How Yoga can help with Stress
Our bodies are designed to deal with stress and to protect us in stressful situations. When we are faced with a threat our body goes into a fight or flight response to help us protect ourselves from the perceived danger. The heart will beat faster, breathing quickens, muscles tense and you might sweat. These physical effects fade when the threat disappears but if you are constantly under pressure then the body stays in this alerted state and it can be harmful for the body. Physically affects such as headaches, muscle tension or sleep problems can occur. Longer term health issues develop after being under stress for long, sustained periods of time.
Stress can make us feel anxious, irritable, overwhelmed and you may worry or have difficulty concentrating or sleeping.
Due to the damaging effects on the body, we should try and avoid stress. This can be easier said than done however as there are often changes and stressful situations in life that we have to deal with. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness techniques are good ways of trying to cope better with stress.
1. Focus on Breath
Our breath may quicken when we are stressed as part of the fight or flight response. Breathing slowly and mindfully activates the hypothalamus, connected to the pituitary gland in the brain, to send out hormones that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger a relaxation response in the body. We focus on gentle relaxed breathing as part of our yoga practice.
The awareness and concentration on the breath is also a good way of focusing on ourselves internally and recognise how we are feeling and what we need at a particular point in time. By being more self-aware, we can take the necessary steps to help ourselves feel better.
3. Controlling the mind and our reactions
The internalisation also helps us have more control around how we feel and react to certain situations. We can recognise when stressful situations are happening around us and teach the body to focus on staying calm, soothe ourselves and improve self-esteem to give ourselves the confidence to be able to deal with stressful situations.
When we are doing asana practice, we have to focus on the positions and what our body has to do to do them correctly. This improves our concentration, particularly with poses such as balances which require a lot of focus. When we are focusing on our practice, it helps us switch off from other stresses and worries that we might be thinking about in our everyday life.
5. Sitting with feelings and sensations
Asana practice can often cause us to be in positions that feel difficult and uncomfortable for the body. This teaches us life lessons in that there are often uncomfortable situations or periods in life but we just have to remember that these don’t last forever, we can get through them and will be stronger for having experienced them.
6. Physical benefits
Stretching and relaxing the muscles is very important if you are suffering from stress and are holding tension due to stress. When we are stressed we often hold tension in the shoulders so bringing movement to the body and stretching out can really help. Even when we are relaxing such as the beginning or end of our practice in corpse pose, we are allowing the body to let go and release.
7. Making time for yourself and slowing down
Stress can often arise when we are doing too much and life is hectic and busy. It is important to take time out and slow down to protect our mental and physical health. Committing to a yoga class allows us to do this. When we relax in corpse pose at the end of practice, we are doing nothing but letting the body and the mind relax. This is often the only time students ever just sit with themselves in their regular daily lives but it is very important to give the body and the mind this opportunity to relax.
8. Taking care of yourself
By taking the time to practice yoga and do something good for yourself you are recognising the importance of taking care of your mental and physical health. This will then extend to life off the mat and mean that you realise the importance of looking after yourself, removing yourself from stressful situations and putting yourself first instead of others all the time and other things that you have prioritised that have meant there has been stress and pressure put upon you.
When life gets stressful and busy we think we don’t have time to slow down and stop seeing taking time for ourselves as a priority. Given the negative impact stress can have on the mind and body however, it is important that we recognise the need to relax and look after ourselves. We must therefore more than ever make time for yoga practice during these periods in our lives.
If you are in a stressful situation and looking for ways of helping to manage stress, I highly recommend trying yoga for the reasons stated. If you have any medical conditions or injuries it is advisable to seek the advice of your yoga teacher or doctor before starting to practice.
Written by Sarah Williams. Sarah is a Qualified Yoga Teacher based in London with an online presence on Instagram and Facebook. She also blogs about yoga and health & wellbeing topics on her website. Sarah’s focus is Vinyasa Flow, Hatha and Ashtanga styles of yoga and she completed part of her yoga teacher training in India. https://sarahlucyyoga.wixsite.com/yoga, @sarahlucyyoga