So why practice yoga for stress relief?
According to the American Psychological Association, “chronic stress is officially linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide – and more than 75% of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
This unfortunate fact is what has continued to make self-soothing techniques, such as meditation, relaxation, exercise, or even socializing with friends, studied as possible treatments. With the popularity of yoga continuing to grow throughout the world, western medicine has finally taken notice and started to prescribe yoga for stress relief.
A recent letter published by the Harvard Medical School states that, “Yoga reduces the impact of exaggerated stress responses, thus reducing perceived stress and anxiety.” This, in turn, decreases types of physiological arousal (heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration). There is also evidence that yoga helps increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly.
I’ve always known the nervous system plays a vital role in our health and well-being, though before my advanced teacher training with Zuna Yoga, the details of how this system works, the positive and negative effects it has on the body and mind and the techniques of practicing yoga for stress relief, were still being mastered.
I think it’s fascinating that the nervous system coordinates and controls ALL of the activities of the body AND interprets, communicates the conditions of the outer world and then responds to these conditions either through action, thought or both. The clarity of communication is determined by programmed and learned responses, toxicity, diet, stress, emotions, ego and malfunction. This is why much of the work done in yoga for stress relief is directed towards conditioning, revitalizing and management of the nervous system. When we spend too much time in one state, we lose the capacity to stimulate the other. Mind-blowing.
The Nervous System and why we need to control it
The nervous system is comprised of the following and I’ll be focusing on how yoga affects the Autonomic Systems.
- Central System – brain and spinal cord
- Peripheral System
- Somatic System – peripheral nerve fibers that pick up sensory information or sensations from the peripheral or distant organs and carry them to the central nervous system.
- Autonomic System – parasympathetic/ PNS, sympathetic/ SNS an enteric/ ENS)
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is our “fight or flight” stimulations – our most primitive activity. When this system is engaged, the following increases:
- Adrenal gland production
- Stress related hormones
- Blood flow to the internal organs to provide energy for quick movement
FACT… our body and its related systems are unable to differentiate between life threatening situations, work related pressures, or emotional and psychological stress. Some of which include, competitive lifestyles and external pressures from personal finance, romance, family, friends, or world events. The body will always respond the same. Thus much of modern society’s time is spent in “fight or flight” mode and activation of the SNS.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is our sensory organs (skin and neural tissues) that engage the “rest and digest” response. When this system is engaged the following decreases:
- Blood flows away from the limbs moving towards the internal organs for digestion
- Nutrient absorption
Usually, once all this happens, we feel relaxed, composed and calm. Since yoga makes us feel the same way, using yoga for stress relief is typically very successful.
The Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is the and third least understood component of the nervous system – including nerve cells that reside in the wall of the gut and alimentary canal (the entire digestive system) – often called the second brain. These neurons enable us to feel the inner world of our gut and its contents, controlling gut behavior and the brain. This is where the term “listen to your gut” or “butterflies in the stomach” comes from. It’s an intuitive awareness stemming from this mass of neural tissue, filled with neurotransmitters ultimately determining our mental state. It also encompasses the “Vagus Nerve” our primary visceral nerve which is how information gets carried from the gut to the brain.
“95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the bowels and that 70% of our immune system is in the gut” – Scientific American
With this said – the main focus of yoga should be to disengage the SNS, engage the PNS and balance or tune into the ENS. When our body is finally relaxed, the PNS can turn off and our mind can relax engaging the PNS. This is when the magic starts to happen…our participation in the world is now done through a state of calm, giving us the ability to access our intuition (ENS) and higher states of being… allowing us to tap into the most beautiful expressions of ourselves.
The Nadi System
The Nadi System is the energetic equivalent to the nervous system carrying life force, prana or energy throughout the body. In Indian medicine and philosophy, it’s a pipe consisting of nerves, blood vessels and the pulse. They connect at certain points of intensity referred to as the Chakras. Learning to balance and open the Chakras, is also beneficial in reducing stress during a yoga practice and you can do this with essential oils, chanting, breathing, movement, meditation, mudras and more.
“I think the science (in addition to the spiritual philosophy) behind yoga is essential to communicate to modern society for there to be a transformation of how the western world uses the practice”
Understanding the nervous system and whether or not a person experiences ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo’ conditions are essential in designing classes and wellness programs to fit the needs of an individual.
The Goal of Yoga
During my yoga and SUP yoga classes, I hope to help people understand that yoga is not an exercise. With consistent practice, your body will change shape, you will become stronger, more flexible, and this is necessary to allow the fluctuations of the mind to cease. However, this is not the goal.
A useful guide and path to follow is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – 196 aphorisms – that guide us on how to live a balanced and ethical life, both on and off the mat. More specifically, the 31 verses that describe the Eight Limbs of Yoga – an eight-fold path or guide on how to live in order to advance along a spiritual path towards enlightenment.
- YAMAs – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows
- NIYAMAs – Positive duties or observances
- ASANA – Postures
- PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques
- PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal
- DHARANA – Focused concentration
- DHYANA – Meditative absorption
- SAMADHI – Bliss or enlightenment
Using the Eight Limbs of Yoga as your guide will enable to use the Yamas and Niyamas, external and internal disciplines and observances to form the foundation of your practice.
Then you can use asana and pranayama, the two most common limbs that are taught in most public yoga classes, to help you work the physical body so the mind has a healthy and peaceful place to reside and learning that when we control the breath, we learn to control the mind.
When you get into practicing Pratyahara, withdrawing from your senses externally, and Dharana, the ability to bring the mind into focus and to hold the concentration on a single point, this is preparing you to be able to meditate.
Dhyana the practice of meditation then leads us to a deeper state of consciousness. This initial stage of meditation, where awareness is present, brings about many benefits. Your body will achieve normal homeostasis. You will be calmer, more relaxed, and better equipped to deal with stress.
The state that you are striving to get to in meditation is Dhyana, moments where you enter a peak state, transcendence of time, slipping into this gap between consciousness and deeper states of consciousness, or what science calls going beyond our BETA brain waves to ALPHA or THETA brain waves.
This is the space of infinite possibilities and unbounded creativity. This is your soul space.
You will know you’ve traveled to the gap, by the feelings you have after meditation. Those feelings may be not remembering anything, feeling like no time has passed, bliss, a sense of overall wellness, and unexplained happiness or ease in the body, or sleep without dreams.
Finally, attainment of Dhyana is not through willing it to become. The greater you seek it, the more it will slip away from you. Your preparedness for the seventh limb of yoga will come with the consistent practice of the other six limbs. Then, like a lotus flower unfurling in readiness, Dhyana will seek you.
The eighth and final step in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga is Samadhi. The word samadhi literally means “putting together” and is often translated as “integration” or “absorption.” The eighth limb is the practice of the entire program (the other seven limbs) as well as the final attainment of being.
Living in Union with Your Higher Self.
The liberation of this state comes from transcending the confines of the ego. You are no longer wrapped up in the trappings of like, dislike, judgment, worry, and fear. You become completely absorbed in the present moment, at all times, while remaining in total awareness. This is a pure state of being.
As you go through your daily tasks, you are no longer replaying the past or looking into the future. You are immersed in the enjoyment of each moment as a sacred act. Samadhi brings you freedom from the cycle of karma, which is a result of never-ending desires (vasanas) and memories (sanskaras). What this means is that you will still have desires, such as hugging your children or eating food, but you won’t be a prisoner of the melodramatic cycle that karma brings. As the ego is continually concerned with what’s “me” and “mine,” your higher self knows that there is never a lack of anything because there is no separateness.
Therefore, all fear subsides and what is left is pure love.
This allows you to live with a more balanced body, mind, and soul will lead you to the ultimate goal of yoga – self-realization.
By accomplishing this, a single-person can make a difference, inspire others, and be the change they want to see in the world.
To learn more about the various ways you can use
yoga for stress relief, contact me today!