And how to ensure that your “om” delivers the peace you crave
More stress is probably the last thing most of us need in our lives, but one anxiety-busting strategy used by millions may actually be increasing your tension: yoga. While not every yogi is looking to relieve stress—some practice to build strength, improve flexibility, or correct a slouching posture, among other things—yoga is one of the first things many people turn to when they need relaxation.
But don’t let this news stress you out: Once you know why time on the mat can rack your nerves, you can take the steps to make sure you’re getting all the mind-easing benefits you want from your practice.
The yoga breath is an integral part of every pose, but taking too deep of a breath could put stress on your central nervous system. “Too many people—some yoga teachers included—focus on big inhalations and what we call artificial good posture,” explains instructor Dana Santas, who has worked with dozens of professional athletes and Olympians in Tampa, Florida. You’re guilty of this if you find yourself breathing with a puffed-out chest, arched back, lifted ribcage, and your shoulder blades squeezed together.
“The problem is that there are receptors for our fight-or-flight system in our middle back, and these can be activated when doing ‘artificial good posture,’” Santas says. “We also tend to hold our breath there, further increasing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Joanna Rajendran, founder of Our Love Yoga apparel line and certified yoga instructor practicing in Scarsdale, New York, suggests making a “ha” sound when you inhale and exhale, breathing similarly to the way you would to fog a mirror. “Once you find that breath with your mouth open, maintain the volume and depth of the ‘ha’ with your mouth closed. The action will occur at the hollow of the throat,” she explains.
Unlike other fitness classes, you cannot show up late—many studios even lock the doors—but speeding to get to yoga can ruin the serenity you’re about to experience. “If I had a dollar for every time a student told me she almost got into a car accident rushing to get to class, I’d be a rich woman!” Santas says.
It sounds obvious, but giving yourself plenty of time to get to class will make it more beneficial in the long run, plus possibly prevent a fender-bender! “Mentally schedule a class 15 minutes before it actually begins,” Rajendran advises. Hopefully you’ll wind up early and can give yourself those extra minutes to check your distractions at the door and sit, center, and connect with your body.
Comparing your standing split to that of the woman behind you can discourage you, especially if your body just doesn't work that way. “Some people don't realize that our skeletons aren't all configured the same way, and therefore you just may not be able to do some poses the same way others can,” Santas says. Plus, copying someone with incorrect form can lead to knee pain and injuries such as shin splints.
Stop the silent competition and make peace with your own personal and physical limitations. “So-called ‘shopping’ on another person's mat is counterintuitive to your yoga practice. What comes easily to you may be a challenge to someone else, and what's a challenge to you may be more available to them,” Rajendran says. And don’t forget that once you perfect a pose, there’s often another, harder version to learn. Ultimately, just be present in the moment and focus on you.
If 20 million people are doing it, chances are, yoga classes across the country are pretty crowded. And some people consider their mat and placement of their mat sacred. “If someone takes your ‘spot’ or steps on your mat, you may fume through the entire class,” Santas says.
Try taking your yoga class at an off time instead of peak hours when the classes tend to be more crowded. This can vary from studio to studio, so be sure to ask before you sign up for classes. Or, if you can afford it, take a private lesson or enlist the use of a yoga instructor who comes into your home.
An outlook adjustment can also help. “While traveling in India, I had the privilege of practicing yoga in some very beautiful and crowded spaces,” recalls Rajendran. “It provided me with an opportunity to understand that the feeling of ‘being crowded’ only existed in my mind. As long as the four corners of my mat fit on the floor, I had all the space I needed,” she says.
Skip a boot camp for your sister’s party and you won’t feel (too) bad, but yoga is viewed by some as a life-affirming, spiritual practice and “there is a sense of guilt that can be very much like that ‘Catholic guilt’ over not going to church on Sunday,” Santas says.
Look for a fitness center that offers plenty of options for classes, giving you a flexible plan where you can take a class whenever it is convenient for you. The best thing about yoga is you can practice it almost anywhere, so even if you miss the studio, you can do some mini sessions on your own time: “Try deep-breathing techniques while stuck at red lights, balance in a tree pose waiting in line at a supermarket, or do a downward dog to plank combo while looking down at and cooing a baby,” Rajendran suggests.