The Science Behind Yoga and Stress

Today’s fast-paced modern world is putting more and more pressure on society’s mental health. Achieving a sense of peace, satisfaction, and well-being feels like a constant challenge nowadays. Abrasive noise, distractions, invasive thoughts, and the stressors of everyday life exist all around us, causing people to seek out effective ways to escape and find respite.

Every yoga practitioner has his or her own reason for pursuing yoga. While most people start their yoga journeys with intentions to get fitter, healthier, and more flexible, many look to yoga to relieve stress. Yoga enthusiasts all have stories about how yoga heals.

Scientists, psychologists, health professionals, and academics have started looking into the global yoga phenomenon and are coming to similar conclusions.

For example, a study of more than 50 women published in 2018 by the International Journal of Preventive Medicine revealed that yoga does indeed play an effective role in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.

Deep breathing is one of the most popular and most effective ways to calm down. It is usually recommended for people who suffer panic attacks. Deep breathing is also known as abdominal breathing, belly breathing, paced respiration, or diaphragmatic breathing. Controlled deep breathing is a key part of practicing yoga.

A 2015 article published by the Harvard Medical School explains that shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen that fills the lungs. It can therefore cause shortness of breath and anxiety.

Deep breathing optimizes respiratory function and promotes the body’s full exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It can slow down one’s heart rate and lower blood pressure to elicit the body’s relaxation response against its stress response.

A 2005 review, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, looked back at previous studies examining the effects of yoga on participants who suffered from anxiety. The researchers concluded that the results were encouraging in support of yoga’s therapeutic benefits.

Another review from 2015 for the Health Psychology Review concluded that the “implementation of yoga interventions has the potential to ameliorate stress and stress-related conditions.”

The paper proposed mechanisms through which yoga reduces stress. These included self-awareness, positivity, coping mechanisms, calmness, appraisal of control, spirituality, compassion, and mindfulness. Mindfulness has been found by many researchers to be a powerful link between yoga and stress relief.

The aforementioned review also pinpointed possible biological mechanisms. These include the autonomic nervous system, peripheral nervous system, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, endothelial function, inflammatory and endocrine responses, limbic system activity, and even gene expression.

Yoga has also been found to be associated with the release of nitric oxide, endogenous cannabinoids, and opiates.

One hypothesis put forward in a 2012 report for the Health Psychology Review suggests that yoga positively affects the vagal nerve, the tenth cranial nerve responsible for the parasympathetic control of cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive functions.

It is key in regulating the feed-and-breed and rest-and-digest processes as well as one’s emotions, social competence, and communication. Yoga has been proposed to stimulate pressure receptors, influence vagal activity, and decrease stress hormones like cortisol and catecholamines.

When people get stressed, their muscles can remain tense for long periods of time. The poses and stretching exercises of yoga also work to release muscle tension, promote spinal alignment, enhance balance, and alleviate chronic pain.

There are tons of other scientific papers that explore the positive effects of yoga in addressing a wide range of mental and physical issues. If you feel overwhelmed by stress and are looking for release, set some time off to do some relaxing and rejuvenating yoga. Your mind and body will thank you for it.

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