Photo of Naz sat cross-legged on her yoga mat on a shingle beach.

Stress Awareness Month: Using Yoga and Meditation to manage stress

LOOK Mentor and yogi Naz shares her top tips on how to manage stress throughout Stress Awareness Month and beyond.

We’ve all experienced a sort of ‘muted high’ whilst going into spring. Flowers are blooming and the sun is shining, but understandably, most of us are all probably experiencing a lot of built up frustration, with high levels of anxiety still somewhat lingering around in the air after a long winter in lockdown.

What is stress?

Click below to listen to Naz’s audio version of this blog, or continue to scroll to read the full article.

Stress is a natural response to triggers and stressors, but in today’s fast moving world, we seem to be experiencing it in over-drive. On a physical level, when in a state of stress, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and triggers the pituitary gland to release hormones. When our bodies release stress hormones, these chemicals (like cortisol, and dopamine), direct our bodies away from functions such as our immune system, digestive system, brain and muscles. In turn, feelings of anxiety and danger are increased.

Now, you can probably see where this is going in terms of stress relating to physical and mental illnesses. Our mind and body can literally, almost shut down when in a constant state of stress. High levels of stress can also almost numb the body so much that physical pain is reduced, which can lead to cause our blood to encourage clotting in case of injury, and it can also lead to an abnormally fast heart rate. This is called the ‘flight or fright’ response. I can – for sure – relate to this when thinking back to consistent panic attacks that used to disrupt me everyday.

In the wild, stress would’ve been beneficial to help protect ourselves from predators, enabling us to run faster or fight harder, for example. The sympathetic nervous system would have switched to the parasympathetic nervous system where we would have then been able to go into the ‘rest and digest’ state. I tend to call this, being in a state of ‘recovery’, or a ‘recovery mode’.

However, in today’s world, acute stress is a huge problem, because we find it hard to switch off from being in a continuously stressed state even after a problem has gone away. For example, being in debt isn’t something that just goes away, which puts a person in a state of prolonged stress. If our brains are constantly producing stress hormones, these chemicals will be detrimental to our health as other bodily functions (that I have listed above), are then affected too, which for example can lead to things like depression, adrenal fatigue and many other illnesses.

Now that we know what stress is and what it’s capable of, I wanted to share with you something that immensely helps keep my mental and physical health in check every day. A couple daily practices that encourage me to stay grounded and connected within myself, and sometimes with other people too, when practised in group settings.

Yoga and Meditation

Naz on a shingle beach sat on her yoga mat with her head lowered into her knees.

Yoga isn’t about being flexible and being able to achieve a balanced state within, holding ridiculous poses, nor is meditation about stopping your thoughts. There are huge misconceptions surrounding these practices, which can initially put people off!

Both practices only require for you to have a body, mind and breath. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see, or hear, or even walk, because yoga and meditation can be adapted to suit anyone, in any circumstance and pretty much, of any age!

And notice how I keep saying ‘practices’. This is because, these are simply things that you practice, so there’s no pressure to get it right, and no such thing as getting it perfect either!

How I started my Yoga journey

A photo of Naz stood on a balcony, wearing a white slip dress head bowed wearing a panama-style hat.
Naz on retreat in Barcelona

I initially started my yoga practice in May 2018, and have not looked back since. I had attended a yoga and plant based nutrition retreat in Barcelona at the time, which really helped me understand the importance and foundations of exercise combined with a balanced diet for a healthy mind, body and soul. After what felt like a life changing retreat, I frequently went to local yoga studios to make sure I would stay on track with the practices that really benefitted my overall wellbeing. Practising in group settings and with a friend really helped inspire and motivate me to implement this new habit into my routine. Now, I practise it most days and am going into my training at the end of this year to become a yoga teacher; Yay!

Photo of a plate of fruit and a glass of chia, seeds and raspberries.
A healthy breakfast on retreat!

Resources

There are so many resources out there that I won’t bombard you with! BUT to help you get started with meditation, you could always use the ‘Headspace’, ‘Calm’, or ‘Stop Think Breath’ app which is my favourite!

I believe that it is important to research the benefits of these practises to be more determined to implement them into your life. You could do this through online research and there are also a few engaging Netflix documentaries, series and films. My favourites are: ‘I am Maris: Portrait of a Young Yogi’, ‘Heal’, ‘Headspace Guide to Meditation’, and I can’t miss out the iconic film ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which is a film that captures a woman’s journey into finding peace after a divorce and years of unhappiness.

It is so important to manage our stress levels. I’ve been very mentally and physically ill in the past due to high functioning stress, but by implementing: yoga practises, mindfulness, a balanced diet, ample amounts of time in nature, and many other self-help related tricks into my routine, I have managed to make it so much easier for myself and only very, very rarely get sick now!

That’s not to say that I don’t experience stress anymore, because I do. Sometimes life will get in the way, and hurtful/stressful things will happen, that we cannot avoid. But it’s important to take note of my progress in terms of emotional regulation and coping skills. For the most part, these are things that I’ve worked on and have become better at. I’m now able to deal with stress in healthier ways.

My message here is, don’t give up on yourself or let yourself go to a point of destruction. Life is tough, but you’re tougher, and improvements are always possible! BELIEVE…. (I also need to take my own advice… this can be a reminder for me too!).

It’s about the journey, not the destination

Naz stood on a shingle beach wearing a pink dress and sunglasses with a wooden boat in the background.

You’re probably wondering where to start… and I get that at first, trying a new practise can be overwhelming, ESPECIALLY when the media portray yoga as something that only super-fit, super-flexible and super-humans can do…but know that the journey to get to the more challenging poses means so much more than being able to get into them straight away.

Think of yoga as a metaphor for life. When faced with difficult circumstances, we tend to also build resilience and strength. We have to wobble and fall off balance to then be able to figure out what helps recalibrate us back into balance again.

Every tough experience gives us an opportunity to learn and grow wiser. Sometimes the universe gives us the same lessons over and over again until we learn from them. Until we get out of the cycles of stress, it’s hard to see the bigger picture, and even more difficult to live a happier life.

Embrace holding challenging poses. Match your breath to your movements and take that concept off the mat too, for when you’re faced with difficulty in your daily life. Learn to give yourself space to breathe and to be able to think logically. Don’t give up when you fall, because falling is a part of the journey. And learn to understand that achieving a state of balance (in yoga, and off of the mat), will take some sweet time, but a lot of patience will be gained along the way too in all aspects of your life!

You don’t have to be able to touch your toes in order to say you practise yoga! You don’t have to be in control of your thoughts to say you practise meditation either! You don’t have to climb the full staircase, just take the first step.

Implementing yoga in your routine

Everyones schedules are different, so it’s probably best that you pick and choose how much you are able to fit into your timetable. If you find that your mornings are rushed and stressful, why not wake up half an hour earlier to calm the nervous system down by carrying out a short yoga and meditation practise? Try doing this a couple, or few times a week and see how you feel! It took me quite a few months to nail it into my routine, so don’t feel like you have failed if you can’t do it every day. But remember that consistency is important.

Invest in yourself now, because your future self will thank you for it! My analogy for looking after myself is ‘If I don’t spend the money and time on my wellbeing now, I will have to invest in my recovery for future unwanted illnesses, which is going to cost a lot more!’ Prevention is better than cure.

Morning and evening practises

Naz stood on her yoga mat on a shingle beach.

My go-to is ‘Yoga with Adriene’ on Youtube. She’s funny, and clear with giving directions. She has a huge range of yoga and meditation videos.

In the morning, I tend to type in ‘Yoga with Adriene Morning’, and click on any video that I would find useful to practise in that moment. I will then type in the search bar ‘Morning meditation’, and listen to whatever I think would help me start my day. I carry out these practises maybe after a dog walk and a shower, so I feel cleansed and clear for my practice. If you don’t have time for that though, jump out of your bed and hop straight onto your mat. The hardest part can be getting to the mat, but once you’re there, you’re there!

Set the scene by lighting a candle, and put some relaxing music on in the background. Give your spirit the nourishment it needs to fuel itself for the day! I always burn some palacento wood before a practice, as I love the earthy smell it gives off which helps me feel more rooted. AND it’s also meant to release any negative energies that are looming around, too.

To help promote a deeper, and better quality of sleep, I do exactly the same before going to bed. I find a relevant bed time / wind down yoga sequence and meditation to help me let go of the day and clear my head a little so my mind can be more at rest whilst sleeping.

Due to always seeing in some level of darkness, I know that people who have extremely low vision in particular find it hard to sleep, as the brain misinterprets the light signals coming in. I know some VIP’s also take sleep medication that truly helps them, but I’d always encourage other practices first that may help.

A good sleep routine is also important for stress management. I find that I can’t really function very well when my sleeping patterns are disrupted. To further help me with this, I personally take root extracts (Kalms herbal pills), and I also put my aromatherapy diffuser on with a few magic drops of lavender and chamomile essential oil in. Both oils are very calming and soothing.

How has yoga and meditation helped me?

Naz sat cross-legged on her yoga mat on a shingle beach.

A mixture of Yoga and meditation has helped me:

  • Understand that thoughts aren’t always facts
  • Be in more control of my breath and the thoughts that I decide to act upon
  • That, with consistent practice, I’m able to rewire my thought patterns and shift my perspectives
  • It has helped me be more present, and ‘In the moment’, which has helped with managing my anxiety and stress levels. A book I’d recommend on this is ‘The Power of Now’, written by the wonderful spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. This is also available on Audible.
  • To think more logically in difficult situations, by giving myself space. When experiencing high levels of stress, more intentional and slower/ deep breaths/ breathing techniques help give me space to think more rationally.
  • Realise that self discipline is key for self control.
  • Once I start looking after myself, and managing my stress and struggles, it creates a ripple effect amongst the people around me to do the same too.

The list goes on! I am not yet qualified to give lessons, or provide beginners workshops, but this is something that I plan to do in the future, especially for visually impaired people.

Any questions, or further advice, please do get in contact with LOOK, who will then get in contact with me (info@look-uk.org).

I hope this information was useful to you in some way, Good luck with your stress management journey!
Naz

You can follow Naz on her journey of self-discovery over on Instagram @intothemagicwithme

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