How Does Yoga Help with Stress?
Updated: Jul 27
When people ask me, "Why do you practice yoga?" this is my answer...Yoga doesn't fix my problems, but it makes me more capable of dealing with them. When I am not practicing yoga, my body is not resilient, my mind is a jumbled mess, and my worries weigh me down...it is like life is turned up to 11. Yoga turns the volume back down.
I have been practicing yoga, with varying degrees of intensity and frequency, for 20 years. My practice shifts and bends with my shifting needs. Normally, I have a devoted vinyasa practice. In very stressful times, I have opted for a quieter, less aggressive yin practice. For two chaotic years, I practiced only Ashtanga, whose steady routine helped me feel more centered and stable.
For a primer on different yoga styles, read our article on Yoga Traditions.
At times, other things have taken center stage: new jobs, new babies, big moves.... At some of those times my yoga practice became more erratic or almost disappeared. Sometimes other movement modalities have felt right in my body, like dance, gymnastics or movement. I especially appreciated Pilates in pregnancy and postpartum. I have a rich experience of living life both with ample time devoted to yoga and also of living life without much yoga to speak of, and here is the difference as I experience it: Yoga doesn't fix my problems, but it makes me more capable of dealing with them.
Yoga doesn't fix my problems, but it makes me more capable of dealing with them.
Stress: The volume is at 11
Imagine you are in a conversation with a friend and trying to think of a word; it is right on the tip of your tongue... but a radio is right next to you and a news talk show is squawking. And also, the TV in the next room is blasting an advertisement. And the teenager upstairs is blaring a rock anthem - one of your favorites, so you know every line and can't help signing along a little bit in the back of your mind. Your neighbors next door are arguing and their voices leak through the thin walls of your apartment. And your toddler is standing next to you saying, "momma, momma, momma, momma, momma..." And outside the window car breaks are screeching in the tell-tale way of an on-coming accident,... Now, what was that word you were trying to think of? This is how I feel when I am not practicing yoga regularly - life is frustrating, chaotic, and NOISEY!
Now imagine someone comes in and turns off the radio and the TV. The neighbors all settle down. The toddler goes for a nap. The traffic clears. And the person to whom you are speaking comes close to you, looks you in the eye, and waits patiently for you to think of your word. When I practice yoga regularly, it is like the volume on life gets turned down a few notches. Then I have time, space, and opportunity for my thoughts to become more clear, my actions to become more intentional, and my energy to become more regulated.
Of course, yoga does not always take away the problems, distractions, and worries. But it does create in me the right conditions to be able to handle the problems, turn away from the distractions, and identify which worries warrant my attention and which do not.
See our article, How to Create a Calm Mind Jar, for an activity that demonstrates this effect perfectly...
When I am not practicing yoga,...
...My body is not resilient
When I am sick, tired, weak, sore, stiff or injured, and I am unable to move and feel my best in my physical body, I am not resilient. When my posture is weak or misaligned, my breathing cannot be full and effective. That is problem-producing. It makes me self-conscious, causes me to miss out on things I want to be doing, and leads to a negative cycle of fatigue and de-motivation. But when my yoga practice is regular, my immune system is stronger, my body is more capable, my breath comes more easily, and I am not as distracted by physical limitations. One way yoga directly turns down the noise on potential problems is to keep my body healthy and performing well.
...My mind is a jumbled mess
I am a multi-tasker by nature (or training, maybe?) and am easily swallowed up by long to-do lists. My mind can become so overwhelmed with creating plans, replaying scenes from the previous day, or reminding myself of errands and chores, that my head is literally full of noise! I generate so much distraction within my own mind, that I have trouble focusing on the tasks or people in front of me. Sound familiar?!
I notice that when I have a steady yoga practice, I am able to retain information more easily, focus on one idea or person at a time, and complete a task to my own satisfaction before moving on to something else. Yoga doesn't magically mark things off of my to-do list, but I am overall more effective and more productive when I have a steady practice. I find this especially true when I am regularly practicing some sort of flow yoga.
Flowing places a unique demand on me: I focus on the alignment of one pose, or one aspect of a pose, placing full attention on that pose for just a few seconds. I am not there long enough for my mind to wonder. But I am there again and again, retracing the same patterns and pathways until they become familiar enough that I am completely absorbed in the play between my breath and body in the pose. This level of attention - this habit I build in a flow practice - prepares me to be attentive and efficient in other areas.
...My worries weigh me down
I sometimes worry that my young sons will be catch a terrible disease. (A recent global pandemic isn't helping.) I worry that I will lose my legs in a bus crash and not be able to do the things I love nor teach movement for a living any more. I worry about money, my friends, family, society, and the planet. Sometimes I worry that I won't be able to sleep and then I can't sleep because I am worrying about not sleeping...Some of my worries are well-founded, reasonable, and within my scope of influence. Some are not.
When I am not practicing yoga regularly, I have trouble organizing which are which, and all the worries pile up into a big noisy mess that weighs on my heart, the result of which is a less patient, less compassionate, more frustrated person, quick to anger. But with a regular practice comes a huge increase in my ability to sift through the worries and identify which ones are really a threat and which I have some control around preventing or affecting. Often, after a yoga practice, when I come back to my worries, I find that several of them are not so worrying after all and that even if all goes to shit, I can see a way to deal with the fall out. Again, practicing yoga doesn't guarantee that I won't be hit by a bus, but it does help me to put things in perspective so I am not carrying around the weight of all that worry.
How much yoga does it take to reduce stress? How quickly does yoga help with stress?
Some day in my perfect world, when I don't have toddlers who need me so much and when I have a beautiful in-home studio to myself, I will practice for several hours every day. But realistically, it doesn't take that much time to notice a huge difference.
After just one 30 min practice, I can...
breathe more completely
move more freely
notice a reduction in my worries and struggles
see an increase in my abilities to be calm and focused
crave healthier foods
feel that I am a kinder and gentler person for the rest of the day.
For me and many others, yoga can help with stress after just ONE practice.
I feel prepared for the noise of life when I can practice poses at least 2-3 times per week for 45-60 minutes, followed by 15-30 minutes of meditation. And in the weeks where that is a big ask, just sitting down for 20 minutes of breathing meditation or even taking child's pose in the play room while the little guys crawl on my back... it is well worth the effort. Truly, every little bit helps.
For more ways to incorporate yogic practices into your life, consider our article about using Mindfulness in Strength Training.