Many people are drawn to the well-documented and well-researched benefits of yoga for stress reduction. Mostly though, they continue because they feel the very real effects of nervous system soothing and an innate sense of mind-body peace and calm.
Yet to categorise ‘teaching yoga for stress’ is a bit of a conundrum. The practice of yoga in all its forms is not to provide a solution to anything, but rather to drop away attachment to any outcome at all. It is this very facet of yoga philosophy that can free our mindsets from constant achievement and towards letting go – getting to the very heart of much modern psycho-social stress. To learn to truly spend time with our minds in the same time and place as our bodies is a new experience to many beginning any meditative practice such as yoga and well-needed.
If addressing how we handle life’s stresses (and its effects) is our motivation for practice, we are moving in the right direction though. With an overarching aim of yoga to ‘still the fluctuations of the mind’ – as described in the second of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras (1.2) – this calming of our racing mind, agitation and anxiety can feel necessary for our very sanity. A quiet, spacious mind ripples through the whole body, allowing soothing through the nervous system and thus to regulate cascades though immunity, circulation and digestion.
Much modern stress is driven by the large front brain that us humans carry around and that distinguishes us from other animals. Our ability to have conscious thought, to follow stories, to create imaginings and yes, have racing minds is what allows us to create stress. This ability to envisage beyond our present situation has allowed us to create the world in which we live. One of high stimulation and where most of our stresses and challenges are not the full physical survival we would have experienced in the wild. When stress is present, our mental world can be filled with worries, ruminating on past events or steeling ourselves against the fear of imagined future problems. This hypervigilance is a natural, self-protective strategy that can be useful in a danger situation, but can run amok when stress is from emotional, situational and relational sources. It keeps going, as fed by our thoughts and feelings about it, when the stress response is designed for the short, sharp shocks of primal survival.
Stress in any form is constricting. It tightens us and hardens us, ready for a full physical response to fight-or-flight; whether we’re just ruminating on something that makes us feel unsafe or if we’re under much pressure in our lives. Whatever the root cause for us, the effects are not simply in the mind. Every emotional response we have is a full mind-body physiological reaction.
Modern stress has us becoming more rigid and tight, with less flexible and adaptable reactions in so many ways. At our most default setting level, we are readying ourselves for quick, swift and broad physical reactions. Running away or standing to fight don’t demand subtle motor skills but rather great big motions through legs and arms. These may not actually happen and we can end up stewing in our own juices, with long-term stress leaving us tighter in the muscles, but also clumsier; feeling that movement is less integrated out from the centre. This response ripples through all body tissues – muscles, organs, fascia, skin – all sucking into towards the centre line to make us more compact ready for action. Not toning, but restricting their fluidity and function.
If we are already in this place, yoga practices that feed into this constriction through hard and fast movements may be what we feel we want, but it is worth examining if they are actually what we need. It could be that we are following our Samskaras. In yoga, these are grooves laid down from the habits of mind and body, samskaras keep us playing out the same patterns over and over again. These are not always bad per se. They can be geared towards healthy survival, but they can often be the habits conditioned by a society that prides itself on achievement, getting somewhere and doing. When much of modern life has us speeding up and driven by getting things done, doing rather than simply being, then we can take those attitudes into our practice. Attachment to the outcome of a pose for example, can have us moving from the head, rather than a truly felt sense of the needs of our whole being.
A few observations of how we might take stress and mind habits into our practice can be seen as:
- Darting and ever moving eye movements showing signs of hypervigilance that have us continually scanning an environment for possible danger and orientation. Drishti or a steady, focused gaze in asana (posture) practice helps to steady the focus and mind.
- Feeling attachment to where we think we ‘should be’ or want to be – pushing our will into postures and into tightness, even gripping in the jaw to get there.
- Self-judgment, comparison and criticism – stress is fear-based and negative inner voices have protective motivations to keep us within ‘safe limits’ and also from inherent self-compassion.
Because of these potential settings, a yoga practice that focuses on relieving stress isn’t simply one that has specific postures to ‘fix’ the problem of stress. Many practices like Restorative Yoga, the surrender of forward bends and the soothing of supported inversions can have very specific physiological effects and are very valid to include. But if they are present as an addendum or within a context of getting somewhere, their effect is less deep than it could be. Focus on softening the eyes and jaw are important foundational instruction as they allow awareness, self-regulation and feeling below the state of our whole body.
What can also free us from the tyranny of racing thoughts and the overwhelm of stress, is an attitude of expanse and open-mindedness. The stress response moves us into impulsive mode and away from reflection and creativity. Many ancient philosophies (and those that we might label as Eastern) are ultimately concerned with freedom and internal space – the liberation that comes from becoming free from simply playing out habits over and over again, from the stories our mind conjures up and the illusion of anything that really isn’t simply about what is in the here and now (maya).
When life has us moving fast and ticking boxes, often we are moving without feeling. Slowing down allows us to notice our internal landscape – much like a train slowing down from a blur out of the window, to a speed where we can start to pick out the subtleties and the nuances, details of a landscape outside. Feeling internally (interoception) also allows us to notice our relationship with the world around us – how we take in information, process it and then move through the space around us. Where we have a clear sense of our boundaries where we feel safe and where we tend to keep ourselves feeding any sense of agitation. We can be so used to living with the feelings and even numbness of chronic stress, that our ability to feel ‘neck-down’ needs some nurturing to wake up to a point where we can listen and respond.
A yoga practice has the potential of offering us the meditative benefits of truly learning to be in the here. To foster embodied awareness and to feel grounded – to feel our whole body, our whole physical presence in the here and now and to invite our mind to join us in the here and now. It’s this attitude that we bring to a physical practice that can ultimately really free us from tendencies to kneejerk reactions in the rest of our lives. Then we can grow the capacity to ripple out self-soothing beyond just a few moments on the mat.
Here are some ways you can create embodied awareness in your postural practice and create deep mind-body safety:
- Slowing down and catching up with breath between postures – feeling rather than thinking and measuring your way into postures – so listening and responding to body cues and true physical needs.
- If you feel disconnected from your body (dissociating) and that you’re simply going through the motions, drop back to feel your feet and legs – grounding to feel your body where it is, the size it is; in the here and now. Touch, rub and squeeze your body if you need.
- When sensations become intense and the feelings of release well up, notice if you tend to hold your breath against them and instead take a slightly deeper inhalation in towards them; evoking a fuller exhalation for the space to let them move through. This cultivates our ability to adaptability and resilience in the face of change and strong feelings in all aspects of life.
Charlotte will be running a course on Teaching Yoga for Stress, Burnout and Chronic Fatigue at Yogacampus from Wednesday 26 April to Sunday 30 April 2017. Book here
Charlotte is a Yoga Alliance Senior Teacher (SYT) who first discovered yoga as a way to overcome stress, before training to teach and moving on to focus on yoga for those with ME and Chronic Fatigue and chronic pain. She is also an award winning nutritionist and author of five books.
Article written by Charlotte Watts – http://www.yogacampus.com/teachers/meet/charlotte-watts