The Benefits of Yoga When Stressed

Yoga instructor Caitlyn Graham offers insight on how to achieve a beneficial practice despite external influences.

Photo by Regina Mogilevskaya

Photo by Regina Mogilevskaya

After the week Boston’s had, it may seem like there’s no better time to hit the yoga studio and get that cleansing sweat going. However, it’s not surprising that even though we may feel calm, our yoga practice might reveal something different. Instructor Caitlyn Graham, who teaches at Sweat and Soul Yoga, Back Bay Yoga, and Charlestown Yoga, sat down with us to explain why your balance may be a little off this week, and how to go about having the most restorative practice you can.

What kinds of effects does a stressful environment have on one’s yoga practice?

Our bodies take in stress in the environment, whether it’s direct or indirect, in many different ways. It’s really different for everyone, but what’s most noticeable in all of us, especially in a situation like what’s been happening in Boston, is mostly in the breath. Because the breath and the mind are so closely linked up, when you’re calm and relaxed, your breath is fluid, but when you’re anxious or scared it becomes short and choppy. That’s mostly what I’ve noticed teaching class this week.

Which specific muscles or parts of our bodies are most directly affected by stress?

The psoas muscle, which is a deep muscle in the pelvis [mostly associated with low back pain], is a place where a lot of us take in emotional distress. Often it shows up in lower back pain and things like that, and no one ever connects that the emotional pain is manifesting itself into physical.

So for people who do mini-practices at home and are experiencing the kind of pain and distress mentioned above, what tips do you have? Are there any positions that are particularly helpful?

If you’re in a stressful state or your spirit’s been broken, going upside down can be really great, not just to clear out your head but to give yourself a different perspective. It doesn’t even need to be a headstand or a handstand; it could be a forward fold or laying down with your legs against the wall. It’s all about getting the blood flowing and giving yourself a fresh start and restarting the system. Hip openers, the small practice of pigeon, double pigeon, and gomukhasana, are great too, specifically for the psoas muscle. I’d also suggest laying down and taking a block of two underneath your sacrum and extending the legs, just to stretch out that deep muscle, which tends to get super tight when one is in a state of anxiousness.

Caitlyn Graham photo provided

Caitlyn Graham photo provided

If you’re doing a practice and your balance is suddenly off, how would you advise a student to go about that?

Balance too, is something that I’ve noticed has been crazy this whole week in my classes. Anxiety affects us all over, and balance is definitely a factor in that. I think the most important thing, during a time where external influences are so intricately involved like they have been in the past week, is for the student to accept that they may not be 100 percent on their game and that that’s OK. I’d suggest going against a wall for extra support, or always using blocks. There are always modifications that can help.

Do you have any tips on how students can quiet their minds in particularly turbulent times?

There are two ways to approach teaching students who have faced trauma. One is very soft, gentle, and restorative class. Some people, on the other hand, enjoy a vigorous, sweaty, powerful practice, because you can’t really think, you just do. For me what works best is the really active, strong practice, so that’s what I’ve been offering lately. But definitely meditation, whether it’s five minutes a day or 10 minutes a day. Mediation isn’t about not thinking; it’s about noticing what’s going on in your head. I think people get stressed when out when they can’t break free from their thoughts. They think that they can’t clear their mind, but meditation isn’t about being blank. It’s about acknowledging what’s going on in your head and trying to let go of certain overbearing thoughts. I think five or 10 minutes of meditation during the day goes a long way.

In your opinion, why is it good to do yoga during extremely stressful times as opposed to a different physical activity?

I think yoga, more so than other physical activities, is really a self-study. It forces you to deal with things head on instead of avoiding. Yoga is a way to check in with yourself and understand what work needs to be done. It teaches you that although life may be filled with uncomfortable and straining situations, you can take comfort in knowing that you can breathe through these situations, and that soon enough they’ll change. That’s the one constant in life, isn’t it? Everything is always changing.