Can Yoga Combat Stress?

Part II: Can yoga mitigate the effects of stress (distress) on our health and wellbeing? An exploration of evidence and practical application

One of the most valuable things that we can learn to do in this lifetime is to care for ourselves.  By optimizing our own physical, energetic, mental and emotional health, we increase our capacity to manage the myriad stressors that impact our day to day experiences.  Investment in our own stability and balance will lead to greater resiliency and ultimately positively impact the relationships we are invested in.

It is often difficult for people to objectively evaluate what stressors they’re experiencing or the degree to which multiple stressors are impacting their health.   In order to do this, an individual can explore the various physiological, mental and emotional symptoms associated with stress (explored in Part I) as well as investigate the presence of specific life stressors over the past year.   One tool that has been in use since 1967 is the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.  This scale adds up the number of “life change units” that apply to conditions over the last year of a person’s life.  The results provide a rudimentary evaluation of how the last year has affected one’s health.

Holmes & Rahe Stress Scale

Life event

Life change units

Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Imprisonment 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Begin or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Christmas 12
Minor violation of law 11

Score of 300+: At risk of illness.

Score of 150-299+: Risk of illness is moderate (reduced by 30% from the above risk).

Score 150-: Only have a slight risk of illness.

Once this evaluation is complete, we need to look at what steps one might take to proactively manage their life situation, and further, examine where yoga fits in on the spectrum of management techniques.

Varvogli and Darviri (2011) in their comprehensive literature review identified 10 evidence-based techniques that have been shown to reduce stress and promote health. These techniques include the following;

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: the progressive tensing and relaxation of muscle groups in a specific or sequential pattern.  The practice is repeated 2-3 times daily for 15-20 minutes per session.  This technique is effective for insomnia, decreasing generalized anxiety, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure and improving quality of life in chronic illness such as heart disease and multiple sclerosis.[i]
  2. Autogenic Training (AT): a self-relaxation procedure consisting of six standard exercises that use visual and verbal cues to make the body feel warm, heavy and relaxed. The exercises are practiced for a few minutes several times per day.  There is evidence that AT is effective in treating headaches/migraines, heart disease, modifying stress for asthma, pain, anxiety disorders, moderate depression and functional sleep disorders.[ii]
  3. Relaxation Response (RR): facilitation of the relaxation response involves two components; the first is the repetition of a word, sound, prayer, thought, phrase or muscular movement so that concentration is achieved.  The second component is the return of attention to that repetition when concentration is broken.   This technique is practiced 10-20 minutes each day resulting in  an overall decrease in arousal return to normal digestive and hormonal functioning.  There is significant evidence showing that the RR positively impacts cardiovascular disease as well as long-term physiological effects associated with gene expression.[iii]
  4. Biofeedback: a technique whereby a trained professional uses instruments to relay physiologic information to the individual.  Over 3-6 months of sessions, the individual is able to observe changes in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration and to eventually effect changes in these same measurements.  This technique has been shown to be effective for headaches, cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. [iv]
  5. Guided Imagery (GI): is a technique that uses images to promote health and relaxation in a safe environment, typically recruiting visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and kinesthetic senses.  The practices a minimum of 10 minutes per day. GI has proven to be effective in stress reduction, treatment of depression and anxiety, for pain management and management of anxiety over medical procedures.[v]
  6. Diaphragmatic Breathing: is a technique that focuses on slow deep diaphragm focused breathing.  It has long been one of the essential tools of yoga and best results are achieved if this practice occurs several times daily.  This practice resets the autonomic nervous system and has been used to reduce anxiety, in management of acutely stressful situations as well as treatment in hypertension.[vi]
  7. Transcendental Meditation™: involves repetition of a mantra for 20 minutes twice a day.  There is evidence that TM improves brain function, attention, resilience, self-esteem and mood, as well as reduces anxiety, pain, depression and stress.[vii]
  8. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): is a structured, time-limited, specific technique that involves assessing and cognitively restructuring dysfunctional behaviours and emotions. The technique is utilized between a trained clinician and patient.  CBT is used effectively to treat pain, headaches, cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, obesity, depression and stress related to infertility, anxiety and stress management.[viii]
  9. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): is a structured 8-week program utilizing mindfulness meditation to ameliorate mental and physical stress associated with physical, psychosomatic and psychiatric disorders. MBSR has been used to successfully modify mood, pain, enhance immune function, reduce stress, anxiety and depression.[ix]
  10. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): involves tapping on nine acupoints while speaking aloud a meaningful and specific phrase.  This is an exposure technique used in conjunction with a trained professional. It is particularly useful in post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma following illness or medical intervention.[x]

It is worthy to note that there is evidence that physical exercise modifies anxiety, improves self-esteem and most importantly protects against the long-term consequences of stress.[xi]  Unfortunately, most of the research examining the relationship between exercise and stress has looked at aerobic activities such as running, aerobics etc.  It would be interesting to see if the same relationship was established when examining more challenging styles of yoga.

If we examine a comprehensive yoga practice, the common elements include asana (physical practice), pranayama (breathing techniques), meditation, chanting, relaxation, and possibly yoga nidra.  It is clear from the above evidence that practicing meditation, chanting and relaxation has measureable effects our stress response and as such is imperative to the practice. We will explore asana, pranayama and yoga nidra in more detail here.


The majority of North American practitioners are introduced to yoga through the physical practice, which ultimately or ideally stretches contracts and relaxes all the muscle groups of the body.  This is coupled with cultivation of present moment awareness and diaphragmatic breathing.  Interestingly, one might conclude that the simple process of asana itself includes facets of progressive muscle relaxation, the relaxation response, diaphragmatic breathing, and the mindfulness cultivated in the mindfulness based stress reduction technique. One might also specifically utilize specific styles of yoga for particular effects.  For example yin or restorative yoga may elicit a more profound relaxation response or cultivate a greater foundation for mindfulness.  A breath focused style of vinyasa yoga may more effectively cultivate diaphragmatic breathing and strength-based or power yoga might most effectively reap the benefits of aerobic exercise.


          Pranayama involves altering 3 aspects of the breath: Inhalation (Puraka), Exhalation (Rechaka), the Pause (Kumbhaka).   Pilot studies at the START clinic in Toronto (Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Rehabilitation Toronto) have determined that 5-6 breaths per minute optimally balances the sympathovagal stress response system for most adults.[xii]  Interestingly this is approximately a 5-count or 5-second inhale/exhale which is what is used in most breath-based vinyasa classes.

The Bihar school of Yoga has also listed the following pranayama practices as “tranquilizing” or “balancing” in nature:

Candra Bedha Pranayama or Candra Bedhana (Moon Piercing Breath)[xiii]

  • Tranquilizing Pranayama
  • “Candra” is the moon – this technique focuses on ida nadi
    • Technique:
      • Block Right Nostril, Inhale Left Nostril
      • Block Left Nostril, Exhale Right Nostril
      • Practice 10 Rounds
    • Practice Notes:
      • After 10 rounds, you may introduce bandhas, breath retention, and mudra (shambavi mudra)
      • Gradually increase the length of inhalation and exhalation
      • Suggested ratios are 1:1:1, moving to 1:2:2, moving to 1:4:2
      • It takes a longer duration of time to breathe through one nostril only, so bear this in mind when establishing duration of inhale/exhale
      • Practice only 10 additional rounds with bandhas, retention and mudra
    • Benefits:
      • Creates mental introversion, calmness and enhanced psychic abilities
      • Cooling for the system and enhances all attributes associated with ida nadi
    • Contra-indications:
      • Do not practice if you are introverted by nature or suffer from serious mental disturbance
      • Do not practice if digestion is sluggish or if there is excess mucous in system

Nadi Sodhana (Nadi = channel, Sodhana = purification)[xiv]

  • Balancing Pranayama for psychic network purification.
  • Utilizes right and left nostrils to influence ida and pingala nadis.
  • Profound practice as it can bring equilibrium to physical, energetic and mental bodies, as well as enabling one to direct prana for spiritual awakening.
  • Nasikagra Mudra is used: 2 fingers on 3rd eye, thumb used to block and open right nostril, ring finger used to block and open left nostril.
    • Technique: There are 18 stages of nadi sodhana for beginner, intermediate and advanced students – the beginner technique will be described here.
    • Beginner Techniques:

Step One:

    • Sit in sukhasana, ardha padmasana or vajrasana
    • Perform nasikagra mudra
    • Block Right Nostril, Inhale and Exhale five times through Left Nostril
    • Block Left Nostril, Inhale and Exhale five times through Right Nostril
    • Keep both Nostrils Open, Inhale and Exhale five times through both Nostrils together
    • There is no limit to the number of repetitions that may be performed for Step One.

Step Two:

  • Repeat the same process as step one, however regulate the count of the Inhale and Exhale so that they are the same.
  • I.E.: 4:4, or 5:5, or 6:6 etc.

Step Three:

  • Block Right Nostril, Inhale evenly through Left Nostril
  • Block Left Nostril, Exhale evenly through Right Nostril
  • Keep Right Nostril Open, Inhale evenly
  • Block Right Nostril, Exhale evenly through Left Nostril
  • This is ONE round
  • Practice 15 rounds

Step Four:

  • Repeat the same process as step three, however regulate the count of the Inhale and Exhale so that they are the same.
  • Start with a count that is comfortable and stay with that count for a period of time before attempting to increase it.
  • May time the breath to a Mantra (i.e.: OM)

Step Five:

  • After 15 days of continuous practice with step four, you may go on to step five.
  • Practice as in step four, however double the exhale so that the ratio is 1:2 (or 1:0:2:0).
  • Benefits:
    • Can be used as a therapeutic tool for virtually all conditions.
    • Pranic channels are purified and decongested
    • Controls fluctuations in mind~body balance
    • Restores equilibrium in mental, emotional, physical, energetic bodies
    • Increases resiliency with all life situations
    • It is a complete practice in itself that can be used to direct prana into sushumna for spiritual awakening
  • Contra-Indications:
    • Individuals with high BP, heart disease or peptic ulcer should not practice beyond step five of the beginner techniques.

 Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep)

Yoga nidra is a systematic technique for cultivating multidimensional (physical, mental, emotional) relaxation consciously.   Ideally the technique is practiced daily, however studies have shown significant self-reported results in reducing anxiety for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder in as little as two sessions per week.[xv]   According to the Bihar School of yoga, yoga nidra can be used to treat a variety of conditions including insomnia, fertility issues,  chronic cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, psychological disorders and psychosomatic illness.[xvi]  Currently, there is significant investigation and exploration around these claims.

Anecdotally, when one practices yoga nidra, it is evident that there are elements of relaxation, visualization, mindfulness and even autogenic training in the practice.  The experience is actually quite profound.  For further exploration, try listening to these recordings every day for 4-6 weeks and see how you feel.


          Based on the available evidence, a comprehensive yoga practice should be efficacious in modifying levels of stress.  It seems to be essential that the components of the practice are repeated frequently and that the relaxation response is mediated at the level of the body, breath and mind.  The key is to try it out for ourselves.


[i] Varvogli, L. & C. Darviri. (2011) Stress Management Techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress

  and promote health. Health Science Journal Vol 5, Iss 2., pp. 74-89.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Salmon, P. (2001) Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: A unifying theory.

Clinical Psychology Review., Vol 21, Iss 1., pp. 33-61.

[xii]Gerbarg, P.L., Wallace. G., &  R.P. Brown. (2011). Yoga therapy in practice: Mass disasters and mind-body                  solutions:Evidence and field insights. International Journal of Yoga Therapy (21), 97-107.

[xiii] Saraswati, Niranjanananda, Swami. (2002) Prana Pranayama Prana Vidya (pp 198). Bihar India: Yoga Publications Trust.

[xiv] Saraswati, Niranjanananda, Swami. (2002) Prana Pranayama Prana Vidya (pp 171). Bihar India: Yoga Publications Trust.

[xv] Stankovik, L. (2011). Transforming Trauma: A Qualitative Feasibility Study of Integrative Restoration (iRest) Yoga Nidra on Combat-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Vol 21, No 1., pp 23-37.

[xvi] Saraswati, Niranjanananda, Swami. (2006), Yoga Nidra. Bihar India: Yoga Publications Trust.

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