It’s no secret that we live in a culture in which stress feels like a foregone conclusion. Our days are often dictated by strict schedules, endless to-do lists, personal expectations that may or may not be realistic and people who, for a variety of reasons, demand much of our time, energy, and focus.
I do not thrive this kind of life, to be honest. I am an introvert at heart, and I often find myself longing for space to breathe, for wide open quiet moments to myself. For the seasons of life when there’s just not enough of that, I love yoga.
Yoga is an excellent way to relieve stress, which makes it an excellent way to improve overall health. Continuous mental and physical stress has many negative effects on the body, including but not limited to headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain and insomnia. If it goes unchecked, stress can cause serious damage to not only the mind, but also the body. Yoga can help you counteract such stress in a few ways.
The Connection of the Body to the Mind
In the western world, we often either reject or ignore the idea of mind-body connection. But, put in more practical terms, most of us can relate to this idea. We can recall days when we’ve come home with a headache after a mentally strenuous day of work. We can remember the physical tension that follows an argument with a loved one, the tense shoulders and clenched jaw.
The mind and body are certainly connected; generally, they are mirror images of one another. We often find ourselves trying in vain to confront one or the other individually; yoga goes a step further by confronting tension in both the body and the mind.
Releasing Physical Tension With Yoga Poses
We are hard-wired to experience muscle contractions when we’re under intense stress. If we’re in physical danger, our bodies are designed to flood with the adrenaline necessary to get us out of danger quickly. Today, we live in a society that is filled with stress that isn’t usually brought on by a life-or-death situation, but our bodies interpret it the same way. Muscle tension is part of our body’s defense mechanism against stressors.
One of the best ways to release muscle tension is to actively engage the contracted muscle, intentionally stretching and lengthening them. This is one of the focuses of the physical practice of yoga. Stretching and muscles and holding that stretch counteracts the body’s natural instinct to tighten the muscle in response to stress.
The beauty of yoga is that you don’t have to commit to a lot of poses or a lot of time; a few poses done over the course of five minutes is often enough to relax contracted muscles. My morning/evening routing includes three yoga poses (child’s pose, downward dog, upward dog) that are simple enough to be done in five minutes with no equipment, and effective at releasing any tension I might be feeling.
Creating Space for a Quiet Mind
My mind is not a quiet place most days; I’d wager that the average American could say the same thing. The busyness of our lives often leads to busyness of our minds. Over the past few years, I’ve begun to attribute much of the stress in my life to that sense of mind-clutter. So many thoughts and ideas and priorities always warring for attention; my mind feels the strain, and it’s reflected in my body.
Yoga offers a quiet place to still your mind and breathe. For some, it’s a time to focus on their physical body in the present moment; on their breathing and positioning and alignment and the sensations created by the positions. For others, it’s a time to meditate, to think, to pray. Regardless of how you use the stillness and quiet, it’s a time to de-clutter a mind that is bombarded from any number of directions during each moment of the day.
Stress Relief Anywhere, Anytime
Yoga is an increasingly accessible physical practice. Generally, yoga can be done anywhere with little to no equipment and as much time as you happen to have on hand. From private studios to community centers to workout DVDs and Youtube tutorials, there are an endless number of ways to get started and begin to experience the positive effects of yoga on your body and mind.
How have you incorporated yoga into your fitness and stress relief routine?
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