Managing Stress with Yoga

In recent weeks, I’ve given a few presentations on stress management, and have heard a lot of great suggestions from participants on techniques that they use to manage their stress.  One stress management practice that hasn’t yet been discussed at length, but should be, is yoga.  Yoga seems like an obvious choice for stress management as it combines physical and mental disciplines to reduce stress and anxiety by achieving a calm and peaceful body and mind.   Hatha yoga in particular is recommended for stress relief, as it moves at a slow pace and is easy to follow. 

When you’re under stress, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear and your body goes into “fight or flight” mode.  Under normal, non-stressful conditions, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge.  It is involved in everyday “rest or digest” activities. When the SNS takes over, your body reacts  to the threat of either physical or psychological stress in the following ways:

  • heart rate increases
  • blood pressure increases
  • blood sugar increases
  • the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are produced

These changes can have long-lasting effects (like an increased risk of heart disease; hypertension; or weight gain) if stress is left unchecked; fortunately, yoga practices such as slow breathing, asana (basically, posture control), guided imagery, and meditation stimulate mental relaxation and help the parasympathetic nervous system take back control.  In particular, controlled breathing as practiced in yoga can help calm the mind and body, or as a friend and devoted yoga practitioner puts it, “yoga teaches your body to deal with stress in a positive way…through breathing.”  At last week’s DMH “Celebrating the Whole You” event, yoga teacher Mary O’Toole led attendees in a yoga exercise that involved controlling breathing and movement in our whole body, one body part at a time.  This exercise took about 5 minutes and was done while we were sitting up in chairs, so it would be easy to replicate in almost any setting, including at the office.  Which means that yoga, a practice that some people often think of as being inaccessible, can actually be done anywhere and by almost anybody.  I encourage you to try to incorporate some of yoga’s practices and philosophies (deep, controlled breathing; mental relaxation) into your every day life in order to manage stress.  I know I am going to try to do so, and will be sharing my experiences at future Lunch ‘n Learns!

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