How Yoga Builds Stress Resilience

June 20, 2017    BY B Grace Bullock, PhD

Americans are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association finds. Chronic stress can take a toll not only on your physical and mental health but your relationships as well. Fortunately, yoga is great for building stress resilience. Here’s why.

Yoga is a metaphor for life that can teach you a lot about how your mind works. For example, it’s easy to be calm and happy when your practice is filled with fluidity, ease, and grace. But what happens when you’re falling all over yourself, or when you’re asked to do something tricky or new?

Although it’s the blissful practices that can keep you coming back for more, you may learn more about how you respond to challenge by observing how you react when you’re shaking, wobbling, or stumbling off of your mat.

Do you get angry or frustrated with yourself when you can barely pull off a bonsai (tiny) tree pose, or are you able to laugh when you’re staggering all over the place and your tree won’t stay put? If your tendency is to get angry or frustrated in that situation, there’s a decent chance that you tend to get peeved with yourself or others when things don’t go as planned. It also means that you’re more likely to experience the ups and downs of life as stressful. That’s useful information!

Imagine what would happen if, instead of getting frustrated during your practice or stopping altogether, you embraced faltering and uncertainty?

The challenge and unpredictability that come with practicing yoga have another added benefit: They teach your brain how to flexibly adapt to change. How? The brain loves two things: novelty and repetition. While that may sound contradictory, novelty (like trying a new pose) requires your brain to get out of its comfort zone and to problem solve. This creates new connections in the brain that make it more adaptable to change.

Repetition makes those new connections stronger. Just like flexing and stretching a skeletal muscle, the more you practice, the stronger and more flexible your mental “muscle” gets. That’s why challenging postures become easier with practice. Initially, your mind may say, What the heck? With time, it may become, Don’t worry, I’ve got this. In this way yoga allows you to make use of the wonderful gift of neuroplasticity—your brain’s ability to change itself. The better your brain and mind are at adapting to change, the easier it becomes to meet stress head-on. The trick is to befriend change and embrace the wobbling.

Imagine what would happen if, instead of getting frustrated during your practice or stopping altogether, you embraced faltering and uncertainty? There’s a good chance your body would relax, and your mind might begin to accept what is occurring in the present moment, rather than striving for “how things should be.” You might even find yourself laughing instead of grimacing (or cursing under your breath).

Facing challenge and flowing with what is, rather than trying to force what isn’t, is the key to building stress resilience and increasing your health and happiness. The next time you step onto your mat, set an intention to examine how you respond to frustration and uncertainty, and see what happens.

B Grace Bullock, PhD
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, organizational innovator, inspirational speaker, science journalist, and author of Mindful Relationships: Seven Skills for Success - Integrating the Science of Mind, Body and Brain (Handspring Publishing, 2016). She is dedicated to empowering individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication, and to... Read more>>

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