We all have stress from time to time. It comes from everywhere, many people feel stress at work, from relationships, finances, life changes, and the list goes on. It is unavoidable. Stress is simply the brain’s reaction to a stimulus. This stimulus can be anything. It can be big or small, positive or negative, repetitive or random, but it is usually a change that your mind perceives as a threat. As humans, we are hardwired to react to stress. When we encounter stress our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) overcomes our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and our body goes into fight or flight mode.
The stress response is a hard-wired survival mechanism to save us from life-threatening encounters. However, these hormones can be harmful if we experience stress chronically. According the National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress can lower your immunity and affect your digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems.
Since we can’t avoid stress, it is essential to know how to relieve stress in a healthy way. There are many ways to relieve stress and yoga is a great tool to manage anxiety and stress. Yoga is a full mind-body-soul practice that combines postures (asana), controlled breathing, stretching, and relaxation. According to Yoga Journal, studies have shown that practicing yoga balances the PNS (relaxed state) and the SNS (flight or fight), offering a healthier stress response. Yoga also increases one's heart rate variability. Having your heart rate differ widely between inhalation and exhalation is an indicator that the nervous system has enhanced flexibility to go from an aroused state to a relaxed state quickly. This in turn implies that a person with increased heart rate variability is more resilient to physical and emotional stress and health complications related to chronic stress.
How often have you heard someone tell you to "just take a deep breath" when you are stressed and your body is tense. A natural relaxation technique, the breath helps calm the mind and relax the body, engaging the SNS. Every aspect of yoga focuses on the breath, whether you are flowing between postures, holding a balancing or stretching pose, or in relaxation. Physical demands are met with mindfulness and controlled, steady breathing, causing the nervous system to remain alert and focused, while keeping a sense of calm. With continued conscious practice of this balance in yoga, the response becomes subconscious and ingrained both on and off the mat.
We learn in yoga that relaxing into a pose, breathing into discomfort, and letting go of tension, the pose gets easier and the mind and body surrender. Instead of fighting head on or fleeing the situation, we become trained to use the breath and our nervous system to their fullest extent. We can be engaged, mindful, and relaxed to respond to stress in a healthy and productive way. We also learn that just like in poses, nothing lasts forever. Pain, discomfort, and physical stress will eventually dissipate and pass.
I challenge you to notice how your mind and body react to poses that are difficult or uncomfortable for you. Do you push harder or stretch deeper? Do you modify the pose to your realm of abilities? Or do you resist the discomfort and tense your body? How does this reflect to how you deal with stress in your daily life? Take time to notice how you react to yoga poses and train yourself to mindfully observe these feelings and to stay calm, breath into the posture, and obtain the maximum benefit. When done consistently, this body-mind awareness will transition off the mat.
Lauren is a registered nurse currently working with cancer patients in the ICU. Being an RN, she has always had an interest in health and wellness, which has naturally led her to yoga. Her love for yoga has impelled her to deepen her practice and she hopes to become a yoga instructor one day. She is currently enrolled in the 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training at Green Locus and will graduate this November.