Three Yoga Techniques For Relieving StressThe science and practice of Yoga has helped me know myself and become my own best friend. It has taught me that there is always a way, a space between anger and passivity. The long term practice of postures, breathing exercises, and meditation requires us to face ourselves. This one act, on a daily basis builds patience and perseverance. It allows us access to our inner strength. It gives us tools for dealing challenges. Trying to fight stress is futile and we certainly don’t want to manage stress as that is a form of acceptance. Instead we must deal with the cause of stress and this brings us back to ourselves. In the end, knowing ourselves is mandatory for our own evolution.
“WE SHALL NOT CEASE FROM EXPLORATION AND THE END OF ALL OUR EXPLORING WILL BE TO ARRIVE WHERE WE STARTED AND KNOW THE PLACE FOR THE FIRST TIME” ~ T.S. Elliot, The Little Gidding
We all know that if we shine a light in the darkness it will disappear. Let’s apply the same idea to this thing we call stress. Let’s consider three foundational yoga techniques and share some insight into how they can help us find peace…
Yoga Postures (Asana):
First of all, within a sequence of postures are many little journeys. We tentatively enter a pose, we remain in the pose breathing our way through any difficult sensations, we notice that all sensations eventually pass, we exit the pose gracefully and move onward. We can apply this sequence to every situation that we might encounter on a daily basis.
Second, every cell of the body has memory. Pain and traumatic residue (Samskara) remain in the body long after the event is over or forgotten. Unresolved “issues in our tissues” manifest physically as migraines, nervous tics, clenched muscles in the neck, shoulders and jaw, a sunken chest, or a heavy heart. Left unresolved, they can exact an even heavier toll in the form of heart disease, diabetes, panic attacks, and a host of autoimmune disorders. It may seem amazing but organizing our bodies into various postures while changing our relationship with earth’s gravity, accompanied by slow deep breathing is powerful medicine that can release traumatic cell memories.
I have witnessed this release and subsequent healing during my personal practice and through my work as a yoga teacher. In both cases, the release most often seems to occur at the end of class during relaxation (Shavasana). Often, old memories will pop into awareness that had been long forgotten or buried. Scenes from one’s life accompanied by such feelings as sadness, anger or loneliness. There is also a compulsion to stay with these memories for a while and ride the waves of emotion. There may be tears or trembling followed by understanding and relief. Most of all, one is left with a sense of deep love for oneself and others.
For a long time now the yoga masters have been saying that we can access the mind through the body and also the body through the mind. Recently, for many psychotherapists, it has become obvious that verbal processing of trauma without physical release provides only partial relief. There are many accounts of buried emotional trauma being released by means of bodywork, there are also reciprocal accounts of physical afflictions clearing up once a psychological shift has occurred.” 1
Breathing Exercises (Pranayama):
When it comes to relieving stress or anxiety yogic breathing exercises can be amazingly effective. Specifically, exercises that emphasize the exhale while gradually lengthening and slowing the breathing process. It is interesting to note that the longest lived animals breathe the slowest: The Giant Tortoise averages 4 breaths per minute and lives around 150 years. An elephant takes 4-5 breaths per minute and enjoys a 70 year lifespan. A chimpanzee takes 14 breaths per minute for 40 years of life. A dog completes 20-30 breaths per minute and lives 10-20 years. And a house mouse breathes 95-160 breaths per minute for a short span of 1-3 years.
Lengthening and slowing the breath lowers Cortisol levels, increases CO2 levels in the blood which improves cell oxygenation, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system taking us out of the destructive fight or flight mode. It also quiets the monkey mind that often holds us enslaved. We employ this type of breathing when we create the soft whispering sound of ‘Ujjayi’ or ocean breath. Then, we combine it with our yoga postures for optimal benefits. We call this a moving meditation as it holds our awareness in the present moment. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us that when the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath. While the mind is a beautiful and useful tool, we must ask ourselves a serious question; Do we want to be a slave of the mind or a master of the mind?
Some other breathing exercises recommended for calming the mind and becoming more centered are; Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhan) which is also said to balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain. And Humming Bee Breath (Brahmari) for banishing tension, anger, anxiety and headaches. Both exercises slow and lengthen the breath.
The first two yoga techniques prepare us for the third, Meditation:
Patanjali, yoga master and author of the Yoga Sutras defines yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” – From a yogic standpoint it would be difficult to say much more about the importance of meditation. It is a journey to the still point, that silent place where everything exists and nothing exists. Here are some more tangible facts about meditation…
“Recently neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Ph.D., of the University of Madison Wisconsin, published a series of experiments using Pet scans and EEG recordings to study the areas of the brain that are active during meditation. When comparing the results obtained by novice meditators against those of experienced meditators such as Tibetan Buddhist monks, it was found that the monks, ‘showed greater increases in gamma waves, the type involved in attention, memory, and learning., and they had more brain activity in areas linked to positive emotions like happiness. Monks who spent the most years meditating had the greatest brain changes. This means that we are bulking up the portions of our brains that produce happiness when we meditate.” 2
In another study scientists at the university of California in Los Angeles and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn found that 12 minutes of daily yoga meditation for eight weeks increased telomerase activity by 43 percent, suggesting an improvement in stress-induced aging. 3
I would like to leave you with a final quote from one of my favorite yoga masters – Sadhguru…
“The most important thing for people who are seeking to be successful – whether in the corporate sector, in politics, in the military, or any other field – is balance. Only if you have a balance that is not disturbed by external situations, are you capable of making use of the competence and intelligence within you. Otherwise, even the most wonderful qualities that one may have will go to waste, simply because of lack of balance. Hatha yoga brings this balance.”Love and Peace; Kimberly
- The Genie In Your Genes, Dawson Church P h. D.
- The Genie In Your Genes, Dawson Church P h. D.
- Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Vital Signs