I used to be a lawyer, a corporate lawyer, working 7 days a week, on call 24 hours a day. My blackberry was always attached to my side, and laid next to my pillow when I went to bed in case something urgent came up. I started at my firm in September of 2008, right when the economy crashed and law firms were laying off hundreds of people. The ever present threat of layoffs kept all of us in constant stress mode. I learned quickly to work as much as possible. At one point, I achieved the magical “300 hour” month, where I billed 300 hours in one month, and received congratulations from my colleagues for working such an unthinkable amount. Oddly I was proud, in spite of having given myself a pre-ulcer.
However, I also learned that there is never enough. Even though I worked insane amounts, when I was slow, the firm didn’t remember my busy times. It is a never-ending cycle of trying to get more work, adding more stress and pressure, and no end in sight. For me, that wasn’t sustainable. During my time as a lawyer, I started to attend weekly Hot Flow Yoga classes at Mind the Mat, my local yoga studio. This was the beginning of my journey, and in many ways I believe that yoga saved my life.
Here are five reasons why I think yoga can save you from stress.
1) Yoga teaches you how to calm down from stress. The stress response is pretty simple. It helped us evolve as humans because it kicks in to activate our fight-or-flight response and save us from being eaten by a bear, or other things we needed protection from. When something threatens us, the body sends a surge of cortisone into the blood stream, our heart starts pounding, and all kinds of things happen to ensure we survive a disaster. The problem is, we aren’t often faced with an event where this sort of response is appropriate. Our stress response is kind of like our appendix, unnecessary and even dangerous when it goes wrong. So instead of protecting us, we’ve developed chronic stress and have anxiety, high blood pressure, panic attacks, migraines, and all kinds of other health problems because little stressors are around all the time. Yoga, at its most basic level, helps us combat this because certain poses activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which counters the cortisol surge and calms us down. Great poses to help you out of a stress attack are forward folds (seated and standing) and child’s pose, both shown above. If you’re having a stressful moment, try to find a space where you can fold over yourself for a minute.
2) A yoga class is designed to take you through periods of stress and then bring the body out of it after, mirroring what happens in actual life. Bodily functions are controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System, which is made up of two components — the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the PNS, mentioned above. The fight-or-flight response is initiated by the SNS and is triggered when the body feels threatened — actual or mental. A yoga class purposely puts you into poses where the response is initiated, like backbends such as camel, wheel, or reclining heroes pose. These poses make us feel vulnerable as they expose our vital organs, belly, and throat. Our heart starts to pound, breathing and becomes more shallow. After we pull ourselves out of the pose you can go into a child’s pose, do a few cat cows, or take a forward fold. These poses trigger the PNS to destress and calm down, as well as release hormones that counteract the stress response. By “surviving” a yoga class, you’re effectively teaching your body how to survive stress in everyday life.
3) You learn to put yourself in uncomfortable positions and hold yourself there. Another important component of yoga is forcing yourself to get through challenging or uncomfortable poses. By doing so, you are able to gain perspective, maybe build a little bit of pride, and realize that you have the fortitude to get through a lot more than you think you can!
4) You learn to breathe and meditate. Your breath is one of the most important parts of your yoga practice. As you go through a class — putting yourself into stressful and hard positions, pulling yourself out of them, moving and flowing — you are connecting to your breath the whole time. Eventually the class becomes a moving meditation where your actual daily stressors are tuned out and you’re focused solely on your body. This practice will carry with you after you leave class, so that when you’re presented with stress you will be able to turn to your breath to help you calm down.
5) You learn to love yourself — and how to be kind and compassionate towards yourself when stress hits. Yoga has a lot of lessons to teach, and a big one is ahimsa — the practice of non-criticism, non-judgment. Your mat is a safe space where you learn to tune out that negative, critical voice in your head. Where you ignore those nagging thoughts of anxiety, guilt, shame, and regret. Where you can focus on yourself and what you need. Where you can start to forgive yourself and love yourself. Where you learn that stress is ok and normal, and that you have the tools to get through anything that life throws at you.
Want to learn more about how to use yoga to control your stress? Join me this Saturday, June 11 for Yoga for Stress Management, a two-hour workshop designed to give you tangible tools to use in your battle against stress. If you have questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.