When we put our muscles under load (stress!) they respond by getting stronger to meet that demand. In many ways, the stress in our lives can have the same positive impact. Think about: how often has a deadline pushed you to get work done that otherwise you would never have got around to?
But common sense tells us that there is a tipping point beyond which our stress becomes unmanageable. Over time stress can become chronic stress, and that leads to symptoms of burnout, depression, anxiety and our immune system can start to weaken, among other symptoms.
Chronic stress can also increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, plus it can manifest in aches and pains in the body too, such as increased headaches or pains resulting from muscle tension.
Managing our stress levels is therefore incredibly important for our overall health and wellbeing, and we need to have the tools to be able to manage stress in the short term and over the long term. This is where yoga can help.
You might think of yoga as a movement practice similar to exercise, but the physical movement practice (asana) is only one component. Yoga also offers us breathwork (pranayama) techniques and meditation (dhyana) practices, as well as being underpinned by a guiding philosophy that addresses how we live our lives. This philosophy has endured for thousands of years precisely because it contains a wealth of wisdom that is directly applicable to our human experience. The philosophy is not specific to any religion, but it does assume the existence of a higher power or creative force in existence.
When it comes to managing stress, although yoga originated many thousands of years ago in India, its teachings have continued relevance to our modern lives. What is amazing is that the science is only just starting to catch up with what yoga practitioners have known for a long time. More and more studies are being done each day on the ways that yoga can help people.
So without further ado, here are 4 ways yoga can support you in managing your stress levels…
1. Yoga helps to release physical tension and stress
We don’t need a scientific study to tell us that when you release tension physically in the body, you let go emotionally and psychologically too!
What is incredible is that we are learning more and more about how this happens, in particular when we look at fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that we find throughout our body – it wraps around the muscles, within the muscles, between joints and organs.
“The fascial system surrounds, infuses with, and has the potential to profoundly influence every muscle, bone, nerve, blood vessel, organ, and cell of the body. Fascia also separates, supports, connects, and protects everything. This three-dimensional web of connective tissue is alive and ever-changing as the body demands. Thus it is a network for information exchange, influencing and influenced by every structure, system, and cell in the organism. Like air and gravity, its influence is so all-pervasive that we have tended to take it for granted.”John Barnes
In short, it’s everywhere! Fascia for a long time was dismissed by scientists as having no meaningful function, but it’s clear now that fascia has a huge impact on our bodies.
Dysfunction in the fascial system can change not only how you move and your posture, but your emotional state. The good news is that the reverse is also true. Luigi Stecco, MD says that: “Fascia is the only tissue that modifies its consistency when under stress and is capable of regaining its elasticity when subjected to manipulation.”
This means that we can physically reverse the state of the fascia, and in doing so we can process the emotions stored in the body through the fascia.
So how do we do this?
The physical movement practice of yoga is a fantastic way to release tension and strain on the fascia. With practice, over a period of time, our bodies come into better alignment which releases tension held in the fascia. Plus, fascia is 70% water, and can transform from a gel-like substance to liquid. We want our fascia to be liquid so that it glides freely, and we can do this by generating heat mechanically through movement.
Staying hydrated by drinking water is also incredibly important for the liquidity of fascia. Dehydration tightens the fascia which is why you also may feel symptoms of this when you are dehydrated, like tension headaches.
As your body gets into better alignment over time, you move in a more optimal way, reducing unnecessary stress on your muscles and connective tissue. Plus, in the moment, exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones. They are responsible for that post-yoga blissed out state and a feeling of relaxation when you have finished exercising (as well as a psychological feeling of accomplishment for having completed a class!)
TLDR: Do yoga. Drink water.
2. A regular yoga practice helps to regulate your nervous system so you can better face external stressors
One of the most incredible benefits of yoga is that it helps to regulate the nervous system over time. When we are exposed to stress, our body has a physical stress reaction, and once the stress we are exposed to has gone our body moves back into a state of homeostasis (meaning equilibrium, balance, and regular function). Problems arise when our body does not move back into homeostasis.
There is a fantastic book I highly recommend called The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and he explains that:
“When our autonomic nervous system is well balanced, we have a reasonable degree of control over our response to minor frustrations and disappointments, enabling us to calmy assess what is going on when we feel insulted or left out. Effective arousal modulation gives us control over our impulses and emotions: As long as we manage to stay calm, we can choose how we want to respond.”
Van der Kolk looked at Heart Rate Variability as a key measure of the responsiveness of the nervous system to external stressors. In his research, he found yoga to be one of the best practices to improve heart rate variability and therefore adapt better to external stressors.
But simply doing a single yoga class won’t magically solve your problem. The magic comes as you practice over time, and return to your practice over and over. This progressively trains your body to ramp up the nervous system’s response to match the physical demand, and then rebalance back into a parasympathetic state.
The key here is making yoga a habit. Regular, consistent practice will have the most impactful results, and doing shorter, regular practices is better than inconsistent or occasional longer practice.
When it comes to habits, Gretchen Rubin has a wealth of advice and I highly recommend her blog and podcast. Her Strategy of Scheduling is one of my favourites! When you put it on the calendar, it is more likely to happen. Schedule in your yoga practice in advance, even if you’re practicing at home.
TLDR: Schedule your practice in your calendar and commit to little and often practices.
3. Yoga gives you tools to turn to when your stress is at its peak
In everyday life, we can’t always get on our mat when and where we want to, and there are always stressful moments which are triggering. At those times, it’s helpful to have a set of techniques you can come back to that help bring your body into regulation and calm your mind. I call these practices your “Stress SOS first aid kit”. Here are some of my favourites:
- Shake it out – Stand up, and literally shake your body! You can do this anywhere, but if you’re uncomfortable or don’t have much space (like if you’re in the workplace toilet cubicle), just shake your hands out. Animals in the wild shake it off after a high-stress environment like a chase, but humans rarely do the same. Works great when you’re nervous too!
- Box breathing – Inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4. You can visualize going around the sides of a square if it helps! This is a great, simple way to bring your focus to your breath and regulate your breathing patterns.
- Get outside, take off your shoes and put your bare feet on the ground – Simply connecting the body to the earth and putting your mind in your feet (metaphorically speaking) can be a way to get out of your head and into your body. There are some theories as to why this helps (search ‘earthing practices’ on google), but ultimately whatever the science, just taking the space and time out to reconnect to your body in nature makes a big difference.
4. Yoga teaches us to practice detachment and find calmness in our minds
The principle of detachment comes up again and again in the yoga texts, but it comes up in the Gita in particular. It can be a hard one to wrap your head around, especially in a society where goal setting is so heavily impressed upon us!
In short, detachment is about letting go of what we can’t control. This means, letting go of the outcome.
We can set an intention, and we can work diligently toward our goal, but we can never guarantee the outcome. And if we focus our attention only on that outcome and not on the work needed to get there, we end up in a state of paralysis where nothing gets done.
The Bhagavad Gita puts it like this:
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and in defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.”(Eknath Easwaran translation)
Plus, as we practice yoga, this ‘evenness of mind’ becomes easier to attain. As our bodies become more regulated, our minds become calmer, and we start to see the space between action and reaction. We can see the bigger picture only when we are in a regulated state, and can move purposefully toward our goals.
Ultimately, practicing detachment is about staying in the present moment. Not looking to the future or worrying about the past, but focusing our attention on what we can control, which is here and now.