Can yoga help us decompress?
Stress—the word rolls off the tongue as quickly as it takes its toll on victims. Stress is the hidden culprit behind countless ailments, including back pain, digestive complaints, and immune diseases, to name just a few. While most would agree that stress is linked to a mind gone haywire, exactly how to deal with it is another matter.
In the West, many of us have simply accepted that stress is a part of daily life. Let’s face it: modern society isn’t always a thrill to bear, with traffic, demanding jobs, screaming children, etc. In response, we’ve come up with some quirky ways to cope with its effects; alcohol, cigarettes, pills, television—you name it, and it is likely being tried by millions at this very moment. And while such activities may temporarily alleviate the symptoms of stress, they don’t get at the root of the problem.
From the perspective of yoga, stress is a combination of thoughts that are toxic to the body. Each thought creates a nerve impulse that is sent from the brain—known as the seat of consciousness—down the spinal column, making its way throughout the various parts of the body. Ancient yogis believed that each thought can either serve as an elixir of health that is restorative, or a poison that can be potentially fatal.
Even though we can’t always avoid stress, yogis have devised a few simple methods for minimizing its influence on the nervous system, which when practiced regularly, will in the long run reduce the chances of creating toxic conditions in the body. Depending on your personality, body type/limitations, and lifestyle, you may find some more beneficial than others. Practice with caution and reason; only do what feels right for you.
1. Throw out the breath
It is said that if you have a negative thought, and feel yourself tensing up in response, the best thing to do is to forcefully throw out all the air in your body. Follow this with a very deep inhale, and then again empty yourself completely. Do this one last time, and then immediately after you have let out all of the air, hold your breath for as long as you comfortably can. Note that you should immediately inhale at the first sign of tension in the body (shaking, discomfort in the eyes or chest, etc.) Follow this with two or three full rounds of breath. If you feel at ease afterward, repeat, holding the breath after the exhale, and then inhaling deeply. This pranayama, or technique for breath control, is a way to eliminate toxic thoughts before they have a chance to lodge themselves in the body.
2. Go upside down!
In hatha yoga, any posture where the feet are above the head can be considered an inversion. This could be as simple as sitting near a wall and swinging your legs up the wall (known as viparita karani in Sanskrit). Elevating the feet in this way for five minutes or longer allows the blood to flow more freely to the brain, since gravity is now working to your advantage. This also allows lymphatic fluid to pool in your abdomen, soothing several glands and organs along the way. In addition to the physiological effects, after several minutes many people report overall feelings of tranquility, possibly due to the change in perspective. Inversions are particularly recommended for those suffering from fatigue, perhaps after being active on your feet for long hours.
If you have the aid of a competent teacher, other possible inversions would include headstand and shoulderstand, two of the most important yoga postures. Both are said to help restore harmony throughout the body, improving the functioning of both the pineal and pituitary glands.
3. Deep, ujjayi breathing
Ujjayi is a Sanskrit word that means “victorious.” Yogis in India found a correlation between the length and intensity of the breath and its effect on the mind. In other words, the shorter and more shallow the breath, the more active the mind. Ujjayi breathing involves partially closing the valves in the throat to give the breath a whisper-like quality. This allows you to lengthen your breath, and hence slow the mind.
The technique is as follows: begin by breathing as deeply and rhythmically as you can. Try to do this for at least a minute. Allow emerging thoughts to drift away, like clouds floating by in the sky. Next, open your mouth and let out the air as if you are in a freezing cold room and you are trying to see your breath. Pay attention to the sound you hear as you let out the air; it is similar to a deep sigh. Now try breathing in this same way with your mouth closed, both during the exhalation and the inhalation. You will find that the more you are able to control the vocal chords, the deeper your breath will become.
Ujjayi breathing has a soothing effect on the nerves; the more you simply listen to the internal sounds that you are creating, the easier it will be to set aside the thoughts that are causing you stress.
4. Steady your gaze
Over the centuries, yogis have also noticed that the more active the mind, the quicker the eyes will move. The next time you see someone freaking out in line at the grocery store, take a close look at his or her eyes; they will likely be moving back and forth at rapid speed.
In yoga, dristana is the practice of fixing one’s gaze on a single point or object, such as the flame of a candle, or the tip of your nose. It is said that if you can focus your gaze, your mind will follow suit. As with most things in life, the simplest solution is likely the best. As soon as you become aware that your mind is scattered, pay close attention to how and in which direction your eyes are moving. If you find it difficult to focus your gaze, begin by closing your eyes for a minute. This will lighten the sensory load, helping you to focus easier.
5. Be as still as a corpse
Savasana, or corpse pose, is traditionally practiced at the end of a yoga sequence. The reason for this is simple; after periods of intense physical and mental activity, it helps to give the body a chance to restore itself. A very simple concept, yet you’d be surprised just how many of us have trouble relaxing completely. Corpse is beneficial for anyone who needs a break from the demands of the body and mind. Lying in corpse pose involves not only relaxing every muscle in the body, but also switching off the nerve currents and slowing the brain waves. By surrendering the burden of your body to the floor, you are consciously entering a state somewhere between sleeping and waking.
To begin, lie on a comfortable surface with your arms by your sides, and your palms facing up. If you need to, you can rest your head on a pillow, or put on some extra clothing. Allow your breath to simply be, without controlling. Beginning with your temples and moving down your body, consciously begin to relax every muscle. Soften your eyes; relax all the muscles in your face; let your draw drop, your neck relax, your shoulders sink into the floor. Feel the energy washing down from your crown out through your heels. Thoughts will emerge; rather than try to force them out, simply watch them. Observe passively. Surrender to the stillness of your own innermost being.
There you have it; the top five yoga tricks for slowing down that mad monkey mind. None of these techniques are written in stone—if necessary, adapt them to your needs. You may also find it helpful to practice some of them together at different times throughout the day. Remember, you don’t need to step onto a yoga mat to benefit from these practices. Just keep breathing, and try to make it last!