I’ve been doing yoga on and off for about twenty years now. While there’s been times when I’ve not gone as often, I’m always drawn back to it. Not only is it great exercise – have you ever seen a yoga teacher without amazingly toned arms? – but it’s also a great stress buster.
These days, I pay a visit to my yoga teacher, Emma of Samadhi Yoga, once a week on a Friday morning. This is my sacred time. If it doesn’t happen due to holidays or illness of meetings getting in the way, I immediately notice my stress levels rising.
There’s something magical about yoga that not only brings the body into harmony, but also the mind. It helps tame down my anxious thoughts, the breathing exercises we do slow my racing mind and the relaxation aspect helps me tune into pure ‘me’ time. It’s a very present form of exercise, which helps quell worries. I asked my teacher, Emma why yoga was such a good stress reliever.
“Yoga encourages us to slow down and tune into our breath which in turn helps us to focus our minds in the present moment,” she explains. “These simple elements are key to helping us manage stress and stress-related anxiety as well as helping us to cope better when stressful situations arise.”
Add to that the physical aspect of yoga and you’ve got one amazing stress-busting, happy hormone-boosting exercise.
Emma says: “The physical postures, or asanas, help to boost our moods naturally through the production of two hormones in particular: oxytocin which can help to decrease stress and improve overall feelings of wellbeing and endorphins which can help to manage physical pain and negative emotions.
“Yoga stretches can encourage the release of muscular tension in the body which leads to an increased feeling of ease on a physical level and they also help to reduce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, calming the “fight or flight” stress response in the body which in turn helps to trigger and increase your body’s relaxation response.”
Let’s not forget the meditation and breathing aspect as well of yoga – it really is a do-all form of exercise.
The one thing I really love about yoga is that it’s not competitive – I’m rubbish at team sports or anything with a competitive edge. In a yoga class, you just go as far as your body can go. It’s your practice – you do what works and feel good for you. As Emma says: “On a more simplistic level practising yoga helps you to feel that you are doing something positive for yourself and engaging in self-care.”
To enhance the benefits of my weekly yoga class, I also try and do mini practices at home. It may only be for 15 minutes at the end of a stressful day, but I have a variety of positions that I like to practice to help me unburden the stresses of the day.
In fact, I’m really drawn to the shoulder stand or alternative nostril breathing (see below for more details of these). If I’m short of time, I always make sure I spend 10 minutes or so doing these two things. Emma says it no wonder that these two work well on my stress levels, as they help to lower the stress response. And breathe…
Most yoga poses help to relieve stress in some way, but these are a few simple postures that Emma – and I! – recommend:
“This posture – and yoga balances in general – are great for relieving stress as they encourage one to focus and concentrate the mind. If you practice a yoga balance you find you focus entirely on staying within the balance. This helps to focus your mind in the present moment and for the duration of the pose helps to clear your mind of other thoughts. On a physical level Eagle Pose helps to release tightness in the shoulders and hips which are areas in the body where people commonly hold emotional tension.”
“This pose is both a forward bend and an inversion (head is below the heart) and the combination of these two movements helps to calm a busy mind thus promoting feelings of peace and wellbeing and also helps to balance the nervous system. It also encourages you to relax more deeply on each exhalation and release tightness from the hamstrings which can get bound up when feeling tense and stressed.”
“This is a classic resting posture that helps to ground and centre you. As a forward bend it is an introspective posture that helps to calm the mind and also releases tension from the neck and shoulders.”
“This posture helps you to master the art of intentionally relaxing both mind and body and can work wonders for managing stress. With practice you can learn to focus your mind on your body or your breath and simply allow yourself to surrender to the earth. Being still, grounded and present, this posture is for ultimate bliss and relaxation.”
“Shoulder stand is an inversion, i.e. your head is lower than your heart in this pose, and inversions encourage the flow of blood towards the head and the heart, which stimulates the relaxation response in the body and helps to lower the stress response. It also helps to release tension from the neck and shoulders where stress can manifest physically.
“In terms of alternate nostril breathing this is a wonderful practice for truly focusing the mind and encouraging a deeper, fuller breath which helps both to calm the nervous system and thus reduce stress hormones.”
If you’re new to yoga, it’s a great idea to attend a class first so you get an idea of what the positions are meant to feel like and have a teacher talk you through everything. You can find a teacher near you by searching on one of the yoga association websites:
Alternatively, there are loads of great online videos out there. Check out my teacher Emma’s You Tube channel – her ‘Snowga’ video is the ultimate winter yoga session – or Yoga with Adrienne, another one my go-tos when I can’t get to a class.