Today I got a call from a writer. She was putting together an article for the Baltimore Sun. The piece was about alternative modes of reducing stress. I.e. stress reduction without alcohol, pills or pot! She wanted to know why I think yoga is an effective tool in the process of stress reduction. Stress, by the way, is considered to be a contributing factor in most life threatening diseases today including, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, depression, even the cold and flu.
Lets look at the definitions of stress.
Stress: Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.
Stress: Mental or emotional tension.
Yoga philosophy understands that all stress, whether mental or emotional, manifests itself as tension in the body. Some stress is good; we all know that. Stress is what allows us to get up from our campfire in a real hurry, run super fast, and get away from that hungry lion. On the other hand, a stress response that does not turn off is considered out of whack, over the top, and harmful. Many of us suffer from this kind of harmful stress.
Each of us manifests the pressure of stress a little differently but it certainly shows up as immobility, holding, or tightness in the physicality. Some people hold tension in the shoulders, the neck and the jaw. Some people hold stress in the hips, groin, or the lower back. Often stress shows up in the face, hands or even the feet. This tension, held habitually in the body, creates not only a fatigue (imagine contracting a muscles for a full minute, it takes energy right? Now imagine an entire year or two or three) but actual weakness in our musculature which effects proper posture and breathing.
Yoga helps bring awareness to our habitual patterns of holding. By practicing postures, we tense and release almost every muscle in the body. We engage muscles for a sustained period of time, with awareness, and then we release the same muscles. We feel our shoulders let go, our hips, our face our feet. In doing so, we have the experience of relaxation. When we experience relaxation and letting go, we are like fish drawn toward water. We feel held and fed. Our brain recognizes the relief of letting go and sends sensations of pleasure through our whole being.
In other words we feel a reduction in stress.
Now how does this help with the day to day?When we feel stress reduction on our yoga mat and we feel the pleasure that comes with a healthy contraction and (this is the important part) RELEASE, we bring awareness to our habitual tension. By bringing awareness to our habitual tension on the mat we can learn to recognize that tension as it arises. When we are in a meeting with our boss, or sitting in a traffic jam we will recognize our habitual tension. We will begin to notice that when we feel stress our body reacts in very particular way. The postures and the practice of postures give us tools. These tools include relaxing the shoulders in triangle or releasing the expression from our face in mountain pose. We can call upon these experiences to relax in our daily lives when we feel tension arise.
So when I am in a space where I feel stress and tension begin, I bring my mind to a pose where I am asked to keep the shoulders relaxed. I am connected to those muscles and their firing. I can release them; I can find a relaxed place so can you.