As a yoga teacher, I hear a lot about stress. I get a lot of people coming to a yoga class or one of my retreats because they are stressed, depressed, anxious or just totally knackered. Now more than ever we are caught up in an ‘epidemic of exhaustion’ and can’t see a way out of it. Some people come to a yoga class because a friend has told them it might help, or they have read about yoga in a magazine or on a website.
To be clear - I’m not a medical professional, my skills are more around supporting people to improve their mental health using yoga as opposed to treating mental illness. I’m a yoga teacher and I don’t have all the answers – but I do have a few!
Now any type of exercise is going to improve your mood due to the release of those feel good endorphins. But yoga offers more than that.
One of the reasons I took up yoga was because it made my body FEEL good! The stretching, using my muscles in a different way, and the twinges the next day, I knew I’d done something good for my body. The mental benefits came much later and these do vary from person to person so don’t expect too much to begin with.
Yoga encourages you to slow down your breath, focus on specific movements of the body whilst breathing in unison, and increasing your awareness of any feelings of tension - this helps to shift the balance from the sympathetic nervous system (or the fight-or-flight response) to the parasympathetic nervous system which is calming and restorative. A lot of people are stuck in the fight or flight mode and the mind and body can only take that for so long before it begins to revolt!
"The great thing about yoga is that it is so accessible"
You don’t have to leave the house to do it! There are many apps available, YouTube channels, DVD’s, magazines and books which you can use to help you develop a home yoga practice.
However, it can be lovely to find a local class and you can make it more social by going with a friend. It would be a good idea to find a gentle class rather than going for a 90 minute power yoga session – a more gentle class will contribute more to the ‘dampening down’ of the nervous system.
Try Yoga Nidra – this translates as ‘yogic sleep’ and takes into a deeply relaxed state. www.yoganidranetwork.org has lots of information and free downloads by trained Nidra teachers. A more precise definition of Yoga Nidra,
“Yoga nidra induces complete physical, mental and emotional relaxation ... it is a state of consciousness, which is neither sleep nor awake, neither is it concentration nor hypnotism. It can be defined as an altered state of consciousness.” Kumar, 2012.
Through yoga nidra, tensions can be progressively released.
Muscular tensions are related to the body itself, the nervous system and endocrinal imbalances. These are easily removed by the deep physical relaxation attained in the state of yoga nidra.
Emotional tensions are more difficult to erase because often we are unable to express our emotions freely and openly. Often they are repressed and the resulting tensions become more deeply rooted. Yoga nidra can tranquilise the entire emotional structure of the mind.
Mental tensions are the result of excessive mental activity. Life experiences are registered by our consciousness and are accumulated in the mental body. From time to time these explode, affecting our body, mind, behaviours and reactions. Yoga nidra is the science of relaxation which enables us to dive deep down into the subconscious mind, releasing and relaxing mental tensions.
Meditation can be a life changer – and don’t think you have to sit in the lotus position with your hands in chin mudra chanting Om! Apps such as Headspace and Calm have made meditation so accessible that you can literally meditate anytime, anywhere.
By dictionary definition, ‘meditation’ means to reflect upon, ponder, or contemplate. The word meditate comes from the Latin meditari, which means to think about or consider.
Meditation is the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra.
Try Gong meditation!
I was initially very sceptical about gong meditation until I tried it. It really is amazing, especially if you can experience a gong bath for real rather than using recordings. The science behind it is also very interesting, and ‘sound therapy’ is becoming increasingly popular.
The gong meditation clears the nerve endings and regenerates the parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system sends relax messages to all the organs. It regulates the rebuilding functions of the body and it is vital for handling stress since it coordinates the recovery period from stress. The gong resonates all cells of the body simultaneously in a most powerful & effective way. It produces a strong sound wave, which stimulates the physical body by influencing the surface of the skin and every cell.
Pranayama, also known as breathing exercises, are also an integral part of yoga. There is a reason why we have a saying, ‘Just take a breath!’ That’s because there is nothing better than a long, slow, deep exhale to release away any tension in the body!
Treat yourself – go on a yoga retreat!
Either for a day, a weekend or even a week. Taking time out to focus on yourself and away from distractions of every day life gives you a chance to see more clearly and can re-energise you, and you will always learn something new, whether it is new breathing technique, a new pose that really works for you or a type of meditation that you haven’t tried before.
I will admit that I have become a yoga bore and talk about it endlessly to anyone who will listen. However, my self care toolkit involves regular scheduled in duvet days and Netflix, a FULL packet of chocolate buttons, a lovely facial, an aromatherapy massage at my home, or a good night with friends and cocktails. But when it comes to my exercise of choice – yoga hits the spot on many different levels.
For more research and studies on the benefits of yoga have a look at this report;
Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/
Claudia Brown is a yoga teacher based in Stafford but is a proud Cumbrian. She worked extensively with West Bromwich Albion Football Club first team and has a monthly column in the top national yoga magazine, Om Yoga. She is an Ambassador for Asquith London, an exclusive yoga clothing brand. Claudia offers private tuition, luxury day yoga retreats and works with many corporate clients. She has trained with Anne Marie Newland at Sun Power Yoga, has a Yoga for Athletes and Sport accreditation with leading Sports Yoga teacher Sarah Ramsden, is a Total Yoga Nidra Teacher after studying with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, has studied Yin Yoga with Norman Blair and has spent time at Oxford University studying Mindfulness. Her teaching style varies from sweaty to snail pace.
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