Stress is all around us, everyday. If it isn’t because we are stressed ourselves, it is because our friend is stressed and stays home to get rest, people in traffic are stressed because they need to get somewhere fast, our colleague stresses over a deadline, in other words: Stress is there, always!
People often tell me they like practicing yoga because it reduces their stress, it calms them down. And even though I know from my own experience that this is true, I couldn’t help but wonder how it actually works in our body and brain. Why does yoga reduce stress?
In the past few years a lot of research has been done on the effects of yoga. And while most of it showed that people practicing yoga reduced their stress levels, there was never a clear understanding of how that happened.
Controlling the breath
One thing they agree on is that the breathing used in combination with the postures help to reduce stress and to be able to deal with stress in our daily life. The scientific explanation of why controlling your breath is beneficial is that with every inhalation your nervous system goes into a ‘sympathetic activation’, which means it goes into a flight modus and brings up the stressors, basically it brings up the heat. This also shows in the increase of the heart beat. With every exhalation the opposite happens. Your nervous system goes into a parasympathetic activation, which means it calms you down and cools down the stressors. Which also shows in the slowing down of your heartbeat.
In other words, in our bodies we have a built in mechanism to control our stressors and heartbeat, the breath. In yoga you learn to control your breathing and synchronize it with a movement. So by controlling your breath & slowing down your breathing, you bring down your heart beat and come into this parasympathetic activation.
We might all have had an experience of stress, where we felt our heart racing, breathing fast and our mind racing at a 1000 kilometers per hour. Now imagine controlling your breathing, by focusing on slowly breathing in so you diminish the sympathetic activation and slowly breathing out to calm down even more. If you would do that in a stressful situation, you would be able to think more clearly in a short period of time. And you would not be stressed, but enjoying the energy that is created by the situation to use it for the better.
Challenging yoga postures
Another explanation is given in a research done by Kerstin Khattab, about the benefits of Iyengar Yoga. He found that when people practice a challenging posture, such as an arm balance or a headstand, and remain focused on a stable breath, then you are training your mind to remain calm in a stressful situation. You teach your nervous system to move quickly from a challenging & stressful situation to a calm state of mind, and store that response for later use This increases your own flexibility of moving in between these two states of mind, which helps you to deal with stress in your daily life.
Effects on genes and brain activity
The first scientist that also showed how yoga affects the genes and brain activity, is John Denninger – a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He did a five year study with chronically stressed people and found that techniques used in yoga (pranayama: breathing exercises; and asanas: postures) can switch genes on and off, that are linked to stress and the immune system. This study showed that one session of Kundalini yoga was enough to get a positive response from the genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion and helped to reduce the response of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress. In other words it helps you to relax and diminish the stress you feel in your body.
What does it mean?
To me this means the following: the more stressed you are, or the more stressful situations you encounter, the more you need to learn to control your breathing and calm your mind. You need to find a way to bring down your heart beat and the effect that it has on your nervous system. For many people, yoga turned out to be a very effective way to do so. In yoga we come to the mat to learn something new about ourselves, so not to compete, not to be on a fast pace and not to be with scattered thoughts. We focus on our own body, boundaries, restrictions, thoughts and breath. We are the masters of our body: we allow stress and we decide the level of stress. When you become aware of this fact, you know that you can change the situation; it is just a matter of practice and mindset.