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Yoga for Tough Times

Three Unexpected Ways Yoga Helps You Handle Stress

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Headshot by Kate Roberge
Headshot by Kate Roberge

For many of us, 2020 has been a difficult year, dominated by physical and economic disruption. At times like these, it can help to have something to rely on, a structure or rhythm to make the uncertainty a little easier to handle. For me, that solace comes from my yoga practice.

The popular view of yoga is that it focuses on relaxation. Of course this is partially true: gentle and restorative yoga poses plus specific pranayama (or breathing) and meditation techniques do have the potential to down-regulate the nervous system and lower our perceived level of stress — a benefit particularly relevant in times like these.

But these practices aren’t all that yoga has to offer in terms of stress management. In fact, here are three other, perhaps more unexpected, ways yoga can help us handle tough times:

1 | Rhythmic movement.

It’s not just stillness and tranquility that breed calm. Movement can also soothe, connecting mind into body to reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm. That doesn’t mean crafting a complex yoga sequence. Think instead about moving through your favorite flow with the rhythm of your breath: rocking your knees side to side like wind shield wipers, lifting and lowering through bridge pose, rippling through cat and cow, a few sun salutations, or alternating between a couple of standing poses like reverse warrior and extended side angle.

Aim to:

  • Connect with your body with open awareness and no judgement, focusing on internal sensations rather than external ideals of alignment[1].
  • Follow the pace of your breath, at a rate of around 6 times a minute[2]
  • Move for 20 minutes or more, tapping into the capacity for aerobic exercise to reduce levels of stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol while boosting endorphins, your body’s natural mood elevators[3].

So in times of stress, don’t feel that silent seated meditation is your only option. Find a simple movement that you enjoy and go with the flow, letting your body, rather than your thoughts, be your guide.

2 | The strength to endure discomfort.

Not all yoga practices are easy and enjoyable, in fact many are the opposite. The study of yoga philosophy abounds with examples of cultivating equanimity in the face of both pleasure and pain. Meditation both teaches, and requires, us to sit with all the parts of ourselves, both light and dark. And there’s nothing relaxing about wobbling in standing balance poses, or holding strong in a plank, the deep knee bend of chair pose and or broken toe.

These practices, and others, hone our ability to endure difficulty and discomfort, to realize again and again that even uncomfortable positions and situations seldom last, building exactly the capability, the resiliency, we need to make it through the challenges of life [4],[5].

3 | Community and connection.

Remember the old adage: “A trouble shared is a trouble halved”? Research backs this up; social support makes us more resilient to the effects of physical and mental stress[6],[7]. Yet our lives increasingly lack opportunities to connect. For many of us, a regular yoga class creates that opportunity.

The sense of community is obvious in person. But while many of us are unable to access our usual physical yoga spaces at the moment, we can still find ways to connect: shifting classes to outdoor spaces, engaging in studio or teacher Facebook groups, making a date to practice the same online yoga class as a friend, or chatting before or after livestream classes or workshops. 

While we may not delve into the details of our lives, we do feel seen and included in a shared experience. Whatever comes up — be it joy or sorrow, fear, acceptance, ease or exertion — we know that others, whether across the room or across the country, feel the same. While we may leave class with the same problems we brought to it, the social support we find there may make our burdens a little easier to bear. 

In challenging times, yoga can offer solace. Maybe you respond best to a gentle restorative practice, breath work or meditation, but that’s not the option. Maybe you need to move, to sweat or even struggle a little, to get out of your mind and into your body. Or maybe you simply take comfort in the company of others. No matter what style of practice you choose, yoga can make disrupted times a feel a little less stressful.


[1] Mindfulness: Top-down or bottom-up emotion regulation strategy? Alberto Chiesa, Janus Christian Jakobsen and Alessandro Serretti. Clinical Psychology Review, October 2012. Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233394995_Mindfulness_Top-down_or_bottom-up_emotion_regulation_strategy.

[2] Meditative Movement for Depression and Anxiety. Peter Payne and Mardi A. Crane-Godreau. Frontiers in Psychiatry July 2013. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3721087/.

[3] Exercising to relax. Harvard health Publishing, February 2011. Source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax.

[4] The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace. Ned Hartfiel, Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Jon N Havenhand and Graham Stirrat Clarke. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health April 2010. Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/43024160_The_effectiveness_of_yoga_for_the_improvement_of_well-being_and_resilience_to_stress_in_the_workplace.

[5] The Strength-Focused and Meaning-Oriented Approach to Resilience and Transformation (SMART): A Body-Mind-Spirit Approach to Trauma Management. Cecilia L. W. Chan PhD, Timothy H. Y. Chan BCogSc and Siv Man Ng RCMP. Social Work in Healthcare, September 2008.

[6] Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Fatih Ozbay MD, Douglas C. Johnson PhD, Eleni Dimoulas PhD, C.A. Morgan III MD, MA, Dennis Charney MD and Steven Southwick, MD. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2007 May. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/.

[7] Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults. Erin York Cornwell and Linda J. Waite, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 2009 Mar. Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/ pmc/articles/PMC2756979/.

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