Managing stress through yoga and yoga therapy


The ‘stress response’ is a clinical term, rather than a yogic one, that denotes physiological changes in response to a perceived threat. As modern-day yoga practitioners we need both an understanding of how it might be framed in a traditional yogic context as well as a scientific understanding of the term. A survival tool that has evolved with us from our mammalian origins, it is known to most of us via the phrase ‘fight, flight or freeze’. These responses involve various systems of the body: the immune, endocrine and nervous systems. As such, they are under the control of the autonomic nervous system, that is, the body reacts without conscious control to bring these systems into play.

The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic response, which tends to action, and the parasympathetic response, which works towards rest and relaxation. When our brain detects something it perceives as a threat to our survival, the sympathetic nervous system is immediately activated, flooding the body with adrenalin and mobilising the body’s resources for immediate physical activity. In our pre-modern human days, this was useful to enable us to fight a foe or escape a tiger. Then, when the threat has disappeared, the parasympathetic system would gain dominance, allowing the body’s functions to return to normal, i.e. to rest, to digest food and for us to socialise.

Typical physical signs of the ‘fight’ response may include: restless feet, leg muscles activated, rapid breathing into the chest or upper chest, increased heart rate, shoulders drawn up to protect the neck, arm muscles activated and hands made into fists, the head and neck moving forwards to intimidate an adversary, the facial muscles tense with clenched jaw and a frown, the eyes focused.


These responses, evolved over millennia, remain an important part of our basic physiology despite the fact that our nervous systems and social structures have become far more complex. In these modern highly competitive, times many people function almost continually at a high level of readiness for ‘fight or flight’, so much so, that even the smallest of triggers or ‘daily hassles’ can spark a disproportionate stress response. These days anything can trigger the stress response and these triggers will differ from one person to another. Personally, I find that being driven in a car up a motorway elicits the stress response! It can stem from a single trauma in the past, or a chronic ongoing situation such as a toxic relationship or job. When the response is repeated over time, a pattern or‘ saṁskāra’ is built. The longer and more frequently it occurs, the stronger the pattern becomes. The physical behaviours noted above can become habitual without the person becoming aware of the fact; for them it is normal. Over a period of time, longer-term changes may occur, such as digestive or cardiac problems.

With careful observation, the yoga teacher/therapist can notice the signs of the stress response in a client, even if they are unaware of it themselves. It is not, however, our task to diagnose a condition but to use the tools at our disposal to help guide the person towards a greater understanding of their own body and mind, and to help them to do this for themselves on an ongoing basis.

The yogic framework underpinning this is the ‘vṛtti saṁskāra wheel’. A trigger (ālambana) sets off a train of thoughts and feelings (vṛtti-s), which in turn may lead to certain behaviours (karma). After a while, these physical and mental tensions may become habitual; the person forgets how to breathe deeply. They may develop anxiety, high blood pressure, or digestive problems.


When done repeatedly, actions and behaviours lay down invisible, latent impressions (saṁskāra-s) which colour a person’s perceptions and experience of life (bhoga); in this case perhaps making one fearful of new situations. These ‘saṁskāra-s’ also feed back into actions and behaviour, thoughts and feelings and sharpen the power of the trigger itself. In other words, the cycle is a positive feedback loop. In his commentary on Yoga Sūtra 1.5, Vyāsa notes that the cycle operates ceaselessly.

Yoga does not have a word that corresponds directly to stress but it does have a word for suffering – ‘duḥkha’, and in Yoga Sūtra 1.31 Patañjali refers to the dysregulation of body and mind that could correspond well to the stress response: ‘duḥkha daumanasya aṅgameyjayatva śvāsa praśvāsāḥ vikṣepa saha bhuvaḥ: here pain or suffering is conflated with mental agitation, tremor in the limbs, and irregular breathing’. One of the lesser-known meanings of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘to lead us to a place we have not been before'[1], that is, from ‘duḥkha’ to a place of deeper contentment, or ‘sukha’.

We may be unable to eliminate triggers from our life, and negative thoughts and feelings will always co-exist alongside the more positive. Vyāsa, in his commentary to Yoga Sūtra 1.5, emphasises this, but also tells us that by using yogic practices we can help the positive to become stronger and the negative to become weaker. The Bhagavad Gītā (2.40) says: ‘svalpam apyasya dharmasya trāyate mahato bhayāt: even a little of this dharma will protect you from fear, nothing is wasted’. This idea of building positivity applies across the domains of body, mind, breath, lifestyle habits, relationships, our thoughts and the words we use to express them, even to the meaning we place upon life itself.


Because of the continued presence of harmful (kliṣṭa) tendencies as well as helpful (akliṣṭa) ones within us, practices to counter the stress response must be life-long, preferably something that a person can incorporate into their daily life.

So, the question is how to break the ‘vṛtti-saṁskāra’ cycle. Luckily, Patañjali has given us three major tools to do this, set out in Chapter II of the Yoga Sūtra-s. Here, he offers us ‘kriyā yogaḥ’ (actions that lead to yoga), consisting of ‘tapas’ (fortitude to bear the discomfort of practice), ‘svādhyāya’ (introspection) and ‘īśvara praṇidhāna’. I prefer to think of the latter term as recognising the world does not revolve around us, perhaps accepting we do what we can and cannot control everything. These tools help us to break the old, destructive habits and to create new, healthy ones.

In more modern terminology, we need to help our clients suffering from the effects of stress to be able to self-regulate, i.e. to be able to effectively manage their thoughts and feelings and to have greater resilience, that is, that they do not go into a full-blown stress response every time they are exposed to even a minor trigger.

To guide someone towards self-regulation we can use either a top-down or bottom-up approach. Top-down means led by conscious thought and choice (icchā śakti). For example, bringing awareness to and consciously altering emotions and thoughts. This is a form of consciously watching over ourselves, which then feeds into the subconscious, the energetic, physiological and pranic level. The Bhagavad Gītā says (8.27): ‘Tasmāt sarveu kāleu yoga yukto bhavārjuna: Be with yoga at all times. Let your actions be mindful. Watch over yourself’.

A bottom-up approach would start working with the breath, movement and the senses. This is working at the level of prāṇa which then in turn feeds into the conscious mind.

Before we can lay down new patterns we need to unwind some of the old ones. Physical tension is a good place to start, and simple āsana, in which ease and steadiness of movement and breath is emphasised, is very effective. In Yoga Sūtra 2.46 Patañjali advises: ‘sthira sukham āsanam’. Balancing steadiness and ease in āsana can be a prelude to bringing the same qualities to our whole system – the breath, emotions, feelings, thoughts and lifestyle. In an integrated practice we endeavour to create a feeling, or ‘bhāva’, something that we experience in body, mind and senses. When this occurs, then true transformation can take place.


The importance that Patañjali placed upon the breath can be seen from the number of sūtras devoted to this topic. Yoga Sūtra 2.50 emphasises breath regulation in terms of length (dīrgha) and smoothness (sūkṣma). Bringing a conscious breath into a steady flow in conjunction with simple movement is highly effective in grounding a person and beginning the process of unwinding somatic patterns. Research has shown that consciously modulating our breath into a regular pattern, about 5-6 seconds long, is a useful way to activate the parasympathetic system.

The effort of breathing is said to be closely linked to the ‘effort of living’, as it is deeply interlinked with physiological processes such as metabolism [3]. Our resilience to stress can thus be directly impacted by learning how to breathe in a relaxed, efficient way, not using any unnecessary exertion. Thus, a good first step in helping a person suffering from stress is to guide them to simply observe the natural breath using different positions as appropriate.

To cultivate the conscious exhalation in terms of length and smoothness we can use counting, sound, pursed lip breathing, ujjāyi, inversions and gravity, movement, posture and compression, and, with care, stepped breathing.

It is impossible to do justice to this huge topic in such a short article, and there are of course, many techniques that one can bring to an integrated practice, depending on the capacities and preferences of the client. These might include:

  • Humming, simple sound or singing;
  • Offering a gentle touch to oneself accompanied by beneficial intentions and pleasant feelings;
  • Slowing down, taking a pause, letting body and breath settle before continuing, the idea there is no need to rush or hurry;
  • The use of ritual, e.g. always practising at the same time, using the same sequence and words;
  • Letting go, accepting support, e.g. the floor;
  • Using an affirmation (saṃkalpa), e.g. ‘I invite my body to relax’;
  • ‘Colouring’ the breath with positive emotions, and allowing the breath to carry these into the body;
  • A simple mantra;
  • Integrating all of the above to bring about a feeling (bhāva) of steadiness, pleasantness, openness or lightness.

Working across the various domains of movement, breath, thoughts and feelings, and lifestyle choices, a person may move to a more ‘sāttvika-bhāva’ or sattva-dominant state. It is then when ‘prājña’ or insight, may occur. Coming to know oneself better via the process of interoception[1] and reflection (svādhyāya), transformation takes place.

Marian Thornley, April 2023


[1] Health, Healing and Beyond, Yoga and the Living Tradition of T. Krishnamacharya, T.K.V. Desikachar and R.H. Cravens, MacMillan, 2018.

[2] Foundations of Yoga Therapy course notes, Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda, 2022.

About Marian

Marian is a TSYP teacher, and started practising yoga in her 30s and did her teacher training with the KHYF in London, graduating in 2009. At the same time she qualified as a teacher of Vedic chant with Vedavani, the chanting branch of the KYM. She taught yoga to sex workers in Pune, India, to her local community in Ceret, France, and at a community cafe in the town. She had a thriving chant group.

Marian returned to live in the UK at the end of 2021 and is currently studying with Svastha Yoga and Ayurveda on their Yoga Therapy course. She currently teaches a gentle yoga class by zoom, as well as Vedic chanting one to one. She is based in the South of England and can be contacted via the TSYP website Find a Teacher.

[1] The collection of senses understanding the internal state of the body

1 thought on “<strong>Managing stress through yoga and yoga therapy</strong>”

  1. An excellent article making a number of important points for further thought and investigation and providing lots of references. I hadn’t previously met the term ‘effort of living’ and certainly if someone is having to make an effort to breathe that is a medical emergency.

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