Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Just in case you didn't know: Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines physical exercise, conscious breathing, relaxation, and meditation. Each of these elements can help you manage stress. Studies have also shown that yoga can help reduce levels of anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improve sleep. And almost anyone can do it.
Why yoga for stress relief?
There are many different ways to cope with stress: Talking with friends, exercising, keeping a diary, and seeing a counsellor, for example. Yoga is an additional tool you can do alongside any other measures you have taken to overcome the stresses in your life. I am a fan of short, focussed daily yoga practices because they offer me that precious Me-Time, where I can just let go of the daily hassles, release tensions in my body and find some inner peace and quiet.
When practicing yoga, your body moves from a state of high alert (fight-or-flight response) to a state of ease (relaxation response). The level of stress hormones in your body decreases, while the level of feel-good hormones increases. You don't have to wait to feel stressed out to do yoga though, and you shouldn't. It is best to learn yoga skills well in advance so that you know how to help yourself when times get tough. People who do a little bit of yoga each day often find they are better able to handle things when life gets crazy. Practicing yoga builds your ability to keep calm, focussed, balanced, and relaxed.
Yoga is more than stretching
Yoga poses are good exercise and can help loosen up the tense muscles in your body. The areas of the body that tend to carry the most stress are the neck, shoulders, and back. But other parts of the body (like the face, jaw, and hips) can also get tight when feeling stressed and can benefit from yoga stretches. Other yoga poses can help you build strength and improve your sense of balance. More dynamic yoga styles will help improve your mobility, stamina and cardio-vascular fitness, and to "work out" that stress.
And yes, yoga can help you become more flexible - but you don't have to be particulaly flexible to do yoga. There are simple poses as well as complicated ones, and lots of adaptations and variations which offer something for almost everybody. Yoga requires no special equipment apart from a yoga mat, so you can do it almost anywhere. Even the mat is not essential, but it provides grip so that you don't slip in standing poses. The mat also provides a clearly marked private practice space, clean and clear from clutter.
The yoga of the mind
Yoga is so much more than physical exercise, though. While practicing poses, your mind will be concentrating on what you are doing and is less likely to wander off to your do-lists, worries and pre-occupations. I asked one of my clients about the difference between yoga and other forms of exercise and the answer was "yoga is totally absorbing. I have not time to think about my stress at work and completely relax." After class, people often report a general feeling of wellbeing, relaxation, confidence and happiness.
When we are under stress, we are often thinking about what we need to do in the future ("I have to finish that project") or what we could have done better in the past ("I wish I hadn't said that!"). Instead of letting your thoughts drift into the future or past, yoga helps you stay in the moment. Notice how a particular muscle or area of the body feels in each pose. Refine your technique. Feel the rhythm of your breath. Being in the moment helps you build your ability to focus, concentrate, and consciously direct your thoughts, which is useful in all aspects of life.
Using your breathing
When a yoga pose feels challenging, imagine sending your breath to the area in your body that feels stiff or tight. Does it help? Try this approach in other areas of your life, too. Whenever something challenging comes along (a problem at work, an argument at home), try to focus on your breathing for about a minute or two until you feel calmer. You may be surprised how much better you now can deal with the situation. There is a range of yoga breathing techniques, which can help you feel calmer when stressed and anxious. Other breathing techniques can help you energise when feeling fatigued.
The eight limbs of yoga
Physical poses and and breathing exercises are two major elements of yoga. All together, there are eight elements of yoga:
Yamas and Niyamas - Guidance on behaviour and interaction with yourself, others and the world in general
Asana - Physical poses
Pranayama - Guided breathing
Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyana - Stages of meditation
Samadhi - Onenesss or bliss
The best part about yoga is that it helps you discover more about yourself. Because of its underlying ethos of self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-responsibility, yoga can help you feel more at peace with yourself. You may not feel these benefits instantly, however, as with all things, the positive effects of yoga will build up over time.
Try short daily yoga
Here is a short yoga practice for you, which you can do at home to reduce stress and feel better. Download this free guide and video and start destressing.
“Yoga allows you to find an inner peace that is not ruffled and riled by the endless stresses and struggles of life.” (B.K.S. Iyengar)