Reducing Stress with Yoga

This week’s blog entry is written by guest author Melanie Reed.  Melanie is a graduate of Whole Life Yoga’s advanced 500 hour teacher training program and a teacher at Whole Life Yoga.    She can be contacted at

We become what we pay attention to.

In our modern urban life we find ourselves in many circumstances which we experience as stressful.   As a result, many of us are chronically stressed, living our lives in a state of mild to extreme exhaustion.

During periods of stress, there are three stages of physical responses:

  • An initial fight-or-flight response, mobilizing the body for immediate action.  Nerve impulses direct energy to muscles and organs needed for survival and away from processes not required for immediate survival (such as digestive and reproductive systems).  Think about what is needed to run away from a tiger…
  • In the second stage, after the initial fight-or-flight response dissipates, hormones are released (such as cortisol) which produce energy, help repair damaged cells, and reduce inflammation.  Thus the individual can continue to resist the situation which is causing the stress.
  • During the third stage, as the body becomes exhausted, large amounts of stress hormones continue to be produced.  Symptoms of persistently high levels of cortisol include anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, ulcers, immune dysfunction, and depression.

Responses to stress have served us well during our evolution as humans.  Although we rarely need to run away from a tiger, we do encounter situations which cause stress, such as:  driving on the freeway, listening to the voice of the inner critic, feeling powerless in the face of climate change, difficulties in our relationships and on and on.

For most of us, the stress triggers in our lives are not situations where our physical survival is in question; the source of the stress is psychological.  And, here is where Yoga can provide relief from stress.

One of the powerful effects of the concentrated focus on breathing in Viniyoga is it activates the part of the nervous system which supports a sense of relaxation and calm both in the body and mind.    Students may not be aware of this ‘relaxation response’ until they are resting in savasana (the period of rest at the end of a posture practice).  The peaceful effects of a yoga class can sometimes last for days.

Practices such as pranayama (breath practices), Yoga Nidra, and meditation can help us work directly with our energy, emotions, and the mind to ‘re-pattern’ responses to circumstances which habitually trigger stress.  By consciously choosing to focus our mind on the breath, an affirming word(s) or image, or object (e.g. the flame of a candle), we support the process of transforming our habitual patterns of awareness.  Over time, as we replace a focus on negative reactions with contentment, calm, and relaxation – the flow of our thoughts will become more positive and our behavior toward ourselves and others more appropriate.  In other words, the circumstances which trigger the stress will have less effect on us.

Reacting to situations in our daily lives with fear, frustration, and anger can trigger stress and over time, these kinds of reactions will not only have a detrimental effect on our health, but are also not useful – they do not usually lead to the effect we really want.  With the support of yoga practices we are able to turn our attention to positive qualities and as we practice over time, the positive qualities can become dominant. 

To experience this for yourself, try this simple exploration: in a quiet room, sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.  Bring your focus to your breath, allowing it to slow down.  After several breaths, as you begin to feel internally calm and settled, focus your awareness on an object of your choice, such as a tree (to invoke groundedness), a bear (to invoke strength), the ocean (to invoke a sense contentment and/or going with the flow), an image of your grandmother (to invoke unconditional love) – anything you are drawn to.  Meditate on the object of your choice for several minutes and then, notice how you feel. 

… you become what you pay attention to.

Melanie Reed

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle!

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