Our modern lifestyle makes us increasingly exposed to stress and stress-related health problems, such as chronic fatigue, muscular pain and burnout. Turning to the practice of yoga can be an effective way to reduce stress and its consequences. Yoga is an ancient body-mind practice that originated from India, which promotes physical, mental, and spiritual relaxation by combining physical exercise, muscle relaxation, breathing and meditation. These techniques contribute to stress management in the following ways:
- Effective breathing. Stress and tension can cause us to breathe in a rapid, shallow way, which can lead to more anxiety. Yoga helps to breathe more effectively, using the diaphragm and the whole lung capacity. For instance, studies have shown that slow pace pranayama practice (controlled breathing), even for 5 minutes, provides immediate effects such as reduced blood pressure as well as the heart rate. A simple breathing technique that can be used is Viloma Paranayama (Reverse Breath). Starting with a couple of normal breaths, you finish with an exhale. Then you inhale, pause, inhale and pause again, and continue until the lungs are full. Thereafter you exhale, pause, exhale and pause again and continue until the lungs are completely empty. Practice for as long as you feel like and breath normally after you have finished.
- Muscle relaxation. Yoga releases muscle tension due to stress by lengthening the muscles and creating gaps between joints and bones. The relaxation of muscles happens not only during the physical practice of yoga but also outside of the practice. For instance, when people are at work, focusing on productivity, deadlines, meetings, and phone calls, the sympathetic nervous system (the “Fight or Flight” system) kicks in and there is an increase in heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and adrenaline. Also, in this focused state of work, people may be unaware of their body positioning and motions or the need of taking breaks from repetitive movements. When practicing the physical postures, deep breathing, and stretching movements of yoga, the awareness of one’s body positioning and motions increases, leading to a relaxation response. Muscle tension is reduced, less oxygen is consumed and less carbon dioxide is eliminated, and there is a decrease in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Reduction of stress and muscle relaxation can be facilitated even with help of 60 minutes per week of Hatha yoga.
- Mental relaxation. Meditation, physical postures and breath awareness can help to slow down the mind, which helps you to develop new habits towards a more relaxed inner state of mind. Similar to mindfulness, which is associated with a state of being attentive to and the present moment, the practice of yoga helps to achieve the state of being aware of the present moment, thus reducing stress.
- Reduction of perceived stress. Meditation through yoga forces you take a pause and to reflect, which over time enables you to better handle stress and face issues with a stronger, more positive and confident approach. In some studies yoga has been found having similar effects on reduction of perceived stress as cognitive behaviour therapy.
- Self-compassion / acceptance of oneself. Self-compassion can be described as ‘being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness towards oneself’. Pilot studies suggest that yoga helps the individual to bring awareness and acceptance of his/her unique physical attributes while doing yoga poses, rather than focusing on the achievement of the ‘perfect’ pose. Acceptance of oneself is also related to reduction of perceived stress.