Yoga for Stress Relief

Hi! If you’re here, it’s likely that you’ve been stressed in the past, or that you currently feel stressed from time to time. And you know what? That makes you HUMAN. You will definitely relate to my story in this blog, and I think you just might find some inspiration about how to lower your stress levels!

Stress shows up in different ways. Perhaps you lie awake at night ruminating about your ‘to do’ list. Perhaps you get grumpy and snappy at your partner or children very quickly. Perhaps it shows up as a tight feeling in your chest (and you’re pretty certain it’s not a heart attack). Or ALL of the above, and some more!

I have personally dealt with a lot of stress, and know so many friends who feel the same. Science shows pretty clearly that stress is NOT GOOD for you! And, let’s be honest, we didn’t need science to tell us that.

In this blog I will share my own story about stress and how yoga has helped me balance out my anxious brain, what the science says about the benefits of yoga for stress, and some yoga poses which are calming for the mind and body.

I will also delve a little deeper into how the non-physical side (spiritual side) also helps put stress into perspective. Finally, I will talk about how YOU can get into yoga to help chill out your overactive mind.

 

My Stress Story

I take things very seriously. Often too seriously. When I worked as an academic researcher I would convince myself that the tasks I had to do were more important than anything else – more important even than my own sleep, health, relationships… I didn’t consciously think this, but it was there as a sub-conscious belief.

I put immense pressure on myself, and when things didn’t go to plan, I couldn’t see it in perspective with life. I was after all ALIVE, had a loving relationship, and a supportive family – so in hindsight, I was suffering from a host of ‘first-world’ problems. In other words, I was focussing on issues that didn’t really make an important negative impact on my life (except for the stress that I put on myself).

At one point (when I was about 25) I went to the GP because I thought my chest pains might be something sinister. Not surprisingly, after a full check-over, they diagnosed me  with stress, and I walked away feeling rather embarrassed to have used the GP’s  precious time!

I came to a breaking point near the end of my PhD studies, when I had to re-write most of my Thesis after a Viva which didn’t go as well as I’d hoped (which is putting it lightly). I was so overwhelmed with my tasks that I didn’t fancy socialising in my time off, I couldn’t sleep, and for a little while I developed an unhealthy relationship with red wine.

Mercifully, somehow I found yoga. I followed a very basic App at home and was amazed at how focussing on the movements and sensations in my body allowed my mind the breathing room it needed. I realised that I’d been living mostly in my mind, and had lost touch with my body. 

I very quickly rolled in to a routine of 10 to 30 minutes of yoga on most days (all with my lovely app), and for the remainder of my academic contract I was far more balanced in how seriously I took things.

I even noticed things such as feeling less stressed in the car when there was an unexpected delay. Being able to roll with it and shrugging it off as ‘ah it’s not the end of the world’. Whereas before I would have got sweaty palms and a higher heart rate due to the anxiety for being a little bit too late.

I am definitely not ‘cured’ of stress. Although I hide it well from my friends, I have an innate ability to be stressy. It is my regular yoga practice which helps me to stay balanced, be less reactive and remain less attached to outcomes that are beyond my control.

But enough about me! What does the science say about yoga for stress relief?

 

The Science About Yoga for Stress Relief

There are a surprisingly large number of studies on yoga and stress. As I browsed through the literature, I noticed lots of publications on yoga for health-care providers, office workers and students. I have described just a few studies below, picking systematic reviews where they were available – as we could be here forever otherwise!

Having spent a lot of time in academia, I know that funding is much easier to find if you can convince the funders that the knowledge you’re discovering will provide a monetary benefit. It’s obviously very good for business if workers in health-care and offices manage their stress well, and it’s good for academic results and reputations if students are clear minded and focussed! 

However, other groups that I would expect to benefit a lot from a yoga practice are parents of young children. Most of my friends are in this camp, and I can see the unrelenting demands on them. Unfortunately, less research on yoga for stress relief has been conducted in this group. Nevertheless, I’ve reviewed the one relevant study I did find.

Yoga for stress relief in health care workers

Healthcare workers do incredible and important work. Yet they need to deal with a huge amount of pressure, which can lead to stress. It’s no wonder that researchers have investigated how to help them reduce stress and burn-out – our lives literally depend on it!

A systematic review of 11 studies on the use of yoga for stress management and burnout prevention in healthcare workers found very positive results (Cocchiara et al., 2019). Seven of the studies were clinical trials, among the most robust types of research, and four were observational studies, from which you can learn but not make strong conclusions.

“According to the published literature, yoga is effective in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and psychological issues. In addition to an improvement in physical problems and in quality of sleep, both stress levels and burnout are consistently reduced in subjects who practise yoga techniques and mind–body meditation.” (Cocchiara et al., 2019)

This is particularly relevant with Covid-19 still affecting the world. It would be such a great idea to provide spaces in the hospitals and clinics, where health-care staff could take 20 minutes out to move and breathe mindfully. In fact, the funds raised by Captain Sir Tom More recently contributed to the investment in health and wellbeing facilities in hospitals, including changing rooms, for health-care staff (NHS Bolton, 2021). This is a wonderful step forward for stress reduction in this setting!

Yoga for stress relief in office workers

Are you a home-office warrior? Then the same stresses that happened in the office are probably still affecting you. Long, long days on your computer, overusing your brain, always on call to answer emails, trouble shooting for clients, and report deadlines.

Unsurprisingly, most available research is about office workers in offices, in a pre-Covid world. But as office workers are expected to achieve the same work at home now, I think the outcomes are still very relevant for home-office workers. Perhaps even more so, due to the additional pressures of household tasks and child-care.

Vale et al. (2020) pooled together the data from six clinical trials on yoga programmes for stress reduction in the workplace. In total there were 266 participants in the yoga intervention groups across these trials, which were compared with 221 control participants. The researchers found that those receiving the yoga programmes had, on average, a 33% lower chance of feeling stressed (through self-report).

They concluded:

“The synthesis of the available evidence and its quantitative analysis prove the effectiveness of yoga interventions carried out at workplaces in decreasing perceived stress among employees, when compared to no-treatment.”

The good news with a change to home-office working for many is that finding a private space for yoga is so much easier. Taking 20 minutes away from the screen at any time during the day is now a real possibility, without the risk of colleagues seeing you in Downward Dog!

Yoga for stress relief in parents

While prenatal yoga has been researched a lot, I found a lack in studies on parents with toddlers – while I know from many of my friends that this can also be a stressful, sleep-deprived, sometimes isolated time!

I did find one randomised controlled trial (the gold standard of interventions) about first time parents with a baby between 6 months and 1 year, who had no prior yoga experience. In this study, 16 people attended a Dru-Yoga (think gentle, flowing yoga) class once a week for a month, while 16 other people were in a control group and received nothing.

Those receiving the yoga classes had statistically significantly improved psychological well-being as indicated by lower stress, lower negative feelings, and a reduction in ‘dysfunctional’ coping, whereas they improved in ‘problem focused’ coping after the four week programme (Timlin & Simpson, 2017).

Despite the lack of research, I have heard from my yoga members with children, that fitting in some ‘me time’ to move and breathe mindfully, is a real sanity saver. So if you’re in this camp, I highly recommend that you allow yourself just 20 minutes of breathing time. It’s not selfish to explain that you need this to your partner, and to take this time for your own mental health. You’ll be an even more loving partner and parent for it!

Conclusion on the science on yoga for stress relief

This tiny review just scratches the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to science on yoga for stress relief. I hope it gives you a little more confidence in the amazing potential that mindful movement can have in your life.

If it has whetted your appetite… keep reading for a few easy poses to use to reduce stress.

 

3 Yoga Poses for Stress Relief

I have selected three of my favourite relaxing poses for stress relief. However, it is worth remembering that sometimes it is the combination of poses together, woven in to a class, and combined with a theme of mindfulness (bringing your attending to the now rather than thinking about your to-do list!), that really brings the stress-busting effect of yoga! Even so, sometimes I like to simply flop into one of these poses at the end of the day, close my eyes, and breathe.

1. Pigeon pose

Have you got tight hips or lower back niggles? Pigeon Pose helps to externally rotate the hip of the leg that is in front. This stretches the Gluteus Maximus muscles (think bum muscles!) and can relieve that niggly tightness right at the bottom of your spine.

Tight hips and lower back niggles are a very common sign of overworking in front of a computer screen and can therefore be directly caused by the posture of sitting for many hours. However, mental stress can also stiffen up your muscles (think hunched shoulders), and it is commonly thought in yogic practice that stress and the storing up of emotions contribute to tight hips.

How to practise Pigeon pose

There are many ways to enter this pose, but this is one of the easiest ways I can think of:

  • Start with your hands and knees on the ground in ‘Tabletop’ – knees under your hips, hands under your shoulders.
  • Squeeze your right knee forwards towards the front of the mat, and let your foot slide to the left. If your hips are tight, don’t move your foot too far. Otherwise, you can move your foot out until your right shin in parallel with the front edge of the mat.
  • Lower your hips on to the mat – now your right leg will be in front of your hips and your left leg still extended behind you.
  • Try to point both your hip bones and your shoulders towards the front of the mat.
  • You can keep your weight on your hands with straight arms (just in front of your right leg), or to get a deeper stretch, lower your upper body forwards as far as is comfortable.
  • After 10 – 20 slow breaths here, switch sides.

Is it safe?

A little caution is needed with Pigeon Pose if you have a pre-existing knee injury or a ‘dodgy knee’. In this case, keep your front knee very bent (almost so your calf is touching your thigh). The more bent a knee is, the less risk there is of it twisting, which can cause injury.

If you have a serious knee injury, then it is best to substitute Pigeon Pose with Butterfly Pose.

Use props to make it easier!

I love using props to make yoga poses more relaxing or better suited to different body-types. You could use a yoga block or a large cushion/bolster with Pigeon Pose. If you have tight hips, then using a block underneath your sitting bone on the front leg will be really beneficial. This lifts your hips slightly, and reduces the twisting force on your front knee.

If you’d like to completely relax your upper body, but you cannot yet reach the ground with your arms and head, then it is LOVELY to use a big bulky pillow or a bolster to lie on. Place the pillow/bolster just in front of your front leg, and wiggle around until you can release the whole weight of your upper body on to it.

Stay there, and breeeeathe…

2. Happy Baby pose

Happy Baby Pose is another hip opener, working on hip flexion and external rotation. I don’t know if there’s something in the name, but I do find it a very nurturing pose. It is a great stress buster for the same reasons as Pigeon Pose, but it is a little safer on the knees.

How to practise Happy Baby pose

  • Lie on your back, and lift your legs up above you with bent knees.
  • Bend your knees deeply aiming for your knees to come down besides your ribs.
  • Grab hold of your shins OR, if you can reach them, grab the outside edges of your feet with your hands.
  • On an exhale, let the weight of your arms pull your knees a little further down.
  • Try to keep your whole back on the ground (although your tailbone will curl up slightly). 

Safety considerations

Happy Baby Pose is very safe to practise, because you’re not placing much weight on your legs while stretching your hips. It is a great one to chill out in for several minutes, if that is what you need right now!

Props

If you find it impossible to reach your shins or feet in this pose, then you could use two yoga straps (or two regular belts!) looped around each foot. Hold on to the ends with each hand, and then allow the weight of your arms to pull your feet a little bit lower.

Remember, it’s not what it looks like! But whether you are getting the intended stretch.

3. Chest opening Corpse pose

If you’re new to yoga then this name may have made you recoil a little! “Corpse pose??” Yes, you read that right. In Hatha Yoga (which contains many separate styles of yoga), lying down on your back is typically called Corpse pose. It’s the one you do in Shavasana, when you relax for a few minutes with your eyes closed at the end of a yoga class. It is possibly most peoples favourite pose!

In the chest opening variety, we use a pillow or a bolster underneath the upper back, so that you encourage your chest and shoulder muscles to open and stretch.

How can it help?

Have you ever felt that tightness across your chest when you are stressed? Then relaxing in this pose could help you remove the tension in those muscles, to open your chest to receive deeper breaths, as well as encourage you to express your emotions rather than hold them close. Yogis like to call it a ‘heart opening’ pose.

Getting in to the pose

  • Pace your pillow or bolster on your mat first – about a quarter of the way down from the edge where your head will be.
  • Slowly lie down over it, shuffling around until it is underneath your shoulder-blades.
  • Place your hands next to your head, palms facing up, and elbows at about a 90 degree bend.
  • Close your eyes, and with every exhale allow you arms to feel a little heavier, allowing gravity to help you open your chest.
  • Relax here for as long as is comfortable (though I would limit it to 10 minutes, as your arms may fall asleep!)

Safety considerations

This is generally a very safe pose. However, if you have lumbar (lower back) problems, you may like to put another pillow, rolled up towel or a bolster under your knees. This can help lessen the extension in your lower back.

 

Beyond the Physical Benefits of Yoga for Stress Relief

I like to ‘hook’ people in to the realm of yoga with the direct physical experiences and benefits gained from practising it. I find that many people are drawn to yoga because they think the stretching, strengthening and breathing will improve their fitness and health – and they are absolutely right! However, there is more…

Ancient yogic philosophy

After a period of practicing yoga, there naturally comes a time when you get curious about the yogic philosophy. And I have found that once you open the Pandora’s Box of these ancient ways of thinking, you realise it contains gems which can help you navigate everyday life, frustrations, stresses, desires and disappointments.

Yogic philosophy stems from an ancient script called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is very old Indian lore, passed down through ~ 5000 years in the form of short, poetic stanzas written in Sanskrit.

Our core is stable – everything else is changing

One principle which has really resonated with me, and helped me through times of stress, is the idea that we all have an inner core, described as a bright light and named our ‘Purusha’ in Sanskrit. This inner light is intuitively-wise, un-changing, and represents our true self.

Our true-self/Purusha is separate from our thoughts, our emotions and our body. When we feel like everything is changing really fast, that we have no control, and this causes stress and overwhelm, then this concept can help. Focussing on our inner, stable core, and working on being OK with the rest (our mind, emotions, body and environment) constantly changing can help us to let go of the stress and shame we feel of not being able to control every single thing.

In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic this was often my focus (and still is!) while I lay in Shavasana, the relaxation at the end of a yoga practice. It helped me feel grounded in my own inner essence and wisdom, even when most other things were out of my control.

I sincerely hope this thought may help you too!

 

Summary about Yoga for Stress Relief

It is clear that stress is not our friend. However, we cannot avoid the business of life, or demanding situations that come up when we have responsibilities. What we can control is our reactions to them, and the physical imprint it leaves on our physical body and wider health.

Yoga helps!

By integrating a mindful movement and breathing routine into your busy life, you will be better able to brush off any stressful feelings when things don’t go exactly your way, and when there are things out of your control. This has been scientifically proven for health-care workers, office workers and parents of newborns to name just a few.

It’s OK to start small

You don’t have to become a monk either! Or a flexible pretzel! By spending 10-20 minutes on yourself, as often as you can, you will feel more grounded and perhaps gain physical strength and flexibility (depending on the intensity of yoga that you choose).

Yoga has transformed my relationship with stress

A regular yoga practice, and visualising my unchanging, intuitive and wise inner light (True Self/Purusha) have transformed me from a nail-biting, workaholic, overwhelmed insomniac to a more chilled-out, less self-criticising, more understanding and sociable person.

If you tend to worry or get stressed, I sincerely hope you will try starting a short, home yoga practice.

 

How Can You Start Reducing Stress?

So… are you curious about whether a 10-20 minute yoga practice could reduce your stress? The only way to find out is to try it! But these thoughts may be going through your head…

I’m not flexible enough…

I can’t meditate! (trust me – I’ve been there!)

I’m busy up to my eye-balls with work and family commitments!

Dare to spend time on yourself

Does your phone tell you how many hours/day you spend on it? Mine does… and it’s always shocking! If that number is anywhere over 30 minutes, then you definitely have the time to spend 10-20 minutes investing in your physical and mental wellbeing.

Easy-to-follow on-demand sessions

I have developed a range of short, on-demand yoga classes, from beginner-level, to more challenging. These are perfect way to get into yoga, and can easily fit in to a busy day, and around children and work.

Here’s what a busy working mum said (while she was home-schooling!):

“The classes are easy to follow, I can fit them in around my kids, work and home life and can choose classes to suit my mood or energy levels. 

Jolanthe is always so supportive and kind and her classes have made a real difference to both my physical and mental health.

I cannot thank Jolanthe enough for reigniting my love of yoga and restarting my yoga journey. Thank you, Carla x”

 

A Freebie to Help You Get Started!

I’d love to show you how yoga can make you feel physically and mentally balanced and happy.

My FREE 2-week trial on my yoga programme includes 50+ on-demand classes (some just 10 mins long), and an optional weekly live class. To learn more click here.

 

I Hope You Found it Interesting!

Thank you for reading this blog about yoga for stress relief. Watch this space for more blogs to come about the benefits of yoga and useful tips on how to practise yoga at home.

With love,

Jolanthe x

 

References

Cocchiara, R.A., Peruzzo, M., Mannocci, A., Ottolenghi, L., Villari, P., Polimeni, A., Guerra, F., and La Torre, G. 2019. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 8, 284; doi:10.3390/jcm8030284

NHS Bolton, 2021. Captain Tom’s fundraising helps Bolton NHS staff fight COVID-19. Accessible at: https://www.boltonft.nhs.uk/2020/10/captain-toms-fundraising-helps-bolton-nhs-staff-fight-covid-19/ (Accessed 6 May 2021).

Timlin, D. & Simpson, E.E.A. 2017. Midwifery, 46, 29–36; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2017.01.005

Vale, E.D., Palermi, S., Aloe, I., Marcantonio, R., Spera, R., Montagnani, S. and Sirico, F. 2020. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 5, 33; doi:10.3390/jfmk5020033 

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