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Stress Relief through Yoga

I’ve decided to refocus the topics covered on this blog to encompass more health/nutrition/lifestyle aspects, which of course will be just as backed by research as my other posts. Let me know if there’s anything you would like to know more about in future posts!

Yoga is an ancient Indian discipline which encompasses physical postures and exercises to strengthen the body, as well as breathing and meditative practice to train mental attention (Noggle et al., 2012). People practice yoga around the world, and for a variety of reasons – a study into the use of yoga to alleviate symptoms of heart disease reported that about half of American yogis (people who regularly practice yoga) do so to improve their health, with many being prescribed yoga by doctors and therapists (Cramer et al., 2015). Yoga is designed to bring balance to the body and mind (Ross & Thomas, 2010) – and through its practice, numerous health benefits can be gained. This post will look at a handful of these benefits, focusing on the relationship between the body, mind and stress.

Would this post really be about yoga if it didn’t include a cool pose? Credits to my beautiful model Holly for the photo.

Stress and the body

In both healthy and diseased populations, yoga has been found to be as effective or even more effective than rigorous physical exercise at improving certain measures of health (Ross & Thomas, 2010). It can relieve symptoms of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, kidney disease, high blood-pressure and schizophrenia, and even for heart disease (Cramer et al., 2015). This is because the risk of heart disease is heightened in people who suffer from psychosocial stress and depression. In fact, almost 80% of all diseases and illnesses relate to stress in some way (Chong et al., 2011).

This is where yoga comes in. Yoga encompasses eight core principles: these include physical postures and control of the breath, but also meditation, concentration and control of the senses, which can in turn downregulate the systems in the body (namely the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system) which produce the stress hormone, cortisol (Ross & Thomas, 2010). Because the systems which control the mind and the body are linked, yoga is especially useful as it is a holistic approach: incorporating such a “mind-body” exercise allows beneficial physical and mental outcomes to occur simultaneously (Buffart et al., 2012).

Cortisol is especially important when it comes to stress. Known as the body’s “fight-or-flight” hormone, a high concentration of cortisol can lead to a cascade of behavioural and psychological effects in the body. These include changes in blood pressure, sleep pattern, energy levels and inflammation in the body (webmd.com), which over time can disrupt the body’s basic functions. Constant stress can lead to anxiety, headaches, heart disease, memory problems, digestion problems…. The list goes on. But yoga can help mitigate these effects by helping manage such responses to stress, for example by increasing levels of natural killer cells (cells which can destroy cancerous or virus-infected cells without prior exposure to them) and immunoglobin A (antibodies in the immune system) (Ross & Thomas, 2010).

The relationship between yoga and stress levels has been tested in a variety of interesting research, even if the biological mechanisms which dictate a body’s response to stress are not fully understood. For example, a study by West et al. (2004) compared the stress levels of students who undertook either African dance lessons, yoga lessons or neither (a control biology lesson was used instead). According to feedback from students on their perceived stress, both the dancing and the yoga reduced stress levels compared to the students in the biology class. However they found that African dancing increased cortisol when yoga decreased it, showing again the complexity of the relationships between mental wellbeing and the hormones in the body (West et al., 2004). Another study looked at stress levels in dental students in India, prior to their first dental surgery experience (Shankarapillai et al., 2012). Two groups of students were studied: in one group, students were given a lecture on stress reduction. In the second group, the same lecture was given followed by teaching of yogic practices (especially breathing exercises), to be practiced prior to the operation. The results show that the second group managed their stress levels much more effectively, and had lower anxiety, just from practicing simple breathing exercises (Shankarapillai et al., 2012) prior to operating. These two studies are part of a wider range of studies into stress and yoga, which generally show the same thing: yoga is good for reducing anxiety.

Yoga and recovery

Many types of yoga are less intense than aerobic exercise, though can result in increased physical strength, muscle endurance and flexibility (Ross & Thomas, 2010). However, because of the variation in types and intensity of physical yoga practices, such benefits are difficult to predict (Buffart et al., 2012). But in many ways the lower-intensity route offers just as much of a physical and mental boost. This is especially the case for those recovering from an operation or disease. A study into the benefits of yoga in cancer patients found that through practicing yoga, a sample of breast cancer patients and survivors experienced reduced anxiety and depression and increased quality of life (Buffart et al., 2012). When suffering from a serious medical complaint, the symptoms of a disease can prevent or discourage patients from rigorous exercise: these might include physical discomfort, feeling sick and fear of overdoing it as big roadblocks to exercise (Buffart et al., 2012). Yoga circumvents such barriers, by offering a lower-intensity alternative which could still offer physical and mental benefits to patients without being overwhelming or physically unsustainable (Buffart et al., 2012).

Mental health

When it comes to mental health, yoga can be a key method of treatment to support those suffering with depression, anxiety, OCD and schizophrenia (again, because in many cases these are exacerbated by stress) (Ross & Thomas, 2010). Yoga has been found to be as effective as dancing, cognitive behavioural therapy and muscle relaxation in reducing stress (Chong et al., 2011). As well as this, a study into incorporating yoga into the secondary school curriculum found that yoga intervention studies (those where some participants practiced yoga and were compared to those who did not) report improvements in attention deficit disorders in boys, weight loss and reduced anxiety in Hispanic children and a reduced incidence of eating disorders in teenagers (Noggle et al., 2012). Through trailing yoga in a school in Germany, students also experienced a decrease in aggression, helplessness, physical complaints and anxiety (Noggle et al., 2012). Good news!

Summary

A common theme in all the above research is that stress is a major influence on the physical body, as well as mental health. Because yoga tackles this factor, it has the potential to allow yogis to experience greater control on their health and pay attention to what can be done to reduce stress. Not only can yoga be done just about anywhere, with minimal if any equipment, there is also evidence that it is the quality of the practice rather than the quantity which most determines health outcomes (Noggle et al., 2012). This means that a short session on the mat of deep concentration can be just as, if not more, beneficial as a 2-hour high-intensity yogic workout. The exact pathways by which stress, cortisol and negative health impacts is not yet fully understood – but with a large pool of experimental evidence behind it, why not give it a try and see what happens.

References

Buffart, L.M., van Uffelen, J.G., Riphagen, I.I., Brug, J., van Mechelen, W., Brown, W.J. & Chinapaw, M.J. (2012) Physical and psychosocial benefits of yoga in cancer patients and survivors, a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC cancer, 12(1), p.559

Chong, C.S., Tsunaka, M. & Chan, E.P. (2011) Effects of yoga on stress management in healthy adults: a systematic review. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 17(1), p.32

Cramer, H., Lauche, R., Haller, H., Dobos, G. & Michalsen, A. (2015) A systematic review of yoga for heart disease. European journal of preventive cardiology, 22(3), pp.284-295

Noggle, J.J., Steiner, N.J., Minami, T. & Khalsa, S.B.S. (2012) Benefits of yoga for psychosocial well-being in a US high school curriculum: a preliminary randomized controlled trial. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 33(3), pp.193-201

Ross, A. & Thomas, S. (2010) The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine16(1), pp.3-12

Shankarapillai, R., Nair, M.A. & George, R. (2012) The effect of yoga in stress reduction for dental students performing their first periodontal surgery: A randomized controlled study. International journal of yoga, 5(1), p.48

WebMD (n.d.) What is cortisol? [online] Available at: https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol#1 (Accessed: 07/05/2020)

West, J., Otte, C., Geher, K., Johnson, J. & Mohr, D.C. (2004) Effects of Hatha yoga and African dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 28(2), pp.114-118

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Published by avleveri

Hi! I'm Anna, an environmental science graduate from the UK. My main interests (if you can't already tell from my blog posts) are sustainability, consumption, conservation, nutrition, fitness and food! Lots of food.

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