You may have noticed a feeling of calm after a yoga class. Even though you came to the studio with the world’s weight on your shoulders, leaving the class it is almost as if you are another person. Yoga can be so calming and can help us deal with the stress of our everyday lives.
According to The Global Organisation for Stress: a) stress levels in the workplace worldwide appear to be rising with 6 in 10 workers in major global economies experiencing increased workplace stress, b) in the United States 75% of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.
The severity of the influence of stress can be seen by the fact that according to WebMD it is estimated that between 75% and 90% of visits to the doctor are for stress-related ailments and complaints (e.g. cardiovascular disease, mental health, chronic pain, and sleep disorders).
More and more studies are showing how yoga can help us deal with our stress:
- Could help improve breathing
- Yoga can positively affect the immune system
- Could promote sleep quality
- May fight depression
- Can decrease stress
- Relieves anxiety
- May reduce inflammation
- Improves quality of life
- Could reduce chronic pain
- Promotes healthy eating habits
- Develop a connection between mind and body
- Relax the mind
Lets now have a look at why yoga is so calming and how it can help with stress.
Could help improve breathing
Studies have shown that controlled or conscious breathing is a valuable tool for dealing with stress and anxiety and generally can help us cope with our ever-demanding lives.
How you breathe can affect how you feel. Focusing on the breath can help quiet your mind.
Have you ever noticed how you breathe when you feel stressed? The next time you feel you are under stress, take a moment to notice how you are breathing. You may notice that when in a stressful situation we have a tendency to take fast and superficial breaths. Breathing in this rapid and shallow manner stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the fight-or-flight response. As a result, the heart rate increases, and stress hormones are released.
From this, you may have noticed that breath can have a direct physiological effect on the body. In many modern yoga practices, the breath is linked to movement as you flow from one posture to the next. In this way, it is encouraging slow and rhythmic breathing, which in turn activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a more balanced, relaxed state. Your heart rate slows, and hormones that promote feelings of calm and social bonding increase.
Yoga can positively affect the immune system
An ever-growing number of studies are pointing to the beneficial effects yoga can have in treating a variety of heal problems, such as back pain, cardiovascular disorders, and even psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
One fairly recent study examined the effects yoga can have on our immune system and the release of stress hormones.
The authors of the study argued that:
Oxidative stress is one of most serious concerns in the world, and it can directly or indirectly affect various spectrums of the pathophysiologic conditions in a human body, such as DNA damage and cancer.
Therefore, it is important to reduce oxidative stress; this is also the main target in treating oxidative stress–related diseases.
Among the various ways to achieve this, yoga is one of most
popular physical activities in the world.
In order to examine how yoga can affect the immune system, 25 participants were recruited for the study and split into two groups:
- Group A was the control group and they did not practice any yoga
- Group B practiced yoga for 90 minutes once a week for 12 weeks. They were also given a DVD of yoga and encouraged to practice every day. The yoga they practiced involved postures, controlled breathing, and meditation.
At the end of the 12 week period, the study found that regular yoga practice had indeed reduced oxidative stress for the participants in Group B. Additionally, yoga was found to beneficially affect stress hormone releases as well as partially improve immune function.
Could promote sleep quality
There are a variety of yoga types depending on one’s needs and tastes. When looking for a practice that may help improve sleep, then a restorative yoga class may help as it focuses on full relaxation. Or even, a combination of a gentle Hatha class with some Restorative yoga poses may be an effective approach for improving one’s sleep, as it brings together a holistic sequence of physical, meditative, and breathing exercises.
Looking into the research, there have been several studies that have found yoga to help promote sleep quality. One study examined participants with insomnia. Twenty participants took part in the study and they carried out a daily yoga home practice for 10 weeks. The results of this study found that the yoga treatment was able to generate statistically significant improvements in most of the important subjective sleep measures.
In one other study examining the effects of yoga on cancer patients’ sleep, yoga was found to improve sleep quality and duration.
May fight depression
Stress and depression are amongst the most common reasons people try out yoga. A growing number of studies are examining the effect yoga can have on depressive disorders.
One study examined the effect of yoga on patients with mild depression. Twenty-eight volunteers were assigned to two groups:
- Group A was the control group and they did not practice any yoga
- Group B practiced specific yoga asanas and sequences of asanas, considered by B.K.S. Iyengar to be particularly effective for alleviating depression. These asanas involved opening and lifting of the chest, inversions and vigorous standing poses.
The yoga group practiced yoga twice a week for 5 weeks, while the control group received no intervention. The results form this study showed a significant reduction in depression levels. Interestingly, the positive effects yoga had on their depression were emerged by the middle of the course and remained at the end of the study.
One further study examined the effectiveness of a single pose on severe depression. The chosen pose was Shavasana (corpse pose). Fifty volunteers were split into two groups:
- Group A was the control group and they did not practice
- Group B practiced practised Shavasana for 30 minutes daily for 30 days.
Interestingly, there was a significant reduction in depression for the yoga group both halfway through the experiment and after. There was no change for the control group.
Can decrease stress
According to Carolyn Aldwin, the author of a much cited publication on stress:
Stress refers to the quality of experience, produced through a person-environment transaction that, through either overarousal or underarousal, results in psychological or physiological distress
Research on how yoga can help us deal with stress have found that yoga has been found to increase:
One study carried out examined peoples’ moods and stress levels on an inpatient psychiatric unit after a single yoga class. Even after just a single yoga class, the study found that after yoga the participants’ levels of fatigue, anger, hostility, depression, and anxiety dropped significantly. Additionally, they found that patients who continued to participate in yoga experienced continued to benefit from the practice.
As a yoga teacher, I enjoy observing my students. Not only during the class but also before and after. Upon entering the yoga space, it sometimes appears to me as though they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. And yet after the class, in most cases, they appear (to me at least) taller, lighter in energy and more likely to smile.
Questions remain about exactly how yoga works to improve mood, but preliminary evidence suggests its benefit is similar to that of exercise and relaxation techniques. In one study, 24 women who described themselves as emotionally distressed took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Women in a control group maintained their normal activities and were asked not to begin an exercise or stress-reduction program during the study period.
At the end of three months, the women in the yoga group reported improvements in perceived stress, depression, anxiety, energy, fatigue, and well-being. Depression scores decreased by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being scores increased by 65%. Initial complaints of headaches, back pain, and poor sleep quality also resolved much more often in the yoga group than in the control group.
Further controlled trials of yoga practice have demonstrated improvements in mood and quality of life for the elderly, people caring for patients with dementia, breast cancer survivors, and patients with epilepsy.
May reduce inflammation
Chronic inflammation has been linked to most of the lifestyle-related diseases encompassing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and cancer. These, in turn, have also all been linked to stress.
Given the body of research finding that yoga can help reduce stress, yoga research has now also moved to explore whether yoga can help reduce inflammation in the body.
One study examined the effect a yoga lifestyle can have on stress and inflammation. Eighty-six participants took part in the study. All had chronic diseases (such as diabetes, hypertension, mental stress, musculoskeletal pain, and constipation) and were overweight/obese. The study took part over the course of 10 days.
The study involved theory and practice sessions for 2 hours every day. Each day, for 1-hour, simple postures were performed followed by breathing exercises. The next hour involved a lecture on stress management, nutrition, an explanation of the specific diseases, a discussion that helped the understand the importance of a healthy lifestyle.
The results of this study found that the yoga-based lifestyle that was promoted in this study did indeed help reduce the markers of stress and inflammation, even after just 10 days!
Improves quality of life
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, quality of life can be defined as:
The degree to which an individual is healthy, comfortable, and able to participate in or enjoy life events.
And so we come back to chronic lower back pain. The reduction in quality of life for this group of people could be attributed to sleep disturbances, fatigue, functional disability, and stress.
One study went on to examine the effect of a short term intensive yoga program on quality of life for people with chronic lower back pain.
Eighty volunteers were assigned to two groups:
- Group A was the control group and they practiced physical therapy exercises for back pain
- Group B practiced physical postures, breathing practices, meditation, and lectures on yoga philosophy.
The results of this study showed that yoga was found to increase the quality of life and spinal flexibility better than physical therapy exercises.
Could reduce chronic pain
Chronic back pain is one of the leading causes of disability among working-age adults around the world.
More and more patients with chronic back pain use complementary
therapies such as massage, reflexology, acupuncture, and yoga. One of the advantages of yoga is that it combines controlled physical movement, stretching, and relaxed breathing.
A growing number of research is focusing on how effective yoga is when dealing with lower back chronic pain and are finding that is can help increase:
- Muscular strength
- Joint flexibility
One study explored patients’ perceptions of their pain while participating in a weekly yoga program. Seven participants took part in the study which involved 8 weekly group classes and home practice. The yoga classes involved opening and closing breathing exercises, five to twelve postures, and a guided deep relaxation exercise.
The study found that:
Participants’ data suggested that they reframed what it meant to live with chronic pain. Some participants reported that the sensory aspects of pain did not change but that pain became less bothersome. They were better able to control the degree to which pain interfered with their daily life. Other participants reported less frequent or less intense pain episodes because they could recognize body signals and adjust themselves to alleviate painful sensations. The findings suggest that patients who benefit from yoga may do so in part because yoga enables changes in cognitions and behaviours towards pain.
Promotes healthy eating habits
The benefits of yoga have been found to extent even to our eating habits.
Indeed, one study aimed to examine the relationship between yoga, healthy eating behaviors, and physical activity among young adults.
An incredible 2770 volunteers took part in this study. The researchers used a questionnaire to ask participants about a range of weight-related lifestyle behaviors, sociodemographic characteristics as well as detailed questions on their yoga practice.
Regarding nutrition, participants were asked about the frequency of consumption of the following food groups:
- Fruit and Vegetables
- Sugar-sweetened beverages
- Minimally nutritious snack foods
- Fast food frequency
The researchers found that:
“adults who practiced yoga had higher quality diets and greater moderate-to-vigorous physical activity levels than non-practitioners. These findings were further corroborated in qualitative interviews where young adults who practiced yoga described a positive impact on their dietary intake through increased motivation to eat healthy foods after class, being more mindful of what their bodies needed, better management of emotional eating, craving healthier foods, and the social influence of their yoga community.”
Develop a connection between mind and body
Let your breath guide you.
This is one cue I often give in my yoga classes. Especially in a physically demanding class like Ashtanga yoga, we want our physical movements to follow the tempo of our breath. I sometimes say to my students to notice the breath when they are doing something physically difficult, as our breath can help us notice if we are struggling.
Calm the breath and continue.
The mindfulness does help us connect the body and mind as it is a constant feedback loop and more often than not, our breath is what sends the signals.
Relax the mind
Relaxing the mind is easier said than done. Ask someone to sit down, do nothing, clear their mind, and try to be present. Such a challenging task! Thoughts suddenly appearing right, left, and center!
And this is where the beauty of a yoga practice comes in. I will now narrow this discussion down to an Ashtanga practice.
In Ashtanga yoga, we are asked to flow through a series of poses, all in sync with our breath. This helps us find a beat, or a tempo to guide our movements. We are also asked to keep our gaze steady on a specific gazing point. This is said to help us focus and keep our constant thoughts from appearing throughout the practice.
Each pose is counted to the count of 5 and in this time we give our body time to strengthen and lengthen, always with the gazing point steady and the breath maintaining that steady and controlled tempo.
I remember when I first started practicing Ashtanga I quickly started to notice that once the class started, I didn’t have any thoughts jumping around my head. I decided to test this and at some point in the class, I tried to remember what I wanted to buy from the supermarket.
And surely enough, by entering this new thought, I lost where I was in the practice and so had to pause and see what the teacher had just guided us up to. And from this simple experiment, even 10 years later, I have found my Ashtanga practice to help relax my mind and give it a break from the constant swirl of thought jumping around in my mind all day.
Yoga for stress course
If you are looking for a more substantial course, then you may be interested in investing in a paid course that will guide you along your journey. MindBodyGreen offers a series of courses worth checking out, and here are 3 you may find interesting:
- How To Control Anxiety
- The Ultimate Stress Management Guide
- Managing Depression