Yoga for Stress Reduction
Jen Cronan Corley
Chronic stress is an all-too-common phenomenon in our society and poses a significant threat to health and wellness. Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response – an important survival mechanism in prehistoric times when our ancestors needed the extra vigilance, strength, and endurance to escape threatening situations. However, our predecessors’ lifestyles also allowed for a great deal of time spent gazing at the horizon and sitting around campfires, activities that adequately balanced the body between periods of stress.
In contrast, the constant movement and stimulation that come with our modern lifestyles (coffee in the morning, traffic during the commuting hour, city noise, stress at work, flavor-overloaded fast food, TV late into the night) put our nervous systems into prolonged overdrive. When the body experiences this type of excess, blood pressure, brain wave frequency, and muscle tension rise and remain elevated. Additionally, metabolic, heart, and breathing rates are sustained at more rapid paces. Prolonged systemic excitation can lead to hypertension, adult onset diabetes, immune suppression, osteoporosis, memory decline, erratic sleep, emotional disorders, and many other illnesses.
In the 1960s, Harvard medical researcher Herbert Benson, MD, discovered a counterbalance to the “fight or flight” syndrome, which he termed the “relaxation response.” Achieved through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response is a “state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.” Regular elicitation of the relaxation response benefits the body by reversing the effects of the “fight or flight” syndrome. Long term, this has been shown to decrease the symptoms of patients with hypertension, chronic pain, insomnia, cardiac arrhythmias, nausea due to chemotherapy, anxiety, moderate depression, migraine and cluster headaches, unexplained infertility, and PMS.
Herbert Benson’s prescriptions for eliciting the relaxation response are twofold: one, repeating a word, sound, prayer, phrase, or muscular activity; and two, passively disregarding everyday thoughts that come to mind, and returning to the repetition exercise. More generally, conscious relaxation may be induced by softening the muscles, regulating the breath, and quieting the brain. Yoga, and particularly a gentle, restorative practice done in a secure environment, helps us achieve each of these aims. Gradual stretching and progressive relaxation techniques soften the muscles, smooth inhales and long exhales regulate the breath, and visual imagery or yogic mantras (repetition of words or phrases) quiet the brain. In turn, these activities switch on the parasympathetic nervous system.
Physically and emotionally soothing conditions also achieve or contribute to similar results. Yoga for stress reduction should be practiced in a warm, dimly lit, quiet room. The sequence of postures should start slow; gradually and moderately warm the body; include reclining, forward-bending, and/or inverted (head below the heart) poses; and provide for a long cool-down period. An instructor may make comforting tactile adjustments to his or her students and finish the class with a guided meditation or breath work. While activation of the relaxation response may begin in as little as 10 minutes, optimal results occur after one hour or more. Because of this, regular 60- to 90-minute yoga sessions are ideal for beginning a regimen of conscious relaxation.
While all yoga classes share a meditative quality, certain styles are better suited to stress reduction than others. The Olympic Club’s level 1-2 Iyengar classes (Mondays at 1:15pm & 5:15pm, Thursdays at 1:15pm) are the best approximation of traditional restorative classes. In the Iyengar tradition, a strong focus on alignment and the thoughtful use of props (blankets, bolsters, blocks, straps) enable students to safely hold poses for longer periods of time. This slower pacing facilitates gradual stretching, sustained attention to the breath within a given pose, and moments of stillness for deepening the mind-body connection. Any yoga comes with a wide range of benefits, however, so stress-sufferers need not shy away from the Club’s heated, faster-paced flow classes. These tend to focus on building strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. This is perhaps more of an orientation toward physical fitness, but flowing classes can be a great compliment to restorative ones – particularly if you have been attending a gentler class regularly and want to diversify your yoga “toolkit.”
Your local yoga studio may offer classes designed specifically with stress reduction principles in mind. Browse schedules for “Viniyoga” and “Yin Yoga” classes as well as any others described as “restorative,” “therapeutic,” or “gentle.” Otherwise, favor lower level classes, which are likely to be slower-paced and less physically rigorous. Ultimately, the quality of your attention during class is the strongest determinant of the way that day’s practice will affect you. Even in a hot, sweaty, challenging series requiring serious exertion, you can dial back the physical intensity and dial up the introspection! Resist the temptation to go into your deepest stretch immediately, keep your breath smooth and your exhales long, and experiment with your ability to quiet the mind’s chatter through visualizations or silent mantra repetition.
If you are interested in learning more about yoga for stress reduction, I recommend the following texts: Judith Lasater’s Relax and Renew (Rodmell Press, 1995) and Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (Owl Books, 1994). Additionally, feel free to contact me with any yoga-related questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jen Cronan Corley, RYT-200 hour (500 pending), is an Oakland-based YogaAlliance certified yoga instructor teaching classes, workshops, and private clients throughout the Bay Area. Jen has studied under a variety of yogic traditions over the last 12 years and is trained as a teacher of the YogaWorks method, which blends the principles of Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga. Her approach emphasizes injury prevention through proper alignment and sequencing, the linking of breath and movement, and respect for both the power and limitations of human bodies. She is passionate about working with special populations including students suffering from chronic stress, anxiety, or depression; expectant and new mothers; kids; and those interested in learning how to incorporate both yoga and nutritional education into their wellness regimens.
 Walford, Lisa. “Restorative Yoga: The Relaxation Response.” Los Angeles: YogaWorks, 2012.
 Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response. New York: Harper Torch, 1975.