More and more people are coming to yoga for help with stress management...
What is it about yoga that makes it an option for helping with stress ?
Some of the ways yoga helps with stress are;
Today we are looking mostly at breathing to alleviate stress. This starts with becoming aware of your breath. This is simple yet profound and often enough for many people to feel calmer.
There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic- “rest and digest “- and the sympathetic- “fight - flight -freeze “.
Our bodies respond to life threatening events by releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol , blood is pumped away from the centre of the body to enable the limbs to run, or fight the danger, it is all about survival and an important part of the survival mechanism. However our bodies don’t differentiate between threats such as being eaten by a tiger and perceived threats, such as relationship issues, health issues, work problems, we still release these hormones.
This also means that our perceptions play apart in our stress - work , relationship , financial and health problems may not be immediately as threatening as a saber tooth tiger at the cave door but they are perceived as threatening to our survival in modern times.
We are social beings so relationships matter to our health, wellbeing and happiness, our survival is now through our work and it is how we provide for our family, so all of these things can be a source of stress in the modern environment.
It is a bit too easy to just say “don’t worry everything will be fine”, though looking at our mindset maybe one way to reevaluate our stress.
We are primed to look for problems - this is part of the survival mechanism, but it can contribute to our stress if we can't see the positives and feel that we are safe and doing well too.
We can also make changes to our lifestyle to reduce stress, but it's not always possible, and having some stress in life isn’t all bad. It’s on-going , chronic stress and too much cortisol circulating in the body after the danger or pressure has passed, that becomes toxic and bad for our health.
Inflammation, which we now know contributes to many diseases, is linked to cortisol overload, cortisol is the hormone released when we are stressed and in fight or flight mode.
If you are under constant stress this is like having the alarm bells constantly switched on.
So saying "be aware of your breath" may seem a little too simple?
But- The breath is a DIRECT PATHWAY to the nervous system.
It is one of the only things you can do to directly have an immediate effect on your nervous system.
You may have noticed that your emotions affect your breath. Just think of being sad, angry , elated, scared - how do you breathe differently for each of these emotions? These are automated responses.
One of the simplest things you can do is to become aware of your breath - and then breathe slower and deeper.
Slower and deeper means to take 5-6 breaths per minute- rather than our average 12-20x.
You can use a counting ratio, especially when you first begin - the exhale can be up to twice as long as the inhale - so inhale for 3 and exhale for 6 for example.
Never force the breath, and stay within your comfort zone.
It is the slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing that promotes the parasympathetic nervous system response.
It is telling your body that All is Well.
So when you come to yoga and begin to breathe deeper and slower , you are promoting well-being, you are letting your body know its safe. That this is the time to rest and digest - stay and play. You are helping the nervous system to be in balance.
We need the sympathetic nervous system when our bodies are in danger and need to protect us, we need the parasympathetic system to digest our food, sleep well, decrease inflammation, and recover.
Awareness of breathing and how you can use it may even increase your enjoyment of life .
However - For some , initially becoming aware of the breath and/or deep breathing can trigger anxiety rather than alleviate it.
This may be because of trauma or just how we have learnt to breathe and overtime laid down certain patterns in response to stress. Some people do find the breathing or pranayama exercises of yoga confronting or triggering in this case.
If you are one of these know that this can change over time and with practice ... go easy on yourself, never force the breath, and if breath awareness or exercises cause anxiety instead of soothing it - come back to the movement awareness. Move and breath naturally.
Come back to breathe awareness occasionally for short periods until it feels good to stay with it for longer periods.
Always be gentle with yourself , practice self compassion- Ahimsa / non harming - is one of the principles of yoga.
Breath awareness and pranayama can offer beautiful gifts, for me it is one of the fundamental joys of yoga practice.
But it is also good to know the science behind why it works to help alleviate stress.
It is simple and freely available to us, even if we have to be a little patient, to receive the gifts of this practice.
The breath in yoga contains Prana - life force energy - also known as Mauri or Chi . (Pranayama means - 'to expand the life force')
In our yoga classes and practice we can become aware that the life force present in the breath is also the same life force in all the others present in the room, in fact in all of us, including our tūpuna (ancestors) and mokopuna āpōpō (future generations).
This gives us a sense of connection and reminds us we are not alone , we are all connected, we are all receiving the life force with every breath as did our ancestors and as will future generations.
Maybe this sense of connection is not as readily available to many of us in these times of living separately to extended family, and that is one reason yoga also feels so good to do with others now ?
What are your thoughts and observations on how yoga has helped you to manage stress?
There is so much more to explore than is possible in this blog, don't forget to follow Aroha Nui Yoga on social media as I am adding content there for you too, and I love to hear your thoughts and reflections- so do post your comments there too!
And if you are interested in experiencing how yoga can help you but may have missed the term start please contact me via email and I will add you to the waitlist. Or sign up to the newsletter (just go to the Home page and sign up there)
Alternatively a great programme to start immediately and do in your own time is Yoga for Calm - it’s easy to follow , with simple breathing and pranayama techniques, mindful movement and a guided deep relaxation to do at anytime. The programme was designed to help alleviate stress and bring you into a state of greater calm .
You get unlimited access for 12 months to this valuable programme in which I guide you through simple but powerful breathing practices like the one mentioned in this blog.
You can get the programme here
Until next time - don’t forget to breathe!