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Yoga for Stress Relief

Use breath, yoga poses, and meditation to help calm your body and mind.

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An estimated 80 to 90 percent of visits to the doctor are stress-related but only less than 3% of doctors talk to their patients about how to reduce stress. Yoga, meditation, and other mind-body practices train your body and mind to be able to cope with stress better and improve overall health and well-being.

In a national survey, over 85% of people who did yoga reported that it helped them relieve stress. Exercise is a very useful way to relieve stress, but yoga is different from spinning class or weight-lifting in that it powerfully combines both physical fitness with an underlying philosophy of self-compassion and awareness. One of the main concepts in yoga is being non-judgmental toward both yourself and others, which is a powerful tool for stress relief since much of our stress comes from us being hard on ourselves or frustrated with others.

A fundamental principle of yoga is that your body and mind are one and connected. Stress in one domain will affect the other and vice versa. Many of us live primarily in either our mind or our body, which creates imbalance and even a lack of awareness. For example, people with very analytical careers may spend a lot of time in their mind, and may not realize how much tension is stored in their body. Or if you’re an athlete, you may be keenly aware of your body, but could benefit from becoming more aware of your mental state. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, yoga helps you balance and tone the connection between your body and mind.

Yoga also trains your counter-stress response system called the parasympathetic nervous system. With regular yoga practice, your chronic daytime stress hormone levels drop and your heart rate variability increases, which is a measure of your ability to tolerate stress. This has been shown to improve even after a few sessions of yoga.

How can you integrate yoga into your daily life to get rid of stress?

1. Use your breath.

Breath is key to connect with your body and turn down the dial of stress.

Start with learning Ujjayi breath (aka "ocean breath") and use it in each pose. Take a deep slow breath through your nose and exhale through your nose while constricting the back of your throat in the “ha” shape, but keep your mouth closed. Your breath should be loud enough that someone next to you could hear it and should sound like the waves of the ocean or like Darth Vader from Star Wars.

Also try a calming breath called Alternate Nostril Breathing.

Meditation is an important part of yoga and has been shown to effectively reduce stress. Try a short guided meditation to unwind at the end of a stressful day:

4. Practice RAIN.

Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, describes the acronym RAIN as a mindfulness tool to help you deal with stress and cope with difficult situations.

  • R: Recognize what is happening
  • A: Allow life to be just as it is
  • I: Investigate inner experience with kindness
  • N: Non-Identification—the realization or awareness that we are not defined or limited by our emotions or stories.

5. Aim to be kind to yourself.

Kindness and positive emotions protect and cushion you from the burdens of stress and have been shown to improve physical health and depression.

It’s really easy to learn to be hard on ourselves, so unlearning that self-judgment can be difficult but worthwhile. Being self-compassionate doesn’t come naturally for most people, so it takes concerted practice and intention every day.

How can you begin to remember to be kind to yourself on a daily basis? It's different for everyone. Maybe you can give yourself time to spend time with a close friend, let yourself spend extra time playing music that you usually don’t let yourself enjoy, or perhaps try a loving-kindness meditation.

By extending kindness and love to ourselves first and foremost, we are able to expand our ability to accept, forgive, and love. Positive emotion will naturally grow around you and reduce stress both yourself and the people around you.

Even if you’re not doing a pose on your yoga mat, by being kind to yourself regularly every day, you are doing yoga in one of its most powerful forms.

Marlynn Wei, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist, yoga teacher, and co-author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga.

Copyright © 2015 Marlynn Wei, M.D.

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