We know that yoga and meditation work for stress. The catch is - like exercise - you have to do it. The other catch is that yoga and meditation may not be for you. But the potential benefits definitely warrant a test drive.
In "Yoga for Depression: A Compassionate Guide to Relieve Suffering Through Yoga," Tucson-based yoga instructor Amy Weintraub quotes the Buddha:
"Living in this mortal body is like living in a house on fire."
About the same time Amy’s book came out in 2004, a UCLA study found that midway through a five-week, twice a week, yoga course, subjects "demonstrated significant decreases in self-reported symptoms of depression and trait anxiety," which they maintained to the end. Subjects also reported decreased negative mood and fatigue following class.
What is going on in the body, says Amy, is muscular relaxation, restored natural diaphragm breathing, improved oxygen absorption and carbon monoxide elimination, and increased alpha wave activity.
Yoga employs postures, breathing, and meditation as both a means and an end. Some positions are meant to be calming and others energizing. It stands to reason that breaking out the calming positions (there’s even one that involves nothing more than lying mindfully on the floor) is best practice for stress, but the occasional energizer may also work as part of your strategy.
Yoga’s calming/energizing also applies to breathing. Amy describes a breathing exercise that involves longer exhales than inhales, which is de rigeur for those everyday tied-to-the-railroad tracks moments.
One reason so much emphasis is placed on the breath is that most of us have forgotten how to breathe. Instead of using the diaphragm, we use the chest, which is not as efficient since the lower portions of the lungs are not exposed to air. The yogis assign a spiritual quality to the air we breathe, Prana (with a capital P). In her book, Amy cites an Indian study that found reduced violence and disciplinary infractions in a juvenile prison population that had been practicing a specific breathing technique for eight weeks.