Many choose to practice yoga in order to help them "relax" or to "relieve stress" but is yoga really stress-reducing?
The answer will depend on who you ask and what kind of yoga you are doing, but in my opinion, yoga can be stress-reducing or stress-inducing, depending on how we approach it. Moving through strong yoga posture sequences like those found in many classes today can create an increased demand on the body which in turn increases heart rate & blood pressure, resulting in physiological stress.
Stress is not a particularly bad thing, as a matter of fact it is a vital part of becoming stronger.
The imbalance arises when stressors are predominant (sympathetic) and there is not enough parasympathetic tone to balance it out. Is your practice all about pushing harder, more calorie burn, bigger-better poses? If yes, you could be stressing yourself out to the point of sub-optimal health.
Much of today's chronic illness is a result of autonomic imbalance.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for those functions that we don't consciously direct, like digestion, breathing, heart rate & blood pressure. The autonomic system has 2 main branches--the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. You can think of the sympathetic like hitting the gas pedal to speed the functions of our body up, preparing it for battle. The parasympathetic can be compared to hitting the brakes...slowing things down for rest and relief. For optimal function, our body needs full capacity in both systems.
Our bodies are constantly at work, attempting to maintain homeostasis. Every time a stressor is presented, the body is fine-tuning to balance things back out. We often live our lives in a way that constantly hits the gas pedal, creating more work for our homeostatic systems. Deadlines, worry, text messages, e-mail, rushing, over-exercising, over-working, under-sleeping, bright screens long beyond sundown all with a little (or a lot) of java thrown in the mix.
Many of us are living in a state of autonomic imbalance with over-toned sympathetic systems. In other words, we are totally STRESSED! This excessive sympathetic stress response can wreak havoc on our physiology, affecting everything from our inflammation levels & hormonal balance to blood sugar levels & digestion. In order to achieve optimal wellness, it is imperative that we incorporate practices which will increase our parasympathetic tone.
Classes such as yin and restorative yoga which focus on slowing down within longer floor postures can naturally invoke increased parasympathetic tone. Breathing exercises along with mindful meditation have also been shown to trigger parasympathetic response. If you practice lots of "strong" yoga such as vinyasa, power or ashtanga, it is a good idea to occasionally incorporate these other types of practices.
The more physically challenging classes can also be very health-inducing, especially when we take the approach of maintaining balance. The challenging postures are also extremely valuable in cultivating the vital life tool of accessing the calm within a storm.
Here are a few things to consider in order to bring autonomic balance into your "stronger" yoga practices. A few of these will depend on the teacher (if you are practicing in a class) but ultimately, you as the practitioner should take full responsibility for whether or not your practice is over-stressing.
- Begin class with a few moments of mindful meditation directed towards landing in the practice of self-observation. If you are able to approach the practice from the lens of self-observation, you are less likely to push too far into stress-mode in any given posture.
- Incorporate breathing exercises at the beginning or end of class.
- Use your breath as a guide to intensity. It is natural and beneficial to allow your breath to become challenged at times but if breath gets totally out of control, it is time to back off a bit. If the posture is painful (not talking about challenging here), change it or don't do it.
- Alternate between embracing breath synchronization with the class and purposefully practicing your own unique breath pace and movement. We all have different breath capacities (pace) and if we are constantly attempting to match a breath pace that is different from ours, it's likely to be stressful.
- When practicing victorious ujjayi breath, practice a "slightly audible" quality versus attempting to breathe loud. Loud breath isn't natural and the nature of it is stress-inducing.
- Allow for moments of silence and space within your practice.
- When practicing alignment, stick with one anatomical focus per posture rather than trying to master an entire bullet point list of cues. Allow time to drop into your own embodied experience of the alignment rather than just applying an instruction. Apply it, feel it, notice your breath response, be curious about any subtle changes.
- Practice the power of simply staying in posture versus always pushing yourself to make the pose bigger and better with each breath. Allow focused breath and body awareness to shape the intensity and variation.
- Allow for at least 7 minutes in final rest. This gives plenty of time to drop in and renew.
- If you listen to music, keep it mostly non-lyrical and grounding and play it only during a small portion of your practice. This ensures periods of silence and breath awareness.