Yoga is one of the best ways of coping with the stress of modern life. It doesn’t involve drugs or great expense and can be practiced by anyone of any age in any physical condition. Most adults spend their lives in a chronic state of being busy. Earning a paycheck, raising children, keeping up a household, and maintaining social relationships require effort and time, and the result is mental and physical stress.
Chronic stress is harmful to health. Prolonged stress causes the secretion of various stress hormones, shallow, rapid breathing, and an elevated heart rate. Over time, stress can manifest itself in serious health problems like coronary artery disease. Yoga addresses stress on multiple levels, giving people the physical, mental, and emotional tools needed to bring balance back to their lives.
Yoga Breathing Techniques and Stress
Unlike other physical activities and sports, yoga starts with something very fundamental: breathing. People under stress often find themselves breathing rapidly, taking shallow breaths. Yoga teaches the physical and mental cleansing that takes place when breathing is deliberate, controlled, and deep. In many cases, simply taking a moment to concentrate on breathing and to allow the diaphragm and abdominal muscles to expand helps clear the mind and relieve stress. Yoga, however, takes breathing further. Yogic breathing is one of the keys to beneficial yoga practice. Regardless of the particular asanas (poses) used in a yoga class, breathing is fundamental. Healthy breathing coupled with the asanas maximizes the physical benefits and helps the body rid itself of physical, mental, and emotional stress. Breathing correctly has other, instantaneous effects on the body. When a person breathes properly, the posture improves almost immediately, taking stress off the internal organs and imparting a sense of confidence. With more oxygen flowing into the body, all bodily systems receive better circulation, instantly improving the sense of well-being and improving mental clarity. Deep, cleansing breathing is an excellent method for turning of the constant “chatter” that takes place in the mind of the person who is under chronic stress.
Asanas and Stress Relief
It isn’t just the mind that suffers under chronic stress. Prolonged stress has short term and long term effects. In the short term, stress causes many people to develop tension in the body. Some people carry that tension in their back and shoulders, while others may carry the tension in the face and jaw. The results are backache and tension headaches. Yoga poses specifically address tension in all parts of the body. The various asanas are designed not only to strengthen the body, but also to relax it, and to improve flexibility. Those who carry stress in their shoulders, for example, may find particular relief from asanas that increase flexibility in the shoulders. Many of the poses that relieve tension in specific parts of the body can be adapted for use outside the yoga studio, perhaps behind a desk at work, or at home. Many people who begin learning yoga discover that they carry tension and stress in parts of the body they had never considered before. They only realize it after experiencing the relief from the tension that results from the various asanas. A full-body yoga session can give the feeling of having had a full-body massage. The relief from tension is immediate, long-lasting, and natural, requiring no drugs. Yoga does not purport to be a substitute for medically-prescribed drugs for stress relief, but it does bring the body to a state where such medical interventions can work optimally.
Relaxation and Meditation
Yoga is intimately intertwined with techniques for relaxation and meditation. Even the more intensive yoga practices, such as Ashtanga yoga end with a period of cooling down and relaxation. One popular way of ending a yoga class is by spending several minutes with Savasana, the “corpse” pose. It involves lying flat on the back on a yoga mat, with arms and legs relaxed and slightly parted. People who are new to yoga may find that lying for several minutes in this position leads to increased “chatter” in the brain. They may find themselves going over in their head all the things they need to do, or worse, judging past actions and thinking of what things they should have done. However, with practice, Savasana becomes a time when the mind clears, when the yoga student is present in the moment, neither judging thoughts nor clinging to them. It may seem counterintuitive for relaxation and meditation to require practice, but the truth is, clearing the mind and relaxing the body do not come naturally to many people. Learning to be mindful of the present moment, of each inhalation and exhalation, takes getting used to. The heightened awareness of how the body and mind react to stress gives a person the tools necessary to cope with stress in all areas of life. As a person becomes more adept at relaxation and meditation, the stress melts away, rejuvenating and preparing the whole person for wherever their busy life takes them.