Can yoga help with stress?

The Fitness Community explores a movement aimed at helping reduce stress and anxiety through yoga.

In an ideal world, we’d all have few worries and good health – but in practice it can be difficult to achieve this balance. The world is moving faster than ever. 88% of UK respondents now regularly experience stress at work and psychological problems such as stress, anxiety and depression are behind one in five visits to a doctor.

Stress control is a complex task. For some, the best course of treatment may be therapy, or perhaps medication. In the fitness world, there’s a growing movement aimed at helping tackle stress and anxiety through exercise – or more specifically, through yoga.

Awareness and meditation underpin yoga, where in a typical class, students may be led through poses and postures to stretch and strengthen muscle groups. Yoga aims to encourage balance, develop breath awareness and promote mindfulness and relaxation – in other words, to coordinate the breath, mind and body.

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‘No one is exempt from having to traverse the stresses of our modern-day, technology-filled lives,’ says Jonathan Pofsky, a California-based yoga teacher who is proficient in the practice of yoga for anxiety relief.

The idea behind the practice ‘is to bring together movement and breathing that that in itself has a profoundly calming effect,’ he explains during a phone interview with The Fitness Community. ‘It’s using the body as a central vehicle to direct and be aware of what’s happening. When someone is having a lot of anxiety and panic, it’s about viewing the body as a resource rather than as a threat, which it can often feel like.’

Jonathan is a licensed marriage and family therapist, with a masters in somatic psychology and over 10 years’ experience teaching yoga. As well carrying out psychotherapy work, he also holds private yoga sessions, yoga therapy classes and yoga for anxiety workshops – and has completed mindfulness work at schools and in the community. Today, he is speaking to The Fitness Community from the Marin Stress & Anxiety Center – which he set up to help treat individuals suffering from stress and anxiety.

So how exactly does Jonathan’s teaching work? Whilst he stresses that there is not one solution that fits all, he says there is often a similar theme in practice:

’Often we start with standing postures, moving and breathing so they can really unify their minds,’ he explains. ‘Whatever was filling their mind starts to go. Standing poses make them feel stable and strong. And it begins to bring that anxiety down a bit over time, eventually working towards lengthening their exhalation which is a commonly practised thing for anxiety and stress.’

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A couple of years ago, the Huffington Post reported that 54% of people in Britain said their stress and anxiety levels are increasing. Four out of ten women found themselves unable to describe themselves as happy, it claimed, and a third of people were being consumed by thoughts of work from the minute they wake up.

With people dedicating more time to work, it could be argued that even finding time to relax could be difficult. If people wish to aid relaxation through yoga, we wonder, how often should the practice take place?

‘There’s no clear answer,’ Jonathan replies. ‘You have to look at what works for people. “Ok, so you could do it twice a week. Could you do five minutes each day as well, then? How could you keep working on yourself?”.’

‘A lot of studies are available out there to look at, which show the benefits of yoga to the core,’ he adds. ‘I have people that come into my office and it’s so different. It’s about seeing what works for them’.

The concept of looking into what works for people is interesting and worth taking a moment to mull over. Stress by its nature, is different for everyone. It can manifest in different ways and when it comes to treatment, there is no ‘one-cure-for-all’ approach. Should people wish to explore yoga to see if it could help address their stress or anxiety, Jonathan recommends doing research to find out more about their teachers’ background and qualifications.

‘The yoga world is very vast and wide,’ Jonathan sums up. ‘There’s a lot of people teaching that don’t have the training to work with anxiety and stress.’

‘See what the teacher’s background is a bit more. Have they studied other things? Do they have any psychological training? I think those things help.

‘And also interview teachers. You may not always know what you’re looking for but look at teachers’ experience and training. Just do your research.’

Want to find out more? Have a watch of this podcast, featuring Jonathan talking about yoga, stress and anxiety from the Marin Center.

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