We all know that managing stress is one of the greatest challenges of our modern age. Attending Yoga classes is often recommended to those who need relief. I’m here to tell you that Yoga will only work if you approach your practice the right way. I have outlined several steps below that will help you shed a few layers of tension for sure!
Is Your Yoga Class Creating More Stress in Your Life?
I’m wondering if you’ve had this experience:
You decide to go to a yoga class at your center or gym to help relieve long-held tension in your body. Halfway into class you realize that you’re actually becoming more tense. You’re trying to keep up the pace, to mimic everything your neighbor is doing, and to perform your 20th yoga pushup while your arms are shaking and teeth are clenching.
If this sounds familiar, you might be wondering why you’re not experiencing the bliss that was promised. I can explain why…
Yoga for stress relief is a great idea, but it’s not a guarantee. It depends on the style, the teacher, and more importantly on your approach to the practice.
The thing is, it’s not the postures that makes yoga so effective at releasing tension.
The Essence of Yoga
It’s our intention, the deep breathing and the basic understanding that yoga is an ancient therapeutic method (not just a fitness class) that sets up the conditions for peace and well-being.
This study from the International Journal of Yoga explains the essence of yoga well. I especially love this section:
“Four basic principles underlie the teachings and practices of yoga’s healing system. The first principle is the human body is a holistic entity comprised of various interrelated dimensions inseparable from one another and the health or illness of any one dimension affects the other dimensions. The second principle is individuals and their needs are unique and therefore must be approached in a way that acknowledges this individuality and their practice must be tailored accordingly. The third principle is yoga is self-empowering; the student is his or her own healer. Yoga engages the student in the healing process; by playing an active role in their journey toward health, the healing comes from within, instead of from an outside source and a greater sense of autonomy is achieved. The fourth principle is that the quality and state of an individuals mind is crucial to healing. When the individual has a positive mind-state healing happens more quickly, whereas if the mind-state is negative, healing may be prolonged.”
Why Yoga is Not Always Great for Stress Relief
We could be in a posture thinking that’s all we have to do and Yoga just happens. But if we’re approaching each pose in a very Type-A way, the yoga practice will not be a huge help in relieving stress.
You’ll want to avoid:
- ignoring your breath and body signals
- obsessing about your daily to-do list
- reviewing the day in your head
- complaining internally about the teacher, your neighbors, the yoga space…
These are all unhelpful ways the mind tries to diminish the beauty of simple, peaceful moments and creates more disharmony inside.
Instead of just showing you restorative postures, I’d like to teach you how to do your yoga practice to relieve stress. Many of the points below are easy to address if you’re doing your own home practice. But even in a live group class, you should feel free to try these out.
How to Practice Yoga for Stress Relief
1. Begin by centering your attention and making an intention
It’s helpful to begin your practice with a brief, honest look at where you’re beginning. Scan the body and consciously release any tension you find along the way as we did in this grounding meditation. Check in with your mood, your emotions, and your mental state.
Based on what you find in this centered place, you can make an intention for your practice; something you want to pay attention to that brings you toward balance. Maybe it’s to be mindful of tension in your neck and jaw in the hope that you can release it by the end of class. Maybe you want to soften your inner attitude. If nothing comes up, then simply remind yourself why you are doing yoga and what you hope to cultivate in the long run. Make sure this intention is coming from a place of deep love and respect for yourself, so phrase it in a positive way, such as…
“I want to listen well to my body’s cues so I remain strong, safe, and healthy”
“I want to work as hard as I can so I finally lose this baby weight and look like so-and-so over there”.
Can you feel the difference? You may miss opportunities to connect in deeply with yourself and let go of obsessive thoughts that may be causing tension, if your intention is coming from a place of self deprecation. Let’s focus on the positive! You will cultivate whatever you bring to mind!
2. Establish a deep, even breath that is never sacrificed
I’ve been in many yoga classes and several wonderful teachers like to count the breath for students. But just about every time it is WAY too fast for me. I’m giving you permission to stretch the breath out even longer. The teacher won’t know and you will have a more enjoyable, authentic experience if you’re moving with your own breath & timing.
3. Lengthen your exhalations
Tension is released with the out breath as we all know when we let out a deep sigh of annoyance. You can give yourself more time to release by making the exhalation longer than the inhalation.
4. Ground your energy with strong legs
With the legs working strongly in standing postures, tension will drip down from the upper body where it tends to accumulate most (see point below).
5. Spend extra time stretching your neck, chest, shoulders
Triangle is a great posture to get into all these areas. Feel free to rotate your head and your top arm to get into the neck and shoulders. Stretching the arm behind you will access the chest. Feel the legs rotating from the hips and send deep breaths into all the areas you’re opening. In any pose, whenever you feel a slight opening in an area that is tight, go ahead and explore through movement or deeper breathing.
6. Each asana (posture) should have an “aaaahhhh” feeling as you move into it, sustain it, and release it.
A therapeutic practice should be sensual. Yes, this is even true for chaturanga dandasana, the yoga pushup that everyone rushes through because it’s so difficult to hold. You are better off holding plank or modifying by bringing your knees down and descending slowly with the breath, building up your strength to the full pose with time. Otherwise, rushing this posture can ADD tension to the shoulders and neck and may actually DAMAGE your rotator cuff muscles if not done properly. You’ll know you have the strength for chaturanga when you can practice it with a smile and a long exhalation!
Yin yoga is the only example I can think of where you must endure some mild discomfort to release completely, but that’s because we’re working close to the ground and with the deeper connective tissues, not the muscles and superficial energy channels that are energized with dynamic asana styles.
7. Consider taking an evening class
Morning yoga classes are great for motivation and for setting a mindful mood for your day. But if you’re not able to carry this mindfulness throughout the day and stress accumulates to the point that you’re having a hard time going to sleep, you may want to do an evening practice instead. Or, at least do a short practice again before bed. Practicing at night is essential for me and I promise I’ll share my downtime routine in the near future.
8. End with restorative postures
Classically, Savasana (corpse pose) was practiced for at least 10 minutes at the end of a 90+ minute class and often Savasana punctuated many of the asana sequences in the middle of class as well. Today in our fast-paced (and therefore stressed-out) culture, yoga classes have been shortened to 60 minutes and Savasana is given a mere 3 minutes to explore.
Give yourself the full 10 minutes in Savasana if you need it. It’s okay to let the teacher know you’ll be starting to rest 15 minutes before the end of class. I would be thrilled if a student told me he/she valued rest and renewal that much, so I doubt you would offend the teacher.
9. Allow peace to come
You need to let the practice end and trust that you did enough. I often see at least one person in class trying to fit in inversions and other poses while we’re setting up to rest. Their minds are still telling them that there’s more to do, more to fix. Savasana is where peace emerges and you must be still and quiet to see it. The body and heart have a wisdom that the mind doesn’t understand and they will integrate everything you did in your practice. Trust that, and peace will be your experience.
Yoga is a personal practice. Sometimes we forget when we are in a group setting that we are in control of our experience. I hope that the information here helps you to overcome unhelpful habits in your Yoga practice and that you have a deeper experience in general! Please let me know how it works for you, in the comments!