Do you often feel anxious or worried, or overreact to small incidents? When you’re stressed out, sometimes slowing down, taking a deep breath, and relaxing can seem like the most impossible thing to do. But what if you could make these behaviors automatic?
Yoga could be an answer. After even a short time practicing, yoga appears to help people respond differently to stress — with less reactivity, aggression, or anger — while increasing overall feelings of optimism and well-being.
To understand why, consider the body’s nervous system, which controls our responses to stress and ability to relax. One way medicine gauges stress is by how your heart beats from moment to moment. You might think your heart is always going at the same rate, but in fact it frequently changes speeds in response to various physical and emotional pings.
This variability in time between heartbeats, called heart rate variability (HRV), is believed to reflect the body’s ability to respond to stress. A higher HRV means a healthier, more resilient response to stress, while a lower HRV has been observed in stress and anxiety. It’s even a risk factor in heart disease.
The good news: evidence suggests yoga increases heart rate variability. Internally, this may feel like an increased ability to be positive on a bad day (“The kids are sick, but why don’t we all curl up and watch movies together for the afternoon?”) or to remind yourself of the upsides of a stressful situation (“My train might be delayed, but at least I have a chance to catch up on some reading”). Physiologically, what’s happening is that your body is less reactive to stress — better able to cope, and faster at recovering after a stressful episode.
This can translate into real mental health benefits. Indeed, a review of randomized clinical trials — the gold standard of medicine — concluded yoga typically improves symptoms of anxiety and stress by about 40 percent. So what do you need to know if you’d like to try it out?
First, don’t think you need to sit and meditate for an hour. If that idea makes your anxiety go through the roof, you’re not alone: the prospect of meditation can be anathema to the already anxious or overstimulated. In fact, more strenuous forms of yoga may be best for those prone to anxiety, who often have trouble sitting still for long.
If you’re looking for an antidote to anxiety, consider power yoga (whether in a heated or unheated room) or Ashtanga-based styles. These types of yoga keep the body moving throughout a class. In doing so, they help burn off excess energy, while producing the same positive benefits — relaxation, reduced stress, greater feelings of optimism — reported in many studies. (Be sure to check with your healthcare provider about any barriers to exercise before beginning.)
If you’re practicing at home, you can reap benefits, too. After a warm-up, challenge yourself to hold poses for progressively longer periods of time — say, one inhalation and exhalation, then three, then five. Remember, though, whether in a home or class practice, to never push yourself to the point of exhaustion or pain — a particular danger for those with excess energy. Instead, strive to find your “edge,” or a balance of ease and challenge in each pose. Use your breath to gauge difficulty: if you can continue to breathe consciously, with full inhalations and exhalations, you’re fine. If you can’t, scale back — and strive to accept yourself and your abilities in the moment. After a strenuous practice, you may find yourself actually welcoming the traditional few minutes of meditation at the end of a session called Savasana, or Corpse pose.
Here are a few soothing yet challenging poses anyone can try. Try them on their own when you’d like a few minutes of rest, or at the end of a yoga session as you’re settling down for your final resting poses. Leg stretch with strap. Sit on your mat, legs extended along the floor. Using a strap or long towel, catch hold of your right foot. Then, use the towel or strap as leverage to gently stretch your hamstrings, the front of your chest, and your arms and shoulders. Extend your leg out in front of you, keeping the knee bent or straightening the leg to your degree of comfort. Then extend it to the side, as much as you’re able, while keeping your back straight. Do the same with the left leg.
Reclined twist. Lay down on your mat, legs extended. Then twist the lower half of your body so that your legs fall to the right. Your knees can be together, or the top, right leg can lay over the extended left leg. Stretch your arms out wide, perpendicular to your body; make sure your neck is comfortable and without strain by adjusting your posture as necessary. Try to feel your upper chest sinking into the floor while the weight of your legs acts as leverage in the twist. You should feel a stretch beneath the collar bone, where your upper arm meets your shoulder, as well as in the top hip and along your sides. Rest here for three to five inhalations and exhalations, or as long as you’d like. Then switch to the other side.
Supported Savasana. This pose helps open the front of your body and is a nice way to wind down while feeling supported at the end of your practice. Place a blanket, bolster, or firm pillow beneath your back, parallel to your torso and stopping at the middle of your shoulder blades, so your chest arcs upward slightly. You can put a small pillow beneath your head if that’s more comfortable, but try to have the head resting slightly below your chest to your degree of comfort. Then, allow your head to hang loosely and comfortably. If closing your eyes makes you nervous, simply keep them open. Rest here for at least 90 seconds, gently bringing your attention to your breath, or for as long as you’d like. For those with anxiety, it may help to redirect your mind away from negative thoughts by scanning your body to notice what your practice has changed.
March 04, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN