How Yoga Can Help to Combat the Mental Stress of Exams

Feeling overwhelmed, anxious or pressured during exam period? We chatted to a Yoga instructor who told us the best ways how Yoga can help to combat stress during exam period.

woman doing yoga with crossed legs

Are your exam periods leaving you feeling stressed, exhausted and anxious? Then the ancient science of yoga and its systems are the perfect way to counter the pressure that exam times put on you. Yoga is a system that combines simple movements, breathing exercises and mindfulness practices to help boost your memory and mental clarity, improve your focus, and help you manage the stress, anxiety and lack of sleep that these exam periods bring.

Yoga has been re-claimed as the ‘modern day saviour’ to help bring your mind and nervous system back into harmony. The pressure that builds around exam periods can be overwhelming, from the expectations you have of yourself and from society, the hours spent studying and revising, to the sleep lost worrying about what your outcomes will be. It can send you down a path of restless days and nights. 

Yoga helps to release all the extra tension created from the whirlwind of information you’re required to maintain by drawing your attention away from the fears and negative fantasies in order to be present in the sense of your breath and body. The shapes of yoga are used as a way to harness your focus so that you can start to train yourself to observe and control your breath.

Master your breath to master your stress

Modern science has confirmed ancient teachings that the breath is the fastest and most effective way to harmonise the mind and the body. Your breath is like a control centre that can be used to guide the mind from spiralling into places of fear and worry and into a place of rational thinking.

Almost all forms and styles of yoga work from a foundation of observing and controlling the breath. Our thoughts unconsciously shape our breathing, so when your mind is busy with the exam stress, your breath moves into the upper chest and becomes shallower and shorter, pulling the nervous system into its sympathetic state or ‘fight or flight mode’. Our nervous system is similar to an on/off switch. When the fight or flight mode is active the rest and digest mode (parasympathetic) is shut down which means that other than feeling overwhelmed, your body’s immune system may be compromised as well as your ability to draw nutrients from food through usual digestive functions. Yoga also reduces inflammation in the body which has been unveiled as the source of almost all illness and disease.

Yoga teaches us to relax and deepen our breath so we can consciously take our bodies out of our fight or flight mode. Every time we start to breath deeper and lengthen the exhale, we increase the strength of our immune system, sleep better at night and therefore ease the churning of study worries from spinning out of control in your mind.  

Here is a simple 10 minute breathing exercise you can do while studying or before an exam to help clear and focus the mind:

Mental clarity and concentration

We live in a day and age where your mind has an unnatural amount of stimulus. Where society and lifestyles have evolved faster than our minds and bodies can sometimes cope. The extortionate amount of information your mind is processing every second can leave you feeling foggy headed, easily distracted and struggling to focus on your study. The practice of yoga emphasises you to be present in a particular moment. It helps to train your mind to stop jumping between all the mental (and physical) ‘taps’ we have open and focus all of our attention and energy onto one thing. 

Like everything – focus gets better with practice. Every time you catch the mind wandering off in yoga practice or meditation and you call your awareness back to the task at hand, your internal ‘focus muscle” strengthens. 
The more you practice the greater your awareness of the movements of your mind becomes and the easier it is to really focus on the task at hand. This strengthening of what they call ‘the witness’ in yoga is the foundational step to mindfulness and noticing when your mind is running off into unhelpful thoughts and stories (worries) can help you to focus and let go of the negative notions.

Woman stretching legs

Yoga for Memory

Recent research has proven that the key to improving your memory is to improve your sleep. When you sleep, your brain takes all the information you have revised and learnt and stores it in a long term memory bank (similar to your computer transferring data from the Cache to the hard drive for storage). When you feel anxious or stressed in the anticipation of an upcoming exam or the pressures to perform keep you up at night, this actually affects your ability to access your much needed recalling power the next day. So don’t worry about late night cramming, rest assured your brain’s memory will be much more efficient with a good night’s sleep instead and Yoga can help you with the stress.

Styles of Yoga to combat exam stress

Yoga comes in a wide range of shapes and styles. Some are more active which is great for releasing physical tension in the body or building up energy to fuel your study sessions and some are more meditative leading to the productive release of stress and improvements to your sleep. With a combination of the postures and poses (asanas), regulated breathing (pranayama), and meditation and relaxation (samyana) and other elements such as music, heating, and myofascial release rolling, there’s a yoga style that will suit everyone. 

Hatha, Vinyasa, Flow, and Power Yoga

These are the more active styles available at most studios that are great for getting the blood moving and re-vitalising your system. Classes involve moving through a sequence of shapes that helps remove stress that has been stored in the body from long hours sitting at your desk, as well as mental stress that tends to store itself in the upper back, neck and shoulders. These classes also help to train your focus and concentration through the practice of steady focus with the eyes and matching the movements with your breath. There are often beginner classes at Studios and Gyms close to university that can help ease you in!

Yin Yoga, Restorative and Slow Flow

More relaxing styles of yoga like those mentioned above focus a lot more on the meditative and mindfulness aspects of yogic science. These classes are incredibly accessible, even if you have never attended a yoga class before and are a great way to let the body’s natural intelligence reboot your immune system as well as teach you ways to help manage stress so that you can release tension and sleep better. These classes are usually a lot slower and focus on using mental techniques to train focus. Again, they are accessible at most Gyms and Studios across Australian cities or if it suits you better, you can practice Yin Yoga in the comfort of your home using tutorials such as this.

yoga pose during sunset

Finding a studio and starting your yoga journey

Yoga is growing to be more and more popular so there’s bound to be a studio near you, whether you’re studying in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide or Perth. Alternatively,  there are heaps of free options on platforms like YouTube (for example here) or apps that you can try at home – even if it’s just 10 minutes a day!

What to bring to your first yoga class

Make sure to wear clothes that you are comfortable to move in. If you are trying one of the more active classes, make sure to pack a towel and some water. Mats are almost always available at studios for free or sometimes a small fee, as well as various yoga props like blocks, straps and bolsters. If you are feeling shy to go into a studio because you’re new or you’re not sure you will understand all the instructions, why not invite a friend or a housemate to try with you? Group yoga sessions are the perfect chance to practice your English, learn new things and make friends.

In the meantime: Look after yourself! Consider speaking to a counsellor, if you are having a hard time. We’ve also written an article about other ways to support your mental health.