How much can you expect from yoga in periods of high stress and anxiety?
Yoga is often recommended as a stress relief strategy, but how much can you expect from it and how does it actually work? Let’s explore the benefits yoga can bring to help with stress and anxiety.
What is stress?
Stress is often an umbrella term for situations that are challenging. Of course not every challenge is bad and I bet that in some areas of your life these stressful situations may even bring euphoria as opposed to negative emotions.
Let’s look at the following examples:
- An athlete striving to improve performance and is under stress to exceed previous achievements.
- A businessman trying to grow the company and is facing new challenges to help the company grow.
The examples above can be referred to as eustress and the opposite of which is distress, often referred to as stress. One of the best definitions of distress/stress I have come across is the inability to adapt to a situation.
There are a few things that can help us deal with this type of scenario:
- Understand what the issue is.
- Understand how the stressful situation is affecting us (in a negative & positive way).
- Receive support/help from our environment in our effort to deal with it.
- Build the resilience necessary to endure its consequences.
Can yoga help with any of the above? Can yoga help reduce stress?
How can yoga help you manage stress and anxiety?
🪞 Yoga as a reflective practice
Yoga through all its components: meditation, asana and pranayama improves our awareness of ourselves and this can be beneficial in managing stress and stressful situations in two ways:
Understanding ourselves will help us understand others (situations/people).
If every time I’m tired and practice yoga asanas (physical postures), I have less patience to hold the posture long enough. This may help me understand why a colleague has short temper later in the day after series of demanding meetings.
Understanding ourselves will help us see ourselves in others.
If that happens, the stressful individual/situation – can now be seen as part of us as opposed to something foreign.
I might be patient during working hours but, like my colleague, short-tempered with my partner when I’m tired. Whatever we face which triggers us are parts of ourselves that manifest in some area of our lives.
This aspect of yoga is critical when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. In the process of knowing ourselves, we will come to own all of our parts: some of which are often labelled positives or negatives.
Once I see my colleague’s reaction in me; getting stressed by her response will be the equivalent of getting stressed by myself. This happens all the time with aspects of ourselves we don’t own (we don’t acknowledge as ours). Once we own this quality, like in the example of lack of patience, the situation will no longer be as stressful.
🧠 🔗 🫀 Yoga: helping link mind & body – a reality check
Yoga has been credited with helping practitioners merge their minds and body. Though in reality, the mind and the body are inseparable. Here are two examples to help convince you (if you have any doubt)
- When you’re in a jolly mood how different is the quality of your skin & hair?
- How much is your cycle affected by your emotions?
The problem is that very often the mind & body are disconnected. Partly due to sociological pressure, partly due to the programming we have undergone (both during upbringing & later in life) we often feel obliged to conform to a behaviour that might not necessarily serve us. Many people ignore the body’s signals of how to deal with this situation and end up disconnected.
How easy is it to deal with a stressor if you are not in tune with your body? In the most extreme cases – and I have been there myself – we may not even register the stress. I’ve had cases of clients who were convinced they were not affected by stress until they saw a messy 24h saliva cortisol test report.
When the mind & body are in synch we can easily pick up on the symptoms and act accordingly. Someone with a sensitive digestive system may want to adapt their diet accordingly when faced with stress. While someone dopamine-driven may want to schedule constructive activities during stressful periods and avoid the abuse of toxins. Of course a mind-body connection is achievable through yoga, just not guaranteed.
I have observed practitioners focusing completely on their body (and how to perform a posture) and others obsessed about their emotions. Neither approach will achieve a mind-body connection.
Here are a few tips on how to improve your mind-body connection with yoga to reduce stress:
- Every time you start your yoga practice perform each exercise as if you are doing it for the first time.
- Try to remember what you do during the class: postures, alignment adjustments, breathing exercises, etc. At the end of the class, it’s worth reviewing what you went through.
- Maintain an inquisitive mind, questioning what effect each exercise has on you.
- Question if your current practice is serving you at this moment.
🛏 Yoga as a nurturing practice to reduce stress
This is by far the most common reason why people start yoga in the western world (alongside improving flexibility). Yoga offers numerous poses, that can calm the mind & the body. It’s hard to focus and make good decisions when overwhelmed, overthinking, or overworked.
Calming the nervous system with restorative yoga postures can help get more centered and ultimately deal with the task at hand.
While the nervous system can also calm down in passive ways, such as a Jacuzzi or massage, the fact that yoga requires active participation makes it even more beneficial. What’s interesting is that those that need restorative practice the most, are often the last ones to attend such a class. The more yang someone is the more need they have for yin. Usually, this individual will seek more yang practices to fight fire with fire.
😤 Breath as the backdoor to our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
Our body has been engineered to adapt to our environment. If it was not for our ancestors’ ability to adapt we would not be where we are now. Our body’s adaptation system is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and it orchestrates the function of numerous organs so that we will improve our chances for surviving and procreating.
The ANS controls the endocrine system (hormones), heart rate, and breathing. The different parts of the ANS are linked with each other, somewhat through a very famous nerve called the vagus nerve. Of all the components of the ANS, the breath is the one we have easier control over, and thus by changing our breath we can manipulate the state of the entire ANS.
In a state of distress, we feel that we have no control over the situation. While this may hold true, we do have control of our response to it, and there is no more apt way to prove that than by altering the state of our nervous system through breathing.
It is worth pointing out that breathing can be used to activate both the sympathetic (fight or flight) or parasympathetic (rest & digest) parts of our ANS. This can be useful in periods of stress, as a stressful situation may also demand us to be in a state of alertness at times. The video below is from my 5 videos series #freebreathing mini-course showing participants how they can gain control of the nervous system through their breath.
Don’t forget that you can sign up for free now by clicking here: #freebreathing mini-course
⏳ The breath as a metronome
When holding yoga poses for long periods (ie. more than 10 seconds) lactic acid builds up in the muscles we recruit, which we often experience as muscular fatigue. In the process of holding these postures, we learn how to breathe accordingly to endure the “pain”. Sequentially we learn how to use our breath in other states of discomfort such as situations of distress. One key aspect of breath which allows us to endure these situations is rhythm. Establishing a slow, rhythmic pattern not only can help us maintain an optimal supply of oxygen to our organs but also stay centered.
The easiest way to establish a rhythm is to count each of the four stages of the breathing cycle. Inhalation, pause, exhalation, and pause for a set period of time. Some individuals are not able to pause while breathing, due to low tolerance & poor chemo-sensitivity to CO2, in which case it is best to set a breathing pattern involving inhalations & exhalations only.
This is a simple introductory exercise to help you establish a rhythm.
🌞 🔗 🌙 Yoga a circadian rhythm regulator
When we are in distress for prolonged periods our body will be adjusting to the new situation. The adaptation process will involve altering hormone production, metabolism and excretion which will sequentially affect our appetite, sleep, and sex hormones. Do you eat better, sleep better or have the same sex drive when you’re stressed or relaxed?
Physical exercise as well as breathwork, especially when performed at the same time of the day can help us regain control of our hormonal cycle and sequential our circadian rhythm, our body’s biological clock. By restoring our circadian rhythm we’re able to reverse the vicious cycle of stress stimulus; feeling distressed, being oversensitive to stress stimulus and feeling more distressed.
Rhythm is one of the five qualities of good breathing. My course “Breathe Right” has been developed specifically to help reprogram our everyday breathing pattern. The video below is from my Breathe Right 2-week course and covers an exercise to help establish a breathing rhythm.
🏋🏽♀️ Breathwork: a workout for your respiratory system
The demands on the breath during a yoga asana class can be high as the biomechanics of the respiratory system can be challenged. No wonder free divers perform numerous stretches to improve their respiratory capacity.
Aside from the physical postures, yoga offers a plethora of breathing techniques that will help improve respiratory capacity. Altering the levels of blood gases, like nitric oxide (the molecule behind viagra), oxygen, and carbon dioxide can help achieve this. The 2 pillars of breathwork are hypercapnia (increased levels of CO2) & hypoxia (low levels of Oxygen).
Individuals with low tolerance to CO2 are more susceptible to anxiety & panic attacks. Knowing this allows us, to improve our resilience to stress and response to it, by training our respiratory capacity.
If you are interested in finding out what your tolerance to CO2 is, you can perform the test described in the video below.
💨 Better oxygenation of our brain
Do you ever hold your breath unconsciously when you’re stressed? While this is less worrying than most people think, it is still an indication of being in an uncentered state. A yoga and breathing practice can help train our respiratory system to maintain regular/slow inhalations and exhalations and thus provide a continuous supply of oxygen to our lungs and peripheral organs (including the brain).
Optimal levels of oxygen, nitric oxide, and carbon dioxide are essential in order to secure the oxygen delivery to the organs. All organs are necessary for dealing with stressful situations (including adrenals, brain, kidneys) and they need to operate optimally.
🔬 Concentration = Mental strength
Our ability to perform physical tasks depends, to a large extent, on our ability to recruit our muscles. Similarly, our ability to think depends on our ability to recruit our brain. Being mentally sharp 24/7 is not possible and neither necessary. When faced with challenging situations maintaining a clear mind is critical in making the best decisions.
Unquestionably all the exercises we covered until now can support brain health. Meditation however is the most direct way to train our brain. Meditation, a component of yoga, helps us gain control of our brain by teaching us how to stop thinking which can reduce stress. Once we learn how to do that, we can then direct our thoughts at will. Wouldn’t that be beneficial when faced with a stressful situation and not have emotions run our brain?
Challenges are part of life, if not synonymous with it. We refer to challenges as eustress when it’s related to things that we enjoy and inspire us. We refer to challenges as distress when we see no value in them.
Yoga & breathwork can help us in stressful situations so that we:
- Understand the challenge at hand.
- See the impact it has on us.
- Find the resources we need.
- Become more resilient.
All the above though are likely to take time. Do not expect the benefits after one class. By practising the techniques over time, yoga helps with stress and anxiety. Be confident that thousands of practitioners have experienced these benefits before you. If you’d like my help with private tuition, either in person or online:Schedule a call with me here