Yoga lowers tension and promotes relaxation. In times of high stress and anxiety, our bodies tend to constrict. We start to hold tension in our shoulders, necks, jaws, or elsewhere. Excessive muscular tension can then feed back to our minds and perpetuate the feeling of unease. When we experience the relaxation benefits of yoga, we can lower our physical tension, which helps release the grip that anxiety can have on us. Click here for a yoga video specifically geared toward relaxation.
Yoga helps us regulate the breath. Our breath is intimately connected to our nervous system. When we’re anxious we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths, or we might even unconsciously hold our breath and then take big gulping breaths. When we slow and deepen our breathing, we soothe the nervous system. Yoga can teach us to breathe with awareness and to use the breath to move through challenging poses. As I found in the delivery room, we can take this breath focus with us anywhere. Most yoga instructors will direct your attention to the breath during a class; click here for videos that demonstrate specific breathing techniques in yoga.
Yoga increases bodily awareness. In addition to the relaxing effect that comes directly from a session of yoga, we can also learn greater awareness of our bodies that can further lower our physical tension and stress away from the mat. We often carry unnecessary tension in our bodies, and through the practice of yoga we can get better at recognizing tension and letting go of it.
Yoga interrupts worry cycles. All of us have had the experience of getting stuck in our heads, and chronic worries can be exhausting. When we step on the yoga mat, we have an opportunity to step out of the thinking mode. Our worries can of course come with us, and yoga gives us the opportunity to practice letting go of the worries and coming back to our bodies and breath, over and over. Through this practice we can learn to let go of our worries at other times, too.
Doing yoga demonstrates self compassion. When we’re stressed and busy, it’s easy to stop doing things that are good for us, like exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating well. When we take 20 or 30 minutes to do something kind for ourselves like yoga, we treat ourselves as someone who’s worth taking care of. And as nice as it is to think well of ourselves, it’s at least as important to show that we care about ourselves. I’ve often found that the behavior comes before the feeling among those of us who struggle to love ourselves.
Yoga fosters self-acceptance. As challenging as yoga can be, the practice is grounded in an acceptance of where we are. It’s something that comes across very clearly in the Yoga With Adriene videos—to accept our bodies, abilities, and limits just as they are. Importantly, acceptance doesn’t have to mean resignation to stagnation. As I’ve written before, we can have an intention toward growth even as we see ourselves as fundamentally whole, just as an acorn is complete and yet isn’t done growing.
Yoga trains us to accept discomfort. We often move reflexively away from discomfort, and at times this retreat can lead us away from what we value. For example, avoiding activities that cause us anxiety will bleed the life out of our experience. I remember one time feeling extremely uncomfortable in a pose and feeling like I couldn’t hold it, and the yoga instructor said to the class, “You should be feeling uncomfortable right now.” Just knowing that discomfort was expected made it more tolerable: It was just discomfort, no better, no worse. I didn’t have to run from it.