In my experience, when a student of yoga takes the extra effort to breathe – fully and consciously – they are more charged by the end of the practice than someone that doesn’t. The simple act of holding your arms out to the side can be a serious challenge, if there is not some active participation in breathing.
Breathing is also key to reducing the amount of stress in your life. When researching stress and yoga, I came across an article posted at the Yoga Journal website that seemed to ring true with me. Thus, I clipped this content from a much larger article in order to share it with you here.
Tapping into Calm
How do we explain why participants in the aerobics group didn’t derive the same benefit as the participants who learned yoga? Better yet, how do we explain the results from the study that was based on a single session of Iyengar Yoga?
Kerstin Khattab, MD, an Iyengar Yoga teacher and one of the researchers in the Schleswig-Holstein study, believes that the key is yoga’s dual demands on body and mind. “Some of the poses in our study, such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) or Sirsasana (Headstand), are likely to cause a strong sympathetic nervous system reaction. But as you learn to hold these poses with a calm mind, focusing on the breath, the poses become a training in how to remain calm in stressful situations.”
In other words, the physical challenge of a pose becomes the equivalent of a stressor. If you do aerobics, which has no direct breathing or mindfulness component, the physical challenge can trigger a full-fledged stress response in the body. But when physical demands are met with mindfulness and steady breathing, as they are in yoga, the nervous system responds differently: It maintains activation while keeping an underlying sense of calm. It remains skillfully engaged but without going into full-fledged fight-or-flight mode.
The great sage and codifier of yoga, Patanjali, must have been aware of the power of asana when he wrote sutra 2:46, Sthira sukham asanam: Postures should embody steadiness and ease. If you can find both elements in the midst of a stressful arm balance, you’re not just training your mind. You’re enabling your autonomic nervous system to imprint that response and therefore allow you to return to it during everyday stress.
At first, you will need to very consciously tap into this response during your yoga practice by focusing on your breathing and thoughts. But with enough conscious practice, the rehearsed challenge response can become an ingrained automatic response—on and off the mat.
Yoga also trains the nervous system to return to balance quickly after a challenge response. By alternating strenuous poses with gentler ones, yoga conditions you to move easily between states of challenge and rest. Letting go of all effort in Savasana (Corpse Pose), for example, seals in this flexibility, because the pose teaches the nervous system to let go once the challenges of your practice have been met.
Next time you’re on or off your mat and find that life is a little stressing, breathe!