Yoga for Stress Relief

As a yoga teacher of more than 10 years, I have seen many different types of students show up to studios where I worked.

Many present with functional physical problems dealing with injuries. Others show habits that have formed over years and created movement that has become constricted, our unknown habits creating uneven wear and tear on our bodies. Others come with mental afflictions and or stress they know, or don’t know, they have. Still some come to yoga just because. 

Yoga opens up and exposes all the habits we have come to consider “normal.” Normal to ourselves, learned over time. They are only our normal as they are only our habits. 

These habits are exposed in a yoga class that asks us to look and feel inside ourselves. When asked to notice how we feel and where we feel it, students are exposed to new sensations that change how they look and respond to the old sensations that were formed into habits.

One of my recent clients came to me for stress. Stress is a form of suffering all of us will experience in our lives. 

Her shoulders were jacked up to her ears, her movements were constricted above the waist not allowing her the ability to turn, move her arms functionally and she was beginning to feel pain. 

She associated this pain to a muscle that was tight in her neck.

She was right. She had a tight muscle in her neck. More than one tight muscle in her neck.

In our culture, we are taught that to eliminate the tight muscles we have a few options (in no order):

  1. Visit a Chiropractor, usually weekly, to loosen up the tight muscle.
  2. Take a muscle relaxer, or other pain killer and go about your business.
  3. Go to yoga and begin to move the way you are told by the instructor.

These modalities are all fine. They will work. 

Temporarily. But the pain will persist when we stop doing one of these options. 

The tight shoulders are tight for a reason. That reason is what needs to be explored.

My client has had a stressful year, or two, or three.

When stress happens, our nervous system kicks into action. This action starts a myriad of responses in our bodies, one being protection. The sympathetic nervous system is made to protect us from harm. Stress is perceived by our system as harm.

This protection presents in each of us differently. For my client, it is in tightening her shoulders and pulling them up, that makes her feel as if she is protected from the perceived fear of what life has thrown in her direction. 

Other clients push stress (suffering) down into their bodies and ignore it. Maybe they stay busy, not allowing themselves time to sit with the suffering. Maybe they use a vice to cover the suffering. Maybe they stay in the thoughts of their heads, never allowing any emotion to come up from feelings in the body. Maybe for you or me it is another form of running from what is.  

The mental movement of pulling in and up on my client's shoulders created a physical reaction that is then embedded in the memory of the body and becomes her new normal. The lifted shoulders begin, over time, to resynthesize her nervous system to her new normal way of being and feeling. The sympathetic nervous system stays activated in her body, creating the new and false feeling that she is safe.

Working her muscles will only relieve the muscular tension for a short period of time. 

Ignoring the underlying cause of the lifted shoulders, which is stress and/or suffering, will not eliminate the tight muscles over time. It will have an adverse effect. Once the tight shoulders feel “good” and become her new normal, the stress will move to another area and cause more symptoms, more tightness, more dis-ease.

Our culture has been taught that the muscle is the cause of the pain. Fix the muscle, fix the pain.

That doesn’t work. We are seeing it over and over. When we see the same thing over and over and don’t do anything different, we see the same thing over and over! Ignoring the root cause creates a vicious circle of pain and suffering and eventually making the suffering grow.

To stop the cycle, Yoga Therapy uses the technique of awareness. The seemingly simple and basic idea that we are unaware of how stress affects our bodies allows us to delve deeper into our thoughts and feelings. When we begin to question these feelings and thoughts, we can then look at them differently and internally sense and feel when our shoulders rise. We then become aware of a change that happens in our bodies that is NOT our formal normal. 

Only when we begin to notice our own reactions can we then begin to question them. 

So many of us live in our heads, ignoring bodily access to the subtle and not so subtle feelings in our bodies. Then when a stressor happens, we chalk it up to a physical ailment or we ignore it. 

For my client, her neck was so tight her head tilted. She had no idea. When I safely and lovingly adjusted her head to vertical she began to feel how the muscles in her shoulders and neck had adjusted to a new way to feel. Her own alignment was being set back into what her old non-stressed normal had been. When asked to move her shoulders and feel how their placement on her body can be adjusted internally by feeling them, could she then begin to go inside and notice how external events affect her inside wisdom and feelings. She could then choose to override what the feeling of stress was presenting to her.

Not having awareness creates internal adjustments that we think will make us feel better. Feelings are often uncomfortable so we push them away. If we allowed them to happen, we could question and learn from them, not push them aside as if they weren't important.

Our internal wisdom, once awake and aware, knows better than what only our brains tell us. It’s this simple awareness we need to cultivate.

Once our internal awareness has been re-normalized, or acknowledged through introduction to movement in a safe plane, can we then notice when our bodies react to outside stressors. When we notice, we can plant ourselves firmly back in our bodies and feel grounded and able to address the stress on the outside.

None of us can eliminate stress that happens from the outside. Life is stressful. How we deal with internally is what creates our own health and wellness. We are responsible for our own internal health, not a pill, not a chiropractor and not only a stretching class.

Working from inside out is a complete shift in our cultural teachings but is the only way to stay grounded and sure of who we are and our purpose. Our purpose to live a whole and grounded life which starts on the inside. 

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