OVER the years I’ve taught many people who have decided to give yoga a try as a way to manage stress.
It’s often men who come along on the advice of their doctors and it’s always heartening to hear that GPs are suggesting alternative therapies as well as the many medications that are available.
There are endless reasons why yoga may help to reduce stress and simply put, it’s because it promotes relaxation.
However, if you delve a little deeper, you’ll learn that a regular practice releases stored tension in the body, encourages the release of mood-boosting endorphins (the body’s feel good hormones) and reduces blood pressure.
It also increases self-awareness, confidence and improves sleep quality.
People often find after a few weeks of doing it regularly, which means at least two sessions a week, that their aches and pains improve, their mood is lighter and they feel better.
All of these aspects combined will mean that chronic stress is reduced, and when you find yourself in a tough situation, you can cope that little bit better.
So why does it work?
Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is also known as rest and digest, and enables healing.
The system is activated by stillness, deep breathing and silence – and the relaxation that is standard at the end of every class offers all three things in one go.
GABA is a neurotransmitter that communicates between the brain and the nervous system.
Conditions such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders have all been linked to low levels of GABA.
Yoga has been shown to increase GABA levels.
Higher GABA levels are linked with better mood regulation and lower levels of anxiety and depression.
When we relax, as we do throughout yoga, the brain shifts from beta, the awakened state to alpha, which is the more relaxed state.
In alpha, your body releases serotonin, a mood-regulating hormone and this calms you down.
The other thing that yoga helps us to do is to remain serene in uncomfortable situations.
I often say to yogis to find ‘peace in the pose’ and by that I mean, instead of focusing on how much your thighs are burning when we’ve been holding Warrior II for an age, just breathe and ignore the stress that the body is feeling.
This is hugely beneficial for everyday life.
Over time, the brain starts to realise that when we find ourselves in stressful situations, the best thing to do is to stay calm – and this helps to lower stress levels long term.
Which aspects of yoga help the most and why?
The poses that are particularly beneficial are those combining the movement and breath, which becomes a moving meditation.
Balances are also great because in order to balance well you have to concentrate fully. If your mind starts to wonder, then you’ll probably lose your balance.
All of the breathing practices will help with stress as just the act of observing the breath helps to calm the mind.
At the end of most classes, yogis will be encouraged to ‘breathe into their abdomens’ and this diaphragmatic breathing is wonderful for relaxation.
It puts pressure on the vagus nerve which triggers a calming, parasympathetic response.
So if life is getting you down, or you just want to be able to cope better with the daily highs and lows, make yoga part of your life.