Living with Vitality column: Use yoga to manage your stress | VailDaily.com

Living with Vitality column: Use yoga to manage your stress

Editor's note: This is part three in a five-part series from the Vail Vitality Center at Vail Mountain Lodge. Look for columns on Tuesdays in the Health section of the Vail Daily and learn how to manage stress using a variety of modalities. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first two installments.

When you admit you're stressed out, it seems the typical response is, "Do yoga!" Ever wonder why?

While yoga class looks like an exercise routine for the physical body, the practice of yoga examines different elements making up the whole person: the physical body; the breath; and the mind.

Increasingly in Western society, our bodies often inhabit the same pattern day after day — hunching over a computer or standing in an assembly line. The human spine is designed to bear weight and absorb shock and has some 100 different articulations. Yet many adults never twist, bend or extend their spine. If you do not utilize these movements, then you lose them.

The spine is attached physically to the respiration system via the rib cage. Losing range of motion in the spine inhibits breathing patterns, inducing calcification of the respiration muscles, leading to stiffness and, frequently, chronic pain.

Gain State of Calm and Physical Ease

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Standing, sitting or walking with a permanent posterior pelvic tilt causes the psoas muscle to tighten and tug on the bottom of the diaphragm making it harder to take a deep breath. Constant shallow breathing induces a permanent state of low-level anxiety. Yoga focuses on deep breathing targeting the spine and articulated movement. Yoga also opens the hips and pelvis to a neutral or anterior tilt, returning the student to a state of calm and physical ease.

Primary Focus of Yoga

The breath is never separate from the body, and a primary focus of yoga is deepening the breath. Westerners take shallow breaths unless they are runners or have been trained otherwise. Once we have restored mobility to the spine and respiration muscles, we start to utilize the full capacity of the lungs to take deeper inhales.

Deep breathing is calming to the nervous system and gives the body a break from trying to feed the tissues with a limited amount of oxygen. Shallow breathing forces the body to sustain only the systems it believes to be most important. The areas that are not receiving much oxygen are stressed and begin to stagnate.

Easy to Become Overwhelmed

From a mental standpoint, life today moves so quickly it's easy to become overwhelmed and feel powerless. Yoga trains you to retain control over your thoughts and decisions. Despite popular belief, yoga isn't all about relaxing and achieving serenity. Hatha yoga poses are often difficult and challenging, just like life. Yoga is about recognizing stress and suffering as part of life.

Fight Or Flight

We are inundated with images and information, we have arguments with our loved ones, and all of this creates the same fight-or-flight response as being threatened by wild animals — your medulla floods your system with adrenaline preparing you to run or fight. Of course, in the present day scenario that adrenaline isn't used and remains in the system.

Explore Hatha Yoga

In a Hatha yoga class, you are invited to move into challenging situations, which may trigger feelings of anger, or a desire to run or fidget. The goal of yoga is to recognize your responses as choices, to practice staying with stress or discomfort and choosing a different mental response — one of steadiness and ease.

A great teacher of restorative yoga named Judith Hanson-Lasater once said, "Collapsing is not relaxing."

Hatha yoga emphasizes the importance of conscious relaxation at the end of every class, when students are invited to lie down, relax their muscles and clear the mind of activity. Different from sleeping, conscious relaxation is a powerful tool for managing stress.

Can someone do too much yoga? Yes, a person could do too much overly vigorous yoga and become injured or depleted, just as any over exercising taxes the body. Try our restorative yoga, honey flow, and lunar flow offerings at The Vitality Center as alternatives.

Julia Clarke is a yoga teacher and Maharishi Ayurvedic Wellness Consultant whose path has brought her from Scotland to Vail. She is the yoga director for the Vail Vitality Center, and is on teaching faculty for the Colorado School Of Yoga.