecked and unexamined this propensity to always fear the worst can leave us vulnerable to feeling constantly on edge and chronically stressed.
The good news is that the brain is changeable. Neuroplasticity shows us that we can rewire our brain to be less reactive. We can rewire neural pathways and link potentially stress-triggering events, such as being stuck in a traffic jam, with more positive emotions such as feeling calm and peaceful. Overtime, the more we practice, the more ingrained this neural pathway becomes.
The greatest resource we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another ~ William Jones
So what can I practice?
- We live in a highly stimulating world, bombarded by screens, advertising and social media. This constant influx of information can lead to us feeling burnt out, fatigued and distracted. Yoga offers a simple solution called pratyahara – reduce the amount of external stimulation going on around you and turn your attention inward. Simple things like turning off your phone, closing down the laptop and selectively moving your attention to an internal phenomenon such as the breath are all examples of practising pratyahara. This can go a long way towards reducing that sense of overwhelm that we get in stressful and anxious moments – clearing space for us to become less reactive.
- Mindfulness is another incredible tool for helping us to work with challenging circumstances and changing our relationship to stress-triggering thoughts. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as:
“paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally.”
So why exactly is mindfulness such a powerful stress antidote?
- When we are mindful we are deliberately focusing on the present moment which helps us to detach from rumination about the past or fears and anxiety about the future. We learn to focus on what is right in front of us. If difficult feelings are present we practice sitting with them, accepting them, neither ignoring nor trying to numb them out. By not resisting difficult moments as they arise we start to struggle less which in turn reduces our suffering and our stress levels.
- The act of becoming present invites a certain level of spaciousness, allowing us to consider our options and respond to a situation rather than knee-jerk react. This in turn can lead to more thoughtful and insightful responses to events.
- Mindfulness helps us to see the fundamental truth of impermanence. We watch thoughts come and go, sensations arise and dissipate, and we learn that everything changes. Sometimes in the grip of a stressful life event just this alone is comfort enough.
- One of the most powerful benefits of mindfulness is that it can help us to relate to our thoughts in a different way so that we see them for the subjective, unreliable constructs that they really are. During mindfulness practice:
- We learn to become less attached to our thoughts instead preserving a level of objectivity and distance.
- We become aware of the tendency towards negativity and over-reactivity.
- We wake up to our autopilot and habitual ways of thinking and reacting that get us caught in stress cycles and learn to consciously move away or separate ourselves from them.
- We learn some key truths about our thoughts that help to undermine their power over us:
- Our thoughts have no birthplace, they are random and reactive.
- They are unceasing.
- They are unoriginal and repetitive.
- They are not truth of hard fact but rather our perception of reality based on our history, conditioning, judgement and expectations.
- Find meaning in life
One of the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy is that ‘pain is inevitable’ but ‘suffering is optional’. We all experience things in life that are difficult and distressing – there are no avoiding some stressors in life such as losing a loved one or having to move home or job.
How stressed and anxious we become has less, however to do with the external events that are happening to us, and more to do with our perception and the meaning we give to the events themselves.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Victor Frankl
Our hardiness and resilience towards stressful events also lies in our ability to find a sense of meaning and coherence in our difficulties and challenges. We can re-frame our challenges in terms of life’s lessons and part of our spiritual growth.
More and more research is also pointing to the power of gratitude practices for helping us to change our worldview and to bring life’s stressors into perspective. Part of the ‘negativity bias’ of the brain is to see scarcity – there is never enough, time, money etc. Gratitude practices such as journaling help to shift us away from a sense of lack, to feelings of abundance and contentment. Studies show that those who keep a regular gratitude diary report higher levels of positive emotions, including feeling attentive, determined, energetic, enthusiastic, excited, interested, joyful, and strong, compared to individuals who didn’t keep a diary.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~ Melody Beattie
So what can I practice?
- Increase the number of things you do in your day that hold intrinsic meaning and value to you, whether it’s practicing yoga, spending time with a loved one, or becoming absorbed in a pleasurable activity.
- Take a moment at the beginning of your yoga practice to set an intention – what would you like this practice to awake in you? How would you like to leave your yoga mat feeling? Inviting a sense of intention into your yoga practice helps to make it more personally relevant and meaningful to you.
- In difficult yoga postures see if you can notice your reaction towards the difficulty and see if it is making the situation easier or more difficult. Practice staying connected to breath and a sense of steadiness and ease as you explore your physical boundaries.
- Keep a gratitude diary – every day for a week, list 5-10 things that you are grateful for. Try to think of new ones every day. At the end of the week reflect on how this practice has helped to see things in a different perspective.
- Practice loving-kindness meditation – this practice has been shown to increase empathy and compassion for ourselves and others. When we are very stressed we tend towards feelings of isolation – this meditation reminds us that we are just part of a much bigger supportive network.
- Find the bliss in stillness
The overall goal of yoga is to experience more episodes of samadhi – a state of peace, calm, bliss and inner quietude that lies beneath all the tensions of the physical body and fluctuations of the mind. This can be a challenging place to reach even when we’re not experiencing feelings of overwhelm, fatigue, fear or anxiety! However we are more likely to get to this state if we follow the advice of the earlier steps which ensure that:
- our bodies are pain-free and healthy through mindful movement and exercise
- our breathing is calm and smooth through conscious awareness and breathing exercises
- our minds are undistracted and peaceful through mindfulness and meditation practices
- we are living lives that we feel are meaningful in accordance with our values.
If we can make some headway in these areas then we are much more likely to enjoy moments of samadhi. Yoga does, however, have some incredible tools for helping us get a taste of this quiet space no matter what our life circumstances might be.
So what can I practice?
Of all the yoga techniques that I dish out to my clients yoga nidra is the one I use the most frequently for its powerful ability to move us out of a stress response and into a relaxation state.
Yoga nidra is a relaxation technique that guides us towards a deeply restful place somewhere between waking and sleeping, which in turn is deeply healing when we are dealing with chronic stress. In fact, so well-regarded has this simple relaxation practice become that it is now offered as a viable treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
There are literally hundreds of great free yoga nidras online so its best to try a few and pick one that personally resonates. However to get started here’s one that I particularly enjoy. Practice daily for a week and feel the difference!
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.