Yoga for Stress and 7 Questions to Identify Triggers

Stress is any type of change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain
There are five main stages of stress that one needs to go through to complete the stress cycle.

They are external stressors, internal appraisal, physiological response, internalization, and coping.

Recent research has shown that completing the stress cycle is essential to avoid emotional drain and burnout

Physical activity, meditation, and visualization practices are three techniques that help to initiate and complete the stress cycle. 

Research from Stanford Medicine distinguishes the differences between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is unavoidable and serves as nature’s built-in survival mechanism, whereas chronic stress has been linked to early aging, immune deficiencies, and cancer. 

During an acute stress cycle, the autonomic nervous system is activated and shifts into fight or flight, releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which affect the heart rate, body temperature, breathing rate, and blood pressure. 

In discussion with Yoga Anatomy Teacher Erin Moon, we examined the ways to initiate a positive response to our modern day-to-day stressors. Erin mentions forms of positive stressors that scientists call ‘eustress,’ a combination of stress and euphoria. Eustress is the stress we feel when there is no threat; rather, a heightened response of joy or excitement. 

Meet Erin Moon

We come back into congress with the body, the new nervous system; we get the opportunity to revisit how we approach stress. We have the opportunity to reset our motor control programs.” — Erin Moon. 

Erin’s focus has been anatomy, neurobiology, and biomechanics, which has led her deeper into a spiritual practice.
The more she learns about the mind and body, the more she perceives just how little we know! Her awareness of the nervous system has increased her understanding of how much we can intuit and need to listen to learn about our existence.
Erin went from studying Vinyasa yoga, a fairly active style of yoga, to Restorative, Reiki, Thai Massage, Yin, and the meridians. From bones to the nervous system, her practices are becoming more subtle. 
Clients seek Erin’s support to assist with lessening anxiety, depression, or pain through embodied practices such as yoga and subtle body practices. She strives to make her work fully accessible to her community.
Her clients range in age and ability; the common issue she resolves is a disruption to movement caused by discomfort.

Start with these 7 questions when exploring your stress response: 

  1. Where do I feel stress? What is the sensory experience? 
  2. What do I feel as stressful? What are the triggers? 
  3. How is this particular stress manifesting? What is coming up and appearing to me?
  4. How can I build my lexicon to better understand myself and what is occurring? 
  5. What needs are not being met? Is my need for safety not being met? Is my need for space/food/relationship not being met? What is lacking, and how do I address the lack? 
  6. How can I care for myself right now and provide what is needed? 
  7. How do I set myself up for success and greater care next time I am in this situation?

Understanding Your Body’s Response to Stress

When under duress, whether it’s excitatory or emergency, your muscles tighten, your heart rate quickens, and your blood pressure rises.

This occurs once the amygdala detects a threat. 

The amygdala is located in the brain in front of the hippocampus. The amygdala’s primary function is to regulate emotions such as fear, anger, and aggression and respond to stressors accordingly. The hippocampus’s role is to regulate learning, memory consolidation, and spatial awareness. 

The amygdala also creates meaning out of memories and assists in decision making. 

When the amygdala detects a threat, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that acts as the control hub and maintains homeostasis. The hypothalamus directly influences the release of hormones by activating the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system.

If the hypothalamus receives a distress signal, it activates the sympathetic nervous system and signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. 

Adrenaline elevates the heart rate and blood pressure and initiates the stress cycle. Physical activities and exercise allow the completion of the stress cycle. The psychosocial and physical demands of movement can initiate a stress response and release stress and hormones. The surge of adrenaline decreases digestion by decreasing the blood flow to the digestive organs and stomach muscles.

It also affects how we perceive and cognitively process information as our reaction time quickens. The glucose that enters the bloodstream, thanks to adrenaline, gives the muscles a boost of energy and quickens the heartbeat and breathing rate. 

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Your Nervous Systems
Role and Responsibilities

The central and peripheral nervous systems regulate the body and consist of the brain and spinal cord. 

The peripheral nervous system is made up of the nerves that branch out from the brain and spinal cord.   

The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral nervous system and regulates involuntary physiological processes, including heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, arousal, and respiration. It contains the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems. Source

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system that controls the fight or flight response. It is initiated when you feel fear, stress, or are physically active. 

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system. It controls the body’s ability to relax, rest, and slow down. The other name for the PNS is rest and digest mode. 

The enteric nervous system (ENS) is part of the autonomic nervous system and controls the blood flow and motor functions, modulates immune and endocrine function, and transports and secrets mucus. 

Embedded in the wall of the gastrointestinal system, the ENS traverses from the esophagus to the rectum and has the ability to operate independently of the SNS and PNS

Neurological research supports how there are three brains for humans to exercise in decision-making. The mind is for analytical function, the heart is for emotional processing, and the belly is for intuition.

This data supports and illustrates that combining the three brains is the best way to assess situations, avoid danger, and process information. 

According to scientific analysis, a vast network of neurons lines the stomach that provides immense amounts of information to the rest of the body regarding how you feel and how disease is processed.

The belly has more neurons than the spinal column and the peripheral nervous system, second only to the brain.

Hundreds of millions of neurons in the stomach help you feel your inner world and connect to sensations in your body as you process the world within and around you. 

Learn more about the belly-brain and gut health in this blog post

Ways to Reframe Your
Response To Pressure 

Your first step is to start small. Taking small, repeatable steps is the way to reform motor programs on a cellular level and how neural pathways are created in our brains. 

Progressive overload changes how motor programs work in the muscles. The way we work with tissue adaptation is supported by exercise science. 

Rules of Progressive Overload: 
  1. Increase resistance. 
  2. Increase reps/sets.
  3. Increase training frequency. 
  4. Decrease rest time between sets. 

The key for our tissues and our nervous system is to do things multiple times over a long period. 

“One of the greatest interventions we have as yoga instructors is breath technique. Breathwork can be excitatory and calming, like Kapalabhati (skull shining)or Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril). In yoga pranayama, you’re going through a whole stress cycle as you ask the vagus nerve to take the brake off to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system. Then you’re asking it to put the brake back on to shift into the parasympathetic nervous system. ” – Erin Moon.

Yogic breathing, aka pranayama, is shown to reduce stress, calm the central nervous system, and regulate bodily functions. Other benefits include a positive immune response and soothing psychological or stress-related disorders. — Source

3 Calming Pranayama Practices You Can Do At Home

These pranayama practices encourage the nervous system to shift from fight or flight to rest and digest mode. 

1. Nadi Shodhana 

This pranayama carries more oxygen to the blood than regular breathing; it also soothes the nervous system, helps create calm in the body and mind, and balances the subtle body. 

Nadi Shodhana lowers the heart rate and reduces stress and anxiety as it purifies the subtle energy channels so the Prana (breath, life force) can flow easily.

Nadi Shodhana set up: 
  • Place your index and middle finger to your third eye between the brows.
  • Take your thumb to your right nostril
  • Take your ring and pinky fingers just beside the left nostril
Nadi Shodhana how-to:
  • Plug your right nostril and inhale on the left side
  • Plug both nostrils and hold at the top of the inhale
  • Plug your left nostril and exhale out of the right nostril Pause at the bottom
  • Inhale on the right nostril
  • Plug both nostrils and hold at the top
  • Release the left nostril and exhale
  • Pause at the bottom
  • Repeat several cycles on your own. 
2. Four-Part Breath 

This pranayama provides a sense of grounding and creates stillness in the body and mind. Four-part breath is a wonderful practice if you have high energy and want to calm down.

How to perform four-part breath:

  • Inhale for the count of four.
  • Hold at the top for the count of four.
  • Exhale for the count of four.
  • Hold at the bottom for the count of four.
  • Repeat several cycles and sit in meditation. 
3. Viloma Breath 

Viloma breath, aka interrupted breath, includes a bit of kumbhaka (breath retention) after each inhale. This pranayama helps to expand the length of the breath and the lung capacity. 

How to perform Viloma breath:

  • Inhale for three counts to the navel
  • Hold for two counts
  • Inhale for three counts to the rib cage
  • Hold for two counts
  • Inhale for three counts to the heart
  • Hold for two counts
  • Exhale everything out

Explore the various breathing techniques in the Pranayama Collection

Scientific Proof of the Power of Yoga
on the Stress Response: 

  • After just twelve Hatha yoga sessions, stress, anxiety, and depression levels significantly decreased. — Source
  • Yoga is an integrative and holistic therapy to treat stress and other mood disorders by improving a sense of wellbeing, confidence, relaxation, and optimism. — Source
  • A three-month yoga and meditation retreat decreased inflammation and levels of cortisol in the body. — Source.
  • Yoga initiates the parasympathetic nervous system to create a state of calm and focus. — Source
  • Twelve weeks of yoga and meditation slowed cellular aging in patients who practiced 90-minutes a day, five days a week, over three months. — Source

4 Playlists on Practice with Clara
to Reboot Your Nervous System 

Yoga for Anxiety and Stress Collection 

These classes were designed to help relieve stress and calm the sympathetic nervous system.

hatha yoga

Short Hatha Yoga Classes Playlist 

Hatha yoga was initially taught to calm the body before meditation. It is a tool to burn off excess energy before sitting for long periods.

Read more about Hatha Yoga Poses for Beginners.

saraswati vinyasa flow

Flow & Restore Collection 

Include breathwork, meditation, and visualization to shift the body from fight or flight into rest and digest mode.

Meditations for Embodied Awareness 

These meditations are 15-25 minutes and offer visualization, mantra, affirmation, and self-reflection.

Lila Wellness Summit Lectures

Your Guide to the Anatomy of Meditation with Ramesh Tarun Narine—3000-hour RMT + Yoga Teacher.

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