Yoga is one of the best tools available for stress management. That’s because it is a multifaceted practice that taps into the mind, body, emotions, and spirit, so it can help reduce stress on all levels. While you will likely feel the effects of stress mostly in the physical body, if you look closely you will probably find some non-physical symptoms as well. For example, you may have difficulty concentrating, your mind may race with thoughts, or you may find it difficult to take care of yourself. Yoga can help with all of this.
What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient practice that integrates the body with the mind and the spirit. Yoga means “union,” and its purpose is to strengthen the body in order to heal the mind and help practitioners become connected to their “higher self.” The ultimate goal of yoga, then, is to operate with fewer limits and a more expanded awareness, which helps cultivate a greater sense of wellbeing.
Traditionally, there are eight aspects of a complete yoga practice. The three in the middle – the physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation – work wonders to help alleviate stress.
Start with the body
The physical practice of yoga (called asana) consists of poses that range from simple to very challenging. Anyone can practice yoga, and once you learn the basics, you will be able to create a practice that works for you. Each yoga pose has specific physical benefits, and while any yoga practice is likely to relieve stress, there are some poses that are especially calming. Here are just a few:
Child’s pose. This resting pose is a natural stress-reliever that allows you to pause and be still. It also facilitates deep breathing throughout the back of the ribcage.
Puppy pose. This is child’s pose with a heart-opener, and it’s an excellent antidote to the tendency to slouch when you’re anxious or stressed.
Legs-up-the-wall. A simple inversion in which you literally lean your legs up against the wall, this is an excellent way to quiet the mind and increase focus and energy.
Cat-Cow. A flowing series performed on all fours by arching the back and then lifting the heart, cat-cow can help get stress-related kinks out of the back and neck.
Corpse pose. Also known as savasana, this is the last pose performed in most classes. It is an opportunity to rest and become aware of the benefits of the practice that was just completed.
It’s all about the breath
The physical practice of yoga is always integrated with breathing. Aside from coordinating the poses with the breath (during class, you will be reminded to breathe often), yoga offers dedicated breathing techniques that can help calm the nervous system and clear the mind. The most basic of these practices is a three-part diaphragmatic breath, which is nothing more than proper deep breathing. (Remember that shallow breathing is a classic symptom of stress.) Beyond that, there are rapid belly-breathing techniques designed to cleanse the body and alternate nostril breathing, which helps activate brain function.
The ultimate goal of yoga is meditation, and that doesn’t necessarily mean sitting for an hour in lotus pose (although it can). Over time, yoga will teach you to be in the moment, and you will learn that even paying attention to how you’re breathing while you rush through a busy day is a form meditation of practice.
When practiced regularly, yoga often becomes a way of life – a way with more ease, less dis-ease, and much fewer symptoms of stress.