This week (10th-16th May 2021) is Mental Health Awareness Week. Like many people, I’ve noticed my friends, family and clients struggle to cope with increasing levels of stress and anxiety caused by living through a global pandemic. Common symptoms include anxiety, depression, panic attacks, addiction issues, OCD/germ phobia and agoraphobia or reluctance to leave the house, to name a few.
Yoga has been the one thing in my adult life that has supported me to cope with whatever crap life throws at me. But how exactly can yoga help us manage stress? Here’s a breakdown of yoga’s stress-busting effects on the mind, body and soul.
How yoga helps the body deal with stress
No doubt you’ve heard of the primitive fight or flight response that causes the cascade of physiological changes when we experience perceived stress. It’s an incredible self-protection mechanism when we have to flee from a burning building; not so useful when our sympathetic nervous system responds this way to daily stress.
Slow, mindful movement and deeper breathing shift the nervous system towards the parasympathetic response, or the ‘rest and digest’ mode. Our muscles relax as we feel safe and our tummies may begin to gurgle.
As well as stimulating vagus nerve function to support the parasympathetic nervous system, pranayama, or breath control, also helps us anchor awareness to the present moment. Simply bringing awareness to breath can sometimes be enough to move out of our busy minds and into the body.
By syncing breath with movement, we begin to slow down and focus. For example, in Vrksasana (tree pose), your attention will be on how to balance on one leg, not on how you’re going to meet that looming deadline!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of hatha yoga is that it strengthens our sense of interoception. When we notice our internal state, or how the body feels, especially in the pause between asana, neuroplastic changes are made in the brain. Yoga literally rewires the brain to bring us back to our sense of self.
How yoga helps the mind cope with stress
Stop reading and bring your awareness to your mind in this moment. Chances are there’s a hundred and one thoughts jostling for your attention. Swami Vivekananda described the mind as a drunken monkey stung by a scorpion – uncontrollably restless! The practice of yoga teaches us how to tame our monkey minds. Indeed, Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, define yoga as “yoga chitta vritti nirodha”, loosely translated as ‘yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind’.
Yoga allows us to become more conscious by revealing our repetitive thought patterns. The next time you find yourself in a challenging asana, notice what thoughts arise. Do you hear yourself saying “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough”, or do you grit your teeth and push yourself harder? How you respond to challenges on the mat will often be how you deal with stressful situations in daily life.
In his book ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning’, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Through asana and meditation, we learn to increase the space between stimulus and response. Off the mat, this helps us become less reactive when faced with life’s challenges.
The changes to our brain during yoga even show up on EEG scans; there’s a marked increase in healing theta waves during savasana.
How yoga soothes the soul
Yoga practice teaches us to be gentle with ourselves; to find compassion for ourselves as we are in the moment. This in turn makes it easier for us to have compassionate thoughts towards others.
One definition of yoga is ‘to yoke, unite’. The practice of yoga allows us to remember who we truly are – more than our bodies and our thoughts. The deep sense of connection we feel is hugely beneficial for alleviating stress.
From a metaphysical perspective, yoga assists in the free flow of prana, or life force energy, through the body. When energy flows freely, it’s thought that we can transcend and connect with Divine consciousness.
Now try it for yourself
Balasana (Child’s pose) – From all fours, drop your hips to your heels, big toes touch, knees wide or close together. Lower your forehead and torso towards the ground and place your arms alongside your body or slightly in front, elbows wide so shoulders drop down. Use pillows under your head, feet and in between your calves and thighs to make the shape more comfortable. Breathe in and out through your nose, sending the breath all the way down to your belly and low back, melting a little further with each exhale.
Viparita Karani (Legs up the wall) – Swing your legs up against a flat surface – a wall, door, or headboard. Ensure that the body is in a straight line from your head to your hips. Pop a pillow under your head and low back to make the shape more comfortable; place a light scarf or eye pillow over your eyes (this stimulates the vagus nerve). Breathe for 5-20 minutes and come out of the pose slowly by bending knees to chest and rolling onto one side, pausing for a moment before getting up.
Savasana (Corpse pose) – Lie down with your body in a straight line, arms alongside the body, palms facing up, legs apart and toes flopping away from the midline of the body. Place pillows under your head, arms, knees and heels to make the shape more comfortable. Cover yourself with a blanket and pop an eye pillow over your eyes. Do a body scan, starting at one end of the body and working up or down, noticing and welcoming all sensation as it is without attaching thoughts or judgement.
Left Nostril breathing – Block the right nostril with your right thumb, and breathe through the left nostril only. Exhale slowly for a count of 4, pause for a count of 4, inhale for 4, pause for 4 and repeat.
If you want to find out more about the classes I offer, feel free to get in touch!