Which asanas are best for stress relief?
Well that depends on you, and the situation. One day you may feel the need for a vigorous workout, a fast-paced vinyasa flow from one position to the next, on another day a blissful restorative session with bolsters, cushions and blankets to ease you into positions which will really help you relax. Whatever you choose, it is important to make sure you are not over-using some parts of the body and certain ways of moving, risking injury, while neglecting others. A good teacher will take this into account when planning a class. If you are practising on your own, with a book or video, you should follow the guidance carefully, but also pay attention to what your body is telling you.
A Hatha class will generally have a mixture of warm ups, some vinyasa – maybe in the form of sun salutations – longer held poses and usually finishes with Savasana (the Corpse Pose), which can be hard for people who just cannot switch off. Give it time. Whatever yoga asanas you do, they should help you gain balance, improve alignment, become stronger and more resilient as you persevere, and ultimately allow you to be more at ease with who you are. Perhaps the effects will only last for a short while to start with, but as you regain control of yourself, learn to move fully and to be still, the fear will start to recede.
Breath and Pranayama
In our daily lives we may not pay breathing too much attention unless it becomes difficult. Yet being able to breathe fully is a vital part of being able to live well and too often we don’t. There seems to be a close link between asthma and stress, and even if you don’t suffer from asthma a panic attack may lead to shortness of breath, which is scary so makes the panic worse… Being able to control, or guide, the breath is a vital skill. Guide may be a better word because it is not so much a question of imposing your will on the breath, which is always there unless you are seriously ill, but allowing it to move in and out of the body as fully as possible. In yoga the breath is usually quiet, in and out through the nose. When you initiate a movement, you breathe in, then to remain in position or come out of it, you breathe out. The belly fills as you breathe in, then on the out breath, as the belly contracts, you may tighten ‘core’ muscles in preparation for a movement. But there’s no need to get stressed about breathing and whether you are doing it right, just remember to do it and not hold your breath, unless you are doing so on purpose as a breathing exercise.
The vagus nerve connects the head and neck with the rest of the body and its main function is to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system: when we breathe out and start to relax, the body sends a signal via the vagus nerve to the brain, telling it that it’s safe to dial down all the nervous activity we tend to call stress. Elongating the exhale has been shown to be an effective way of making this happen. You can read more about this, and the other effects of yoga on the body in a great new book called Science of Yoga, by Ann Swanson. Viva Las Vagus!
Pranayama, the fourth limb of yoga, takes breath-work further and involves consciously controlling the breath (again, there’s way too much to go into here, but do read up about it). It is usually conducted sitting down, in a comfortable position – normally cross-legged, but whatever is available to you. The main thing is you should be sitting tall and the spine should be as straight as possible from the sitting bones to the crown of the head. As you become aware of the breath moving in and out, as you direct the flow, breathing in for a count of four (for example), holding it for a count of two, breathing out for a count of four and so on, this helps to still the mind – when your thoughts start to run away with you, just go back to the breath. It’s the basis of meditation.
Meditation and Mindfulness
There have been various studies which show that the yoga-based practice of mindfulness, a form of meditation, can be highly beneficial for stress. Rather than seek to blot out unpleasant thoughts and feelings, or let them overwhelm us, we learn to sit (or maybe lie down) quietly and accept whatever we are thinking and feeling, to ‘observe and let it be.’ This can also help with chronic pain. It’s not easy to do, which is why meditation practice will often begin with breathing techniques and encourage us to ‘come back to the breath’ whenever we are distracted, and the fluffy white clouds passing through our mindscape threaten to turn dark and stormy. The body scan in Yoga Nidra allows us to focus on each part of the body in turn, and is also a part of the mindfulness practice developed by Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society (University of Massachusetts Medical School). You can find his mindfulness meditations including the body scans on YouTube. I love the sound of his voice, “Now shift the focus of your attention to the toes of the left foot, featuring them centre stage…” So soothing, although you are supposed to fall awake – not asleep!
So will yoga be good for me?
I hope I have convinced you that, in most cases, yoga is great at reducing stress. However, it might reinforce stress if you are inclined to be competitive, or addictive, so you need to remember the balance and self-control. If you are the kind of person who feels compelled to count the number of steps you take each day, and keep setting yourself a higher target, then it would be sensible to stop and take stock from time to time. Give yourself a day off at least once a week, and if you prefer a very vigorous form of yoga like Ashtanga, maybe try something calmer, like a Yin class now and then, or take up meditation. Plus yoga can reinforce negative feelings – my body’s the wrong shape, I’ll never be able to do this posture – if you feel that way, perhaps you should try a different yoga class or style of yoga. Not everyone who does it is under 25, slim and bendy, so find a class where you feel comfortable. But remember it might just be you telling yourself you don’t fit in. A good teacher will make you feel welcome, and make sure you are not doing anything which could harm you. So don’t give up. There’s a kind of yoga to suit everyone. Give it time, put in the effort, and you will reap the benefits.
Yoga Mind Body and Spirit: a return to wholeness, Donna Farhi, Newleaf, 2000 (there are probably later editions)
Science of Yoga, Ann Swanson, Dorling Kindersley, 2019