Photo: Yoga and Photo by Cecille (http://yogaandphoto.com)

Introduction

The modern practise of yoga today is associated with becoming more flexible and stronger. At it’s core though, yoga is about ‘stilling the mind’ as stated by Patanjali in Chapter 1.2 of the Yoga Sutras. When viewed from this perspective, yoga is great for stress.

What is stress?

When people think of the word ‘stress’, it is usually framed in the negative. Overwhelm, pressure, anxiety etc… When you look at the epistemology of the word ‘stress’, it actually has a neutral meaning. ‘Eustress’ is what describes ‘good stress’ and ‘distress’ is what describes ‘negative stress’. Stress in general is just some of pressure. It may be mental or physical that results in a reaction from the body.

The Biology of stress

It is well recognised that you need some form of stress to remain healthy.

In the first instance, that ‘stress’ is in the form of gravity. For example, astronauts who return to earth after living in the international space station for months have to be taken out of the space ship in a wheel chair or stretcher – their bodies can’t handle the stress of being back on earth under the force of gravity. As a result of being in space for a period of time, their bones lose a significant amount of calcium. This process is known as disuse osteoporosis.

Once when I broke my foot, it was important to get out of the air boot after awhile. Otherwise I ran the risk of the muscle and connective tissue of the foot becoming weak. My orthopaedic specialist also said that bones require stimulation and movement to heal.

So you need some stress in your life.

Too little stress and you start to become weak. Too much stress on the other hand and you start to break down. This relationship is shown in Figure 1.

You can see that as the level of pressure increases, performance increases. Once however an inflection point is reached because of too much stress, things start to degenerate.

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Figure 1: Relationship between Stress & Pressure*

* From Your Body, Your Yoga, by Bernie Clark

Bones need stress

When it comes to bones themselves, it is the stress that stimulates them to grow stronger and heal. Bone cells, called ‘osteoblasts’ create new bone material. When there is lack of stimulation, cells called ‘osteoclasts’, remove bone material. That’s why yoga and the more dynamic pilates practices are so good for the body – they use the body’s own weight under gravity to make them denser and stronger. For a great video which shows this process in action, view here.

So yoga is really about stress.

Yet with stress, comes also ‘rest’. Over time, unless the tissues are given time to recover, then the greater the likelihood you are to suffer an injury. You can see this relationship in figure 2*, from Dr Stuart McGill’s The Search for the Biological Tipping Point‘.*

What’s the learning point? Repetitive movement in localised areas without adequate recovery time leads to injury.

That is why in my vinyasa yoga classes, I really emphasis effort and relaxation. I place just as much importance on rest as the actual physical practice.

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Figure 2: Tolerance to Stress & Risk of Injury*

* From Your Body, Your Yoga, by Bernie Clark (inspired by the work of Stuart McGill, Lower Back Disorders).

The benefits of rest after stress

The benefits of rest are evident to see. Not only do you reduce the risk of injury but if you rest the tissue, its tolerance level increases relative to what it was before. In this way, humans become anti-fragile. They grow stronger under stress.

Through rest, the body grows stronger after you load the tissues. So yoga and stress really do to go together.

You can see this relationship in figure 3.*

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Figure 3: Rest & Tolerance Levels

* From Your Body, Your Yoga, by Bernie Clark (inspired by the work of Stuart McGill, Lower Back Disorders).

When the stress gets too much

So yoga is all about some level of stress. It’s stressful. Not too much, too little. Just enough stress for it to create strong, healthy bodies.

As one of my first yoga teachers, Vidya Heisel of La Suryalila said, ‘yoga is the perfect balance between rest and effort‘. Those words have stuck with me ever since.

What happens though when the stress become too much?

Well, on the physical level, there may be some form of sprain, strain or even rupture of connective tissue or muscles. Bones may break and the body starts to degenerate. The causes of this relate to either too much tension or compression. Tension occurs away from the point of stress, whereas compression occurs at the point of stress.

On the mental level, you see this in a whole host of mental issues which most people are familiar with, including anxiety, PTSD or even a nervous breakdown. There may even be physical complaints too, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome or (IBS).

What though are some of the causes of mental stress that contribute to people’s ill health?

MHFA England has put forward two models that may explain what may contribute to the development of mental health issues as a result of stress.

The Stress Vulnerability Model

This model was first developed in 1977 by J. Zubin and B. Spring. The notion is that people become ill when the stress they face becomes more than what they can cope with. At the same time, people’s vulnerability varies – one person’s ability to copy with stress may differ from another, due to one’s individual disposition.

Yoga and Stress

Figure 4: Stress Vulnerability Model

The consequence is that those who have high levels of vulnerability are more likely to develop mental health issues when high stress levels are present. High vulnerability. High stress. Not a good equation.

What are some of the causes that may tip someone over the edge? The list is many, but may include their unique genetic make up. It may be because of their individual coping and thinking styles. It could be due to their environment in which they live. Or, it may be due to their level of social skills. Overall, some people are more adept at managing stress and resilient than others.

If you feel you are highly vulnerable to stress, having a yoga practice can help.

The Stress Container Model

In the Stress Container Model, the level of vulnerability relates to the size of a container into which everyday stresses pour in.

There is a direct correlation between the size of the container and vulnerability – the lower the person’s vulnerability, the bigger the container. Likewise, the more of the factors that may contribute to poor mental health such as one’s individual genetic make-up, the smaller the container. Consequently, the container may overflow more quickly than others who have greater resilience.

In order to release the stress, productive coping strategies are useful. Asking for help is one of them. Practising yoga is another. Unproductive coping strategies, such as drinking alcohol, can cause the container to also overflow.

The Stress Container Model is illustrated in Figure 6.

 

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Figure 6: The Stress Container Model

Learning yoga can be stressful

The irony is that to learn traditional yoga can be stressful. People are often quite nervous before they start. Walking into traditional yoga studios can also be quite intimidating.

‘Am I doing right’ the new student to yoga often asks. Some yoga teachers who may, with the best of intentions, focus on static alignment can create mental stress for students. This may be even more the case when the student may have unique anatomy, eg ‘genus valgum’ or ‘genus varum’ (knocked or wide knees respectively) and is asked to align to traditional models of alignment.

I remember my first lessons and it wasn’t enjoyable as the teacher fiddled around my with back arm and the position of my middle fingers……. Build from the ‘foundation up’, rather than from the ‘top down’ is the approach I take. What I mean by that is focus on what the student really needs to know, rather than overload the student with all the detail and intricacies that come with modern yoga posture.

Over time, as the student becomes familiar and comfortable with the practice, then a sense of steadiness and ease may arise. The joy of posture and practice becomes more apparent and the practice becomes more enjoyable. There you can truly start to enjoy the benefits of ‘stilling the mind’. But it takes time.

Applying a somatic approach to stress

‘That which is immeasurable controls the measurable’. – Krishnamacharya.

It is the subtle efforts that affect the overall body. Movements that are slow, soft and small can be a way for a student who is in a highly over (or under) activated state to tap into their own innate somatic intelligence.

Practices that emphasise being grounded are the most beneficial. The idea is to allow the body to fully unwind and release tension, out of gravity. Movement that emphasises intimacy, immediacy, spontaneity and precision, is where the stress release really begins.

Essentially, these practices work with the body in a way that involves fluidity – without structure or form. The mind then becomes free from the bondage of the body. Sensory awareness becomes more apparent and states of mindfulness increase.

The result? ‘Stress reduction’.

These types of movement practices also help to rewire the nervous system. They discharge any sympathetic charge (‘fight or flight)’ through the upper body and activate the parasympathetic (”rest and digest’) part of the nervous system.

When you build new new neural pathways through somatic movement, greater sensory awareness develops. Moods shift and the process of stress relief becomes about ’embodiment’.

Another way of saying this is that ‘you get out of your head and into your body’.

The movement below is known as ‘Unwinding II’ and is part of the Sensory Awareness Training for Yoga, with Prajna Yoga. It involves starting in a supine position with the knees bent. On each inhalation, you drop the knees to one side and then as you exhale, you return to the centre again. Repeat a number of times and then change sides.

Yoga and Stress

Figure 7: ‘Unwinding II’

Conclusion

The practice of yoga brings physical benefits by creating stress in the body. It can also bring mental benefits as the mind becomes quiet.

Where too much physical stress is present, injuries occur. On a mental level, each individual’s capacity to deal with stress may depend on how vulnerable they are to stress, how much they have on their plate (ie their ‘stress container’) and what coping strategies they employ.

Yoga as a practice is wonderful to help with stress management. Whilst traditional posture is effective to help reduce the effects of stress, practices that are somatic and embody movement combined with mindfulness are an excellent way to help students find relief from the ongoing effects of stress.

To find out how yoga and mindfulness can help you find relief from stress in your personal or professional lives, please get in touch or contact me at scott@yogibanker.com

 

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