Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity
Is yoga right for you? It is if you want to fight stress, get fit and stay healthy.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Your mobile phone is ringing. Your boss wants to talk to you. And your partner wants to know what’s for dinner. Stress and anxiety are everywhere. If they’re getting the best of you, you might want to hit the mat and give yoga a try.
Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines physical poses, controlled breathing, and meditation or relaxation. Yoga may help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and lower your heart rate. And almost anyone can do it.
Yoga is considered one of many types of complementary and integrative medicine approaches. Yoga brings together physical and mental disciplines that may help you achieve peacefulness of body and mind. This can help you relax and manage stress and anxiety.
Yoga has many styles, forms and intensities. Hatha yoga, in particular, may be a good choice for stress management. Hatha is one of the most common styles of yoga, and beginners may like its slower pace and easier movements. But most people can benefit from any style of yoga — it’s all about your personal preferences.
The core components of hatha yoga and most general yoga classes are:
- Poses. Yoga poses, also called postures, are a series of movements designed to increase strength and flexibility. Poses range from simple to difficult. In a simple post, you might lie on the floor while completely relaxed. A difficult posture may have you stretching your physical limits.
- Breathing. Controlling your breathing is an important part of yoga. Yoga teaches that controlling your breathing can help you control your body and quiet your mind.
- Meditation or relaxation. In yoga, you may incorporate meditation or relaxation. Meditation may help you learn to be more mindful and aware of the present moment without judgment.
The health benefits of yoga
The potential health benefits of yoga include:
- Stress reduction. A number of studies have shown that yoga may help reduce stress and anxiety. Yoga can enhance your mood and overall sense of well-being. Yoga might also help you manage your symptoms of depression and anxiety that are due to difficult situations.
- Improved fitness. Practicing yoga may lead to improved balance, flexibility, range of motion and strength.
- Management of chronic conditions. Yoga can help reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. Yoga may also help manage low back pain, neck pain and menopause symptoms. Yoga might also help relieve symptoms of several chronic conditions, such as pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, arthritis and insomnia.
Yoga is generally considered safe for most healthy people when practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor. But there are some situations in which yoga might pose a risk.
See your doctor before you begin yoga if any of the following apply to you:
- A herniated disk
- A risk of blood clots
- Eye conditions, including glaucoma
- Pregnancy — although yoga is generally safe during pregnancy, certain poses should be avoided
- Severe balance problems
- Severe osteoporosis
- Uncontrolled blood pressure
You may be able to practice yoga in these situations if you take precautions, such as avoiding certain poses or stretches. If you develop symptoms, such as pain, or have concerns, see your doctor to make sure you’re getting benefit and not harm from yoga.
Although you can learn yoga from books and videos, beginners usually find it helpful to learn with an instructor. Classes also offer camaraderie and friendship, which are also important to overall well-being.
When you find a class that sounds interesting, talk with the instructor so that you know what to expect. Questions to ask include:
- What are the instructor’s qualifications? Where did he or she train and how long has he or she been teaching?
- Does the instructor have experience working with students with your needs or health concerns? If you have a sore knee or an aching shoulder, can the instructor help you find poses that won’t aggravate your condition?
- How demanding is the class? Is it suitable for beginners? Will it be easy enough to follow along if it’s your first time?
- What can you expect from the class? Is it aimed at your needs, such as stress management or relaxation, or is it geared toward people who want to reap other benefits?
Achieving the right balance
Every person has a different body with different abilities. You may need to modify yoga postures based on your individual abilities. Your instructor may be able to suggest modified poses. Choosing an instructor who is experienced and who understands your needs is important to safely and effectively practice yoga.
Regardless of which type of yoga you practice, you don’t have to do every pose. If a pose is uncomfortable or you can’t hold it as long as the instructor requests, don’t do it. Good instructors will understand and encourage you to explore — but not exceed — your personal limits.
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- Yoga: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga-what-you-need-to-know. Accessed Dec. 10, 2020.
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Whether it’s tightness in your shoulders, tension through your spine, or a seemingly never-ending headache, stress manifests itself in our bodies in various ways. Yoga, with its focus on breathing and mindful movement, might be the ultimate form of stress relief. The practice has been proven to help you relax and unwind, even on the most anxiety-filled days.
How does yoga relieve stress?
The better question might be how doesn’t yoga relieve stress? As a practice, yoga triggers the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which when activated, signals the body and mind to relax. The deep breathing we practice in yoga helps calm you, lowering blood pressure, decreasing your heart rate, and focusing your thoughts and attention. The gentle asanas allow you to tune into your body, stretch and strengthen your muscles, release tension, and ease pain.
Yoga also has been shown to decrease the levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone, in the body. It can improve your sleep, digestion, immune system—all of which are impacted by stress. It can ease depression, sadness, and mood swings by restoring dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Yoga also tones the vagus nerve—otherwise known as the well-being nerve—which, according to research, allows people to more easily shift from a stressed to a relaxed state.
There are many (countless, even!) benefits of yoga. But the best thing about it is that the more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be to mange daily stress and emotionally and physically fraught situations as they arise.
How to practice yoga for stress relief
Before heading to your mat for a stress-busting practice, make sure you’ve created a space that cultivates a sense of calm. Lisa Jang, a Yin Yoga teacher and trainer, says personalizing your space—and reminding those around you that you’re seeking some dedicated quiet time–can help create a serene practice area you can retreat to whenever you need it.
We asked Jang to share some of her favorite yoga poses for stress relief, plus how she uses acupressure to prep for a serene at-home practice (even in times of chaos).
Acupressure for stress relief
(Photo: Kyrah Jang)
Before moving into asana poses, Jang recommends engaging in a brief acupressure practice. And all you need is a set of yoga blocks. “[I do] a little acupressure at the occipital ridge of my skulls using blocks, specifically below the base of the skull, in the hollow between the two vertical neck muscles,” she says. Jang, who completed acupressure training at the McKinnon Therapy School, says that two trigger points from Traditional Chinese Medicine—the “Gates of Consciousness,” and “Heavenly Pillar”—are located here. This acupressure practice can help release tense necks—and relieve painful headaches.
To set this up, place one yoga block on the floor and lean the second block horizontally against the first. Face away from the blocks, and come down to your back, with your neck resting on the angled block and the base of your skull pressing gently against its top edge. Relax here before rolling to your side to return to sitting.
6 yoga poses for stress relief
(Photo: Kyrah Jang)
A variation of Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), Jang says this pose helps release tension in two stress-ridden areas—your neck and hamstring. To practice this pose, Jang advises placing a long yoga strap over your ears. (The strap will sit above your ears, she says.) One additional benefit of this particular variation? You’ll feel al the benefits of a lower body stretch without having to hold the strap with your arms.
(Photo: Kyrah Jang)
Eye of the Needle Pose
Feeling some stress and tightness around your glute muscles? Jang recommends practicing this posture. “This one is my go-to for my glutes,” she says. “There’s something about how I can just tilt a little from side to side to get a tension release around my glutes.” If you’re looking for some additional support in this pose, Jang says you can also opt to practice it against a wall.
(Photo: Kyrah Jang)
This Yin Yoga posture is a great pose to turn to when you’re feeling some increased stress. “Settling into a banana or half-moon shape [and] releasing my intercostal muscles and obliques for three to five minutes makes me breathe more fully into my body,” Jang says. While she chooses to practice this pose with a strap, she says you can opt to come into the shape without props, as well. But even without props, you’ll still be able to reap the benefits of this restorative posture.
(Photo: Kyrah Jang)
Thread the Needle
This pose, practiced in a Balasana (Child’s Pose) position, helps relieve tension in your shoulders, Jang says. If you’ve been stressed out while hunching over your laptop or phone all day, this is a great pose to include in your stress-relieving practice. While Child’s Pose is already a calming posture, adding this arm variation allows you to relax through your upper body, Jang says.
(Photo: Kyrah Jang)
Open Wing Pose
Need a pose that will help you tap into your breath? Try this posture. Like Thread the Needle, Jang says this pose helps relieve stress and tension throughout your shoulders by opening them up. While in this pose, focus on deep breaths and relaxing through your entire upper body. You’ll find yourself wanting to linger in this pose for more than a few breaths. (And we don’t blame you.)