I recently had an article published in Om Yoga magazine (Christmas 2021 edition). I’m on P67 as part of the Yoga V Stress report.
While I invite you to have a look at the magazine as it has lots of other lovely articles in it, you can have a flavour of my article here!
In 2018, the Mental Health foundation undertook a widespread study of adult mental health They found that 74% of people had felt so stressed that they had been overwhelmed or unable to cope. The causes of stress are wide and varied, affecting different people in different ways. The pandemic and the greater uncertainty that this has created will have increased stress levels for many.
It can seem that stress is inescapable, but activities such as yoga can really help reduce our feelings of overwhelm by bringing us into our bodies and calming our minds.
Yoga really is your superpower when it comes to managing stress. Of course, your physical practice can help you to clear your mind, strengthen your mind-body connection and help you to feel calmer, but your true power when it comes to squashing stress comes from pranayama – the limb of yoga concerned with breathing.
When we feel stress, our brain triggers a response that gets us ready to run away from the source of the stress. It’s our hard-wired response to threat that keeps us safe. For thousands of years, this response has kept is safe from predators and helped human beings to thrive in all kinds of environments. The trouble we have in the modern world though, is that our brain sees threats everywhere and we can easily become overwhelmed.
If we are going to reverse our feelings of stress, we need to tell our brain that we are safe. The easiest way to do this, is to use your breath to send a message directly to the stress centre of your brain that will reassure it, and allow it to switch your stress response off.
When we are stressed, our brain can’t access our creativity, it can struggle to find the right words, to plan ahead or make good decisions. If it gets worse, we can feel unable to think of anything at all and our mind can go blank. If we want to do our best work, be happy and find our flow, we need to be able to quieten our stress response.
When we are stressed, our breathing speeds up and becomes shallow. Breathing in the opposite way to this helps us to feel calm. Taking a deep breath into your belly and exhaling as slowly as you can is a great way to do this. There are many different types of breathing practices or pranayama, and this simple one is a great way to get started. It’s called 7/11 breathing. You can it any time you need a moment to slow things down and reduce your stress levels. Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Breathe in slowly, focussing on filling your belly so that it rises as you count to 7. Exhale slowly, aiming to keep exhaling until you count to 11. Don’t worry if this rate doesn’t feel comfortable at first; any breathing where your exhalation is longer than your inhalation will start to work on reducing your feelings of stress.
You can use this breathing pattern within your physical asana practice for a double whammy of stress-busting goodness. As you exhale, focus on releasing stress from your body. Drop your shoulders, loosen your jaw, check your teeth aren’t clenched. Soften your face into a smile and feel your mind and body giving stress the heave-ho.
Zoé Carroll is a yoga teacher, wellbeing expert and happiness coach. Working as a sports scientist in elite and extreme sports, she became an expert in managing performance anxiety and overcoming fear. She now uses this to support women to feel calm, confident and happy in their lives. She runs the Wholehearted Happiness Club, an online yoga and wellbeing membership for women who are ready to take their happiness seriously, and teaches mindfulness in Eastbourne and online.