How breathing and stretching can focus the mind and relieve stress

There are a lot of articles out there about how yoga helps relieve stress. The twisting, and contorting and balancing poses magically help people relax and focus better. But how does it work? Does it really work?

First, let’s look at what causes stress in the first place. Try this, tense yourself up and get really worked up about something. Now, take a few deep breaths and relax your whole body, don’t let a single muscle tense up. Now try getting angry again. Can you do it?

Most people can’t.

Activities such as yoga and meditation can help to relieve stress and tension in the body in several ways:

  • Focus on relaxing and stretching the muscles
  • Focus on a particular activity, such as holding or flowing into a difficult pose
  • Deep, slow breathing

Scientific studies have shown, that stress causes muscles to tighten, blood pressure to go up, as well as many other negative symptoms. “When stressed, your body produces hormones that increase muscle tension and pain sensitivity,” says Jay Winner, M.D., author of Stress Management Made Simple. When you’re stressed your body released increased amounts of stress hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines  (which increases cardiac output and blood flow).

“Fight or flight” is a common term for a natural reaction to extremely stressful situations, designed to help us adapt to new situations, such as a caveman being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. Muscles tighten, adrenaline courses through your veins. However, under prolonged exposure, the muscles do not relax and the increased adrenaline causes people to suffer from anxiety, muscle pain, increased heart rate, high blood pressure, etc. The benefits of yoga and breathing exercises include ways to bring back a healthy state of alertness, helping you to better manage stress.

Get into the flow

Researchers such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as he discusses in his TEDtalk Flow: The secret to happiness , have focused on how people can get into a “flow” state, a state of heightened focus, usually by doing an activity that is new and slightly challenging. Indeed, focusing on doing something that is slightly challenging can do more than just get rid of stress and tense, it can also increase happiness and creativity.[1] Csikszentmihalyi states that the human nervous system can only process about 110 bits of information per second and when you are immersed in a completely engaging process, you don’t have enough space left over to pay attention to other details. This is how you can focus completely on doing some new or challenging, drown out the rest of the world, and improve your mental and physical well-being.

For an exercise in how to focus your mind, try the Tree posture from yoga. Stand on one leg and put your raised foot on either the upper thigh or lower calf of your standing leg. Place your hands in the prayer position in front of your chest and stare at a point in front of you. If this is too easy, you can raise your hands wide over your head and look up for an added challenge. If you’ve never done that before, it requires a lot of concentration to maintain balance. It can be challenging even for people who have done this posture before.

If you’re stressed and your mind is very chaotic it can be difficult to find your balance at first. If I am stressed or worried about something, I find that I sway and lose balance in this posture more easily, but gradually, as I am forced to focus on just balancing for a few minutes, I stop swaying. When I come out of the pose, I am a lot calmer and more focused. Not to mention, I feel a sense of satisfaction of not having fallen over!

Breathing and the mind[2]

Have you ever heard the suggestion “empty your mind” when meditating? This is almost impossible to do. One of the most basic meditation exercises done in Chan and Zen Buddhism asks you to inhale to a count of six seconds, hold for three, and then exhale for another six seconds. Do this for at least five minutes. If the six-count breathing is too easy, you can increase the length of time you inhale and exhale, always hold for half the length of time you exhale. Concentrating on counting out the lengths of your inhales and exhales, forces you to focus the mind. If your thoughts stray, notice it, and bring your thoughts back to counting. It’s another gentle way of focusing, similar to the Tree pose discussed previously. Imagine doing both together.

Deep breathing exercises have also been shown to lower stress levels. In a study, Dr. Sara Lazar put a group of people through an 8-week meditation course and found that, among other benefits, the area of the amygdala that is responsible for the “fight or flight” center had decreased, which was connected to a reduction in stress.

Slow, deep breathing has also been shown to slow the heartrate down. This is because, as Mithu Storoni suggests in her article, the area of the brain that controls breathing and the area that controls the sympathetic nerve signal, which can cause your heart to beat faster, are both in the same region of the brain’s medulla. Consciously slowing your breathing down, taking deep breaths will, according to Storoni, cause your heartrate to go down because of the parasympathetic signals being sent to the heart.

Stretching out the stress

According to the Harvard Health Publications, stretching both relaxes your muscles and relaxes you mentally, but to get a deep stretch, or to just stretch deeper from wherever you are, you need to relax the muscles that are being stretched.

Proprioceptors, body awareness receptors in your joints and muscles, can be stimulated through movement and stretching to “talk to” the limbic system which is responsible for alertness and for processing emotion. It can bring your high “fight or flight” to a calm level, or can bring your low alertness up to a higher more active level. [3]

Dr. Phil Page in his articles  notes that one of the many reasons why muscles can be tight is due to contraction. A possible cause if which is stress, especially over a prolonged period. Think of getting a knot in your back after a stressful day. Dr. Page notes among several stretching methods the “hold relax” or “contract relax” methods, where the muscle is contracted for about 10 seconds and then “relaxed” which has the effect of deepening the stretch.

The more muscles that are relaxed, the less stressed you will be.

Grow your tree to unwind

There are studies that back up the claim that Yoga is a great way to reduce stress. Australian researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne  compared the stress levels of three groups of people, one group did a six-week yoga course, which included both breathing exercises and physical postures, another did yoga regularly before the start of the test, while the last group did not do yoga before or during the test. After the six weeks, “the people in the beginners’ yoga groups on average had lower levels of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress than before the beginning of the study.”

Exercises that require you to concentrate on doing a task that is not too complicated, can take up all the 110 bits of information that the human nervous system process in a second and allow you to forget your concerns or focus more intently on what you are doing. Focusing your mind together with stretching to work your proprioceptors and breathing to send parasympathetic signals to slow your heart down can help you relax. With time and diligent practice, you will be able to incorporate these relaxation exercises into your daily life and better deal with stressful situations.

[1] There is also research to suggest that getting into a “Flow state” improves self-efficacy: confidence and self-esteem when trying new activities. Creating a healthy self-perception.

[2] Herbert Benson, in his book “Relaxation Response,” describes the scientific benefits of relaxation and how studies that he did in the 1960s and 1970s showed how meditation promotes better health and eases hypertension.

[3] Putting something in your mouth, taste, seeing modulating images that are, hearing music, balancing (using the vestibular system) does this as well.


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