Yoga originated in ancient India; its purpose was to combine mental, physical and spiritual disciplines in an effort to attain spiritual insight and tranquility. The popularized yoga of today evolved from Hatha Yoga and its associated postures (called asanas).
Hatha Yoga has 3 main focuses: exercise, breathing and meditation. The word “yoga” draws its name from the word “yoke” – to join together; it joins together the mind, the body and the spirit as well as bringing together exercise, breathing and meditation.
The benefits of yoga have been touted for years and include:
- Stress reduction
- Sound sleep
- Decreased cortisol levels
- Improvement in many medical conditions
- Allergy and asthma symptom relief
- Lower blood pressure
- Smoking cessation help
- Lower heart rate increased sense of well being
- Reduced anxiety
- Muscle tension release
- Increased strength and flexibility
- Improved mood
We all know that feeling “stressed out” can leave you feeling irritable, tired, anxious or overwhelmed. Many people even experience physical pains such as headaches, neck or shoulder pain and other muscle aches.
Why do you feel that way?
To answer that question, we need to talk about the hormone cortisol. Under normal conditions, your brain slowly releases cortisol into your body to help make your muscles work. When you are highly stressed (late for work, screaming baby, deadline due at work or school, etc.), your brain thinks there is an emergency and responds by flooding your body with cortisol.
If there was a true emergency, you would need that much cortisol to respond to the emergency (young child running into the street, fire, serious traffic accident, etc).
However, if you are just stressed out by day to day events then excess cortisol can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, bone density loss, and can throw off your immune system (which is why you get sick when you are stressed). Chronic stress can lead to a lot of health and emotional problems.
Furthermore, when you are under a lot of stress there is a lot of “mental chatter” going on in your mind. Your thoughts race, worries and anxiety come to the forefront.
A person enduring stress holds tension in various parts of their body such as the neck or lower back. It can be hard to release that tension.
Yoga works to reduce stress by reducing cortisol levels and releasing muscle tension.
Besides reducing cortisol, yoga has more recently been shown to stimulate the cranial nerve and an important neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-amino butyric-acid). Regular yoga practice increases the brain’s GABA level which has been documented to improve mood and decrease anxiety more than other metabolically similar exercises, like walking.
Previous research conducted at Boston University School of Medicine compared a yoga group and a walking group for 12 weeks.
They found that the walking group did not have an increase in GABA levels.
The yoga group not only had increased GABA levels but also had lower rates of anxiety and reduced chronic pain compared to the walking group.
So How Does Yoga Reduce Stress?
As we have discussed, yoga exercises decrease cortisol levels and increase GABA levels, both of which are important to decrease anxiety and improve mood.
How does yoga breathing decrease stress? Your nervous system has several branches and one of these branches controls what your internal organs are doing. It has two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.
The sympathetic is the “fight or flight” state which ramps up when you are stressed (and dumps cortisol into your bloodstream).
The parasympathetic is the “rest and digest” state which controls more day to day functions.
These two states generally happen automatically which means we don’t have control of them. However, we do have the diaphragm (the muscle we use to breathe) to use – it mostly functions automatically but we can also control it when we want to (like holding your breath under water).
If you practice specific breathing patterns taught in yoga (called pranayama), you can then harness the “rest and digest” state which is the non-stressed state you want to be in.
We talked earlier about the mental chatter that clogs your mind when you are stressed. Meditation teaches you to clear out all those distractions, with the goal of totally emptying your mind while you are practicing yoga.
Both the physical exercises and meditation help with releasing tension that has built up in your body. Yoga can be a powerful and natural way to reduce stress by calming your racing thoughts and releasing physical tension.
Reasons for stress and anxiety are all around you. If they are getting the best of you, you might want to try yoga.
Today, yoga classes can be found almost everywhere – from health clubs to community education classes, as well as hospitals and clinics. In some high schools, it is even taught as a regular part of the physical education program.
The yoga classes, when taught by a certified yoga instructor, will teach the art of controlled breathing, the physical exercises and postures, and the meditation. It is an excellent means of stress management and relaxation.