We are in a crisis of stress. An extensive survey has revealed that three in four of us in the UK have been so overwhelmed by stress in the past year we have felt unable to cope. One in three has felt suicidal and one in six has self-harmed. As a yoga teacher, I am aware that most people come to yoga classes for stress relief, and I wonder if I have been doing my job to help them. Yoga is a £834 million business in the UK. There are demonstrably a lot of us practicing yoga with an unquestioning belief that it must be good for us; a fervent belief that if we simply show up for class and do what the teacher asks we will reap some benefit and feel better. But I’m afraid that as teachers we are failing our students. I’m afraid that yoga practitioners are somehow missing out on yoga’s proven capacity for stress relief.
What is contemporary yoga?
Yoga can deliver immediate physiological stress relief as well as teach practical tools for stress management, but you have to decide that’s what you want your yoga to deliver. Often we pay no mind to our actual stress-relief needs and go too fast, make postures too complicated, and succumb to a peer-pressure need to do what everyone else is doing. We chase postures and flexibility with a greater dedication than we do our sense of calm.
Throughout history, postural yoga traditions have responded to the unique cultural conditions from which they emerged. Our contemporary culture is rife with stress and I believe that our contemporary yoga must serve its needs. Contemporary yoga must respond to the physical and psychological demands of modern life and offer practices that relieve its strains. I care more about reducing stress than getting my leg behind my head, and you should too.
How can yoga relieve stress?
One way for your yoga to be a stress relieving practice is to make sure that you prioritise self-inquiry and self-regulation. I’ve had a long history with yoga and have adapted my practice over the years as I’ve had to contend with depression, anxiety, grief, and the alarming realisation that I’m no longer 25. I am constantly assessing how yoga makes me feel, if my practice is serving my needs, and if I can change it to work better. I know I can’t just show up and move, I have to consciously check-in.
Practise the yoga check-in
Checking in simply means that you ask yourself questions before you practise. Have you sat around all day and need to move? Have you been moving too much and need to rest? Is your stress level low or high? Gather enough knowledge about your current state so that you can make informed choices about what you do on your mat. My yoga check-ins are rarely profound. I usually learn that I’m tired or that I’m anxious about a nasty email. But I know where I’m starting from so I can figure out what I can do about it.
Yoga classes are filled with opportunities to self-regulate levels of difficulty and demand. When you are offered choices in yoga class, make them based on what you learned from your check-in. Personalise your practice: knees can go up or down, stances can be long or short, you can take a break or repeat the posture, and so on. Your stress levels may be positively impacted by getting deeply physical or conversely they may respond well to letting your practice be quite mellow and easeful. Throughout the class, ensure that the level of physical demand rises concurrent with your ability to breathe. Beneficial stress relief responses, including nervous system regulation, come from slow and regulated breathing. If your practice is fast and enormously difficult, your capacity to pace your breath may be diminished. Even though it was what you set out to remedy, you might become breathless and stressed out. At the end of your practice, check-in again and see if the choices you’ve made have actually worked.
This process of checking in and learning to self-regulate how we feel of course has profound stress-relieving repercussions off the yoga mat. As a yoga teacher in this time of crisis, I hope we can learn to pay attention, slow down, breathe, and free ourselves from this heavy burden of extreme stress.