Ever experienced a feeling of mild to moderate euphoria after completing a yoga class? That isn’t just a sense of accomplishment for making it through: that feeling is your body’s physiological response to your yoga practice. Richard Faulds (Shobhan), has practiced yoga in the Kripalu tradition for over thirty years; here he describes exactly how yoga can reduce the body’s response to stress:
“The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic system, which is often identified with the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic, which is identified with what’s been called the relaxation response. When you do yoga — the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body — you initiate a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the relaxation response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms.”
Yoga has been a mind-body practice that has persisted for nearly 5,000 years because of its significant health benefits. One of these evidenced-based health benefits is its ability to markedly reduce stress levels. Curious about how yoga actually reduces stress levels in the body? Then check out these studies; each examines a different way yoga combats stress:
- Reduces Cortisol Levels
A 2012 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that participants who took yoga showed decreased levels of cortisol after only 10 days from their baseline levels at the beginning of the study. Cortisol plays a vital role in the body’s response to stress; the body releases this steroid hormone when it recognizes stress triggers. The more stress the body perceives, the greater amounts of cortisol it releases to cope. However increased levels of cortisol raise blood sugar, decrease the immune system’s effectiveness, and alter the metabolic process. Changes in all three systems can further cause the body to experience stress, leading to a cycle of increasing cortisol levels that may result in health issues. Researchers found that regularly practicing yoga reduces cortisol levels, therefore reducing the negative side effects this hormone can create in the body. Not only can yoga calm the mind, but it can physiologically calm the body.
- Enhances Mental Health
A 2007 Australian study, appearing in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, examined whether or not yoga was more effective than relaxation in reducing stress, anxiety, and blood pressure levels of 131 participants who were identified as having mild to moderate stress levels. Over a ten week period, participants took one hour sessions of relaxation or hatha yoga. Data showed that yoga was equally effective as relaxation when it came to reducing stress, but more effective in improving mental health. With yoga’s attention to centering the mind and focusing on one’s ability to connect the mind with the body, it should come as no surprise that yoga students enjoyed an enhanced mental health and feeling of peace. Researchers concluded that yoga can help individuals not only reduce stress levels but improve mental health.
- Improves Cardiovascular Health
One very interesting study found a positive correlation between practicing yoga and heart health. In this study, a daily yoga practice for 10 days positively affected several biochemical indicators used to assess the risk of cardiovascular disease. Study participants entered the study with several medical conditions including hypertension and coronary artery disease. After 10 days of yoga bloodwork showed significantly lower levels of several important biochemical indicators including total triglycerides and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. The researchers concluded that yoga, as part of a healthy lifestyle, can positively affect the body’s cardiovascular system. Since a stressed cardiovascular system can cause a cascade of physical issues, practicing yoga can greatly reduce the levels of physical stress the body experiences.
- Elevates Mood
A study conducted in 2005 found that practicing yoga can lead to mood elevation. Scientists implemented a yoga program with psychiatric patients in New Hampshire to great success. After participating in yoga classes, researchers found that participants “…reported significant improvements on all five of the negative emotion factors on the POMS, including tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, fatigue-inertia, and confusion-bewilderment”. Yoga’s combination of breath-work and attention to the mind-body connection yielded very positive results for the population; therefore, it follows that a regular practice would offer the same benefits for most practitioners. While both internal and external factors play into mood shifts, yoga seems to possess the ability to address the body’s reaction to such factors and elevate an individual’s overall mood.
- Reduces Pain-Related Disability
A 2008 study appearing in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine examined yoga’s ability to address chronic low back pain. The study focused on whether or not short-term, intensive yoga could affect functional disability and spinal flexibility issues associated with chronic low back pain. The study exposed participants to a week-long intensive yoga program that focused on specific postures and breathing practices as well as meditation. Data revealed that after participating in the program, individuals enjoyed significantly improved spinal flexibility as well as a reduction in pain-related disability. While this study focused on specific low back pain, its results clearly support yoga’s ability to strengthen the body and assist in in reduction of pain as a result of a physical disability. Other studies have supported yoga’s ability to reduce stress by reducing pain experienced by various populations including expecting mothers, women with fibromyalgia, and individuals with osteoarthritis of the hands or of the knee joint.
While stress reduction is only one of yoga’s many effects, it remains an important one. Unresolved stress can lead to a variety of life disruptions including heightened anxiety levels, restless sleep, mood swings, and depression. Engaging in weekly studio sessions combined with a strong home practice can effectively combat the physical, emotional, and mental effects of stress on the whole body. A dedicated practice incorporating a variety of postures and breathing techniques not only strengthens the body and increases its flexibility, but strengthens and soothes the mind as well.