Yoga is well-known for reducing stress through restorative and strength-building postures, breathwork, and even meditation. But, if you suffer from chronic stress, then you might be wondering if a regular practice can really make a difference. The answer is yes—and here’s how yoga for stress works.
The Mental and Physical Impact of Stress.
When your mind encounters a stressful situation, it initiates a response from your autonomic nervous system, which activates your sympathetic nervous system. This floods your body with certain hormones, like cortisol, that increase your heart rate and blood pressure, amplify your senses, and energetically rev up your brain.
In other words, you go into fight-or-flight mood. It’s useful in the case of a true emergency, not so helpful in the face of daily struggles. Over time, stress can become chronic, and that puts you at risk for health problems like depression, insomnia, physical pain, and cardiovascular disease.
How Yoga Can Help
Yoga trains you to breathe through stress and slow down. “Yoga, both from my experience and [from] the research that has been done, is a powerful way to regulate stress and its effects,” explains Tiffany Cruikshank, yoga teacher and founder of Yoga Medicine. “Depending on the style, yoga can affect this in several ways. The breath, when it’s the focus of the class, is proven to be a powerful way to induce the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response.
“Simple repetitive movements, like sun salutations or cat/cow pose, can also induce the relaxation response to help with chronic stress. The key to [yoga’s] stress-reducing potential really is in simple, mindful, non-judgmental movements linked with breath,” she says.
Yoga for Stress
Here are five yoga poses and techniques that Cruikshank recommends for anyone suffering from chronic stress. You can incorporate these poses and techniques into daily movement to help minimize the effects of stress. Cruikshank also advises students to use the first two poses to prepare to move with more ease, and then focus on the last two to help your body fully relax. You may also add sun salutations or other poses before or after downward-facing dog for a longer sequence.
Known as “even-count breathing” or sama vritti pranayama, this breathing technique helps decrease stress. Cruikshank recommends using this anywhere and anytime to relax the body and mind. Find a comfortable seated or supine position, and match the length of your inhale to your exhale. She says to start by inhaling for four counts and exhaling for four counts, without forcing the breath. Do this for at least two minutes, or up to five.
2. Mountain Pose
“From standing, inhale as you lift your arms, palms up, in front of you over your head, and simultaneously lift your heels,” says Cruikshank. “Exhale and slowly lower your heels and arms. Repeat five times. Try to make the movement last the length of a deep breath.” In mountain pose, you’re essentially standing, but stacking shoulders over hips over ankles, and finding a straight spine with an engaged core.
3. Downward-Facing Dog
Cruikshank suggests modifying this common pose with your head resting gently on a block, a yoga prop that provides extra support. “Choose the right height of the block so that you can rest only the weight of the head on the block, and the rest of the body is supported by the arms, legs, and core,” she notes. “Let your [forehead] hairline rest on the block so your neck is slightly flexed forward. Use your breath to relax here and imagine stressful thoughts dripping off your brain.”
Stay here for a few minutes. Remove the block at any time for a more standard variation of this posture. Remember to form your body into the shape of a capital letter A, with hands and feet about hip-width distance. If your hamstrings are tight, or you worry that you aren’t very flexible, don’t worry about it. Just bend your knees as much as you like. Keep your gaze back toward your knees with a long, straight neck.
4. Bridge Pose
Lay on your back with your feet on the floor, says Cruikshank, and then inhale as you lift your hips and arms overhead, and exhale as you lower back down to the ground. Extend your arms out at your sides, and breathe in and out from your nose. Instead of lifting and lowering, you can also hold in a lifted position with knees stacked over ankles and hips pointing upward for one to three minutes. This will help relieve tension through your chest and front body muscles.
You can easily modify bridge pose by placing a block under your back at the base of your spine or placing rolled blankets under your knees, shoulders, and neck.
Savasana, also known as “corpse pose”, slows a racing heart and active mind to allow you to completely relax in a neutral position. You basically lay on your back with your arms at your sides and legs extended, then let the muscles in your body release and concentrate on just breathing. (Trust us, it’s harder than it seems!) “Close your eyes and stay for five to 20 minutes, noticing the quality of the body and allowing yourself this time to recharge by doing nothing,” Cruikshank says.
You can use additional props to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Try a bolster under your knees, a blanket to cover your limbs, or something to cover your eyes and minimize distraction. Neck support is most important, though, she adds. “The simplest way to support the neck is to use a blanket folded into a square,” she says. “Slide the blanket under your neck and shoulders, and roll the edge closest to your shoulders under to support the bottom of the neck. Because most of the nerves run through the neck, this part of the body is critical to support to allow the body and nervous system to completely relax.
“Stress can affect nearly every physiological marker, so keeping an eye on these points can be very helpful for monitoring your stress on a day-to-day basis before it becomes a more serious concern,” says Cruikshank. “It’s one of the reasons I believe yoga is so necessary for health and wellness.”