It’s common knowledge that yoga relieves stress, but science can explain how.
People have been further acknowledging the deep links between psychological well-being and physical health—in a modern world full of triggers and stressors. Stress can take a terrible toll on the body. Too much of it can lead to headaches, stomach problems, and high blood pressure. It can also suppress the immune system—causing or worsening disease.
Researchers over the years have seen the value of yoga in mitigating and managing stress. Many studies have also concluded that yoga can effectively serve as a complementary treatment for depression and anxiety.
There are a ton of great reasons to incorporate yoga into your fitness routine. It’s an effective form of exercise that combines stretching with bodyweight training—while promoting spinal alignment, muscular balance, and flexibility. Yoga also has positive psychological effects. It can enhance self-awareness, body image satisfaction, and inner strength. While the time-honored practice of yoga has been linked to spirituality for thousands of years, modern versions have evolved to be more inclusive. More people around the world are pursuing yoga to get fit and achieve some much-needed relaxation.
One of the most effective weapons that yoga wields against stress is its use of deep breathing. There’s a reason deep breathing is recommended for those who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. Deep breathing is also known as abdominal breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or paced respiration. Shallow breathing fails to deliver oxygen to the lowest parts of the lungs. Deep breathing promotes full oxygen exchange, lowers heart rate, and stabilizes blood pressure to alleviate stress.
A systematic review published by the Health Psychology Review in 2015 summarized both psychological and biological mechanisms through which yoga may reduce stress.
The proposed psychological mechanisms included self-awareness, attitude towards stress, strengthened coping mechanisms, appraisal of control, calmness, spiritual well-being, compassion, self-compassion, mindfulness, and acceptance.
The proposed biological mechanisms included the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), autonomic nervous system or vagus nerve arousal, endothelial function, the release of nitric oxide, endogenous cannabinoids and opiates, inflammatory or endocrine responses, limbic system activity, and immune cell gene expression.
The report narrowed the reviewed articles down to empirical studies, most of which were done on Hatha yoga, and repeated their findings. Yoga was able to cause positive affect, less perceived stress, inhibition of the posterior area of the hypothalamus which decreased blood pressure, and reduced levels of cortisol (a biomarker of stress). Other studies have demonstrated that yoga may reduce inflammation and can assist in the treatment of anxiety and PTSD.
In 2012, a theory published in Health Psychology Review suggested that yoga may positively influence vagus nerve activity to relieve stress. The vagus nerve regulates the body’s cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive processes through parasympathetic control. Not only is it key in rest-and-digest and feed-and-breed functions, but also in the regulation of emotions and social communication.
A common thread that runs throughout the existing body of research is that more vigorous experiments should be conducted. Science can do more to empirically confirm the many benefits of yoga. Researchers agree that there is enough knowledge to support the practice of yoga as an effective way to combat stress. If you have problems with overwhelming stress or anxiety and are looking for a healthy release, consider taking some yoga classes.
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