Relaxing stretching

The Power of Yoga for Stress & Anxiety

“You should try yoga — it’s meant to be good for stress.”
This has become the generic advice of doctors, the media and friends alike, but it’s not quite so simple. You can’t necessarily just rock up to a local yoga class and expect to be bestowed an inoculation to stress.
Yes, yoga is intended to alleviate stress through regulating the nervous system, releasing physical tension, and ushering you into the present moment through connection to the body and breath. But yoga is a vast, complex and multi-layered tradition, so a little knowledge about what you’re looking for is crucial.
I hear all the time of people who have felt more stressed in a yoga class than they were before entering. They feel awkward, self-conscious, bored, frustrated. Whether it’s the music, the elaborate cues, the physical challenge, or being uncomfortable in stillness, there are so many triggers that can actually provoke stress and anxiety in a yoga practice — quite the opposite to the intended effect!
Getting the results you want all comes down to understanding what your individual nervous system needs to shift from a state of stress to a state of calm. Luckily, there are many different styles and approaches to yoga, so you simply need to explore these various potential medicines.
No single style of yoga can be said to be the best for stress, because everyone requires a different kind of intervention. Some people need to move, to sweat, to burn off stress hormones and discharge anxious energy. Others need to slow down, rest, release their worries by surrendering. Some need slow movement or gentle stimulation; others need complete stillness and silence to reset.
So how do you know what you need? Well, exploring what’s on offer is key. Nothing replaces stepping into a practice to observe how it feels in your body — and if you’ve been struggling with stress or anxiety, chances are you’re currently somewhat out of touch with the nuances of what your body and mind are craving.
As a starting point, here’s an introductory guide to the most popular styles and how to approach them for healing.
Calming yoga
Vinyasa Flow (now commonly referred to simply as Flow Yoga in many studios) is based on synching movement with breath. This synchronisation helps bring awareness to your breathing even while you’re ‘distracted’ by coordinating movement. When we’re stressed, our breath can become short, sharp and fast, so developing this awareness can translate into the ability to notice and regulate your breath when you’re starting to feel stressed or anxious.
Although the concept of flowing between postures definitely applies to gentle forms of yoga, the popular trend at the moment is for more rigorous practices, involving lots of physical challenge and mopping sweat from your brow.
As I mentioned, sometimes what we really need when we’re experiencing anxiety is to burn off our nervous energy. You’ll know this includes you if you can’t stop shaking your leg or tapping your fingers when you try to sit still. Essentially, your ‘fight or flight’ response needs to be expressed physically.
Plus, the intensity of the sensations can become the most tangible focal point for your mind. If you’ve tried mindfulness meditation but your mind can’t stop returning to all the things you're stressed about, sometimes giving your mind something physical to focus on can be the best way to give it a break.
More gentle forms of Flow Yoga work on the same premise of directing the mind to physical sensations as you move, but the slow and sometimes subtle movement can prove not enough stimulation for the latter group. If you have so much adrenaline in you, this kind of movement can leave you darting your eyes around the room, tapping your fingers again, and wishing the teacher would just get on with it!
But just to complicate things, the complete opposite can be true... For many of us who have been stressed for so long, the instruction to slow down can be like a soothing balm being injected into your veins. And in a way it is: the slow movement with the instruction to let go of undue tension, the slowing down of the breath and feeling into what’s present in the body — all this initiates the cascade of hormones that sends the nervous system into ‘rest and digest’. For a similar reason that babies are soothed by rocking and stroking, gentle flowing movement can lull us into a sense of safety — a feeling that is inherently missing when we’re experiencing stress and anxiety.
Yoga for stress
Iyengar is a traditional style of yoga, based around getting into postures with very specific cues for alignment. As yoga has developed in the West, you’ll be more likely to find some version of ‘alignment-based yoga’, which can include more contemporary considerations of biomechanics and remedial therapy.
The main benefits of this approach for addressing stress and anxiety centre around the specificity of the alignment cuing. When you are being asked to focus on many subtle shifts in your body at one time, you’re encouraged to redirect attention from the thoughts swirling around your head to the sensations in your body, while also processing instructions from the teacher that you’re translating into movement.
Just as with the constant movement and stimulation of Vinyasa, this kind of input into your mind and body can be exactly what you need to bring yourself into the present moment, in which those stressful thoughts and fears don’t exist. Equally, it could have the opposite effect: adding stress and demand to an already burned out system. You’ll know if you fall into the latter group if you start to feel frustrated or overwhelmed by the teacher’s cues, and notice a yearning to have nothing demanded of you.
Relaxing yoga
Yin and Restorative are both passive forms of yoga, with a main difference between them. Yin involves holding passive stretches (meaning your muscles are relaxed as they stretch) for anything between 3 and 10 minutes. The stretches are meant to be gentle and supported by props.
Restorative also involves holding postures for extended periods, but the idea is to relieve any and all stress or strain from the body. You use your props and position to ensure there is no stretch, but rather you are fully supported so you can learn to let go and yield into gravity.
Both can be extremely calming for the nervous system, as extended periods of intentionally relaxing tells the nervous system that you’re safe, no longer in the survival mode that stress binds us to, and finally able to rest and heal. Both passive styles help us to relieve tension that has been built up in the body — stress patterns from where we clench against our unwanted experiences.
In the case of Yin, this release happens through the gentle stretching of the muscles. When the stretch receptors within the fibres are stimulated for over 90 seconds, there is a reflexive shift into the ‘rest and digest’ state of the nervous system. When you’re experiencing stretch sensation, however subtle, this also provides us with the added benefit of having a stimulus to focus your wondering mind on, as with some of the other styles of yoga.
Restorative Yoga is the medicine for when you need nothing more than to simply be held. Nothing is demanded of you, no strain is upon you. This can be challenging for those type-A personalities that have become addicted to speed, stimulation and achievement. But when you can learn to trust that rest is productive, and allow yourself to surrender into stillness, the breath of relief that your mind and body sighs can be the most powerful of all the styles.
When choosing the class you want to join, always enquire about the vibe of the style and the teacher’s individual approach — but even then you might need to shop around to find the teacher that hits the spot for you. If you have any questions about what you may require for your particular needs, feel free to reach out to me directly at
Eleanor is a somatic coach with the mission to help people live in a state of flow. She entered the field in response to her own issues with anxiety and eating disorders, and continues to study and explore diverse healing modalities. Eleanor’s background is in yoga, holistic lifestyle coaching, hypnosis, remedial therapy and personal training.
She delivers one-to-one coaching, classes, workshops and courses on movement, meditation and breathwork for self-development, which you can learn about at
Follow her Instagram @eleanorforder!

Eleanor Forder

Somatic Coach

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