Modern life can present many challenges and the last few years since 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic have seen many more of us living with greater levels of stress.
While we all experience stress to some degree, problems arise when stress is ongoing and becomes chronic.
For our well-being, finding ways to navigate the stresses we face is essential. Yoga is one of the tools we have at our disposal that can be of help in providing relief from stress.
In this article we’ll discuss:
- What stress is
- Some of the ways stress can present itself
- Stress and the nervous system
- How stress can impact health
- How yoga can help to relieve stress
- Yoga For stress relief: 6 best practices
What is stress?
The World Health Organisation defines stress as,
“…any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain.”
Experiencing stress is normal and in short bursts can even be motivating when we’re in certain situations such as delivering a presentation or sitting an exam.
Some of the ways stress can present itself
The symptoms of stress can be emotional and mental as well as physical.
As we are all individuals, the ways stress may manifest will differ from person to person. Often, the first step in being able to address something effectively is to recognise it.
With this in mind, it’s helpful to have an awareness of the symptoms so that you’re able to more easily see them if they arise in yourself or your loved ones.The following is not an exhaustive list, but some of the common symptoms of stress include:
- Muscle pain
- Heart palpitations
- A racing mind
- A loss or increase in appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Digestive issues
Stress and the nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the autonomic nervous system that activates what is known as the body’s fight/flight response or in other words, the stress response.
Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system plays a crucial role in the body’s rest, digest and restoring activities.
It’s not that the sympathetic nervous system is bad and the parasympathetic nervous system is good – we need both in order to function. The issue is that nowadays we are increasingly living in a stress response – the sympathetic nervous system state.
As I describe in my book, Rest + Calm: Gentle yoga and mindful practices to nurture and restore yourself, for our ancestors in ancient times, the stress response would have been triggered by an immediate threat, such as fleeing a predator.
In the process of escaping, blood pressure, muscle tension, and the heart rate would all increase with stress hormones pumping around the body, while any body systems not needed at that time, such as digestion, would shut down. Once escaping the threat, the body would re-set and calm would be restored.
How stress can impact health
In our twenty-first century lives, the threats we encounter don’t disappear as easily as those ancient predators.
Financial issues, health worries, racial discrimination, job insecurity and relationship problems are just a few examples of what our nervous system can perceive as threats and cause a stress response.
The trouble is that their on-going nature makes it more likely that we remain in this sympathetic nervous system state for far longer than is good for us. Our bodies are not designed to cope with on-going stress, so it’s when is left unaddressed that stress can have a particularly detrimental effect on health.
Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, leaving the body more susceptible to infections and prolonging recovery time when we do become unwell.
This particularly makes sense when you consider the aforementioned parasympathetic nervous system’s rest, digest and restore role.
When the body is under chronic stress it can lead to or exacerbate a number of health conditions including, but not limited to:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
So, if we can’t avoid these modern-day stresses, what can we do? Finding ways to navigate and relieve stress is crucial. This is where yoga for stress relief comes in.
Yoga For Stress relief- 4 Ways Yoga Helps
#1: Encouraging a relaxation response.
Supporting the parasympathetic nervous system in fulfilling its role. The term ‘relaxation response’ was popularised by Dr Herbert Benson in his 1975 book of the same name.
In his work, Dr Benson explained the benefits of a ten to twenty minute daily practice to counteract the stress response and described the relaxation response as,
“…a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response.”
#2: Toning the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body and a crucial part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Travelling from the medulla oblongata in the brain down to the large intestine, it carries messages to our internal organs including the brain, heart, lungs, liver and gut.
With good vagal tone, our bodies can recoup from stress more effectively. Various yoga for stress relief practices have been shown to help stimulate or tone the vagus nerve.
#3: Lowering levels of cortisol.
Excess exposure to cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone puts our health at risk. Studies have shown a connection between yoga and the lowering of cortisol levels.
#4: Provide perspective.
A racing mind and excess worry are stress symptoms that are usually tied to concerns about the future.
The practice of yoga by its very nature can help to bring you into the present moment, while the philosophical aspects of yoga may help with gaining perspective on your situation.
Yoga For stress relief: 6 best practices
As we are all different, there is no one-size-fits-all and no one practice that we must all do. It’s also important to note that yoga for stress relief is not a cure-all.
What the following practices do all have in common is the varying degrees to which they encourage a parasympathetic nervous system response in the body as has been shown in research.
Go with what most resonates with you. You may find that different practices will suit you depending on the situation.
#1: Pranayama: breathing practices
Prana is our ‘life force’. One of the ways we experience the flow of prana through the body is via the breath.
Pranayama, the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga translates as ‘life force expansion’ and involves utilising the breath to direct this flow.
Slow, controlled breathing has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve and quell the stress response. What’s great is that breathing practices are an aspect of yoga that is accessible to practically everyone and can be a powerful means of self-regulation.
Try: Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing) or Bhramari Pranayama (Humming Bee Breath)
#2: Restorative yoga
This is a predominantly floor-based practice that facilitates deep relaxation and can be particularly effective when in a state of chronic stress and feeling tired all the time.
Central to this practice is the use of props to support the body in order to facilitate deep rest, ease and the ability to practice without strain.
B.K.S. Iyengar, who was known for his use of props, developed the practice of restorative yoga and many of the restorative postures we know today.
In a restorative practice, you are encouraged to rest in postures for anything between five and twenty minutes. Research has shown that restorative yoga can be particularly effective in activating the parasympathetic nervous system and encouraging a relaxation response.
Try: Legs up the Wall for up to ten minutes or Corpse Pose for up to twenty minutes
#3: Yin yoga
Like restorative, yin yoga is also primarily a floor-based practice and while there may be some similarities between these two practices they are not the same.
The roots of yin yoga roots lie in the Chinese philosophy of Daoism and the main teachers associated with the development of yin yoga are Paulie Zink, Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers.
In this slow, quiet practice, rather than deep rest, from a physical perspective the focus is more on targeting the body’s yin tissues (fascia and connective tissue).
Yin postures are usually held for several minutes (around three to five minutes at a time), which in some instances might illicit a deep stretching sensation.
It’s important to approach each pose mindfully to avoid forcing or straining, so the use of props can be helpful. Aside from slowing down and bringing you into the present moment, the meditative aspect of the practice can also induce calm.
Try: Caterpillar Pose
#4: Hatha yoga
‘Hatha yoga’ is usually the term used to describe all the physical aspects of yoga. More commonly ‘hatha’ as a yoga style tends to refer to an active practice involving physical postures and breath awareness.
In a hatha class you can expect mindful movement at a slower pace than say, vinyasa flow.
It’s also a style of yoga that tends to be appealing to beginners, but regardless of your level of yoga experience, the steady pace of a hatha practice can be very welcoming and calming.
In research from 2018, women who practiced yoga for three times a week over a period of four weeks experienced notable reductions in stress as well as anxiety and depression.
This relates to dhyana, the seventh of the eight limbs of yoga.
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s, “Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition towards an object.”
There are numerous ways to meditate and it needn’t be complicated. For instance, meditation can be as simple as guiding awareness to the breath or a candle flame (trataka).
If sitting meditation does not appeal, you could try walking meditation, mindful movement meditation or yoga nidra (see below).
There are various science-backed benefits to meditation with stress relief being just one. For instance, in the case of Loving-Kindness meditation, a study from 2008 showed that Loving-Kindness meditation is effective in reducing the stress response, while research from 2013 showed that improved vagal tone.
Try: Loving-Kindness Meditation or Trataka
#6: Yoga nidra
The roots of yoga nidra can be traced back to India. Usually described as ‘yogic sleep’, yoga nidra is primarily a state.
As I explain in my book, Rest + Calm, this state relates to the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses).
It also refers to the goddess Yoga Nidra as well as being a technique. The technique of yoga nidra is a form of guided meditation that often leads to the state of yoga nidra, often described as ‘sleep with a trace of awareness’.
All that’s required is that you lie down in a comfortable position (usually savasana) and listen as you are guided through the practice.
Research has shown yoga nidra to be effective in reducing stress and anxiety and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, as well as improving sleep quality.
Try: The Yoga Nidra Network library for free nidras in over twenty different languages.
Suggested reading to delve deeper
Radiant Rest: Yoga Nidra for Deep Relaxation & Awakened Clarity by Tracee Stanley
Yoga Nidra Made Easy: Deep Relaxation Practices to Improve Sleep, Relieve Stress and Boost Energy and Creativity by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and Nirlipta Tuli.
To close, even though we can’t eliminate stress, it’s reassuring and empowering to know that there are things we can do to help us relieve the stress we do face. Yoga for stress relief can be an incredibly supportive companion by our side as we navigate life’s ups and downs.