How to Reduce Stress with Yoga
Developing a Calm Mind
Yoga joins the body, the mind, and the breath in an ancient practice that combines physical postures, breath exercises, and mindfulness techniques. With continued practice, it brings benefits on many levels, including cardio-vascular fitness, stronger immunity, improved organ function, and long, lean muscles. However, perhaps its most valuable benefits are the mental and physical relaxation it brings, and its ability to counter the negative effects of stress.
Most people are familiar with the churning activity of their thoughts, especially during times of stress. The mind jumps from thought to thought, faster than words can speak or the body can move. Ten thousand times every minute a thought pops up, sometimes several of them at once, and we find ourselves constantly pulled away from focus on the task in hand to see that we have been far away in thought and not even aware of what we have been doing. The nature of the mind is to generate thoughts, and this process exhausts us. Even when our bodies may be still, our minds are not.
Because yoga is a physical practice that involves moving in specific ways from one posture to another, it offers a structured pattern of movement that helps channel the mind in a direction that can begin to control it. Each of the physical postures has an associated "drishti" or gazing point, and associated cues for breath and body awareness. The practitioner moves into the posture and holds it, focusing on the body and on the breath, and this offers a discipline to the mind as it is continually being pulled back to the points of focus.
With practice, most yoga students find this becomes easier, and although the mind still wanders, we start to be aware that the thoughts have drifted off, and can bring them back sooner. At the end of the practice, be it 20 minutes or the usual 90-minute class, students start to feel the mind is somehow stiller. This is the experience alluded to in one of the oldest yoga texts, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which was written down almost 3000 years ago. Patanjali's first verses, or Sutras start by explaining that yoga restrains the activities of the mind, and brings about a state of mind that is calm and unruffled in every situation.
Depending on the goals and focus of the class and the teacher, each yoga class will be different. Some classes are more athletic and active, while others are more therapeutic, relaxing and restorative. In ancient India, warriors in the army trained in yoga as young men to cultivate the physical power, stamina, mental focus and unruffled mind that would help them perform best under the stressful conditions of battle. Modern athletic practices like Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and power yoga reflect these martial roots. Students who want a yoga practice that is physically challenging and provides strength training and a cardio-vascular workout can try these styles of practice. Other students who may have injuries, be exhausted, or want to relax deeply may prefer a gentler class, such as restorative, Yin, or beginners' yoga.
In every class, though, students can expect to move into postures and hold them for five full breaths or longer. The postures usually involve moving the limbs safely into a position that puts the joint close to the extreme of its range of motion, to where the student feels a deep stretch but before the point of pain. It is important to learn the postures with a teacher who can check for correct alignment so continued practice in a pose without proper alignment does not cause damage or injury. Holding the position and breathing fully with long, slow diaphragmatic breaths allows the body to relax in the posture. At first, muscles are tense and the students feels stiff and perhaps uncomfortable. However, the muscle fibres cannot continue to fire and hold contraction as the pose continues; gradually the oxygen from the deep breathing recharges the blood chemistry and aerobic respiration can occur on the cellular level to release accumulated lactic acid and waste materials from the cells that are causing the stiffness. The muscles relax, and breath after breath it is easier to relax more deeply into the practice.
Holding the postures and breathing fully allows deep muscular relaxation and stretching that results in a feeling of lightness, ease and restedness after each yoga class, even from the first one. In addition, after weeks and months of regular yoga practice, most people notice their body is changing. Chronic tension and stiffness eases, and they become more flexible.
Relaxation Breathing Techniques
Breathing is a key part of yoga, and most teachers guide students through key breathing techniques that help relaxation. The full yogic breath, or full diphragmatic breathing into the belly, into the ribs, into the collarbones, is the first one to master. By resting the hands lightly on the belly while lying on the back, students should feel their abdomen rise as they inhale, and feel it fall as they exhale. When we use the diaphragm to breathe, instead of the shallow upper chest breathing that is common in tense, stressful situations, our bodies fully ventilate the lungs and the exchange of gases is much greater. As the diaphragm drops, the abdomen expands and the lungs fill with air from the bottom to the top. As the diaphragm relaxes, the abdomen drops back toward the spine, and the lungs empty almost completely.
If you watch a child sleeping, you will see this natural rise and fall of the abdomen with the breath that is the most efficient way to breathe. Many people have forgotten how to do this, and the short shallow breathing pattern with the constricted chest results in low oxygen levels in the blood, organs and cells. This leads to an acidic environment in the tissues, and inefficient function of organs, lowered immunity, and disease. I have given specific instructions for this breathing technique, including a video, in my hub How to Practice Yoga at Work.
Brain Waves in Hz
wakeful state, eyes open
Beta waves, 14-39 Hz
wakeful state, eyes closed
Alpha waves, 8-12 Hz
meditative or trance state
Theta waves, 4-7 Hz
deep sleep state
Delta waves, 1-3.5 Hz
Theta Brain Waves
Electo-encephalographs, or EEGs can be used to measure brain activity. This involves attaching sensors to the skull and recording the electronic frequencies in various parts of the brain and how they vary with the subject's level of activity. Brain waves change during the transition from wakeful activity to sleep, and are measured in Herz, or cycles per second.
It is common to pass quickly through the theta state in the transition from waking, to relaxed wakefulness with the eyes closed, to deep sleep. There are profound benefits to spending longer in the theta state, which can be achieved in practices like meditation, yoga nidra and final relaxation in the yoga position of Savasana.
Satyananda Saraswati in his book Yoga Nidra describes research at the Kennedy Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark (Lou, Hans and Troels Kjaer, 1988), which found that there is significant difference in brain waves between yoga relaxation and simply resting. This specific form of yoga relaxation is called yoga nidra. It is a kind of meditation that moves the practitioners into a highly conscious state of relaxation, during which they are not drowsy nor unconsious, but deeply relaxed yet alert. In this state, EEG measurements showed that theta activity increases up to 10%, while the alpha state only drops 2%. As practitioners of yoga nidra are lying down with their bodies relaxed and their eyes closed, they are both conscious and relaxed at the same time.
The practice of Yoga Nidra is a specific branch of yoga that takes 30 to 60 minutes to complete. One of the best CDs I have found to work with is Janakanada's, who was a student of Satyanada Saraswati, and frequently comes to North American to teach Yoga Nidra workshops.
A shorter form of Yoga Nidra is included in all yoga classes, in the form of the final guided relaxation which closes the class.
During Final Guided Relaxation, yoga students lie on their backs in relaxation postion, called Savasana. It is important to prepare to relax fully during this ten to twelve-minute period, so teachers usually instruct students to drink water or use the bathroom if they need to, loosen hair or clothing if it is tight, and cover themselves with a blanket to preserve body heat, which always drops when the body becomes still. It is also important to relax tension from the lower back by placing a bolster under the thighs, and relax the shoulders by resting the hands palms facing up slightly apart from the sides. Then the teacher guides the class through some grounding breaths, following which a series of relaxation cues move the awareness from the body into inner stillness. Usually the body cues follow the sequence of relaxing the feet, the legs, the belly, the back the shoulders, the arms, the hands, the face, and the forehead. This sequence parallels the layout of the motor strip located along the back end of the frontal lobe in the brain. Since the body parts correspond to specific locations along this motor strip, the sequence used in guided relaxation gradually brings the focus from the outside of the brain toward the centre, facilitating the gradual withdrawal of the senses from the outer world into inner stillness. You can experience this for yourself with the Guided Relaxation video at the top of this page.
Guided relaxation is the capstone of the yoga practice, for it allows the body to switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system, and enter a state when body processes of cell nutrition, protein synthesis, cell division, tissue regeneration, and healing can take place. That is why people feel so rested, relaxed and refreshed when they finish a yoga practice and rise from Savasana (sometimes called "Corpse Position") feeling like a new person.