Last evening I was teaching a de-stress chair yoga for medical professionals and supporting staff members and one participant asked "How many times and how long can I do this to help relieve my anger and frustration?" It was a wonderful question, one rarely asked. It pointed to the deeper questions, of choices and reactivity, of mechanisms developed to support a series of patterns that might not be doing that person any good in daily life contexts. Even the de-stress yoga techniques I was teaching could be fitted into those patterns in a destructive reactive way, used to reinforce formulaic and judgmental responses.
The physical practices of yoga are not really a gym class. The linking of the breath to the movements in the body and the focus that this requires bring awareness to the moment in a way that is not about counting breaths or holding asana or mudra for a specific amounts of time. It might make sense to build strength by gradually adding in a number of chin-ups or time on the rowing machine, but with a yoga asana those challenges often come simply in returning attention to the breath again and again. In this way, doing a relaxation technique or routine of spinal movements may start out as a response to a provocative moment at work or in a relationship, but will open into something quite different than simple endurance or muscle strength (those these are also side benefits of practice!).
Directing attention to the breath and allowing this focus to clarify where there is unnecessary effort is a way of learning to allow the breath to release that effort. Every inhale can bring energy, oxygen, sustaining nourishment. Every exhale can release undue effort, let go of muscle tension, open the mind and body to possibilities. In this way, repeating a simple sequence of hand motions - folding fingers in on the inhale and exhaling, then opening the hand on the inhale and exhaling - acts as a reminder to remember the breath. More than the physical action itself, this is a practice in single-pointed focus, developing new muscles of attention that brings the practitioner into the present moment and releases the person from attachment to the tensions and reactivity that are clutching them. Part of the effect is giving the body time to have its reaction and release it, similar to the technique of counting to ten before reacting in anger; part of the effect is to draw the attention inward to the inherent stability of the breath rather than dispersing energy in reactivity.
Of course the movements of the body open energy channels as well - and provide tremendous benefits in joint health, spinal flexibility, circulation, mobility, organ cleansing, even moderating existing conditions that are the results of habits and emotions, imbalances and chronic behaviors. These net physical benefits also help to reduce stress responses on a physical level, but the key is a fundamental and simple matter. Even in the first experience with yoga a beginner follows the physical directions for body and breath and as the body attempts to follow the directions, the breath begins to support everything that is going on. Whether a student willfully remembers to breathe or not, the body will take the cues and inhale and exhale, extending and releasing, undulating and cleansing, flooding the body with oxygen and supporting effort and relaxation. Letting this sustain you can feel like understanding plate tectonics, gaining trust and understanding of the basic structures that support in being alive.
Of course yoga can be fitted into a judgmental or competitive pattern; an admonition to "practice every day" or to do "this sequence this way" can turn yoga into the same routine as a series of push ups and sit ups, with the same limited effects. And there are times when a yoga practice might become a targeted practice towards a particular challenge or process, like a "goal." Yet the open spaces in the joints are made of breath not will power. And the reduction of anger and stress on the job will not come from adding another reactive response to the sequence. The yoga techniques that help reduce that anger and stress do so because they are more than a reactive response, they quietly transform the reactive moment into a vivid, focused moment of being -- in fact the only moment in which you are actually living... and breathing. You can use them like editing pencils, but their effects will spread like water colors.