Yoga is the exercise program most often recommended to heal post-traumatic symptoms and to reduce stress hormones and the experience of stress.
However, studies show that you don’t have to pound it out with frantic sun salutations and fast-paced warrior poses in order to gain benefits from yoga. In fact, as you’ll read, gentle and restorative yoga is proving beneficial in healing the mind and body.
Besides, there’s a lot of evidence that doing stressful exercise—including yoga—is counterproductive. Stressful exercise is competitive or brings up fear and triggers the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone, cortisol. This, in turn, causes the body to store food as fat, particularly in the stomach. Stress makes the brain and body think that you are in danger, and that famine is on the way. So, it holds onto every calorie as self-protection.
Gentle exercise is actually a better method for weight loss, because little or no cortisol is produced. So your body becomes more “fuel-efficient” in terms of burning off the food you eat.
Apart from the aesthetic benefits of yoga are its remarkable abilities to heal the effects of stress and trauma.
Yoga’s benefits don’t require a 90-minute yoga class. Two studies found significant reductions in PMS symptoms and stress reduction based upon daily 35- to 40-minute classes! Healing benefits from yoga can be attained in as little as 35 minutes per class, provided that you practice regularly.
Not all yoga classes are the same. Some are very yang (masculine energy) because they focus upon building strong core muscles, raising the heart rate, and moving fast. These classes commonly have a lot of warrior poses, which is a very yang asana (yoga pose).
If you have a stressful lifestyle, you’re overloaded with yang energy in your life—especially dark yang, with its emphasis on competition and winning. The last thing you need is to add more of this to your life by taking a yoga class that focuses on comparing yourself to others, or competing with your classmates.
Other classes are more yin (feminine energy), with a focus upon stretching, restoration, breathing, centering, balance, and inner peace. These classes tend to have more mat work, as opposed to standing work. Yin yoga classes are usually called “Gentle Yoga” or “Restorative Yoga,” and the teacher generally speaks in a soft, meditative voice with soothing music. While doing laying down mat poses, you’re encouraged to keep your eyes closed and focus upon your inner experience of yoga.
Dark yin energy occurs in yoga classes when you feel jealous of other students, feel bad about your body or poses, and worry that the yoga instructor will shame you with a public pose correction.
If you’re feeling stressed, avoid crowded yoga studios. Studies show that feeling crowded brings up aggressive and competitive tendencies—definitely dark yang energies.
Instead, choose a yoga class that has bright yin and yang energies. These are love based rather than fear based. In a bright yin and yang yoga class, you feel safe, nurtured, and supported. When the instructor guides you, you feel glad to receive the guidance (instead of shamed as occurs in the dark yang and yin yoga classes).
The bright-energy yoga classes are usually labeled “restorative,” “yin,” or “gentle” yoga. However, you’ll want to research that the instructor teaching the class really does teach with gentle energy.
Some yoga classes which are advertised as “gentle” or “restorative” are actually very dark yang or yin. This usually happens when teachers who are accustomed to teaching level 2 challenging classes substitute for a more gentle class. So ask ahead of time if the teacher really does teach the class in a gentle way.
Yoga classes labeled as “restorative” usually have a soft and gentle “light yin” feel to them. Many of the poses are conducted while lying down, using bolsters, blankets, blocks, straps, and walls to stretch your muscles in pleasant ways. The poses are held for up to seven minutes at a time, which allows the muscles to let go of tension.
Restorative yoga classes are supportive of people’s physical differences, and they don’t have a sense of competition or perfectionism that you find in some yoga classes. Restorative yoga classes don’t tend to attract the more experienced students, so there’s less chance of unfavorable comparison with yourself and other students. The teacher of one of my favorite Restorative classes uses brass Tibetan bowls to make soothing sounds during class. The whole energy of restorative yoga is meditative.
Restorative classes are slower paced, but they still provide benefits. A very exciting 2013 study found that restorative yoga leads to weight loss!
In the study, a group of mature overweight women (average age of 55 years) was divided into two subgroups: one taking restorative yoga and the other group taking stretching exercises without a yoga component. At the end of 48 weeks, the yoga group had lost 34 square centimeters of subcutaneous fat, while the stretch group had only lost 6.6 square centimeters. The yoga group also lost significantly more weight compared to the stretch group. The researchers concluded that the difference was the reduced cortisol production in the yoga group (Araneta et al. 2013). As you’ll recall, cortisol is involved in the storing of belly fat and an increased appetite.
Yoga instructors often say that strong emotions are stored in our hips. They say that doing hip-opening yoga poses, such as pigeon or stretching open your legs, will release stored emotions. In restorative yoga classes, where you’re holding hip-opening poses for long periods of time, you can receive helpful insights which allow you to integrate your past.
Studies show (and you probably already know this from experience) that when you’re stressed, your muscles become tight with tension. So, yoga is a wonderful way to stretch your muscles, heal effects of trauma, and release stress. ~Doreen Virtue