This post originally appeared on www.HealthBytesNYC.com
This is part 2 of a 2-part series on yoga and stress.
In part 1 of this series, I discussed how adopting a yoga practice as part of your routine can help you manage stress and bring a sense of well-being to your life. Here, I will focus in more detail on how various yoga poses, or asana, can help you cultivate balance and flexibility, both on and off the mat.
Calm in the Face of Stress
Yoga teaches us to approach challenging poses (i.e., stress) with a balance of steadfast determination and calm focus. If you try to bully your way through the posture with too much energy and fire, the pose is overpowered. If you adopt an attitude of defeat and plan your exit strategy without even attempting the pose, you immediately surrender to what you have labeled an insurmountable task. Either way, you make no progress and the asana remains a perceived threat rather than a challenge to be mastered.
A skillful yogi lets her breath initiate and guide her physical movements and poses. By learning to pay deliberate and conscious attention to your inhalation and exhalation, your nervous system fluctuates comfortably in a healthy, balanced and flexible manner. When coupled with intentional attention to the breath, poses that challenge you physically and mentally teach you to maintain calm in the face of stress.
Learning from Yoga
Each category of yoga poses fortifies the yogi with unique tools to meet real-life stresses effectively:
• Standing Postures — These teach you to pause and focus your energy as you ground and root down to find balance. In tree pose, you also learn to remain engaged and able to move with the natural fluctuations when standing on one leg, as pictured in the photo above.
• Inversions — Postures where the head is below the level of the heart teach us to become more comfortable with looking at things from a different perspective.
• Back Bends — An invigorating and energizing class of poses, back bends teach you to become comfortable with exposing your more vulnerable side, your front body. You also learn how to return adeptly and efficiently to a more relaxed state.
• Forward Folds — These are typically calming poses that give you the opportunity to reflect and adopt a quiet and introspective attitude.
Some poses create feelings of fear and even dread in some yogis. Headstand, handstand and some extreme backbends, for example, teach you how to confront your fear of falling and hurting yourself, through composure and focused intention. Hip openers can be particularly difficult for many people, creating intense sensations and emotional release. These poses teach you to breath into, rather than reflexively pull away from, the discomfort and give it time to dissipate. Above all, yoga poses teach humility, ego control and a good sense of humor — all benefits in any stressful situation you will ever encounter!
A Gift to Yourself
A yoga practice that ends with a period of meditation gives you the opportunity to turn inward and let go. The practice of meditation is a sanctuary and gift you can give yourself. It teaches you, over time, to quiet the incessant chatter of your mind, and is a personal retreat from the rest of the world, if only briefly.
If your entire yoga practice consists of nothing more than sitting quietly in a comfortable seated posture while repeating a personal mantra (think “Let” on the inhale, for example, and “Go” on the exhale), allowing you to face life stresses more effectively, then you have a very advanced practice, indeed.
Let Yoga Be Your Guide
By learning to pay attention to how you perceive and label stresses or challenges in your yoga practice, you gain insight into how you react to stresses in your life off the mat, as well. Yoga gives you all the tools you need to remain present and focused, engaged and calm, energized and in control, flexible, balanced and intentional. When you use your yoga practice as a guide in your interactions and behavior with others, you can purposefully and consciously choose the path of response that is most beneficial and appropriate — surmounting challenges and stresses that you might otherwise have found daunting and impossible to meet.
Information provided by Jennifer Svahn, MD, FACS, Attending Vascular Surgeon in the Department of Surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center and a Registered Yoga Teacher.