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Relieve Holiday Stress with Yoga

I’m writing this article during the hectic holiday season, on the eve of the arrival of family from out of state who will be staying with us for the week.  It’s a hectic time of year, with lots to do and not much time. 

Before discovering yoga, I would have felt stress, wanting everything to be just right, but I can honestly tell you as I write this that all I feel is a sense of peace, happiness and gratefulness.  Of course, this just may be a good day for me.  Try me again next week and I may be singing a different tune, but not for long, because yoga always helps me find my way back, and it can do the same for you.

The American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that 75% to 90% of their patients come for stress related problems. Scientists agree that stress likely causes more heart attack deaths than high cholesterol and smoking combined. A huge body of research shows that stress is implicated in a wide range of health issues: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, asthma, depression, dementia – and the list goes on.

The ancient practice of yoga has so many benefits for all of us living in the 21st century.  First and foremost, yoga is a time-tested way to deal with the stress we all encounter in our lives.  Often we feel that external events are causing us stress and that we have little control over these events.  While, it’s true that you can't control things such as time, other people's demands, or mother nature, you can control your reaction to life’s stressors, and yoga is a wonderful way to do just that.

Warning Signs of Stress

Recognizing that you are feeling stressed is the first step towards controlling its effects.  The following are signs that you may be feeling under stress:

  • Feeling stiff and tight:  Muscle tension without a corresponding physical reason is one of the first and most common signs of stress overload.
  • Losing patience: If you find little things are causing you to lose your cool, you’re stressed.
  • Forgetfulness: Having minor memory lapses (where are those keys) can be a sign of stress.
  • Insomnia: Scientists found that those who have trouble sleeping are more likely to have higher levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol, in their bodies.
  • Feeling under the weather: Stress affects your immune system.  A new report found that those under stress are 3 to 4 times more likely to develop a cold.
  • Weight gain: Many people find that stress triggers emotional eating.  Also, much research has shown that the stress hormone, Cortisol, is a culprit in weight gain because it causes an increase in appetite, while also causing fat to be deposited instead of burned.

3 Ways Yoga Works to Stop Stress


When you're stressed you often keep replaying the stressful situation over and over. This "tape" usually plays below your level of conscious awareness. Scientific reports on stress often note that study participants don’t even realize when stress is taking its toll on their bodies and their lives.

Yoga postures and breathing exercises are taught in such a way that they demand your attention. They take you out of your head. They focus your attention in your body and teach you how to feel your body. When your focus is on your body, your mind isn't replaying those old stressful tapes. As soon as your mind let's go, your stress levels drop dramatically.

Deep Breathing:

Yoga is renowned for its deep breathing techniques. This is a tried and true stress remedy. Within a few minutes of deep breathing, you can physically feel the stress and tension releasing from your body.  If you're a shallow breather, you compensate for lack of oxygen by breathing more quickly, causing more muscular tension, increased breathing rate and decreased lung capacity. According to Dr. Robert Freid, author of The Breath Connection, the following health problems are directly related to shallow breathing:

  • The arteries in the brain constrict, causing headaches.
  • Decreased blood flow may result in cold or numb hands and feet.
  • Chronic exhaustion and fatigue. If parts of your body aren't getting the oxygen they need, you may feel more tired
  • Muscle tension and stiffness, especially in the upper back, shoulders, neck and jaw.

Modern science and medical research are proving again and again that the deep breathing taught for centuries by yogis creates the optimum conditions for health and well being.

The Relaxation Response

Yoga teaches what scientists call the “Relaxation Response”, as coined by Herbert Benson, MD in his book The Relaxation Response. He has found that regular practice of meditation and deep relaxation techniques quiet the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in the following benefits:

  • Reduction or elimination of feelings of stress
  • Improved emotional stability
  • Decrease in depression and anxiety
  • Improved concentration
  • Stronger immune system
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased alertness

Stress experts point out that the “Relaxation Response” doesn’t occur automatically. It must be learned. In addition, the relaxation response must be activated regularly to produce the long-term changes. During yoga class, students are guided through relaxation at the end of class.

No time for yoga?  Try this.

If you are feeling stressed this holiday season, and simply don’t feel you have time to take a yoga class.  Try these quick and simple exercises to help you relax:

  • Tense and relax: lying on your back, tense and relax your feet, legs, buttocks, abdomen, hands, arms, shoulders/neck and face.  Squeeze and relax each area three times before allowing that area of the body to completely relax.  Pay special attention to your shoulders and neck, hunching/squeezing this area, and then allowing this area to completely relax.  When we are stressed, the muscles in the neck and shoulders are often the first to become tense.
  • Deep abdominal breath: Lie on your back, relax your belly and breathe deeply through the nose, allowing your belly to expand on inhale and relax on exhale.  Focus on your breath, allowing any other thoughts to pass.  Keep your attention on the present moment and on your breath.  You will often find that everything is fine in this moment and that we are usually simply worrying about a future event or a past regret.

Do your best to notice the signs of stress and take a moment to relax and let go of those feelings.  Soon, it will become second nature and you will feel a greater sense of ease.

To learn more about yoga exercises to relieve stressScience Articles, visit:

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Nancy Wile, Ed.D. is the founder of Yoga To Go – a yoga organization that provides simple and effective yoga programs for busy people around the world.  You can subscribe to her free yoga and fitness newsletter at:

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