Despite our yoga-filled classes, people are still stressed out. We live in a society that rewards people for being go-getters, taking on extra work and being the best in all the ways that the American competitive edge manifests itself. Balance is hard to find, but find it, we must.

We are in an exceptionally good position to facilitate stress management. Who else is going to do it? Not doctors—people don’t see them often enough and time is not sufficient when they do. Not employers—even if a company offers a wellness seminar, how much of a long-term effect can an hour have? Managing stress is challenging and requires practice. What better place than your tai chi, yoga or Pilates class to learn and practice techniques that can really have an influence?

The Physiology of Stress
A stressful event—a heated discussion with a coworker, a critique at work or being late for an appointment—initiates a "fight or flight" response in the body. Stress increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, adrenaline and cortisol outputs. It makes us clench our muscles, inhibits growth and digestion, and hampers the immune system. After the threat has passed, we are supposed to return to "normal," allowing the body and mind to recuperate.

Unfortunately, many of us do not recuperate. We go from one stressful event to another without ever allowing ourselves to return to normal. We end up living with perpetually increased blood pressure, engaged muscles, and repressed digestion and immune functioning. What’s more, we become so accustomed to dealing with stressful situations that the drive to work and that pressing appointment become cues our bodies react to automatically. We see a line of traffic in the distance and our heart rate increases. We hear our boss’s voice and get a tight feeling in the stomach. We react to all these cues in our daily environment with quicker and more pronounced stress reactions. It’s an adaptation that, in ordinary situations, does not serve us well (unless ulcers and tension headaches are your idea of a good time).

Providing Helpful Cues
If certain situations act as cues for stress reactions, we need to learn how to counter them. Gwen, a participant of mine, is a real-life example of how you can deliberately train yourself to reverse your response when you can’t change your environment. She is in law enforcement and was taking a lie detector test for an upcoming promotion. As you might imagine, she was a little nervous. The test began, and she couldn’t keep the anxious thoughts out of her mind. A couple of minutes into the test, she used the deep-breathing techniques she had learned in yoga class. Nothing fancy, just full, focused breaths. After the test, the administrator shared the results with her, and pointing to the jagged lines on the printout, asked her what she did a couple of minutes into the test as the lines measuring her physiological responses very noticeably flattened out. It’s important to note that Gwen isn’t an avid "yogi." She just takes classes recreationally twice a week, but still—a simple breathing technique successfully transferred to another important area of her life.

If you teach yoga, you already use many relaxing techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises, mental imagery and an extended quiet time at the end. You don’t have to go into a trance to elicit a benefit. While the amount of control you have over the physical environment varies from club to club, the following suggestions may translate into things you can do in your particular teaching situation.

Before Class. Use the time before class to meet new people. Realize that a new person may be going through a stress reaction right at that moment as she prepares to take a new class in a strange environment, with people and an instructor she doesn’t know. Make introductions, tell her a little bit about what to expect, and refrain from focusing too much on the fact that she is new, which may make her stick out rather than feel like part of the group. From the instant a new person steps in the room, she is deciding whether or not to come back; help her feel comfortable and she will return.

During Class. One of the most powerful tools any instructor has is language. Words have a powerful effect on our students. Every instructor has a unique personality and comfort zone. Use what works for you and the type of class you are teaching, but always refrain from using negative language.

If your verbal cues relay challenge as an opportunity rather than a threat, your students will relate. Choose cues that focus on power instead of weakness and results rather than flaws. Say, "Push to your next level of challenge" or, "You may accomplish more than you thought you could." Do not say, "If you can’t do this level, lower your bench" (which could associate failure with embarrassment) or, "Get rid of flab on the arms" (which fosters negative connotations about body image).

Being humorous is a great way to lighten the environment and create a positive experience. Find ways to keep the smiles going. Make the most out of something that happens during class, such as a misspoken direction or a fun story from a participant. A light attitude is the key—it’s difficult to feel stressed out or nervous when laughing.

Control the temperature as much as possible. Participants might get too cold during an extended stretch if the air conditioner is on high. Conversely, a room that is too warm or stuffy can be very uncomfortable. If the room isn’t visually appealing, talk with your club manager about what might make it more welcoming. Suggest positive images on the walls, inspirational quotes and inviting colors, which can make a room feel more comfortable. Changing the room could turn into a fun group project for the entire department.

End of Class. The cool-down provides a perfect opportunity to work on stress management techniques. When cuing, focus on getting the most relaxing effect. Here are examples of positive, effective and relaxing cues:

  • "On the exhalation, feel the shoulders drop."
  • "Release the back and the neck completely; you should feel no tension in the neck muscles."
  • "Be aware of your breath slowing down and becoming fuller with each inhalation."
  • "Close your eyes and feel the stretch from inside the body."
  • "Leave the day’s stress outside for now—you can pick up what you need when you leave."

These cues work for any class and can apply to standing, sitting or lying positions. Suggest students use the cues to release tension quickly the next time they are stuck in traffic.