Besides being an effective stretching component of any fitness routine, yoga also offers a powerful mental workout that can help you beat stress, feel more in control of your life, and stay healthier. It starts with how you talk to yourself.
“One of the fundamental philosophies of yoga is that your body can only respond to what your mind tells you,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., P.T., a San Francisco yoga teacher and author of A Year of Living Your Yoga.
For example, if you see a coiled rope during a hike in the woods and you think it’s a snake, your body will react as if it’s real: Your heart will beat faster, and if you’re afraid of snakes, you may get the urge to run.
Fight or flight
Similarly, if you’re late for an appointment and tell yourself you’re stressed, you’ll help create the stress and its effects because you’re equating yourself with the feeling. Naturally, your body will go into emergency mode and activate the fight-or-flight response, which gets your adrenaline pumping, increases your heart rate and blood pressure, and diffuses your ability to concentrate.
If you trigger the fight-or-flight response daily for routine matters—everything from “I’m going to be late,” to “Hey, she took my parking space!”—your nervous system will be chronically revved, which can harm your health in the long run.
To disengage from constant crisis mode, one of the most effective things you can do is distance yourself by stating how you feel as an observable fact.
“For example, instead of saying to yourself, ‘I’m stressed,’ say ‘I’m having a stressful thought' or 'I'm feeling stressed because I didn't leave as much time as I would have liked to do this task,'" Lasater says.
That slight change of perspective is one of yoga’s most transformative tools for helping control your reaction to a circumstance so you’re less overwhelmed by it.
You can use yoga throughout the day to disengage the fight-or-flight response. Here are two small yoga moves that can give your mind-set a makeover:
Make peace with the present moment. When you start noticing how you feel and begin to censor your self-talk, it’s typical to get the urge to try to feel differently. For example, if you feel impatient, you may start saying to yourself: “I feel impatient right now. I really shouldn’t feel this impatient. It’s not that big a deal. What’s wrong with me?” “But, by accepting what you’re feeling, you’re able to make peace with the present moment,” Lasater says. “The paradox is that as you accept your impatience, boredom, anger, or whatever, the feeling will dissipate.”
Play dead. To mentally recharge, take a 10- to 20-minute timeout in the afternoon. Close the door, lie flat on a mat or the floor, and put your feet up on a chair. If you wear glasses, take them off, close your eyes, and just completely relax. This variation on the corpse pose promotes circulation in the legs and has positive effects on digestion, elimination, blood pressure, and blood chemistry.
“Being silent and still is the perfect antidote to the stresses and strains of your life,” Lasater says. “By the time it’s over, you’ll feel rested and rejuvenated.”