Do Yoga Because it’s Stressful

I’m puzzled when people say they can’t do yoga or meditate because they can’t relax, or they aren’t flexible enough. No one is born with the innate ability to relax; the practice itself is what brings increased focus and clarity. By meeting challenging situations again and again with conscious breath, you begin to develop relaxation and serenity. It takes time but research shows that after just six weeks of daily practice, the benefits of yoga and meditation are measurable.

The brain tends to react automatically to sensations of discomfort, triggering the physiological stress response. This might include increased heart and breathing rates, muscle tension, and higher levels of  cortisol and stress hormones. While some stress response is automatic and necessary, it has probably been reinforced by years of negative reactions to stressful situations. Your brain has developed a habit.

The good news is, habits can be changed! Neurons that fire together, wire together. Your thoughts and actions have an effect on the chemical composition of the brain, and the firing pattern of your neurons. A change in posture, relaxing the muscles of your face, and slowing your breathing all affect the brain in a positive, calming way.

In a yoga practice you might experience the stress response when you feel the buildup of lactic acid as muscles strain, or the restricted breathing while twisting your spine. Being upside down or feeling off balance can also produce anxious thoughts. You might suddenly think you’re going to overstretch, or that you’re not strong enough to hold the pose any longer. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to hold warrior pose for one more breath or running away from a sabre toothed tiger, the physiological response is the same: Your muscles tense and your brain reacts with negative thoughts.

But this works both ways. If you relax those muscles, especially in the face, the brain gets a message that says, “oh, time to relax”. Same with deliberately slowing your breathing. Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It’s the practice of staying calm during those stressors that creates a neurobiological benefit. Yoga retrains the brain’s habit so it doesn’t produce the stress response so automatically.

So when you feel the stress response happening in your body, use slow and deep breathing, relax the face, clear your head of anxious thinking, and focus on what’s happening in the present. These are real skills you can apply to your life, on or off the mat.

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