Have you ever felt stressed or anxious? Silly question. Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life and they're not inherently negative. However, when life gives us more lemons than we can make into home-made organic lemonade while juggling the house, the job and the family, stress can become chronic and get stuck in the body. Stress overload creates negative feedback loops within the nervous system which keep us in a state of perpetual high alert - cue adrenal fatigue, exhaustion, poor sleep, feelings of overwhelm and that's just the beginning. In today's fast-paced world, we are all familiar with this pattern.
You know what I'm going to say... Yoga can help. I don't think you're surprised about that, but you might be surprised at how easy it can be to help yourself become calm.
I would like to share with you some ways in which yoga has a positive effect on stress levels, and a few simple go-to practices you can do at home to keep your nervous system out of the red.
What does yoga actually do?
Hatha yoga gets you out of your mind and into your body, moving your attention away from repetitive thoughts and towards a more spacious perception of reality. It can feel a bit tight for space inside a busy mind. Turning towards the physical sensations and the breath helps you to stop over-identifying with your thoughts. Thoughts are not necessarily facts.
Physical activity, even if it's a gentle practice, supports the body's production of feel-good hormones (endorphins). Yoga is different from physical exercise in that we frequently call the attention to the experience of what you're feeling, so you can observe the changes in your mood as you go along. You receive the full benefit of your endorphins as you take time in savasana and in pauses during the class to savour the felt-sense of being. Adrenaline and cortisol levels are reduced, giving your body a break from the hard work of being on high alert.
Yoga helps to calm the nervous system, offering a doorway into rest where the adrenaline loop can be broken. The nervous system only knows two states - safe and unsafe. It doesn't know you're doing yoga. By developing healthy breathing habits, consciously acknowledging the support from the ground beneath you and by focusing the mind, the nervous system receives the message that you are safe and the body can begin the process of relaxation. Just getting 10 minutes of conscious rest in a day can go a long way to improving overall wellbeing.
Here are five simple go-to practices you can do to reduce the effects of anxiety and stress and create more healthy patterns within the nervous system
Feel your feet on the ground. Yep, it's that simple. If things get too much, feel your feet. Feel the contact between your feet and the ground. Notice which parts of your feet are touching the ground. It takes no time at all, noone knows you're doing it and you can do it while having that difficult conversation
Take a long, slow exhale. You may have wondered why we're always being told to take a breath when we're feeling stressed. It's because the exhale is accompanied by a lower heart rate and a response from the parasympathetic nervous system. If it's comfortable for you, take a pause at the end of the exhale before the inhale naturally arises. Like the above practice, you can do it anywhere and noone needs to know.
Lie down with your legs up the wall. A natural trigger for the parasympathetic, or rest and digest, part of the nervous system, this yoga mudra can be done for anything between 5 and 20 minutes. It's ideal as a preparation for sleep or as a quick reset when you get home after a busy day. You can put your legs on a chair or on the sofa if there is no wall space. I like to do this one in bed and almost end up napping as a result.
Have a guided relaxation available on your nearest device. For most people, it's much easier to relax if you are being guided by another voice and you can surrender yourself up to being led. Here's a 6 minute guided relaxation from Mary, our Yoga for Calm teacher.
Have a shake! Shaking out your body is a fast track to heightening physical sensation and releasing endorphins into the system. Animals naturally shake when they're stressed but adult humans have forgotten how. Start by shaking your arms and shoulders out, then include your legs and then your whole body. Not one for the supermarket queue but it can really help lift a stagnant mood and help to shift negative thought patterns.
There are so many more ways you can calm your anxiety - walking in the woods, having a bath, doing a full yoga practice, spending time with loved ones, making time for the things you love. It's easy to let your own needs go unmet but in the end, if we don't take care of ourselves, we can't properly take care of others. Yoga teaches us that we are all interconnected, so if you take care of yourself, you are taking care of me, and all other beings of the planet.
Yoga for Calm
Yoga for Calm is a relaxing, mellow practice designed specifically to calm your nervous system and bring you into a state of deep rest. There are postures, breath work, meditations and always the option to choose what and how much you do. The class takes place at The Stable, Wadham Street, Weston-super-Mare on Fridays. See the class timetable for details.
Some words from our Yoga for Anxiety Teacher, Mary
"Using the breath and learning how to look after myself with Mindful self compassion and yoga, I have discovered and uncovered a peaceful place in the heart of me that supports me to live joyfully and I am so happy to be able to share my learning by teaching yoga"
I have lived in Weston-super-Mare for over 20 years and found my home here. Initially working with Surestart, when my children were young, I went on to support and deliver wellbeing projects in local communities in and around town, primarily in South Ward. Having practiced yoga for many years, the decision to train as a teacher came after a life changing cancer diagnosis, and the opportunity to study with Morven has proved truly enlightening. Morven's teaching is inspirational and I have gained so much from the course and from the learning I have undertaken. I feel truly blessed by finding this yoga community here in the town that I love."