How yoga can help with stress
Chronic stress is defined as a state of prolonged tension from internal or external stressors and it is impacting an increasing proportion of the population. Stress impacts the body when stressful stimuli are perceived by the brain which then stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to prepare the body for action or response. The ANS controls the activities of the organs, glands and cardiac and smooth muscles and is divided between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) prepares the body for a ‘fight or flight’ response to stress; the cardiac muscles are stimulated to increase heart rate and blood pressure, muscles are tightened and cortisol and adrenalin are released from the adrenal glands. These hormones enter the blood stream and cause a chemical reaction, further increasing blood pressure, suppressing the immune system and increasing blood sugar.
In the short term, stress causes emotional and physiological symptoms. Emotional symptoms may include feeling agitated and frustrated, having difficulty relaxing and feeling overwhelmed. Physiology symptoms may include headaches, tense muscles, chest pains, low energy and grinding of the teeth.
Long term stress (chronic stress) can lead to serious health problems such as constant high blood pressure which increases risk of heart attack and stroke, suppression of the immune system, infertility, and speeding up of the aging process. Specifically, high blood pressure or hypertension results in increased pressure against your heart’s artery walls. This increased pressure causes the walls to harden, termed atherosclerosis, which weakens your heart and can lead to heart disease, stroke or heart failure.
Yoga can be used to help manage stress and alleviate stress induced symptoms by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). While the SNS and PNS generally work antagonistically, people exposed to highly stressful environments generally over work their SNS. Yoga works at stimulating the PSN in order to bring people into a more relaxed state and support the digestive, immunity and respiratory systems. This enables the body to better heal itself and respond to stressful stimuli.
How yoga engages the PNS and helps alleviate stress:
– Calm and controlled breathing
Practising yoga on a regular basis helps us to elongate and regulate our breathing. A more even breathing pattern helps us become calmer and reduces focus on background thoughts. Deeper, more controlled breathing also increases the amount of oxygen transported throughout the body which helps support muscle repair and reduces heart rate. Examples of types of breathing which can be used to help beat stress include ujjayi breathing (deep nostril breathing which comes from the back of the throat passage), anuloma viloma (alternate nostril breathing) and bhramari (breathing with gentle vibrations at the throat).
– Stretching tight/tense muscles
Stressed people often suffer with tight muscles due long term lactic acid build up and muscle tension which causes muscle fibres to contract and intertwine (commonly known as muscle knots). Yoga works on stretching a wide variety of small and large muscles. As these muscles are stretched, the muscle fibres are elongated, allowing muscles fibres to realign and lengthen. While all yoga poses engage muscles, examples of some deeper stretching poses include trikonasana (triangle pose), downward dog and virabhadrasana (warrior pose).
– Helps you sleep better
Yoga can help stressed people sleep better as it provides a psychical work out but it also stimulates the pineal gland to produce more melatonin. Melatonin impacts sleep patterns by causing a chemical reaction which results in drowsiness in order to prepare our body for sleep. Yoga poses which stimulate the pineal gland include the shoulder stand, plough pose and upward half lotus.
– Boasts energy and helps lower blood pressure
Despite sounding like a contradiction in terms, yoga can help you boast your energy levels while also decreasing your blood pressure. Vinyasa yoga, or flow yoga, focuses on developing to a continuous flow of poses and postures combined with controlled, steady breathing. The constant flow of movements allows more oxygen to enter the blood stream and increases the heart rate which helps boast energy. At the same time, certain yoga poses help to decrease blood pressure by moving the body into a more parasympathetic state by activating the parasympathetic nerves in the cranial region. This is best done with inversion poses.