“I did a sequence of yoga poses this morning that only ten people on the planet can do, ending with the corpse pose. Do you know what I’ve done with yoga? I beat it. It’s time to move on, to something more ultimate.”
These are lines spoken by Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s character in the action movie Faster (2010).
Here, see for yourself:
Isn’t that impressive?
But at the same time you may wonder: is this what it takes to experience the stress reducing effects of yoga? If you’re not as ultimate as Oliver Jackson-Cohen, should you resort to desperately pushing yourself to try to put your leg in your neck, all the while experiencing excruciating pain in your hamstrings?!
The short answer is: No!
This is not at all what yoga is about.
In this article you will learn what yoga is really about, and why yoga is so wonderful for the relief of stress and anxiety.
Why yoga: doesn’t any type of exercise reduce stress?
More and more scientific studies are showing the stress and anxiety reducing effects of yoga. For example, one study in which students performed ten weeks of classroom-based yoga showed that the levels of the stress hormone cortisol had decreased significantly and students’ behavior had improved.
But doesn’t any exercise reduce stress? Wouldn’t playing a game of basketball or lifting weights at the gym equally reduce stress?
Let me start by saying that I highly recommend you practice any type of exercise. All exercise will have stress reducing effects. It will get you in shape, get your blood pumping and make you feel good.
However, yoga is unique in that it combines physical exercise with a mental awareness. In most other types of exercise there is a goal to be achieved or a challenge to be met. Like winning a game or building muscle strength. In yoga however, there is no such goal. Yoga merely uses physical exercise as a tool to create a balanced mind.
There is scientific evidence that yoga can have a stronger effect on a person’s sense of well being than other types of exercise. For example, one study showed that regular yoga practice increases brain GABA levels and improves mood and anxiety more than other metabolically matched exercises such as walking.
Yoga develops awareness, not just fitness
To understand why yoga has a much more profound stress reducing effect than regular exercise, we need to take a brief look at the origins of yoga.
© Vinoth Chandar – Practice Yoga, Be Healthy (CC BY 2.0)
Yoga wasn’t created as a practice to improve health. It’s primary focus has always been to develop awareness, not fitness. It was designed as a path to realize the true nature of one’s self; or in other terms, enlightenment.
As a matter of fact, the word yoga means union, which refers to union of body, mind and soul; and of oneself with the origin of creation.
Yoga reduces stress and anxiety
As it turned out though, it has wonderful stress and anxiety reducing effects on mind and body too!
In an interview with Forbes magazine, Paula R. Pullen (PhD, Research Instructor at the Morehouse School of Medicine) describes yoga as follows:
“Yoga balances the body, the hormonal system, and the stress response. People tend to think of yoga as being all about flexibility – it’s not. It’s about rebalancing and healing the body.”
The stress and anxiety reducing benefits of yoga have been shown by numerous scientific studies. For example, yoga:
- reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Consequently, the immune function is boosted.
- boosts levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals are responsible for feelings of relaxation and contentedness, anxiety control and the way the brain processes rewards.
- stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and restores balance after a major stressor is over.
Want a specific example?
In a study conducted by Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and the Yoga Research Society, sixteen healthy subjects who were new to yoga participated in a fifty minute yoga class every day for seven days. Prior to the start of their first class, they were instructed to sit quietly, reading and writing, for fifty minutes. The subjects’ cortisol levels didn’t change appreciably during the sitting period. They showed just the normal decrease that usually takes place in the late morning. But when the researchers measured the cortisol levels before and after the yoga class, they discovered a significant decrease after the class.
The findings of this study suggest that practicing yoga – even for the very first time! – can normalize cortisol levels that are either too high or too low, according to Vijayendra Pratap, Ph.D. (president of the Yoga Research Society in Philadelphia).
In a Yoga Journal article on de-stressing with yoga, Jennifer Johnston (yoga director and research clinician at the Mind Body Medical Institute in Boston) adds to this:
“The deep breathing we do in yoga elicits something called ‘the relaxation response,’ which invokes the restorative functions of the body. Yogic practices also help to reduce muscle tension and deactivate the stress response.”
Take the first step today!
Chronic stress is fueled by mental activity, such as continuously worrying about possible events. Yoga changes the mind patterns, by practicing awareness and detachment. On the mat yoga offers momentarily relief. Ultimately it is transformative because yoga helps you have better reactions off the mat too.
By practicing yoga on the mat, you learn to become aware of what is happening right now, in your body and mind. The present moment holds stillness and joy, regardless of external circumstances. There can be no chronic stress in a person who is constantly present.
Yoga is about awareness. Seen in this way, you can practice yoga everywhere, simply by being present and aware in each and every moment. Whether you are in a meeting or in the grocery store, observe how you feel, what comes up in your mind.
© Franco Folini – Supermarket (CC BY-SA 2.0)
And just observe it. Be with it, but don’t let it take you over. Don’t identify with it.
You don’t have to be a victim of your stress symptoms. Reducing your stress or anxiety is simply a matter of combining small steps. Take one step at a time. When you fall down, get up again. Success consists of getting up one more time than you fall. Just make sure you keep on walking.
And take the first step today!