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This is part 1 of a 2-part series on yoga and stress.
Stress, in its myriad forms, is an inescapable fact of life. There’s not a person alive who isn’t challenged by it at some time — and perhaps often! — whether it stems from your relationships, work, mounting bills or simply having too much on your “To Do” list.
Exactly how you respond to stress — either engaging it with a fiery passion or retreating from it with a whimper — can determine how it affects you. The goal is to find a healthy and productive balance between the two that allows you to manage and enjoy life. Adopting a yoga practice as part of your routine is an extremely effective tool in helping you do just that.
Step On the Mat
Stress can manifest as exhaustion, lethargy, depression, headaches, change in appetite, irritability, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart disease, body aches and pains, poor concentration, anxiety, anger, aggression and so on. Yoga, the 5,000-year-old practice of physical postures or poses (“asana”), meditation and breath control (“pranayama”), has been shown to have a positive impact on the management of stress and all of its effects.
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There is a popular misconception that you have to be athletic, flexible or bendy, strong and thin to “do yoga.” The fact is, anyone, at almost any age and in almost any condition, can practice yoga. To be certain, one person’s practice may appear outwardly different from another’s, and each person will have his or her own unique challenges. Yoga is not a competitive sport; rather, it is a deeply personal practice that, for some, may be profoundly spiritual and transcendent. The biggest challenge of yoga is only in making the decision to step on your mat and start your own practice — one that is appropriate and challenging for you, not the person on the mat next to you.
Yoga and the Nervous System
The two limbs of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), act in powerful and opposing ways. The SNS acts to “rev your engine”: it gets you excited, increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure, focuses your concentration and allows you to aggressively respond to a challenging stimulus. The PNS “puts the breaks on” and slows you down, resulting in a state of relaxation and calm and allowing you to retreat from or avoid a situation that feels overwhelming. People who have a dominant SNS tend to be aggressive responders, spending a lot of their life with the “pedal to the metal.” Those with a predominant PNS tend to be conflict avoiders, retreating from life’s challenges.
Yoga, a practice accessible in various forms to all, allows you to address stress in a clear, thoughtful and present way, balancing the SNS and PNS, without becoming either too agitated and aroused or too overwhelmed and avoidant. In this way, it’s possible to consciously affect and change the way you habitually perceive and respond to stress.
It’s All About the Breath
The most important focus of yoga is the breath. A guiding principle is that the breath, or “prana,” initiates and leads the physical practice. The poses the body assumes are achieved mindfully and purposefully in rhythm with inhalation and exhalation as the yogi skillfully engages his or her body in challenging poses.
The physiologic effect of inspiration is to activate the SNS, resulting in a slightly increased heart rate and state of arousal. Exhalation has the opposite effect, stimulating the PNS and causing a slight decrease in heart rate and a calming effect. Unlike an aerobic workout at the gym, which predominantly stimulates the SNS, yoga improves the practitioner’s ability to move between both states.
An Invaluable Tool
Studies have shown definitively that a 6-week program of yoga improves the balance and flexibility of the nervous system. Yogis also have significantly enhanced physical strength, balance, flexibility and sense of well-being. The equanimity that grows out of a consistent and dedicated yoga practice becomes an invaluable tool that will benefit you daily as you step off your mat and interact with the world.
Part 2 of this series will discuss yoga practice in more detail, including various categories of yoga poses and their benefits.
Information provided by Jennifer Svahn, MD, FACS, Attending Vascular Surgeon in the Department of Surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center and a Registered Yoga Teacher.