Making the Mind-Body Connection

Exploring yoga to relieve stress and anxiety

Yoga is a common tool for managing stress and anxiety, and Mary Hilliker, a certified Viniyoga teacher and yoga therapist, is using her experience – and a program developed for a research study – for a class at Studio234 in Sturgeon Bay that homes in on specific techniques to mitigate these problems.

Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute developed the program for the Aetna Mind-Body pilot study, which sought to help participants “relieve musculoskeletal tension, relieve headaches caused by musculoskeletal tension, improve sleep, increase feelings of well-being, improve coping strategies and adopt home practices for reducing stress.”

As part of this study, Hilliker coordinated the teachers who taught Viniyoga and gathered feedback from the teachers and students involved in the program.

“Stress, anxiety, panic and post-traumatic stress can highly impact a person’s ability to function in life,” Hilliker said. “It can impact productivity at work, relationships, sense of self-worth, sleep, pain and overall health. So the targeted use of yoga can bring relief of symptoms, better sleep, improved health, improved functioning and better relationships.”

And the results of the study concurred.

Not only did “virtually all” of the participants incorporate the tools they learned in the program, but they also reported that they “used yoga breathing techniques to reduce stress, prepare for sleep or increase energy levels”; “started a home practice or desk break practice” and “had increased awareness about how they respond to perceived stressors and the use of coping strategies.”

Hilliker’s class uses Viniyoga for a more focused practice that targets the areas of the body that are related to high stress and anxiety.

“If you think about the asana part of it, there may be four features that may be different from other lineages,” Hilliker said of Viniyoga, the form used in her class. “The movement is always centered in the breath; we usually do movement in and out of postures before we stay; and we always adapt to the individual. Some forms of yoga are very strict about the form, but everyone’s body is different, so we adapt.”

This is evident in the way she teaches the class. After giving instructions on the breath and pose for each move, Hilliker goes to each participant, making sure the individual is comfortable, and offering assistance if adjustments are needed.

From pose to pose, different areas of the body are targeted using specific stretches and breathing techniques.

“Stress, anxiety, panic and post-traumatic stress often create muscular tension,” Hilliker said. “Through yoga postures and adaptations, we’re able to work with our tight and tense areas. When we move in and out of a posture several times, we bring circulation into the muscles and fascia to help release tension.”

She went on to explain that the breath work is key to “bringing balance to the nervous system.” The focus on breathing throughout the moves helps to evoke the body’s relaxation response.

The first class started with basic postures and breathing techniques, with subsequent classes building on those techniques and adding to the tools people can reach for when they start to feel stressed or anxious. The class is also very practical, making it a good option for those who are unfamiliar with or have not done yoga.

“If you can breathe, you can do yoga,” Hilliker said. “Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Talk to prospective teachers, and learn more about their background, experience and approach to practice to find a good fit for you as a student.”

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