To combat stress, many people turn to meditation or other mental stress reduction tools. But stress also creates physical response in the body and, as such, can be managed with exercise—in particular, with yoga.
"Stress sends the entire physical system into overdrive," says Garrett Sarley, president and CEO of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Mass. "The muscles tense, the heart beats faster, breathing patterns change, and if the cause of stress isn't discontinued, the body secretes more hormones that increase blood sugar levels, raising blood pressure. Yoga is one of the few stress-relief tools that has a positive effect on all the body systems involved."
The medical profession has gradually come to realize yoga's potential for stress relief. "Over the years, yoga has become one of our primary therapies for stress management," says C. Noel Bairey Merz, M.D., a cardiologist in Los Angeles.
In the past 5,000 years, yoga has undergone various adaptations and now is practiced in four major ways:
As a method of maintaining physical fitness and health
As therapy to restore health or relieve ailments
As a lifestyle
As a spiritual discipline
All share several important fundamental practices. The first is cultivation of awareness: the ability to focus on exactly what you're doing in the present moment. The second, relaxation, encourages the release of unnecessary tension in the body. Conscious breathing is another vital part of yoga; the breathing exercises build lung strength and capacity and unite the body and mind.
"Without these elements, yoga would be simply exercises," says Sarley.
There are several ways you can give yoga a try. Attending a yoga retreat for several days will teach you how to practice and what style suits you best. Numerous centers throughout the country offer a sampling of different types and levels of yoga. To find a center near you, try doing a Web search for "yoga retreat."
Or, locate a suitable yoga class or teacher in your area. Even if you intend to practice on your own, it's important to start with some basic training. Adult education centers, YMCAs, health clubs, hospitals and yoga studios all offer group classes. But ask how much training the instructor has had; a few hours isn't adequate.
Beginners should look for beginner or "gentle" yoga classes. Expect the classes to be relaxing and noncompetitive. Wear loose, comfortable clothing and take along a mat or blanket to sit on. Don't be intimidated by pictures you may have seen of people twisted into difficult poses. There are dozens of gentle, easy poses, and all students are encouraged to do only what's comfortable for their bodies. If a class you try doesn't feel like a good fit, try a different one.
You also can learn yoga from audio or video programs or books and magazines, but getting personal instruction first tends to result in a better experience, and you're more likely to continue. At all levels, yoga is about taking care of and being good to yourself.
"By being more sensitive to your body and mind, you learn to see stress coming and can take preventive measures," says Sarley. "Yoga teaches nurturing of one's body, mind and spirit, which leads to a healthier way of being."