Understanding The Interplay Between Yoga & Stress

Stress seems to be a modern affliction.  Numerous physical and mental illnesses are attributed to stress and it appears to be growing into epidemic proportions, with every second person on the street complaining of being “stressed out.”  But it’s not often that we break it down to understand what is happening inside the body, or explore ways to decrease or eliminate it from our lives.

Stress begins with a physiological response to what your body-mind perceives as life threatening. The trigger may be an actual physical danger, like being cornered by a wild animal.  However, more often in modern times, the trigger is equated to less bodily threatening causes, such as the fear of an unstable economy, an episode of road rage or the possible end of a relationship.

Whatever the trigger, the mind alerts the body that danger is present.  In response, the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, secrete catecholamine hormones.  These adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones act upon the autonomic nervous system, as the body prepares to fight or flee.  Heart rate, blood pressure, mental alertness, and muscle tension are increased. The adrenal hormones cause metabolic changes that make energy stores available to each cell and the body begins to sweat.  The body also shuts down systems that are not a priority in the immediacy of the moment, including digestion, elimination, growth, repair, and reproduction.

These adaptive responses have ensured the survival of the human race.  For our ancestors, a stressful situation usually resolved itself quickly.  They fought or they ran, and, after the danger passed, everything returned to normal.  The adrenal glands stopped producing stress hormones, and systems that were temporarily shut down resumed operation.

People in the modern world are often unable to resolve stress so directly, and live in a state of chronic stress as a result.  The adrenals continue to pump stress hormones. The body cannot benefit from nutrition because the digestion and elimination systems are slowed down. Even sleep is disturbed by this agitated state.

In a chronically stressed state, quality of life, and perhaps life itself, are at risk.  The body’s capacity to heal itself is compromised, either inhibiting recovery from an existing illness or injury, or creating a new one.  Stress-induced afflictions include high blood pressure, ulcers, back pain, immune dysfunction, reproductive problems, and depression. These conditions add additional stress and the cycle intensifies and continues.

Enter yoga.  It’s often touted as one of the best stress busters around.  Corresponding to the increased prevalence of stress, medical professionals are progressively pointing their patients in the direction of yoga.

Yoga directly counteracts both the physiological and psychological components of stress, simultaneously helping those who practice yoga to take better care of themselves and change their attitudes.  The stretching done in yoga relieves muscle tension.  Upside-down poses and reclining poses slow the heart, relax the blood vessels, inhibit production of norepinephrine, and calm the brain. Pranayama (yoga’s classic breathing practice) slows respiration.  Relaxation and meditation exercises stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.  As we practice being more aware and mindful, we gain a sense of self-control, equanimity, and peace.  Perhaps most important of all, meditation and the underlying philosophy of yoga can help people to realize that most of the things that upset us just aren’t worth getting stressed about.

Written By Candace Cuss

Yoga teacher & student of Hot Yoga Asylimb