How Can Yoga Help To Alleviate Stress?

By Joanna Bertzeletos

Our daily lives are filled with roles and responsibilities we need to fulfill, from paying bills, managing money, putting food on the table to spending quality time with our families and friends. We tend to run from one task to the other and sometimes we can feel overwhelmed with everything we need to do because there is just not enough time in the day to complete everything.

Let us be clear that stress is not a bad thing in the right amount and without it we would not be able to take in information, complete tasks, listen, respond, and act attentively and so on. Stress becomes a problem when the body is not given time to rest, recuperate and regenerate or when we are in stress over-load.

So how can our yoga practice help us to manage stress and ideally avoid stress over-load?

There is a growing body of research which is suggesting there is an alternative to the above stress response which is being called the “challenge response”. The challenge response allows us to meet a stressful moment with exactly what is needed: first, the ability to see a situation clearly, and second, the skills to respond without becoming overwhelmed.

When we experience a stressful situation and we engage the “challenge response”, our nervous system will respond differently. Rather than the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) overwhelming our system as in flight, fight or freeze mode we will find that the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is also engaged during the “challenge response”, with the PNS engaged it will temper the SNS response and eventually once the stressful situation has been dealt with the PNS engages fully again to bring us back into harmony.

Generally as we probably already know yoga can help us deal with stress on many levels as the diversity of the practices we explore in yoga from postural work to breathing, relaxation and meditation practices help us to bring the body back in balance gently releasing tension from the large muscle groups, flushing all parts of the body and brain with fresh blood, oxygen, and other nutrients, and increase the feelings of well-being. Through these practices we are also able to soothe and calm the mind and emotions.

However what is really interesting and pretty much unique to yoga are the dual demands that yoga puts the body through which help us to cultivate the “challenge response” as described above.

In our yoga practice we are able to explore a variety of postures known as asanas which are likely to induce a strong sympathetic nervous system reaction. But as we learn to hold the poses in a class observing the mind and focusing on the breath we inadvertently begin to train our self into how to stay calm in stressful situations! In other words, the physical challenge of a pose becomes the equivalent of a stressor and we end up not only training the mind but also imprinting a new pattern of behaviour on the nervous system which enables us to use it in our daily lives.

Yoga also trains the nervous system to return to balance quickly after a challenging response. By alternating strenuous poses with gentler ones, yoga conditions us to move easily between states of challenge and rest. Letting go of all effort in the relaxation or yoga nidra part of a class seals in this flexibility, because the pose teaches the nervous system to let go once the challenges of our practice have been met.

Another key component of yoga is the practice of swadhyaya or self-observation/reflection. There is a connection between how we respond to a particular yoga practice and how we react in the world. In yoga classes we are asked to pay attention to what we are doing and note how the various practices affect us.

Yoga postural work, breathing practices, relaxations and meditations can produce strong sensations in the body/mind/emotional complex. How we respond to them in a yoga class will give us a big clue to how we respond to various stresses in our lives. Do we tend to force ourselves into a yoga practice to the extent of nearly hurting ourselves? Do we avoid the practice completely and not even try to challenge ourselves a little? When doing a practice are we avoiding letting go and fighting with ourselves? Are we holding tension in other parts of our body not just the physical body but also the mental/emotional layers? All these strategies are variations of the flight, fight or freeze response and create unnecessary tension in our bodies/minds and emotions and also affect our breathing.

Paying attention to how our body and mind react to the “stress” of our yoga practice offers clues about how we typically react to stress in our life. By training ourselves to actively observe while staying calm in our yoga practice, we will be able to do the same thing when difficult sensations, thoughts, or emotions arise in the face of stress. Instead of going into our habitual reaction mode, we’ll notice what’s happening while staying present enough to choose an appropriate response.

We should also mention here that the great variety of pranayamas or breathing practices we explore in a yoga class can (i) bring the body into balance, a good example is nadi shodhana or alternate nostril breathing which activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and induces a state of calm and balance. (ii) The retention practices we explore can act as “stressors” and thereby help us cultivate the “challenge response”.

Equally the great variety of concentration, meditation and let us not forget to mention mantra/sound practices we experience help us to get to know our minds on a very deep level and teach us to focus our attention in the present moment, which all lead us to developing new patterns of behaviour like the challenge response.

Finally, a little warning to end with, not only is it important to find the right yoga practice, but how we approach our yoga practice is also key as to whether or not we are able to develop the “challenge response”. For example, if we are competitive and a perfectionist by nature then going to a style of yoga which exacerbates these qualities is not beneficial to us, because we are encouraging the same patterns of behaviour. Equally, if we view yoga as just a physical exercise and we put ourselves through the paces and move without mindfulness or breath awareness then we are quite unlikely to transform our stress response, as practicing this way just makes yoga another form of exercise where we are likely to engage in our usual stress response which is probably one of the following: flight, fight or freeze.

Other forms of exercise that do not have any direct breathing or mindfulness component to them, can indeed cause a person who is already highly stressed to become even more so. But when physical demands are met with mindfulness and steady breathing, as they are in yoga, the nervous system responds differently: It maintains activation while keeping an underlying sense of calm. It remains skillfully engaged but without going into full-fledged fight, flight or freeze mode.

Yoga rocks! Wouldn’t you say? See you on the mat. x