Yoga: Fight stress and find serenity

Your mobile phone is ringing, you have a paper due and a test to study for, you feel deprived of sleep, your neck and back are aching from long hours spent in classes and studying, you have the “sniffles” and a nagging cough and you have to work your weekend shift in order to pay your bills. Sound all too familiar? You undoubtedly are facing multiple demands each day as you try to shoulder huge work-loads. Your mind and body are subjected to constant stress and anxiety and as a result, your health can pay the price. When you feel like stress and anxiety are getting the best of you, you might want to hit the mat and give yoga a try.

The state of the mind and that of the body are intimately related. If the mind is relaxed, the muscles in the body will also be relaxed. Stress in our bodies produces a state of constant physical and mental tension, which over time can lead to a disruption in almost all body processes. This in turn puts you at risk for numerous health problems. When you are exposed to a stressor, your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhancing your brain’s use of glucose. Cortisol also helps to increase the availability of substances that repair tissues and curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight or flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear. Usually the body’s stress- response system is self-regulating, however, under constant stress it becomes increasingly difficult for it to return to baseline levels. That’s why it is so important to learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life.

Yoga has gained great popularity over the past decade as a means for taming the stress response. Developed thousands of years ago in the East, yoga in the West, today, is considered a mind-body type of complementary and alternative medicine practice. Research now suggests that yoga can help induce a peacefulness of the body and mind, by bringing physical and mental disciplines together, ultimately creating a state of relaxation. This relaxed state in turn improves various psychological parameters such as a reduction in stress and anxiety, ultimately leading to improved mental function.

The core components of most yoga classes include poses and focused breathing. The series of yoga poses called asanas work by stretching your muscles. This in turn may help to release the lactic acid that can build up with muscle use that often leads to stiffness, tension, pain and fatigue, due to constant stress. These poses not only stretch your muscles but also the soft tissues of your body, which includes ligaments, tendons and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. The results are a sense of ease and fluidity throughout your body, a sense of calm.

Along with the asanas, most forms of yoga also emphasize proper breathing. Most of us take each breath for granted and are not aware of how our breath changes when we are stressed and anxious. Yoga teaches us how to use our lungs to their maximum capacity and how to control the breath. By focusing on a deep slow and rhythmical breath, our relaxation response is stimulated- the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response. Deep abdominal breathing is the best as it helps to bring air to the lowest and largest part of the lungs. When we take in a full yogic breath we can help ourselves increase our vitality and mental clarity.

Ready to hit the mat and fight stress? Check out yoga classes on Campus, Mondays at SHAPE or the local yoga studio in Johnson.

If you have any questions about starting your own yoga practice, stop by the Student Health Center anytime M-Thurs 9-4pm, Fri 9-1pm