Yoga and Stress

menThe next time you see your doctor, you may want to ask for a prescription – for yoga.

Yoga is rapidly becoming more and more popular.   It builds strength and flexibility, but more importantly it can affect your general health and outlook on life.

The body normally runs itself automatically with the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  We do not have to instruct our heart to beat or tell the kidneys what to do.  These things all happen without conscious control.  The ANS has 2 subsystems – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  Most organs are controlled by both systems in opposite ways.  In general, the SNS prepares the body for emergency or quick action.  Powerful hormones including adrenaline and cortisol are released giving the body a burst of strength and energy.  The heart beats faster, blood pressure increases, more blood is directed to the muscles, and digestion slows.  This is the so-called “fight or flight” response.  The parasympathetic system is more restorative and has the opposite effects on the organs, calming things down.

Prehistoric mankind lived in an environment filled with danger and had to respond quickly to survive.  Modern Americans usually do not face these dangers, but the sympathetic nervous system still kicks in and often times it over-responds to perceived dangers.  Being physically injured or thinking we might be injured produces the same physical response.  During our day-to-day life we all become stressed by events that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.  You feel your heart beating faster; we start to sweat; our breath becomes faster.  Over time, these physical reactions can lead to illness.  Possibly, up to 80% of all physical and emotional illnesses are partially stress related.  Heart disease, hypertension, headaches, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility can all be stress-related.  Even the ability to concentrate and remember can be impaired by stress.  Stress can lead to dangerous coping behaviors that actually make the stress worse.  We may find ourselves overworked, overeating and sleep deprived.  Some people cope by using drugs, alcohol, or caffeine.

Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that are controlled both by the autonomic nervous system and conscious control.  Breathing happens on its own, but we can slow or speed our breath anytime we choose.  When stressed, sit down, close your eyes, and slow your breath.  As your breath slows and deepens, the stress decreases.  You will be more able to clearly see the real situation and will respond appropriately.  This is yoga.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death and disability in the United States.  Chronic psychological stress contributes to insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, hypertension, and high cholesterol. They all increase the risk for CVD death. There is mounting evidence that yoga may indeed reduce CVD risk.  A growing number of published studies suggest that yoga may be effective in reducing psychosocial risk factors for CVD.  For example, yoga has been shown to decrease stress, enhance stress-related coping, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and decrease anger, tension, and fatigue.

Hatha yoga consists of several hundred physical poses (Asana) and several breathing techniques (Pranayama).  The poses challenge the body making you breathe faster.  With practice you learn to control the breath.  As the breath slows down, the mind becomes calmer.  The ultimate goal in yoga is not to turn you into a pretzel but to calm the mind. Yoga is a time-tested and inexpensive means of relieving stress, enhancing health, and improving fitness.  Try a class!

Contributed by Don Steensma, TYC instructor

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