Stress! It’s terrible for you and especially for those of us who reside in the United States, we, in particular, do not take the health hazards of persistent stress seriously. If you are not working 10+ hour days and consuming at least three “Venti” sized cups of Starbucks with an additional double shot of espresso a day, you are not taken seriously. Even worse, we pride ourselves in being busiest of our coworkers, friends, and relatives. Does this seem crazy to anyone besides me? Why is it that we want to overbook our lives so much so that we end each week as a tense ball of stress?
We are taught from an early age how to be stressed, but were we ever taught how to manage our stress levels? I remember being required to take one measly health class in high school that spent maybe one day discussing the dangers of persistent stress. This so-called “education” by no means prepared teenagers to cope with the ever-rising levels of stress. Like most teenagers, as I progressed through high school I learned to accommodate an unreasonable, relentless level of stress without even realizing it. In fact, it wasn’t until college that I became truly aware of my persistent stress levels and its damaging effects to my health. Only once I recognized my ever-stressed state was I able to come to the harsh realization that I was not equipped with strategies to reduce and manage it.
What exactly is stress? Well, stress causes a misbalance in your autonomic nervous system. When you are in a calm state, your parasympathetic nervous system—or your “rest-and-digest” system—is engaged. When something stresses you out, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released, which triggers your sympathetic nervous system. This system is coined your “fight-or-flight” response. Elevated cortisol levels subsequently lead to increased blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Without a fully functioning immune system, one can experience chronic illness such as heart disease, depression, weight gain, gastrointestinal problems, skin blemishes, and even chronic headaches, just to name a few. Many of these ailments we treat with pharmaceuticals which mask the problem but does nothing to treat the root of the problem1–4.
Most of us live in a state where our “fight-or-flight” nervous system is the dominant system while lacking any real coping mechanisms. It is only now, after completing an excessive number of years in college that I have discovered the incredible stress reducing effects of yoga. I will do any type of yoga anywhere, I have become a yoga addict. While yoga is nothing new (in fact, it is 1000’s of years old), it took me years to take the powerful, stress-reducing, health-benefiting effects of yoga seriously. What can I say, I have only ever known a western medicine centric world.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years and is attributed to reducing and controlling stress. Each yoga session is built around gentle stretches and poses, which are called asanas. During a yoga practice, these poses are linked to your breath with the intention of making you cognizant of your breathing, helping you to slow and deepen your breath. Finally, there is a meditative component to yoga that is to be practiced throughout your session. This meditative component encourages you to release your firm grip on your surroundings (ie. your grocery list, where your kids are, whether you will make the major deadline coming up at work, etc) putting your mind at ease. This aspect of yoga is by far the hardest for most of us and honestly, I have yet to master it myself.
So why exactly do you finish a yoga session feeling as if you were floating on a cloud despite your ever-growing to-do list? What is the science behind these incredible, stress-relieving effects? Well, it all has to do with triggering our poor neglected “rest-and-digest” system. The controlled, gentle movements combined with deep, meditative breathing reduces your cortisol levels, triggers your body to slow your heart rate, gently guiding you into a state of calm. As it turns out, when practiced regularly, yoga can have a pretty large impact on your health and well-being. Studies comparing the cortisol levels between individuals who practiced yoga regularly versus those who do not found that those with a regular practice had reduced levels of cortisol; and therefore, better control of their stress responses1–4. These studies suggest that those who adapt a regular yoga practice will develop strong coping mechanisms to assist them when faced with stressful situations1–4.
There are many types of yoga, all of which strive to guide you in a meditative practice to help you to re-center. Which type you choose depends on your physical abilities and what you are looking to get out of your practice. Ashtanga yoga is meant to purify the body through the production of internal heat; while Vinyasa yoga is all about flowing from one posture to the next by letting your breath guide your asana changes. Bikram yoga, or “Hot yoga,” classes are performed in a room typically heated to 90 degrees or hotter to increase flexibility and promote you to sweat out toxins. Recently, I have fallen in love with Yin yoga. In this class, you hold gentle positions for 3 to 5 minutes to gently stretch out the connective tissue around your joints. It sounds painful and boring, but that is not the case at all! It is so relaxing and you feel amazing after your practice, I highly recommend it. For more information on other types of yoga as well as on the history and benefits of yoga itself, please visit: http://www.yogajournal.com/ No matter what type of yoga you find yourself drawn to, I am confident you find stress relieving benefits. Namaste friends!
(1) Stephens, I., and Ina. (2017) Medical Yoga Therapy. Children 4, 12.
(2) Riley, K. E., and Park, C. L. (2015) How does yoga reduce stress? A systematic review of mechanisms of change and guide to future inquiry. Health Psychol. Rev. 9, 379–396.
(3) Glaser, R., and Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2005) Science and society: Stress-induced immune dysfunction: implications for health. Nat. Rev. Immunol. 5, 243–251.
(4) Thirthalli, J., Naveen, G., Rao, M., Varambally, S., Christopher, R., and Gangadhar, B. (2013) Cortisol and antidepressant effects of yoga. Indian J. Psychiatry 55, 405.