Feeling stressed?

Have you tried yoga?

Camilla Walker looks at how we can break down stress through yoga and find access to some inner calm.

Has modern life made us stressed?

Stress has long since been a buzzword belonging to discussions around modern life. We are constantly being told that many contemporary habits – computer-based work, tight deadlines, constant attachment to screens, pressure from social media, fad diets – are bad for us. That they stress our minds and bodies. But though we might be used to the idea and the experience of stress, many of us feel lost when it comes to doing more to combat it than fire-fighting it day to day.

My personal experience is that when I'm under stress I find myself disorientated, despite recognising this is related to stress, I'm unable to see the wood for the trees. If anything, the knowledge we're stressed seems to make it worse. To quote Ruby Wax – OBE, actress, lecturer, author, mental health campaigner, and sufferer of stress – a lot of us are feeling "frazzled".1 The total number of working days lost to work-related stress alone in the UK in 2015/16 was 11.7 million days, which cost the economy £2.4billion. This of course fails to take into account the less quantifiable personal costs also met by those who suffer from it.2 So what can we do?

First of all, it's helpful to zoom out on what stress actually is. By understanding this, we can come to understand how yoga can help.

What is stress?

There are various different types of stress – physical, emotional, psychological – and while they may manifest themselves in different individuals differently, what they have in common is a profound physiological effect on the body and mind, and on the clarity of connection between the two.

Stress is commonly defined as tension, usually in response to a difficult circumstance. This can be a physical, emotional, or psychological circumstance. Physical stress can be experienced by the body when it is challenged to excess; a ligament may tear, for example, under the excess physical force of an awkward fall. Something has to give, and something usually will. The same is true mentally and emotionally. Excess mental tension around one issue can often mean we drop the ball when it comes to others – scientific evidence supports the fact that stress can impair the way we encode memory, for example. Equally, emotional tension belonging to one situation can easily spill over into another to make a reaction seem disproportionate.

It can often feel like mental and emotional stress are concentrated in the mind, and in the feeling of a tense mental state, but in fact they have profound physical impacts on our bodies. Yoga's view that the mind and body are ultimately inextricably connected supports

medical evidence that stress of any kind can be a profoundly physiological experience. In both men and women, stress can adversely affect our respiratory, endocrine, gastro-intestinal, cardiovascular and reproductive health, often setting in motion vicious cycles of increasing reactivity to stressing stimuli if the stress is not addressed.3 The body's response to stress is designed to benefit us in the short term – typically in 'fight or flight' situations. But if something is chronically stressing us (that is, in a sustained, long-term way) and our body has responded accordingly, reacting with prolonged secretions of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, it's possible that we become less able to manage the initial stress stimulus in the first place, because the body struggles when constantly on its hormonal 'high alert'.4

Not really what any of us wants! And yet the very effort to try to 'destress', which contemporary culture seems to tell us we should be doing, has itself, let's face it, got stressful! Consumerism has jumped on the bandwagon of our stress 'epidemic' and responded with a dizzying array of ways to diminish or erase it.5 There are diets, holidays, supplements, massages, interior designs, legal highs, apps, devices and distractions galore, all promising to banish stress. But since most of us can't have it all, we often find trying to choose the right option to relax, ironically, pretty stressful.
"Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life." — B.K.S. Iyengar
Wish it could be simpler? Choose Yoga

This is where yoga represents an easy choice. The essence of all yoga practice centres around attention to breath and movement, which can bring about a reduction in the symptoms of stress.6 If you're stressed, the good news is: yoga can help. Choosing yoga, and learning the mindfulness and breath practices at its heart can calm the nervous system, improve respiratory function, cardiovascular fitness, hormonal balance, concentration and meanwhile the ability to manage stress.

In my experience, the effect of calming the breath – on the body, and resultantly on the mind – has been profound. Having experienced extreme physical tension in my lower abdomen, which seems to be my physical holding-zone for mental stress, which was particularly acute while I was suffering severe depression and anxiety a few years ago, the only thing that finally helped me at a transformative level was yoga. I had had countless prescriptions, medical investigations and procedures, which included being on antibiotics for a year to treat the suspected infection behind my pain and inflammation, but none helped, and my condition became debilitating. However, by learning to open up from the inside out, through slowing and deepening my breath, I started to learn how to let go of some of what I was holding onto. For me, the mind-body connection could not have been proven more strongly: mental stress manifested itself physically, and therefore by responding to it physically, I experienced significant mental relief, not merely because being in physical pain is inherently stressful! Yoga can be a catalyst for change in mind and body, and with regular practice, as many yogis the world over will attest, physiological function adapts and the effect can be of huge restorative benefit.

Respected studies (and the testimonials of millions) suggest that yoga has a positive effect on anxiety and depression, pain, cardiovascular, autoimmune and immune conditions, respiratory difficulties, mood disorders, psychological conditions such as PTSD and some of the symptoms of alcoholism.

So if you are looking for a way to de-stress, yoga is an easy choice. With yoga, something is always better than nothing, and once you get started, seemingly endless possibilities for mental and physical transformation can open up. This is because, in addition to calming the body down through controlled breathing, Yoga offers the practitioner a priceless gift to the mind: an alternative view. Through yoga, we may come to address not only the symptomatology of stress, but our whole attitude towards it. Yoga philosophy encourages us to look inwards, to become aware of our experience and to ask questions, to investigate our habits, patterns and reactions. For me this was a process which opened up the space for change because it opened up an opportunity within myself for choice, which proved empowering.

If we can work intelligently with stress – identifying triggers, noticing reactions – then we can begin to accommodate profound changes in our wellbeing. Many people find they can decide how to respond, rather than remaining trapped in a cycle of auto-pilot reactivity commonly experienced under stress. Stress caused by tension held predominantly in the body may also be released by poses designed to stretch out the fabric of our muscles and connective tissues, and as we move with our awareness rooted in our breath, we may reconnect the mind-body link that so often has been lost in stressed individuals. Once we reconnect with that link, we regain access to mental and physiological states – often of clarity, relaxation, peace – profoundly different from where we started. We find that the potential to overcome stress lies within us, rather than outside of us, which perhaps explains why so many yoga practitioners claim to have 'found' through yoga, the sense of self they'd lost to stress. I know I have.

Camilla Walker Yoga 2017

22nd February, 2017


2 http://www.hse.gov.uk/STATISTICS/causdis/stress/st...
3 http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
4 de Quervain et al., Stress and glucocorticoids impair retrieval of long-term spatial memory. Nature , 394, 787-790 (1998) 5.http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and... place-britains-16326bn-epidemic-1974691.html
6. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/yoga-f...