We all need a variety of strategies in our stress-busting toolkits that can effectively activate our body’s natural relaxation response. There’s no one right way to manage stress, but the techniques you use should resonate with you, fit your lifestyle, and enable you to shift your focus away from everyday thoughts. For many, yoga—a series of physical postures, breathing techniques, and mediation—does the trick. The individual components of yoga (stretching, deep breathing, and meditation) are great standalone stress reduction techniques. But together, they are bolstered.
According to a national survey of U.S. adults, 86% of people who practiced yoga said it helped reduce their stress, 67% said it helped them feel better emotionally, and 59% said it improved their sleep. Others reported that it gave them the motivation to eat healthier, cope with medical problems, or use fewer tobacco products. Yoga also holds promise for relieving menopause symptoms and lower-back and neck pain.
While any form of bodily movement has the potential to provide similar benefits, yoga’s effectiveness may lie in its design. A yoga practice usually involves a series of physically and mentally demanding twists, bends, and holds dispersed with rest. Whether you’re practicing active or restorative yoga (there are eight different styles!), the goal remains the same: to activate the body’s physical stress response and manage that stress by shifting your mindset. Active yoga tends to trigger this response to a greater extent than static or restorative styles. Regardless, the yogi focuses deeply on returning their breath, muscle tension, and thoughts to a more relaxed state, despite the physical strain.
Yoga effectively teaches you how to shift to a calm mindset even amid the most taxing of circumstances. Instead of screaming and shouting when the yoga instructor asks you to hold crow pose for five more breaths, you learn to nurture a positive and proactive response. Not only do you to finish the pose strongly, but you focus on the present moment and let the day’s worries fall away.
Cultivating a proactive mindset through long-term yoga practice can provide the skills needed to reorient your stress response off the mat. Perhaps instead of reacting angrily when something difficult happens, you step outside of your reactive self and modulate your body and mind to be more relaxed. Then, after easing your breathing and returning your heart rate and blood pressure to normal, you are better apt to handle the difficult situation. With time, a challenging yoga practice can allow you access to this ability all the time.
If you’ve never tried yoga before or had a negative experience in the past, getting started might feel intimidating. But you don’t need any experience to benefit from yoga! It can be tailored to meet the needs of people who never exercise all the way to elite athletes.
What you need to start practicing yoga
All you truly need to start practicing is your body! You may also benefit from:
- A yoga mat, although a towel or other soft surface works just as well if you’re practicing at home. Buy, borrow, or rent a mat if you attend a class. Surfaces that provide some grip are ideal, especially if you tend to sweat a lot.
- A yoga block–a wooden or lightweight foam block. It’s optional but can help you get the most out of stretches, provide support, and accommodate limited flexibility levels. Yoga studios often provide yoga blocks for free during a class.
- Comfortable clothing. Choose clothes made from breathable fabrics (cotton or jersey) or clothing made for practicing yoga. Pick a top that won’t fly up over your head when doing an inversion. Moisture-wicking clothing is best for hot yoga.
- An open mind and patience. Your first yoga practice is not likely to go perfectly, but that’s normal! Stay determined, listen to your body, and focus on getting better progressively. Let your class instructor know if it’s your first yoga class or if it’s been a while since you’ve practiced. They’ll be more likely to provide you with additional support and direction. Remember, you don’t have to do anything in a yoga class you feel you are not ready for.