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Freeing Yourself of Stress Through Yoga

Katie Tuttle | May 27, 2014

“We now believe 80 percent of illness is stress-related, that whatever your genetic weak link, stress will trigger it. Going to a spa is wonderful, but until you teach yourself ways to achieve peace of mind from the inside, you’ll remain vulnerable to stress.” —Dr. Richard Brown

Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. For a lot of adults today, stress has become the norm—a lifestyle.

Have you ever experienced a back ache when you are stressed at work or after a fight with your spouse? This is real, and it can be damaging, but you can change it.

Stress and chronic pain are mind-body processes. Repeated experiences of specific emotions, thoughts, and stress make it more likely that you will experience these in the future.

We are stressed! We are fatigued! We are fed up! So what can be done? Yoga. Mindfulness practices. Relaxation. Meditation.

In western modern science, we use the word neuroplasticity to describe the process of learning from past experiences; yoga uses the word samskara.

According to the book “Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain” by Kelly McGonigal, “samskaras are the memories of the body and mind that influence how we experience the present moment and make you more likely to repeat your past experiences and actions and more likely to interpret the world through the filter of your past experiences. These habits keep you stuck, feeling the same emotions, thinking the same thoughts, and even experiencing the same pain.”

Samskaras are formed through repetition, so every thought, experience, action and behavior counts. These make marks in your brain and nervous system that lead to and shape future actions, feelings and experiences.

The good thing about neuroplasticity or samskaras is that if you can “get good” at a thought process or stress response, you can do the same with healing responses. The key is to retrain the mind and the body to unlearn the stress or pain responses and offer the mind and body healthier responses. This takes practice, but it is totally worth it.

Why yoga: Mind, body and spirit

Yoga gives us tools to work with the body and the breath, affecting the physical and energetic body; the mind, affecting our mood and psychology; and the heart and spirit which touches us at our deepest and most divine self, affecting the place of joy and hope.

Yoga offers a straightforward approach to transform samskaras or patterns of any kind: practice awareness of habitual thoughts, emotions, and behaviors; understand how those patterns lead to suffering; and then practice the opposite and notice whether that reduces your suffering.

So, in the case of stress or chronic pain, we try to become aware of our stress-pain response and how that perpetuates more suffering. Then we also practice the opposite—like being relaxed, comfortable and kind to ourselves—and see whether that reduces our suffering.

As we do more of these healing practices, we will start to create new habits of the mind and the body, and we will in fact experience less pain and suffering, and more comfort and joy.

As McGonigal says in her book, “every yoga practice is an opportunity to leave a new, positive trace on the body, mind and spirit.”

Yoga Toolbox

Breathwork: Breathwork, or pranayama, is a powerful tool for reducing anxiety, stress, and managing pain. In her book, McGonigal points out, “small changes in your breathing can lead to big changes in how the mind and body function, including lowering stress hormones and reducing your sensitivity to pain.”

Gentle asana: The physical postures are important to maintain strength, flexibility, and overall health of the body. Stress hormones are best moved through your systems with the help of physical activity and exercise. In addition to walking or any exercise you enjoy, practice asanas mindfully. Move the body every day, balance effort and ease, and be consistent with your practice.

Relaxation: In order to properly care for yourself, it is important to take time to relax—not only to heal a current condition, but also to get to a place of stillness and calm. This allows you to more easily hear what your body and heart are telling you so that you can make intelligent, compassionate choices for yourself, instead of running the same patterns. Our samskaras are like railroad tracks. It’s easy for our mind-body to just run them. If we take the time for relaxation and silence, we can choose to step off the tracks, and start a new, healthier path. Let’s get good at being relaxed.

Meditation: Meditation can be a very powerful tool to combat stress and stop the cycle of suffering. The more you experience a particular thought pattern, the more likely you are to repeat it. Meditating gives us the opportunity to create some space in order to see our patterns more clearly and then, with practice, choose something different. If you practice meditation regularly, you will be less at the mercy of your old thought patterns and samskaras. You’ll enjoy the freedom to choose something different, perhaps more in line with your highest self.

Life is mysterious and it can be stressful, but sometimes our pain and suffering can be our greatest teachers. If we can build our awareness, learn to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness, and honor our divinity, the potential for health, joy and abundance is unlimited.

I wish for each of you peace, joy, and freedom from all unnecessary suffering. In the words of BKS Iyengar, “the body is the child of the soul.” Please take care of yourself as though your body and mind were a small child—one that needs both love and positive example, nurturing and discipline. If you care for yourself in this way, your child will grow and blossom, and the divine gifts of your heart will be revealed to you.

For more information about this research, check out Kelly McGonigal and Timothy McCall’s work on yoga therapy. References for this article are listed below.

  • Glombiewski JA, Tersek J, Rief W. “Muscular reactivity and specificity in chronic back pain patients.”Psychosom Med. 2008 Jan;70(1):125-31. Epub 2007 Dec 24 Section for Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Philipps-University of Marburg, Gutenbergstr. 18, 35032 Marburg, Germany.
  • McGonigal, Kelly. Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Chronic Pain. (The New Harbinger Whole-Body Healing Series) New Harbinger Publications. 2009.
  • McCall, Timothy, M.D. “Yoga for Chronic Pain.” Parts 1,2 and 3. Yoga Journal.
  • McCall, Timothy, M.D. “Your Brain on Yoga.” Yoga + Joyful Living. Fall 2009.
  • McCall, Timothy, M.D. “The Scientific Basis of Yoga Therapy.” Yoga Journal.

NurrieStearns, Mary. Yoga for Anxiety: Meditations and Practices for Calming the Body and Mind. New Harbinger Publications. 2010.

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