Exercise is often the go-to remedy for managing stress. The problem is, when life gets really crazy — as in, there-is-no-time-for-anything-else crazy — physical activity is the first thing that goes from many of our routines. In the west, many of us first experience the calming effects of a physical asana-based yoga class. However, a traditional yoga practice is so much more than the physical yoga postures. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is only one posture: to sit. This ancient practice of yoga focuses on mindfully living your life, breath work, concentration and meditation practices. To truly tackle the problem of stress, you need to work with the mind too. Have you noticed how much of your stress comes from recycling old thoughts or worrying about a future that hasn’t happened? This sets up patterns in your brain of neural pathways that you just continually cycle through. These thoughts and patterns become ingrained, your breathing becomes erratic, you start to hold tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders or gut. Your levels of cortisol start to rise. This is the stress response. When you don’t have time for your regular physical exercise as an outlet to manage this stress response, your stress just gets worse. Thankfully there are extremely simple and effective techniques that you can turn to:
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Focus on the expansion of the belly on the inhale and passive inward relaxation of the belly on the exhale, lowers cortisol levels, reduces muscle tension and can reduce pain. Try this at your next meeting, no one will even know you are doing this practice. They may just think you are being a great listener!
- Mindfulness Exercises: These help the brain to focus on the present and stop the cycling on past thoughts or running through future scenarios in your head. Move from focusing on the inhale and exhale of your breath to focusing on the pause at the end of each breath.
- Systematic Relaxation: In yoga we use systematic relaxation to focus the mind while entering a deep state of relaxation. This is a preparatory practice for Yoga Nidra or wakeful sleep. Try following this simple recording of Point to Point Breathing as a way to retrain your brain and calm your nervous system.
The key to success with managing stress with these strategies, is to notice how you feel before and after each exercise. If you feel a change, you will start to crave these simple exercises. You will likely start to find the time to fit them into your life.
This post was written by Janet Carscadden PT, DPT, E-RYT physical therapist, yoga instructor and owner of Evolution PT and Yoga. Learn another stress management tool by joining Dr. Carscadden for a Yoga Nidra session of systematic relaxation and guided imagery techniques on Thursday November 2, 6-7 pm. Click here for more information on this workshop.