By Andry Sophocleous
In connection with the essay we have to write as a requirement for our Yoga certification, I have decided to write about Yoga and its relation to a specific health condition which is present in many of us, if not all: Stress. I will begin this essay by sharing my personal experience on how I began the practice of Yoga and then discuss issues and mention poses relevant to Yoga and stress relief.
Nowadays stress is a way of life. We lead very busy, fast, and demanding, both professionally and personally, lifestyles. It is a truism that stress is a phenomenon of the 21st century and like many of us, I am also a much stressed person. Work is very demanding and when I am at home I have a two-year old son constantly seeking my attention. My routine is very stressful and, very often, tiring since things need to be completed whilst time is never enough. Working at nights can lessen my morning workload, but that can contribute even more to my stress due to insufficient sleep.
I am happy to say however, that I have managed to put things into perspective and see things more optimistically (‘not to drown in a glass of water’, as we also say in Greek) by regularly practising Yoga. I began practising Yoga in 2003 after a serious knee injury from regular long-runs and Marathon running. Systematic yoga practice began in 2005, after I came across Vinyasa flow, a more dynamic style that reminded me of my running. Since then, I became addicted to it and have been practising it systematically for 4-6 times per week. Miraculously, Yoga has healed my knee problems. My worn out cartilage around the knees has gradually been repaired and my knees have become stronger after incorporating poses such as the Warrior poses (I, II, III) and Virasana (Hero pose) (see Austin 2004 on yoga and health related issues). Similarly, through yoga practice I have managed to control my chronic stress, developed the knowledge to stop from being overwhelmed by stress, and cultivated the skill of relaxing my mind and body through meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques.
One might ask what the connection between Yoga and stress relief is. Yoga is undoubtedly more than mere stretching. By the same token, it is more than just physical exercise. Indeed, we do practise yoga postures to maintain a healthy and flexible physique; however, yoga practice is based on the interplay between physical exercise, mind, spirit and breath (body, mind and soul). Afterall, this is what the word Yoga means in Sanskrit, the unity between these four. This four-fold characterisation of what Yoga is combats very well stress and its negative impact on our quality of life as well as contributes to feelings of wellbeing. By practising postures such as the following, we can lessen muscle tension and stress in various body parts. For example, poses such as:
1. cross-legged lower back stretch
2. uttanasana (standing forward bend)
3. downward facing dog
4. upward arm stretches
5. Paschimottanasana and its variations (intense forward stretch)
6. janu sirsasana
7. upavista konasana (intense wide forward bend)
8. knees to chest
9. supported chest opener
10. shoulder rotation
11. shoulder stand
12. back bends
can relieve stress in the lower and upper back, spine, neck and shoulders; the four areas of the body that tend to carry the most stress. Similarly, poses such as:
13. legs up the wall, staff pose
14. legs up the wall, wide angle pose
15. baddha konasana (bound angle pose)
16. king pigeon pose (and its variations)
can release stress accumulated in the legs and feet.
Moreover, poses such as:
17. head stand (and its variations)
18. scorpion pose
19. natarajasana (lord of the dance pose)
20. savasana (corpse pose)
can relieve stress in all major body parts where it can be accumulated, namely, the head, legs, and back (for these poses see Austin 2004; Jerard 2011a; Vishnu-devananda 1988; Hewitt 1977; Ellswoth 2010).
Hence, we can combat stress by practising numerous asanas which have as a purpose to stretch body parts where stress resides. As regards the issue of relieving stress mentally and emotionally, this can be achieved through breathing meditation, breathing exercises (pranayama) and progressive relaxation. Each one of these and their benefits are briefly described below.
There are many benefits one can enjoy by meditating. Some of these include: lowers the practitioner’s heart rate and quietens his/her mind; thus allowing him/her to let go of stressful ideas and thoughts. Additionally, blood pressure is also decreased, the practitioner feels calm and with regular practice the tension leaves the body, allowing the immune system to strengthen and one to feel physically stronger (see Jerard 2011f for more on the benefits of meditation).
Breathing meditation has as an aim to calm the mind and develop inner peace. It is one of the various meditation techniques (see Jerard 2011d on four different meditations). As a practice, breathing meditation can be practised alone, it can be practised prior to deep relaxation (savasana) or as part of a yoga class. According to Meditation Analysis (2011), breathing meditation helps us to relax our mind and body. Despite its simple practice, it is believed to work at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Its physical benefits in relation to stress relief include: the lowering of the level of stress hormone, reduction of heart rate and lowering of blood pressure, increase of oxygen flow to the lungs and reduction of headaches. As regards the emotional benefits one can enjoy by practising breathing meditation, these include: reduction of feeling depressed, anxious and angry, improvement of creativity, wisdom, intuition, memory, learning ability and problem-solving skills (Jerald 2011e, Meditation Analysis 2011); lack of which might contribute to one’s stress levels regarding personal or professional matters.
Breathing meditation can be practised by sitting comfortably in a quiet place without distractions, closing the eyes and keeping the spine straight, deltoids and shoulders rolled back, keeping the chin parallel to the floor and beginning the practice by taking long and slow deep breaths until the lungs are filled with air. The breath should be held for a second or two, and then slow exhale will follow. The practitioner can stay focused by either concentrating on his/her breath and the movements of his/her abdomen during inhalation and exhalation; or s/he can focus on the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils (Kadampa Buddhism 2007). After a few minutes and the mind willingly allowing thoughts to drift away, the practitioner will begin to focus on his/her breathing and experience feelings of wellbeing, inner peace, contentment and relaxation; all important qualities that contribute to a stress free mind (Martins 2011). This practice should be performed for about 10-15 minutes. Appropriate music can softly play in the background as long as the practitioner will remain focused on his/her breath.
BREATHING EXERCISES (PRANAYAMA)
As Iyengar once said ‘Pranayama is to Yoga, what the heart is to the human body.’ The term ‘pranayama’ consists of two words, ‘prana’ which means vital energy that is found in all living things including the air and the sun in the universe; and ‘ayama’ which means to control or to give rhythm to something. Pranayama (also known as yogic breathing) is then, the regulation of breathing. According to Vishnu-devananda (1988), greater attention should be given to the exhalation process rather than to inhalation. Therefore, the ratio between inhalation and exhalation should be 1:2. Exhalation should be longer to ensure that old air remaining in the lungs will be squeezed out so that more fresh air with a higher concentration of oxygen will enter on the next inhale. Gradually the practitioner should practice holding the breath after inhalation (retention) and retain the basic ratio of 1:4:2, (inhalation: retention: exhalation). According to ancient Indian philosophy, retention (Kumbhaka) is vital as it encourages the increase of prana in the body and it also regulates its flow throughout the body (see Yoga Vidya Gurukul 2010). There are different types of pranayama: Samanu (mental process of clearing the Nadis), Anuloma Viloma Pranayama (alternate breathing exercise), Kapalabhathi (Abdominal Breathing) (see Vishnu-devananda 1988). In addition, more advanced breathing exercises such as ujjayi, surya bheda and bhastika (Vishnu-devananda 1988: 248-251) can be practised; all of which contribute to the decrease of stress. Since breathing and our mind are directly related, conscious slow or fast-paced rhythmic breathing allows one to quieten the mind, focus, and eliminate negative feelings such as anger, stress, and depression. Other benefits of pranayama include good circulation of blood in the entire body, feeling of inner peace, better sleep, better memory and creativity, more vitality; all of which contribute to less stress levels.
In this day and age, a hectic stressful routine is a way of life for many of us. Sitting in front of the television at the end of day or sleeping for longer hours over the weekend is not a way to reduce stress on the mind and body. The body can fight stress via practising relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, visualization and deep and rhythmic breathing (pranayama), or even rhythmic exercise such as running, walking or cycling as these can boost energy and mood (see Jerard 2011b; Robinson 2011). Jerard (2011c) rightly claims that progressive relaxation is ‘one of the most effective and accessible ways to combat tension in the body’. This technique requires the practitioner to tighten one muscle group at the time, normally starting from each foot and moving upwards to the face, squeezing as tight as s/he can each muscle group and holding for a count of 10 before relaxing it (Robinson 2011). This technique is based on the assumption that stress has a physical effect on the body and physiologically, the tension and relaxation of a muscle will release tension; bring about emotional relaxation and free blocked energy (Jerard 2011c). According to Robinson (2011), the most popular sequence of progressive muscle relaxation goes as follows: right foot- left foot – right calf – left calf – right thigh – left thigh – hips and buttocks – stomach – chest – back – right arm and hand – left arm and hand – neck and shoulders – face. As in most physical exercises, the practitioner should first consult his/her doctor before practising progressive muscle relaxation if s/he has a history of muscle spasms, back problems or any serious injury that might be worsened by tensing muscles. If the instructor thinks that progressive relaxation is not appropriate for a specific group of students, s/he should employ other techniques to relieve stress. These might be the stage-by-stage relaxation, the body scanning technique or a visualisation method for relaxation (Jerard 2011g).
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Andry Sophocleous is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in Nicosia, Cyprus.