BY KELLY MCGONIGAL
Keep in mind that no matter how well you condition your nervous system, you also need to change the way you perceive stress. You can start this process by practicing svadhyaya, or self-observation. “There is a connection between how you experience a forward bend and how you react to the world,” says Elissa Cobb, a Phoenix Rising Yoga practitioner and the author of The Forgotten Body. Take Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), a pose that can produce strong sensations in even the most flexible practitioners.
One common response is to ignore sensations and force yourself forward, fighting against your tight hamstrings. Another is to come out of the pose to avoid the challenge entirely. Both strategies are variations on the same theme: fight-or-flight. In all likelihood, they create tense muscles and rapid or held breathing—not to mention a total lack of joy.
Paying attention to how your body and mind react to the “stress” of Paschimottanasana or any pose offers clues about how you typically react to stress in your life. By training yourself to actively observe while staying calm in poses, you’ll be able to do the same thing when difficult sensations, thoughts, or emotions arise in the face of stress. Instead of going into your habitual reaction mode, you’ll notice what’s happening while staying present enough to choose an appropriate response.
When it comes to transforming your own response to stress, it’s tempting to search for that one pose or breathing exercise that will work its magic. But there isn’t one magic pose. The process is a gradual exploration rather than an easy solution. “If you’re practicing yoga every day, you’re preparing for what life brings. You don’t have to have a strategy for what yoga technique you’ll use in a difficult situation.” According to Weintraub, when challenges arrive, they will begin to flow through you but not overwhelm you. “When life hits, it doesn’t explode or roll over us. We’re not so caught up in the stress of it, but we’re present for it.”
This is the real story of how yoga can help you manage stress. It doesn’t just provide ways to burn through stress or escape from it. It doesn’t only offer stress-reduction techniques for anxious moments. It goes deeper, transforming how the mind and body intuitively respond to stress. Just as the body can learn a new standing posture that eventually becomes ingrained, so the mind can learn new thought patterns, and the nervous system can learn new ways of reacting to stress. The result: When you roll up your mat and walk out the door, you can more skillfully take on whatever life brings.