Combating Stress with Yoga

female dancer on dark stage
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
Left unchecked, stress activates our sympathetic nervous system – the “fight or flight” response.  Interestingly, the body processes different types of stress in the same way.  

Physiologically, both a critical deadline at work and a chance encounter with a mountain lion produce the same response in the body; the sympathetic nervous system kicks in with a boost of adrenaline and extra blood flowing to our limbs to prepare us to combat the danger.  But for the deadline at work, we don’t need the sympathetic nervous system. What we need is calm, clear thinking.

Conscious, deep breathing stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system.  This is your “rest and digest” system – the system we’d like running things most of the time.  When it is in control our bodies’ systems are functioning normally and we are calm and level headed.

The cool thing is we can train our bodies to keep the parasympathetic nervous system in control, even under stressful conditions. In yoga, we can put our bodies into poses that challenge it (different poses for different bodies) and consciously breathe through the sensations we feel.  Through practice, our body learns to stay relaxed in a challenging situation. This carries over to our daily lives. When we start feeling anxious about a deadline at work, we remember to take a moment to breathe deeply and consciously and our parasympathetic nervous system stays turned on, keeping the sympathetic nervous system from kicking in.

Different poses are needed to challenge different bodies.  If you are bedridden, then sitting up at the edge of the bed might be your challenge. If you are an avid cyclist, then poses that stretch your hamstrings will be your challenge. If you’ve been hunched over your computer screen for years, then back bends will be your challenge.

When we add challenging physical poses to the conscious breath practice,
we can learn to override our body’s normal response to stress.