Uncertainty, lack of control and lack of information – according to Gabor Mate, these are primary triggers of stress. We currently find ourselves in a time of tremendous uncertainty, with little information (or too much information with no real way to discern what is “real”), while often feeling out of control of it all. In addition, social distancing leads to increasing isolation as well as the loss of our daily routines and normal coping strategies. In such a context, what can we do to manage stress?
You may have heard recommendations for yoga as a tool for stress management. While we may no longer be able to go to a studio or our local gym to participate in a yoga class, the practice of yoga is easily accessible in our homes. Unlike some other forms of activity, you can practice yoga with little to no equipment and with minimal space requirements. You can practice on your own, or with guidance. There are many great resources online for guided practices of all types. In a positive and heartening response to the current imposed isolation, many yoga teachers and organizations have begun to offer new resources for both live and recorded yoga sessions. Resources are available for all types of yoga and can be practiced at whatever time works best for you. Virtual live sessions also allow the potential for connection, a valuable offering in this time of isolation.
So why yoga?
Well, simply, because it works. More and more empirical evidence supports yoga as an adjunctive strategy for managing stress and increasing wellbeing. People who practice yoga experienced less anxiety and depression, and fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yoga has also been demonstrated to improve wellbeing including increased gratitude, compassion, relatedness, acceptance, centeredness, empowerment self-esteem, compassion, self-awareness, and hope.
In a study I recently conducted with Yoga 4 Change, yoga students who participated in a trauma-informed yoga curriculum while incarcerated experienced many positive effects. Those who participated in the curriculum experienced increases in emotional regulation, self-compassion, forgiveness, and posttraumatic growth. Participants slept better. Additionally, those who completed programming experienced less anxiety, implemented more positive coping strategies, and described sharing new coping tools with others including peers and family members.
Yoga can help us to manage stress and recalibrate self-regulation, an important tool in the current time. We are all equipped with innate, biologically derived coping strategies for responding to stress – but sometimes our stress response can become out of balance. We are living in a world that is saturated with sympathetic response. Our sympathetic nervous system response is our stress response – sometimes called the “fight or flight response”. The balance is our parasympathetic response. Yoga can help bring our parasympathetic response back online and allow us to find homeostasis. Activating our parasympathetic response brings us into a more restful space and allows us to find calmness, connection, and compassion. There are ways we can help balance our nervous system response. For example, the deep mindful breathing of yoga and mindful meditation stimulates the vagus nerve. Stimulating the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system and supports self-regulation and stress management.
Yoga can help us self-regulate during times of stress through two potential mechanisms, top-down and bottom-up regulation, or altering messages from our brain to our body and our body to our brain. This regulation occurs through movement, our breath, and the practice of mindfulness. A bottom-up approach alters the threat detection system and autonomic nervous system functioning (sympathetic and parasympathetic response) and a top-down approach modulates messages from the prefrontal cortex, the executive functioning part of our brain that helps us to with critical thinking, memory, and self-control
This increase in capacity for self-regulation and stress management makes yoga a valuable tool for self-care, especially in challenging times. Yoga is now being used as an empirically based adjunctive treatment strategy, with impacts for both physical and mental health. May clinicians are referring to yoga and yoga may help support the effectiveness of traditional treatment approaches.
It is important to note that not all yoga is the same, and clinicians must be mindful in making referrals. In a recent article #MeToo and Yoga: Guidance for Clinician’s Referring to Trauma-Informed Yoga my colleagues and I recommend guidelines for referring to yoga. Referral should be intentional and informed and recommended practices should be trauma-informed. Trauma-informed yoga refers to practices that integrate an awareness of and responsiveness to the many potential impacts of the trauma response. Trauma-informed yoga specifically and intentionally takes the impact of trauma into account and recognizes the ways that yoga itself has the potential to traumatize and even retraumatize. Yoga that is trauma-informed forefronts the needs of participants, creating an environment that is as safe as possible.
“Trauma-informed yoga is a discipline of nuanced seeing and heightened understanding of how each yoga participant is experiencing the practice at any given moment, in any circumstance. It considers the safest possible experience of yoga to be the surest path for each person to become a stronger, more alert, and discerning individual.” – Rousseau, Lilly, and Harris, 2018
Yoga is also an extremely accessible tool for movement for any body. Yoga can be restful and restorative or physically active, depending on physical ability or what is needed in any particular moment. Additionally, and despite the perhaps common image of current yoga in the West, yoga can be a financially accessible tool for self-care and stress management. Anyone can access yoga via books or free online videos. In our current time of social distancing, many teachers, organizations, and studios are offering online content that is free or by donation. While it is wonderful that there is free and accessible content available, please also remember that many yoga teachers have just lost their primary livelihood. If you do have the means, please consider paying for online content when possible. While adjustment to the tech of virtual classes can be a challenge, seeking yoga online can also be a wonderful opportunity to take class with a favorite teacher that is not local or even try a class in a different country.
Ultimately, yoga can be an easily accessible tool for self-care and self-regulation in challenging times – and a practice that we can access within our homes. In seeking yoga, we possess a tool for improved wellbeing, both mentally as well as physically. We have another tool in our toolbox for managing stress, in a time when we are surrounded by stress and stress reaction. There is no denying or minimizing how challenging the current times are. It is okay not to know what to do. It is okay to feel anxious, overwhelmed, or sad. It is also okay to take comfort in tools, both familiar and new, to support our individual and collective wellbeing. When we actively choose a tool of self-care, we better equip ourselves to survive and seek resilience in abnormal circumstances. While it is but one tool, yoga offers the potential for connection and wellbeing, even in these challenging times.
Interested in exploring yoga online? I have shared some resources here. One great example is Yoga 4 Change. This nonprofit continues to add free online content with a variety of yoga classes, meditations, and informational videos. For more on trauma-informed and universally inclusive yoga, follow @universallyinclusiveyoga on Instagram.