Meet Mark: When something stressful happens, he feels energized. His heart races, his senses heighten—he even feels as though his thoughts speed up. Mark prides himself on his ability to face problems head-on, but he admits that it’s becoming difficult to turn this intensity off. Lately he’s been feeling more on edge than on top of his game. He’s developed headaches and insomnia, and he’s beginning to wonder if they’re related to stress. He’d like to feel better, but he can’t imagine himself changing his full-throttle approach to life. Without stress, how would he ever get anything done?
Mark’s wife, Sue, doesn’t feel energized by stress—it exhausts her. She feels so depleted by stress that she’s begun to cut back on the things that generate the most stress, such as planning big family gatherings. To maintain her composure, she tries to walk away when conflicts arise. She’s even considering leaving her challenging job to find something less intense. Sue proudly sees in herself the ability to “just let things go,” which she’s been cultivating through her yoga practice.
But even though she’s simplified her life, she’s been feeling depressed. She has a nagging feeling that her attempts to be stress free are getting in the way of fully living her life.
Mark and Sue are characters based on real people, and are designed to represent two real responses to stress—one or both of which may seem familiar to you. As Mark and Sue are discovering, stress is inescapable, but it is also paradoxical: While excess stress can take a toll on you, the very things that cause it are often the same things that make life rewarding and full. Take a moment to think about the pressures in your life: family, work, having too much to do. Now imagine a life without those things. Sound ideal? Not likely. Most people don’t want an empty life; they want to possess the skills to handle a busy and, yes, even complicated life.
The good news is that you can develop ways to navigate through stress so that it isn’t troubling and traumatic at every turn. When a stressor arises, you don’t have to go to extremes the way Mark and Sue do. You can learn to respond with just the right blend of inner fire and inner calm. I call this the “challenge response,” and you can develop it through your yoga practice. In fact, studies suggest that yoga may condition the nervous system to bring you into balance whether you need more calm, like Mark, or more fire, like Sue. Add to that yoga’s ability to change your mental perception of stress, and you can transform your entire experience of the dreaded “s” word. Imagine feeling capable of handling whatever life throws at you, without having to panic, overreact, or plan your exit strategy.
To begin changing the way you react to stress, you’ll need to understand how it typically affects the body. If your mind interprets a stressful event as an emergency threat, it triggers an immediate response in the autonomic nervous system. Your stress response kicks in and activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Your body is flooded with hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine, which heighten the senses, increase heart rate and blood pressure, and focus the brain’s activity. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for physical relaxation and emotional calm, becomes overwhelmed by this sympathetic response. With the sympathetic nervous system in charge and the parasympathetic overwhelmed, you are primed to respond with energy and focus, but also with anger, anxiety, and aggression.
Humans developed this primal reaction, known as fight-or-flight, so they could effectively fight off or flee from life-threatening danger. This important survival mechanism is useful when you need to slam on the brakes to prevent a car accident or run away from an attacker. But it’s overkill for most of the conflicts and challenges we face day to day.
While it’s easy to view life’s hassles as a threat to your expectations, sense of control, or ideals, it’s better for your health to temper that perception and instead see each stressor as a challenge you can handle. Even if an emergency exists entirely in your imagination, or if the threat is only to your feelings, it can still trigger the fight-or-flight stress cycle. Over time chronic stress takes a toll on the body and brain, leading to all kinds of health problems, including insomnia, depression, chronic pain, and cardiovascular disease.
Challenge Your Fight-or-Flight Response
The alternative to a knock-down, drag-out, fight-or-flight stress response is the challenge response. The challenge response allows you to meet a stressful moment with exactly what is needed: first, the ability to see a situation clearly, and second, the skills to respond without becoming overwhelmed. If Mark could do this, he wouldn’t suffer from stress-related headaches or insomnia. And if Sue could do this, she wouldn’t feel the need to hide when things get hairy.
When stress strikes and you engage the challenge response, your nervous system will respond differently. To understand how, imagine that the autonomic nervous system is like a faucet. The knob that controls the hot water represents the sympathetic nervous system, and the cold knob represents the parasympathetic. When you go into fight-or-flight mode, it’s as though you crank up the scalding-hot water and turn the cold water down to a mere trickle. If you develop the challenge response, the hot water continues to run as it normally would, and you turn down the cold water just a little bit. In other words, you have just enough heat to face the stressor, but you haven’t completely removed the cooling influence. Once the challenge is successfully met, the parasympathetic nervous system reasserts itself (that is, the cold water increases), bringing you back to your everyday state of balance.
Bradley Appelhans, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine who studies how the body responds to stress, underscores the importance of the parasympathetic nervous system in guiding the challenge response. “When we aren’t stressed, the PNS acts as a brake on our physiological arousal. In times of challenge, we rely on our PNS to quickly remove the brake, so that we can achieve the state of increased emotional and physiological arousal needed to deal with stress. But we also rely on the PNS to keep that arousal under control, and not let the fight-or-flight response manifest in full force.”
In other words, if you generally handle stress well, your parasympathetic nervous system, not your sympathetic, is in charge of increasing arousal and readying you to face your stressor. That may sound like a trivial detail, but the consequences for the mind and body are significant. It’s like the difference between a dog walker extending the leash of her dog to allow for more freedom and the dog breaking free from the leash and running amok. When the PNS pulls back, allowing for just enough SNS engagement to sufficiently cope with the challenge, you have the ability to act without an exaggerated, unhealthy fight-or-flight response. The mind focuses, but it also stays open enough to see alternative solutions and opportunities.
The Heart of the Challenge
There is a method for measuring how well one’s autonomic nervous system responds to everyday, nonemergency stress. It’s called heart-rate variability, and it reveals whether the SNS or the PNS is in charge of how a person responds to stress.
Scientists have long known that with every inhalation, the nervous system shifts a bit toward sympathetic activation, and the heart beats faster. With every exhalation, it shifts toward parasympathetic -activation, and the heart beats more slowly. People whose heart rate differs widely between inhalation and exhalation are said to have high heart-rate -variability—which is a good thing. It means that the nervous system has the flexibility to go from an engaged or aroused state to a relaxed state quickly, and that the SNS does not have unhealthy control over the body. High heart-rate variability—both at rest and in the face of stress—is considered an indicator of a person’s physical and emotional resilience. Low heart-rate variability is associated with an increased risk of stress-related disorders such as cardiovascular disease and depression.
Mark is a classic example of someone who has low heart-rate variability. He is stuck in a state of chronic sympathetic activation in his everyday life, which reduces the flexibility of his heart rate. When he experiences stress, his SNS goes even further into overdrive, in part because it is unbalanced and unchecked by the PNS. For someone like Mark, building the challenge response will mean retraining his mind and body to let the parasympathetic system be in charge while he’s at rest, and eventually when he responds to stress, too.
Sue is able to relax—but only if she disengages from life’s stressors. She needs to develop the ability to get fired up enough to meet a challenge without feeling completely overwhelmed by it.
A growing body of research on heart-rate variability and yoga provides evidence that the practice can help people like Mark and Sue in their quest for healthier stress responses. One of the first studies was conducted at Newcastle University in England and published in 1997 in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation. Researchers found that six weeks of practicing hatha yoga increased the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming side) without decreasing the influence of the sympathetic (the arousing side). Researchers took 26 healthy but sedentary adults and randomly split them into two groups. One group was given an aerobic exercise program, the other a yoga regimen that included two 90-minute sessions per week with breathing, poses, and relaxation. In the week following the six-week intervention, the yoga participants were reported to have higher heart-rate variability (and a lower resting heart rate, another indicator of well-being) after the study than before. The aerobics group showed no significant changes.
A second study, done by researchers at the University of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany and published in 2007 in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, suggests that even a single session of yoga practice can encourage the nervous system to find flexibility and balance. Researchers hooked up 11 healthy yoga practitioners to instruments that recorded their heart-rate variability over 24 hours. During that time, participants did 60 minutes of active Iyengar Yoga poses and 30 minutes of restorative poses. Heart-rate variability increased during the yoga session, and—as in the previous study—this change was driven by the increased influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, not by changes to the sympathetic system.
In other words, after yoga practice, participants weren’t just more relaxed; they were in a state of autonomic balance and flexibility driven by the parasympathetic—which is exactly the type of balance and flexibility that predicts greater resilience to stress. This study provides promising evidence that a yoga practice can prepare you to meet life’s challenges, not just recover from them.
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.
Leave your Comfort Zone
Just showing up to any yoga class is not enough. If your stress style tends toward fight-or-flight, and you huff and puff your way through Power Yoga classes and leave before Savasana, you probably won’t transform your stress response. Practicing that way just makes yoga another arena where you engage in your usual stress-response style. For people who move through life in full emergency mode, the starting place to learn balance is typically Savasana. This pose teaches you how to put the usually suppressed parasympathetic nervous system in charge and give the hypercharged sympathetic nervous system a rest.
When one of my students, Monica Hanson, first came to yoga, she was a self-described type-A executive in her early 30s. The idea of relaxation was terrifying, and she could not imagine how relaxing could possibly help her handle real-world stress. “I was afraid that if I let go of the tension, I would fall apart,” she says. “Tension was the glue that held me together.”
Her first experience in Savasana was anything but relaxing. Her emergency response fought to stay in control. “I was sweating and shaking. My heart was racing. I wanted to run away,” she says. But underneath the anxiety was a sense of being fully alive and yet calm—something that Hanson had never felt before. This taste of how her mind and body could hold such opposites was the beginning of her stress transformation.
After seven years of consistent yoga practice, Hanson says tension is no longer what holds her together in stressful situations. Instead, she can feel the calm beneath the storm even if she still she gets the urge to fight or run. “Yoga has taught me a whole new way of being. In stressful situations, I have literally heard my teacher’s voice in my head say, “Be present. Breathe into the tension. And I do.”
Stay in your Experience
For someone like Sue, who easily finds bliss in relaxation but avoids stress, developing the ability to stay present in the midst of difficult situations—but without trying to fight against or escape from them—is key. Rather than trying to hide from challenges, Sue has to learn to believe she can handle them. As Amy Weintraub, founder of LifeForce Yoga Healing Institute and the author of Yoga for Depression, puts it, “Sometimes it’s important to not simply remove ourselves from the stressful situation, but to feel it in our bodies. Acknowledge stress. Meet it. We can stay present without being controlled by it.”
For one of my students, Julie Good, a 38-year-old physician and mother of two young girls, the great teacher was Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose). When she first started yoga, it was her least favorite pose. “My strategy was to grit my teeth and tolerate it, tense my whole body, and try to hold myself up off the floor.” Although her resistance was an attempt to avoid the intense sensation in her hip, the effect was quite different. “It was agonizing.”
One day, when Good explained why she hated Pigeon Pose, I encouraged her to stop fighting it. Good says, “I had been trying to protect myself by resisting. I thought, ‘If I let go, it’s going to get worse.’ But I let go, and it got better. When I wasn’t resisting, I learned to breathe into the discomfort.” By staying with the pose, she learned that she could choose to stay in a difficult situation and the discomfort would dissipate.
Find Your Fire
To feel empowered to deal with stress head-on, Sue also needs backup from her nervous system. She needs more participation from the sympathetic nervous system; she needs the energy and drive that the arousing side provides. A new pilot study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine shows that yoga may help facilitate this type of response.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that a regular yoga practice decreased the dominance of the parasympathetic system for some people. But there was an important difference in this study: The 17 adult participants were all clinically depressed. The participants practiced Iyengar Yoga three times a week for eight weeks. At the end of the study, 11 participants were in remission from depression. The 6 others did not fully recover.
When researchers compared the participants’ heart-rate variability before and after the eight-week intervention, those who had recovered showed a small increase in sympathetic activation and a decrease in parasympathetic influence. Researchers believe it’s possible that yoga practice helped the participants shift from a withdrawal from life to active engagement. This shift was reflected in—and may have been caused by—the change in the nervous system’s balance.
The point of all of these studies? According to David Shapiro, a professor of psychology at UCLA, “Yoga helps balance the two systems as needed by each individual.” That means that if you go through life in emergency mode, yoga will actually awaken your relaxation system. But if you have a tendency to become paralyzed in the face of challenges, yoga can work to shift your body and mind toward active engagement.
Keep in mind that no matter how well you condition your nervous system, you also need to change the way you perceive stress. You can start this process by practicing svadhyaya, or self-observation. “There is a connection between how you experience a forward bend and how you react to the world,” says Elissa Cobb, a Phoenix Rising Yoga practitioner and the author of The Forgotten Body. Take Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), a pose that can produce strong sensations in even the most flexible practitioners.
One common response is to ignore sensations and force yourself forward, fighting against your tight hamstrings. Another is to come out of the pose to avoid the challenge entirely. Both strategies are variations on the same theme: fight-or-flight. In all likelihood, they create tense muscles and rapid or held breathing—not to mention a total lack of joy.
Paying attention to how your body and mind react to the “stress” of Paschimottanasana or any pose offers clues about how you typically react to stress in your life. By training yourself to actively observe while staying calm in poses, you’ll be able to do the same thing when difficult sensations, thoughts, or emotions arise in the face of stress. Instead of going into your habitual reaction mode, you’ll notice what’s happening while staying present enough to choose an appropriate response.
When it comes to transforming your own response to stress, it’s tempting to search for that one pose or breathing exercise that will work its magic. But there isn’t one magic pose. The process is a gradual exploration rather than an easy solution. “If you’re practicing yoga every day, you’re preparing for what life brings. You don’t have to have a strategy for what yoga technique you’ll use in a difficult situation.” According to Weintraub, when challenges arrive, they will begin to flow through you but not overwhelm you. “When life hits, it doesn’t explode or roll over us. We’re not so caught up in the stress of it, but we’re present for it.”
This is the real story of how yoga can help you manage stress. It doesn’t just provide ways to burn through stress or escape from it. It doesn’t only offer stress-reduction techniques for anxious moments. It goes deeper, transforming how the mind and body intuitively respond to stress. Just as the body can learn a new standing posture that eventually becomes ingrained, so the mind can learn new thought patterns, and the nervous system can learn new ways of reacting to stress. The result: When you roll up your mat and walk out the door, you can more skillfully take on whatever life brings.