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Yoga Therapy: How does yoga reduce stress? 4 reasons why you should practice yoga

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How does yoga reduce stress and help with psychological disorders?

Being a lifelong yoga student with a strong interest in its scientific and holistic aspects, I try to understand why and how yoga reduces stress. How does it help to deal with many mental illnesses?

Lately, due to the increase of stress-related diseases, I am studying more about stress management, and the question comes to my mind: what is the role of yoga and how does yoga reduce stress?
How is it possible? Which are the mechanisms behind it?

Unfortunately, stress is the risk factor for several mental health issues and psychological disorders.


Many psychological disorders – unipolar, bipolar, mood disorders, depressive disorders, anxiety or anxiety-related disorders, obsessive, sleeping, eating, personality disorders – have stress as a common risk factor.

Why and how does yoga reduce stress and help against mental disorders?

meditation

Yoga practices reduce stress effectively alleviating, and reducing all mental and psychological problems.

When it comes to how yoga reduces stress, there are some pieces of evidence in scientific researches.
Two approaches explain how yoga reduces stress and help with mental health.
One is called the Neurocognitive approach (top-down): means that yoga practices increase emotional regulation and help control emotions.


When we practice asana, simply focusing on the breath allows us to control our emotions. With this control, the brain and nervous system activities are positively affected.


When you are angry, for example, try to practice pranayama to notice a sudden change!
The moment you focus on the breath, the nervous system and brain start relaxing.

Thanks to this relaxation, the different body parts, such as the heart, lungs relax, and their functions improve. The digestive system function improves, the blood pressure and sugar level decrease.


So, the neurocognitive approach begins with emotional regulation and influences the brain and nervous system.


The second approach is called the Neurophysiological approach (Bottom Up). Yoga practices increase vagal nerve tone, which is a parasympathetic nerve, and that means reduced stress.

They deactivate the sympathetic nervous system activity, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which releases cortisol (stress hormone), and increase activities of the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning more relaxation.


Yoga practices work at the neurocognitive and neurophysiological levels influencing either body and mind.

This two ways approach makes yoga highly effective in reducing stress

How yoga reduces stress: Asana

There are specific yoga components and mechanisms that help to understand how yoga reduces stress.


First of all, and most known, are Asanas.
When we are stressed, muscle tone and the whole body parts lose balance and harmony.

Subsequently, also the body systems are unbalanced.


Often, because of anxiety, this state of mind affects the digestive system and breathing pattern, and the body system loses balance.


When we are stressed, many muscles contract, and with the asana practice, these muscles are stretched, twisted, relaxed, allowing the normal muscle tone to be restored.

Asanas affect breathing patterns, too.

When we are stressed, the breath is shallow, and we use more chest breathing, rather than abdominal breathing or deep breathing, creating even more tension.

A daily asana practise restores normal breathing and allow diaphragmatic breathing, which helps to destress.

An important component to understand how yoga reduces stress is that Asana practice involves body awareness, controlled movement and breath awareness.

These three systems allow regulation of the brain and nervous system that help to relax because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation activity).

When our brain stay focused on a specific part of the body or breathing, it doesn’t have time to think, reducing thoughts and emotions that might disturb our minds.


When asanas are held for a longer time (static asana), there is tension in some body parts, especially muscles and joints, which allows to train and control the nervous system improving reflexes, neuromuscular coordination, balance and concentration.

Finally, yoga poses have a strong influence on the body, mind and chemicals in the brain.
Studies showed that yoga asana practice helps the secretion of happiness hormones, such as dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin. Low levels of these chemicals lead to a depressive state of mind.

Also, endorphins – acting as natural painkillers and influencing wellbeing – and GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) – an important neurotransmitter that has anti-seizure and anti-anxiety effects – are released after yoga asana practice.

How yoga reduces stress: Pranayama

Yoga Therapy: How does yoga reduce stress? 4 reasons why you should practice yoga 2
Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

Another component to understanding how does yoga reduces stress is through the practice of pranayama.

Pranayama expands lungs capacity and helps us to breathe more through the abdomen.
Generally, we only use 10% of our lungs capacity. When we are stressed this percentage goes further down and we breathe even faster!

Unhealthy breathing habits developed because anxiety, anger and stress are controlled and changed thanks to regular pranayama practice.
Through the practice of pranayama, every breath is more efficient.

With the practice of pranayama, we observe the breathing with awareness, this training allows the brain to stay focused and get rid of thoughts and negative emotions because it is focused on breathing and can’t think too much.

There are different breathing techniques mentioned in ancient yogic texts – anulom vilom, sheetali, bhramari, etc – these powerful breathing techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation) by stimulating the vagus nerve and deactivating the sympathetic nervous system (stress and anxiety).

Plus, pranayama, like asana practice, stimulates secretion and release of endorphins, which promote a positive state of being.

Another important role in how yoga reduces stress is played by relaxation and meditation.
During stressful times, it’s very important to learn how to relax the body and mind.

Just lying down on the floor, in a position called Savasana (corpse pose), and taking a few deep breaths, stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the relaxation response of the body, deactivating the stress reaction of the nervous system.

When we relax in savasana, or we practice Yoga Nidra, we consciously relax each muscle of the body, from toes to crown of the head, focusing on the breath.

This implies direct stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing immediate calmness to the body and mind.

If you release tensed muscle, you release stress, either from the body and the mind. So the mind can be focused, relaxed and the body systems function properly.

Meditation is the process of calming the mind by focusing on one point, to a non-reactive aspect of the mind.

During the practice of meditation, there are changes in neural activities in different parts of the brain and central nervous system. Changes have been at the neuroplastic level, especially to the area of the brain related to attention and emotional regulation.

When focusing on a specific point, the limbic area of the brain is positively affected. These effects bring regulation of our emotions and attention.
For this reason, meditation has been recommended to improve focus, memory, enhance self-control, and calm down the mind.

om chanting
Om Chanting

A mantra is a powerful form of meditation to calm the mind, increase willpower and control the thinking process.
Many types of researches conducted by scientists demonstrated the benefit of this meditation.

Twenty minutes of Omkar chanting have positive effects on the limbic system of the brain. This area supports a variety of functions, including emotion, behaviour, long-term memory, and olfaction.

The OM chanting meditation deactivates the amygdala (responsible for regulation emotions), hippocampus (connected with anxiety and depression), and anterior cingulate cortex (connected with impulse control, empathy and emotions).

Chanting OM gives better impulse control and allows the mind to experience positive emotions.

Furthermore, other studies demonstrated that OM mantra chanting increases Theta waves in the brain. This rhythm indicates a strong state of relaxation, and it is important in memory, learning, and the intuition process.

Yoga works through body and mind. It has a positive effect on our brain and, if the brain is at peace, relaxed and focused, there is no chance that mental issues will arise.

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