I was recently faced with the necessity of having a difficult conversation with someone I love. You know the kind: there was no avoiding it, but I would rather have been anywhere but there. I felt trapped and vulnerable. And I felt that if I didn’t tread carefully, our friendship would be irreparably hurt.
As I took a deep breath and created space from my hurt feelings, I felt deep gratitude for my yoga practice and how it has taught me to sit with myself—and the situation—before I react out of anger or sadness. Yoga has taught me how to be a better friend: to others, and to myself.
How can ten breaths in warrior II prepare me for a tough sit-down with a friend, you may ask. Scientists have been studying the effects of yoga on our stress response systems for years. In the last decade, largely thanks to yoga’s increased popularity, they’ve ramped up their efforts.
How can ten breaths in warrior II prepare me for a tough sit-down with a friend, you may ask.
When we think of yoga, we often think of a practice that is inherently relaxing: Lying on a mat and getting totally blissed out, feeling amazing from the first om to the final namaste.
By and large, that is a very incomplete picture.
The reason yoga works long-term is that the practice is designed to trigger our stress response. Think about it: what could be more stressful than holding a weird shape for an indeterminate amount of time, while your legs are burning and your arms feel like jelly? Even in restorative yoga you are being asked to hold a static shape—one that is probably not natural for your body—while you also release the thoughts you are holding.
Yoga works because in the midst of these stressful situations, something else is happening: We are actively working to train our minds and bodies to relax, despite the stressful situation. We are reorienting our stress response from the innate (fast, heavy breathing, panicked thoughts, and tense muscles) to the learned (slow, deliberate breathing, calm thoughts, and engaged but not clenched muscles). By training our mental reactions, we are also modulating our physical reactions: We are lowering our heart rates, blood pressure, and easing our breathing. We are letting the body become a secondary concern, rather than the primary driving force of our practice.
We’ve all felt that magical moment in yoga class when the stress we carried in from the day—the angry boss, the fight with the spouse, the money worries—all drop away. If we can learn to consciously cultivate this while under physical stress, we can also learn to cultivate it when under emotional and mental stress.
Yoga teaches us how to train our stress response systems—something most people will never learn how to do, because they never develop the tools. Most people become stuck in patterns of reactivity, whereas, after training in yoga, we can become proactive. By learning to release our physical and mental stress during a yoga class, we can learn to release it when we are not on our mats—for example, when we are overwhelmed or in difficult situations.
In an emotional situation, we can learn to step outside of our emotionally reactive selves, just as we do on the mat when asked to do something we think is impossible, or the teacher asks us to hold a pose a bit longer. Instead of saying, “No!” or crying, or becoming angry, we learn to cultivate a peaceful response. We can let everything that is not the present moment fall away—all of our fears, anger, and all of our attachment to “our side” of the argument—focusing instead on the situation we are in, and the best outcome for everyone involved.
Meditation is another yogic tool we can utilize during times of emotional and mental stress. Different types of meditation are helpful for different things: a simple breath meditation is useful for learning how to be present in the moment. The practice of observing our thoughts is useful for learning how to recognize obsessive or negative thoughts—and eventually training them to be less aggressive or reactive, or even preventing them from becoming worse. A loving kindness meditation may help us to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and better understand their perspectives (even when it seems impossible to do so).
Pranayama, or breath practice, is another way that yoga can help us move through complicated situations. There are many wonderful breathing practices, but I’ve found three to be most helpful in working through difficult life situations:
At times when you feel the need to calm down and take big, deep breaths, do it intentionally: Practice ujjayi breath. This breath is soothing and will help the nervous system to slow down.
When you need to recenter yourself, literally and figuratively, try alternate nostril breathing, or nadi shodhana. This breath is also calming, and will help you find balance when you feel off center.
Finally, when you feel the need to just let go of some energy or even to scream, try lion’s breath: let it all out, envisioning the release of all of your pent-up feelings and excess energy, leaving you free to move past them.
By engaging in practices where we focus on retraining the automatic response to stress—reaction, discomfort, pain, fear, anger, frustration—and instead learn how to move through difficult situations with some level of grace—patience, stillness, equanimity, composure—we learn how to engage more mindfully. We are learning how to return to that magical place on the mat when everything becomes calm and still and quiet—whenever we need to.
And that is the goal of yoga practice, isn’t it? To be able to access that place all of the time. With each practice, we’re getting closer.