Yoga and the Stress Response

Yoga and the Stress ResponseIf you thought this article would be how yoga is the “answer” to the problems of the stress response, you’d be partially correct! If you believe that one of yoga’s primary benefits is to gain control over the stress response, you’d be 100% correct. (Spoiler alert: the stress response has a corresponding condition: the relaxation response.) So, why isn’t yoga the answer to the stress response?

Let’s engage in Q and A around the concept of the stress response:

Q. To understand the stress response, let’s start with the topic experts. Who has the best current information on the relationships between the brain, the body, stress, coping, and their combined effects on trauma and stress-related diseases?
A. Top contenders and supports of yoga are Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. in The Body Keeps The Score, Robert M. Sapolsky in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and his book published in 2017, Behave.

Q. What is the stress response?
A. The stress response is a host of physical and mental reactions in response to an immediate, short-term crisis, or stressor. (Picture this: The snake, a major stressor slithers into your path, and viola! You are immediately transported via the stress response, to the safety of a tree limb without so much as a thought!).

Q. The stress response is a good thing then, right?
A. Yes and No. I know, not much better than the phrase “it depends”!
Speaking for the Yes side: for acute physical emergencies it is absolutely necessary for your appropriate response to danger. The stress response is what your body does to reestablish homeostasis.
Speaking for the No side: Reacting physiologically to stressors in a chronic, constant manner is not a good thing. Much like over-stretching a rubber band, you eventually “wear out” systems in your body. When acute danger is sensed, every system in your body is designed to deliver a quick response. Your physiology can get over-stretched by constantly reacting, or even anticipating what you may consider a stressor.

Q. What are some examples of stressors?
A. Lions, tigers, and bears. The list quickly expands to include romantic, familial and social relationships, money, jobs, outward appearance, social standing and on, and on. It is anything important enough to cause you to worry, thereby expending large amounts of emotional or physical energy. It is everything that causes you to worry.

Q. Why shouldn’t you strive to completely eliminate the stress response?
A. Simply put: it is critical to your survival. Most animals (including me and you!) have survived and evolved thanks to the stress response. Stress response is what gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done! It powers you through adversity and challenge.

Q. What does a healthy stress response look like?
A. Tough question. It depends. Read up on the Polyvagal Theory here to entertain this question further.

Q. What role does yoga have with regard to the stress response?
A. Your body is a veritable expert at initiating the stress response. And you are the absolute master of your body, even if you don’t yet think so! Yoga may have a role in helping you initiate the relaxation response. Yoga may help you reach balance and homeostasis by developing greater awareness. Yoga teaches you to choose the appropriate response to a given situation.

Q. A few of the answers above mentioned homeostasis. What is homeostasis? A. Robert Sapolsky keeps it general when he says: “. . . different variables are maintained in homeostatic balance, the state in which all sorts of physiological measures are being kept at the optimal level. The brain, it has been noted, has evolved to seek homeostasis.” (It has been noted: the brain has evolved).

Back to our original inquiry: why isn’t yoga the answer and what is the role of yoga and the stress response? It is kind of a trick question. Yoga is not the answer because we don’t want to eliminate the stress response. We need the brain to be fully functioning and mediating the proper stress response. Yoga’s main purpose and goal is to still the fluctuations of the mind. We need to calm the mind and maintain balanced reactions to our world. As noted, the brain has evolved.

For the sake of discussion in this article, let’s use mind and brain interchangeably. As noted, and as hammered into place: the brain has evolved. It has evolved to accept messages from every organ and system in your body. Like a relay station, albeit a very sophisticated one! The current scientific evolution is proving the brain doesn’t “think” of everything, and doesn’t “control” everything. And we’re learning that most decisions are based on emotions, and not entirely on an ordered, brain-powered logic.

Yoga’s role in the stress response is to give you the experience of self-regulation. Through yoga you can learn to feel the physical effects of emotional activation. Part of that lesson comes from asana, the postures. Asana is used to activate and relax the muscles of the body as a start to the true yogic practice. Awareness of the body in asana leads to awareness of the mind in meditation. Disturbing “gut reactions” or getting the “sh*t scared out of you” actually start first in the body. A run away stress response may bypass your logic-powered brain, creating a “knee jerk reaction.” Or you may have developed habits of ignoring or stuffing your emotions. Either way, the result may be an over reactive stress response: anger, fear, or withdrawing.

Yoga may help you gain greater control over your responses to stressors. The yogic practices of right breathing, intentional movement, and mindful meditation may begin to initiate your relaxation response. Or a more active yogic practice may increase the stress response in a positive way. Yoga isn’t all about the relation response! Sometimes living a sedentary lifestyle, feeling lethargic, or having a need to increase lung capacity calls for a different approach. But that’s a topic for another article!

What is Yoga Therapy?

The shortest answer

Yoga therapy addresses specific concerns or issues using the traditional practices of yoga.

The official answer

The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) uses the following short, succinct definition of yoga therapy:

“Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga.”

IAYT has compiled quotes from many masters of yoga that further define yoga therapy as compared to the general practice of yoga. These yoga experts use phrases that explain the distinction between yoga therapy and simply taking yoga classes.  Consider these:

  • Self-empowering
  • Adaptation
  • Specific regimens … to suit individual need
  • Particular person … particular goal
  • Holistic healing art
  • Applies yoga therapy … according to age, strength, activities

The yoga teachers’ answer

To answer the question, “What is Yoga Therapy?” we can turn to yogins and yoginis who are both yoga teachers and yoga therapists. The answer to the question is in context: it’s a difference in planning for a yoga class versus a yoga therapy session.

First, a little about the view of yoga in our culture today. There may be a general belief that yoga is what bendy, flexy women, clad in athletic wear do everyday. Many people understand that yoga involves poses and breathing practices. And by now that understanding includes knowing there are different types of yoga (super-intense to gentle and relaxing). Yoga has gained in popularity, and with that a huge variation in teachers, class styles, mission and philosophy, and the elements of a yoga class.

In general, yoga teachers will tell you they take this approach to teaching group classes: choose a theme for the class, name it, select a sequence of poses, write a short description, and maybe select a reading and put together a play list that goes along with the class theme. Private yoga classes may follow a similar process, with consideration for the client’s individual requests. The most common requests are for learning the basics, working on a particular pose, or just to have the privacy of being the only person “in class.”

By contrast, the yoga therapist starts planning a group session by unpacking the myriad elements of a particular issue. The concern might be of a physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual nature. Issues include hypertension or developing a healthy heart, improving mobility or reducing back pain, making a deeper spiritual connection, working on a specific physical injury, and so on. And most issues that keep people from health and well-being  involve some level of stress, anxiety, and/or depression. To plan, the yoga therapist may have to study the condition, read up on research and to determine the best yogic approach (i.e, subtle clues for underlying factors). It’s not always clear, direct or obvious. Now, that’s one tall “theme” for a yoga therapy class plan!

The best answer

Yoga therapy sessions and yoga classes draw from the same yoga “toolbox.” Yoga therapy uses these tools to address a specific issue or concern. The yoga therapy practice is a work in progress, and a step-by-step progression to bring about balance.

Likewise, a very skilled yoga teacher may approach a class series in a similar vein. In fact, there are many in the yoga community that feel that ALL yoga is yoga therapy. And in the hands of a skilled yoga teacher or a yoga therapist, a carefully crafted session or class may be a true therapeutic yoga experience.




Posted in FAQ

Where do you start with Yoga Therapy?

Your first yoga therapy session

Your first session with a yoga therapist starts with an introduction. And an inquiry. What brings you to yoga therapy? What do you hope to gain through yoga therapy?

Your first yoga therapy session at Tampa Yoga Therapy may be either a 30 minute consult or a 90 minute consult and assessment.

Either way, it’s the time to take the time. In your first yoga therapy session spend time with your yoga therapist to get all your questions answered. You may have general questions such as, “How can yoga therapy help me? What types of conditions or issues may be addressed? What kinds of yoga therapy techniques are available to me?”

Your path to health and well-being is an individual experience. Start with open communication in your first yoga therapy session. This important first conversation will help you get the most out of the therapeutic practices of yoga. Your yoga therapist can begin considering your unique situation. Understanding your needs is the first step to co-creating the best plan for you.

Use the first session with your yoga therapist to ask questions and establish your priorities for health and well-being. Your yoga therapist will be happy to share everything from general yoga therapy information, to the latest research findings to support the benefits of yoga therapy.