Psychological benefits of yoga - How yoga relieves stress and anxiety
Are you regularly feeling tired, hypoactive and experiencing depression or anxiety? You might be producing too much cortisol.
Those who practice this ancient science knows that, along with the psychological benefits of yoga, it enhances the overall well-being and quality of life. This article is meant to share scientific researches, personal experiences and studies about the role of stress in modern society and how yoga can help to deal with it. Sometimes I think that without yoga in my daily life I couldn’t cope with all the challenging life situation – pandemic is one of it. My mind would be too occupied to worry about the uncertain situation or undergo work-related stress. And that is what happens when we are stressed! Our mind is full of thoughts, often negative, and can’t deal with stressful situations with clarity and focus. Why do we stress too much about things, situations, events? Where is this stress comes from? Stress is not a bad thing as the stress response help us act quick, stay alert, motivated and concentrated on the life-work tasks to handle. Then, when the pressure falls, the body rebalances and we start to feel calm again. But when we experience stress too often and negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise. What is very concerning is the rising of people, including, kids and teenagers, suffering from stress and anxiety. The modern world is high demanding! We are constantly under pressure and words such as “overstressed’, “burnout”, even “21st-century stress syndrome” have become normal in our daily life. Yoga teaches to honour and nurture our body and mind, as our sacred temple, but we lost connection with ourselves. Modern culture led us to believe that taking care of ourself it’s a loss of efficiency, so we ignore the signals our bodies send us.
What is stress?
In this era, where social media and unhealthy competition are gaining more and more power, our brains are in constant overstimulation, always alert and ready to react and respond. Feelings of stress are normally triggered by things happening in our life which involve:
- times of uncertainty
- being under lots of pressure
- facing big/unwanted changes
- worrying situations
- not having much or any control over the outcome of a situation
- having too many responsibilities, sometimes overwhelming
- not having a job or social activities or change in life
Every day we read news and headlines are alarming and violent. Social media walls have plenty of hate communications posts, about politics, covid, masks, vaccines, natural disasters, etc. but this situation can trigger a fight-and-fight response of the nervous system too often. This mechanism is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening – imagine you need the energy and responsiveness to run away from a tiger which wants to attack you. The perception of danger activates the sympathetic nervous system and also a severe stress response that prepares the body to fight or flight. This reaction is useful only when we are in real danger situations but, if the brain lives a permanent state of “danger”, therefore activating the fight-flight response too intensely, it might be the cause of a range of psychological disorders, such as anxiety, body aches, chronic fatigue and moodiness. And, long to go, it can cause even depression.
Stress and cortisol. What does cause stress?
So, stress is a natural body’s reaction to threatening, challenging or demanding situations, which can be positive, such as when it helps us bypass danger or meet a deadline. The organs responsible to regulate the energy in the body are the adrenal glands. These two small glands above the kidneys, release the “energizing” hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, in the body when needed. Cortisol is the main stress-related hormone and, normally, it’s at its maximum production at about 5 am, falling during the day, and getting to a minimum at bed-time so that we can sleep and rest. When the brain senses an imminent danger, cortisol’s level – and adrenaline – is very high. This triggers a fast chemical’s cascade along the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (the part of the brain involved to communicate with the nervous system) which sends an “alarm” signal to the sympathetic nervous system, activating the fight-or-flight response. Adrenal glands overworking and health problems When the level of cortisol is high for a long time, we experience chronic stress, because our body stays alert, even though there is no threat. And, over time, this unnatural condition, puts us at risk for health problems, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Depression or anxiety
- Skin problems, such as acne or eczema
- Menstrual problems
Psychological benefits of yoga Yoga is recognized as a holistic science, such as Ayurveda and the psychological benefits of yoga have been confirmed by worldwide researchers. It integrates an individual’s physical, mental and spiritual components to enhance, promote and heal aspects of health, particularly stress-related illnesses. Many scientific kinds of research have been done to confirm the physical and psychological benefits of yoga. Results from these studies show that constant yoga practice:
- enhances muscular strength
- increases body flexibility
- improves respiratory and cardiovascular functions
- promotes recovery from addiction
- reduces chronic pain
Last, but not least, yoga relieves from stress, anxiety and depression.
Because it lowers the cortisol levels, regulates the breath and decreases heart rate, the practice of yoga shifts the balance from the sympathetic nervous system, and the flight-or-fight response, to the parasympathetic system, and the relaxation response.
Yoga according to yogic philosophy
In the Western world, the psychological benefits of yoga are still fewer known that the physical ones, because yoga is associated with weird body contortions and physical activity, which is still good, but the major focus of yoga is the modification of self-awareness and relationship to the world. Yoga is a therapeutic system which helps developing awareness and control of the physical body, but also emotions, mind and interpersonal relations. For this reason, yoga relieves stress and anxiety but also strengthen the whole body.
Yoga relieves stress and anxiety because it stops the fluctuation of the mind developing mental clarity and the psychological benefits of yoga are well known for thousands of years. Yoga philosophy and yoga practices were first described by the sage Patanjali in its classic text, Yoga Sutras, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most authoritative texts on yoga.
In the sutras, Patanjali outlines an eightfold path system to awareness and enlightenment called ashtanga – eight limbs.
The eight limbs are composed of ethical and moral principles for living a purposeful and meaningful life; serving as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline. Only following these guidelines, one will be free from suffering and live a happy life.
Yoga relieves stress and anxiety
By now we all know why yoga relieves stress and anxiety, let’s see which practice we can introduce into our daily life to overcome and enjoy the physical and psychological benefits of yoga.
German researches have shown that a group of women who described themselves as “emotionally stressed” practice yoga for 90 minutes 2 times a week, and after 3 months, they reported an impressively improvements in perceived depression, anxiety and stress. Their level of energy was much higher and fatigue just fell; depression improved by 50% and anxiety by 30%.
Which yoga is good to relieve stress
It’s important to start the practice of yoga in a gentle manner, if you feel stressed and anxious, better not to practice a vigorous ashtanga vinyasa class, as it might not be the right moment. To experience the psychological benefits of yoga during stressful times, better to start with a gentle practice, like Hatha Yoga or Iyengar yoga and use props to support your practice and help your body to adapt to the posture.
This ancient practice is a deep relaxation technique to:
- increase memory and learning skills
- help release suppressed emotions or negative thoughts
- help against psychosomatic disorders
- relieve mental stress, such as depression, sleeping issues, anxiety.
Furthermore, the practice of yoga Nidra deepens 6th sense, expands the mind, and magnifies consciousness. (try the practice for free here)
Ayurveda tips to fight anxiety and stress
The psychological benefits of yoga can get a boost from its sister’s science, Ayurveda, which comes to help, as well, to mitigate stress.
Ayurveda assumes that a high cortisol production and the irregularity in the adrenal glands it’s the manifestation of Vata imbalance. Vata, Kapha and Pitta are the three doshas, the qualities which are present in anything in nature.
Here few tips to increase the psychological benefits of yoga with Ayurveda:
- Eat seasonal and fresh-made food: they boost immune defence and enrich intestinal flora which is usually low during stressful times.
- Practice yoga asana: especially the forward bending positions, yoga relieves stress and anxiety because sends the Apana Vata (the energy) downwards
- Meditate: a regular meditation practice creates a Sattvic (blissed) state of mind because it is focused on something and can’t fluctuate.
- Massage: according to Ayurveda, a morning routine starts with abhyanga, a massage with warm sesame oil. Massaging the skin has incredible benefits; we have at least 1000 neurones per square centimetre and massaging the skin aims to calm down millions of neurones! Plus, it increases the oxytocin level, keeping skin microbiome healthy and protected, which helps to boost the immune system.
- Take Ashwaganda and Tulsi: the first one is often known as Indian Ginger and it helps to regulate the immune system and alleviate anxiety. Tulsi, the Holy Basil, is known as the anti-age elixir. Along with anti-ageing properties, it regulates blood sugar levels, blood pressure and hormones.
The psychological benefits of yoga are incredible; I experience them in my life! When I feel down and need a boost I know that yoga relieves stress and anxiety so I practice a few rounds of Surya Namaskar or, if I prefer a more gentle practice, Viparita Karani (legs up the wall), Uttanasana (forward bend), Supta Baddha Konasana (reclined bound angle), Balasana (Child pose) and Savasana (corpse pose).
To conclude, stress will be part of our lives forever, but let’s try to use it only when needed. Don’t stay too much into this dark state of mind; you’ll miss the beautiful things happening outside your mind. Whenever you feel anxious or sad, you can always roll out your mat and experience on yourself how yoga relieves stress and anxiety.
ps please, if you realise that you can’t handle the situation alone, reach out to friend or family, or to one of the many great mental health professionals ready to give you support.
Watch below a gentle practice to calm down the mind or join my FREE yoga course for stress and anxiety relief