Ask the yogis you know why they practice, and it’s a good bet many of them will say they practice yoga for stress relief. “Stress” is a word we use a lot, but what is it exactly, and why is it so bad for us?
Why stress is a problem
The things that cause us to get stressed out are obviously things we’d rather live without: difficult bosses, loss and grief, relationship problems, financial problems, etc. Being free of such challenges is reason enough to practice yoga for stress relief. But it’s not always that simple. We all find ourselves having to deal with things we’d rather not need to face, at least for a time.
But stress is not just a nuisance; it’s downright unhealthy—or at least the way we react to it can be. That’s because your body doesn’t distinguish between emotional and physical threats. When you’re under stress because your boss yells at you or you can’t pay the rent, your body reacts as though it’s in immediate physical danger. This stress response is left over from the days when our ancestors needed to deal with things like being chased by a wild animal.
As you probably know, when you’re stressed, your body calls upon its “fight or flight response.” This is that rush of energy that occurs because of hormones being pumped through your body to prepare you to fight or run for your life. The same hormones —cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine—also temporarily suppress other systems in the body so your whole being can focus on dealing with the perceived immediate threat.
The problem is stress hormones are not the best line of defense against chronic modern day threats like bills and mean bosses. Under chronic stress, the cascade of hormones can lead to imbalances in the body such as high blood pressure, digestive problems, lowered immunity, decreased energy, blood sugar imbalances, and many other short term and long term problems.
Why stress is bad for your health
Not only does stress affect health by interfering with the way your body is supposed to function, but it can also distract you from doing your best to stay healthy. For example, you probably find it harder to carve out time to exercise or shop for and cook healthy meals when you’re stressed. Stress may also keep you from getting enough sleep or spending enough quality time with family and friends.
Why it’s so great to practice yoga for stress relief
Yoga helps manage stress in several ways. First, the physical practice, like any exercise, combats the symptoms of stress. Some yoga postures—child’s pose, legs-up the wall, forward bends, twists, and of course savasana to name a few—are especially good for stress relief.
Breathing properly is also a well-known antidote to stress. If you practice yogic breathing (pranayama), releasing stress will become much easier. You’ll also get better at calming your body overall if you practice meditation on a regular basis.
So whatever the cause of your stress, you know what to do. Simply taking a break from your day to roll out your yoga mat for a short (or long) practice may be the only stress management tool you need!