Although it’s not the real goal of yoga, there are many healthy side benefits of engaging in certain yoga practices such as yoga meditation, yoga asanas, yoga relaxation and yoga breathing. In the following articles we will take a closer look at some of those side benefits starting with a two part series about stress and yoga.
What’s Going on in Your Body When You Feel Stressed?
Have you ever wondered why you feel the way you feel when you feel stressed? In this article we will examine how the body responds to stress and why stress can affect our ability to think straight.
Our bodies come equipped with their own natural automatic and adaptive set of mechanisms that prepare us to respond appropriately to the stressors we encounter. The first line of defence is short lived, only a few seconds, and occurs when the hypothalamus, located in the brain, activates the sympathetic nervous system to release the catecholamines, adrenaline and noradrenaline, preparing the body for rapid metabolic change or physical movement. If the stressor continues, the body’s response is ramped up a notch, and the hypothalamus then sends a message directly to the adrenal medulla, the inside part of the adrenal gland. This time the same catecholamines are released, but for up to two hours. If the stressor continues, a further ramped up reinforcement mechanism comes into play, that is, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland which signals the adrenal cortex (the inside part of the adrenal gland) to release the corticosteroid hormones, cortisol and aldosterone, continuously, for hours. These hormones act to increase metabolism and alter blood pressure.
Our emotional response to stressors, that feeling of fear and alarm, is linked to the effect catecholamines have on another brain structure, the amygdla. Catecholamines also message the hippocampus, located within the brain, signalling that what your experiencing is important and therefore it should be stored in your long term memory. At the same time a brief dampening of your short term memory, concentration and the ability to think rationally occurs, making it harder for you to actually think clearly, in a stressful situation. The pituitary gland also signals the thyroid gland to produce two hormones, thyroxine and triiodothyronine which serve to increase your metabolic rate, and that increases the workload on the heart muscle and intestines. Fortunately, once the stressor is dealt with or removed an equally natural, automatic and adaptive set of mechanisms come into play, via the parasympathetic nervous system, which leaves us feeling calm and balanced again. That’s called the relaxation response. Thank goodness for that!
Yoga Practice Helps Revoke the Effects of Chronic Stress
Not all stress is bad, we seek rollercoaster rides, wild downhill skateboard rides, white water rafting and parachuting for the high and the rush, because it leaves us feeling empowered, energized and ready to take on the world, briefly. A certain amount of periodic stress too can be helpful, for example to prompt you to study for your exams, to be alert when driving in congested traffic, but, over time, the effects of chronic stress can be just as damaging on our bodies as eating unhealthy food, not exercising or smoking. That’s because the body’s own mechanisms to deal with stressors never get a chance to switch off allowing your body’s systems to return to a normal state of balance and calm. Chronic stress is related to health difficulties ranging from weight gain to premature aging, and it affects all the body’s systems.
Enter Yoga Practice. Research on the effects of yoga practice and stress demonstrate that the damaging effects of stress can be counteracted by yoga practices. That is because they produce a deep relaxation to counter overall stress levels thus reversing, managing or ameliorating stress effects throughout the body not just the brain. Simply knowing breath-management techniques and having a better understanding of stress can help build your body’s resilience.
More recent studies have highlighted some possible mechanisms as to how this happens. Using neuro-imaging and genomics technology researchers found that yoga practice switched on and off some genes that are linked to stress and immune function. Yoga practice can enhance the expression of genes involved in energy metabolism and insulin secretion and reduce expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress. This is important because most chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, are associated with inflammation. So is poor sleep, which leads to fatigue which then fuels inflammation. By reducing our stress levels through yoga practice, yoga can help people sleep better, leading to less inflammation. It also seems yoga practice can increase telomerase activity meaning it helps slow down the cellular aging process. That’s good news too!