Yoga for Stress Resilience
Like most of us leading increasingly stressful lives I have come to believe that stress is bad and should be completely eliminated from our lives at all cost. I often dream of packing it all up and moving to Bali where I will lead an imaginary idyllic and stress-free life. However appealing this may be I have also realised that not all stress is bad for us. In life, change and the accompanying stress is unavoidable. My yoga practice has taught me that our mindset and beliefs will determine how we perceive and experience change. Join me in my quest to understand and manage stress a little better.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your own thoughts. Even positive life changes such as a promotion, a move, or the birth of a child produce stress.
The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. This is referred to as acute or short lived stress. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between stressors. This is referred to as chronic or prolonged stress. Chronic stress exhausts the body and has a profound negative effect on all aspects of health. Chronic stress damages our genetic material (DNA), speeding up the aging process and increasing the prevalence of many chronic diseases.
The body’s initial response to stress is the fight-or-flight reaction initiated by the hypothalamus. This is associated with a strong and rapid activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the release of adrenalin. This is accompanied by increased blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and immune activity. Prolonged activation of the first response has detrimental effects on the digestive, immune and cardiovascular systems.
The body’s secondary response is to release the hormone cortisol. While sporadic cortisol release improves immune functionality, long term elevations create immuno-suppression and may lead to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Major causes of stress
Stress is an increasing problem in modern society. Our work environment is often the primary source of stress. Studies surprisingly show that responsibility and high demands are not the cause of stress but rather lack of control, lack of fairness, injustice, inadequate social support, social isolation or an effort-reward imbalance. Other sources of stress include amongst others relationships, finances or health challenges.
What is stress resilience?
Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience after a big tragedy or natural disaster. Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.
We need to use tools to harness the energies of acute stress and manage the destructive effects of chronic stress.
According to Richard Sutton the author of “The Stress Code”, stress resilience can be created by implementing the following:
- Make an intentional change to the way we perceive stress. Stress is unavoidable, and perception is reality. So how we perceive stress becomes the reality we respond to. Not all stress is “bad”. Science now sees acute (short-lived) stress as positive in that it is a necessary and protective biological experience. We are often pushed out of our comfort zones during stressful situations and in the process personal growth and transformation occurs.
- Change our behaviour during periods of stress, which will create greater biological integrity, including hormonal and immune balance. Science has shown that by elevating oxytocin, we can counteract the many damaging effects of chronic stress. Oxytocin is triggered by physical contact and pro-social behaviours such as massage and body therapies, hugging, prolonged eye contact and listening to calming music. Receiving compassion, empathy and support during a stressful period also have a buffering effect on the negative effects of stress.
- Develop the skills and the know-how to shut down stress at will and prevent Chronic Stress.
- Incorporate selective lifestyle activities that rebuild our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities by stimulating key hormones and molecules.
How do we shut down stress?
As a yogi I am most interested in the yogic tools and daily habits we can cultivate to prevent the damaging effects of Chronic Stress.
The integrity of the vagus nerve is central to our ability to restore and maintain a state of biological balance. It has the ability to calm the body after the fight-or-flight state induced by the stress hormone adrenalin.
Healthy vagus nerve activity dramatically lowers cortisol and inflammation. There are a number of practices that increase vagal activation and tone but I will focus on yoga which includes the practices of pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation.
Yoga is a scientific system of physical and mental practices that originated in India more than three thousand years ago. Its purpose is to help each one of us achieve our highest potential and to experience enduring health and happiness.
The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra an estimated 2,000 years ago. The Yoga Sutra outlines eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints – guidelines on how we treat others), niyamas (observances – guidelines regarding our own behaviour), asana (physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation), pranayama (breathing excercises to cultivate and manage prana or life force), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) , and samadhi (settled mind / bliss).
As we explore these eight limbs, we begin by refining our behavior in the outer world, and then we focus inwardly until we reach samadhi (liberation, enlightenment).
Various techniques in yoga have been documented to help in stress management. They help in relieving the physical as well as the psychological negative effects of the problem by ensuring a healthy and productive response to the stress stimuli.
Yoga can have a positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system and aid in lowering heartbeat and blood pressure. This reduces the demand of the body for oxygen. Yoga can also improve digestion, strengthen immunity, help in effective elimination of toxic wastes and also increase lung capacity. Effective use of this practice can also reduce the chances of stress culminating in anxiety and depression.
The Vagus Nerve
Your nervous system is built around the balance of two opposing actions. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight-or-flight response that is the result of the release of cortisol (stress chemicals) throughout the bloodstream.
The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration. These two parts of your autonomic nervous system are meant to work in rhythmic alternation, a process that supports healthy rhythms of alertness and restfulness that facilitate physical and mental health.
Unfortunately, chronic stress and unresolved trauma interfere with the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of your nervous system. Because we live in a world that is over-stimulating and activating for the sympathetic nervous system, many of us need access to tools that help us engage the parasympathetic nervous system on a daily basis.
The vagus nerve has an inhibitory influence upon the sympathetic nervous system activity. In other words, practices that stimulate the vagus nerve have a calming effect on your body and mind.
An increase in vagal tone is linked to a reduction in inflammation and better prognosis in people suffering from chronic illness, anxiety, or depression.
Vagal tone is measured in the changes in heart rate that occur with the breath. This is referred to as Heart Rate Variability or HRV. Healthy vagal tone involves a slight increase in heart rate on the inhalation and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Vagal tone can be thought of as an optimal balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system actions. People with higher HRV can move more easily from excitement to relaxed and can recover more easily from stress.
Research has shown tremendous benefits of yoga for increased vagal tone, stress reduction, and trauma recovery. This will help you become skilled at switching between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system with greater ease and choice.
The following yoga practices will help you develop healthy vagal tone:
Stress and tension can cause us to breathe in a rapid, shallow way, which can lead to more anxiety. The most immediate way to change the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system actions is with the breath. To counterbalance any over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system focus on diaphragmatic breathing and extending the length of the exhale. Research has found that slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing increases healthy vagal tone.
One form of yogic breathing is Ujjayi pranayama, which creates a slight constriction in the back of the throat by engaging your whisper muscles. To learn this breath, exhale out of your mouth as if you are fogging up a mirror. Now, breathe in the same manner but close your mouth and exhale out of your nose. You will notice the sound of your breath is louder which often sounds like the waves of the ocean. Start with an even count for your inhale and exhale. For even deeper relaxation, gradually increase the length of your exhale as compared to the inhale. For example, you might start out with a 4-count on the inhale and exhale for 6 or 8 counts. This has a calming effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.
Other Pranayama techniques that are useful for reducing stress are Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) and Single (left) nostril breath (Chandra Bhedana) Moon-Piercing Breath, which has a calming effect too.
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
Any posture with the head below the heart has a calming effect on the nervous system. Start on your hands and knees with a blanket under your shins for support if needed. Move your knees wide apart, but keep your big toes to touching. Fold your torso forward so your forehead touches the ground. Reach your hands out in front of you or alongside the body. Your head and chest should rest comfortably under you. Focus on the rhythm of your breath and keep your eyes closed.
Cat / Cow Pose
You can work with connection of the vagus nerve as it passes through your belly. Find your way into a table position with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. If there is any discomfort on your knees you can place a folded blanket underneath you. As you inhale, begin to lift your head and your hips lowering your belly towards the floor as you move into Cow Pose. On your exhale lower your head and hips while you lift your spine into Cat Pose. Find your own timing of the movement with your breath. Repeat as many times as you like creating a gentle massage for you belly and spine.
Wake up and stretch
If you are having a hard time waking up in the morning or if you are feeling tired and sluggish in the afternoon yoga can provide a gentle pick me up for your mind and body. Explore a few rounds of sun salutations to invigorate your mind and wake up your body. Allow the breath to remain rhythmic so that you stay connected to the sensations in your body. Inhale and exhale through the nose only using a steady Ujjayi breath.
Legs-up-the-wall (Viparita Karani)
Sit facing a wall with a firm pillow or a blanket within reach. Move your buttocks as close as you can to the wall, lay your upper body on the ground, and stretch your legs up the wall. If you need the support, place the pillow or blanket under your hips and lower back. Try to keep your heels facing the ceiling. Stay in the pose 5-10 minutes, Breathe and relax each muscle. If it’s difficult to keep your legs from moving away from each other, loop a strap around your calves and tighten to hold the legs together.
Tip: If you have the time, space, and feel comfortable, try legs up the wall if you’re having a stressful day at work or have trouble sleeping at night.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Lie flat on your back on the floor. Arms away from the body, palms facing up. Make sure your body is completely supported and comfortable. Release your Ujjayi breath now. Breathe naturally.
Tip: If you have low back pain, place a rolled up blanket under your knees to take pressure off of the low back.
Engaging a “half-smile” is a valuable way to change your mental state and cultivate a serene feeling in the moment. Since the vagus nerve extends into the muscles of the face, you can increase vagal tone by relaxing the muscles of your face and then slightly turning up your lips. As you subtly smile internally, imagine your jaw softening and a relaxed feeling spreading across your face, your entire head, and down your shoulders. Notice the subtle changes in the quality of your thoughts and emotions.
Tip: the half-smile can also be practiced during meditation
When we are stressed out or anxious, the mind becomes busy – often to the point of frantic. Learning to focus the mind on one thing (such as the breath) may seem like the most difficult thing in the world, but with practice, it becomes easier. Meditation is an incredibly powerful tool for relaxing and slowing down the mind as is any kind of breath awareness. Whether you’re holding postures, flowing through sequences, or in a seated meditation pose, everything begins to focus and slow down when you take your awareness to the breath.
Over time and with repeated practice, you start to develop new habits towards a more relaxed internal state. The main objective of meditation is not to stop thoughts from arising, rather to first relax the body and mind, then to cultivate the stability of sustaining attention continuously upon your chosen object – the breath.
Restorative yoga can help you slow down and calm the nervous system. One classic practice is Yoga Nidra, which is often referred to as “yogic sleep” or a meditation in relaxation. Yoga Nidra is the antidote to our stressful, modern lifestyle and offers an opportunity to restore body and mind through accessing the parasympathetic nervous system. Once you find a relaxing position lying on your yoga mat, cultivate awareness of your body and breath. Make space for whatever you are feeling, including any areas of tension, heaviness, or constriction. Allow yourself to remain still for 30 minutes for a deeply relaxing and nourishing experience.
Tip: find a Yoga Nidra Class where soothing sounds are incorporated for additional benefit. Calming music stimulates the release of oxytocin, which counteracts the damaging effects of chronic stress. If you are in Johannesburg, try a Yoga Nidra session with Paul Boyter of Harmonics.
Morning Yoga Routine to build Stress Resilience:
A daily morning routine that includes movement and mindfulness can be very beneficial in building stress resilience.
Short Yoga Sequence (Practiced with Ujjayi Breath)
- Start in Childs Pose x 5 breaths
- Cat / Cow x 5 breaths each
- Sun Salutations x 3 rounds
- Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani) (at least 3 mins)
- Savasana (with calming music – optional) (5-10mins)
Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) (at least 5 rounds – start with inhale through left nostril, end with exhale through left nostril)
Seated Meditation – observing the breath (5-20mins)
End off with a short gratitude practice and set a positive intention for your day
Connect with me and share your tips and daily practices to build stress resilience.