We often hear – “yoga is good for you,” or “you should try yoga to reduce stress.” And, while many of us have experienced the profound benefits of a yoga class after a long, frazzling day; many more are tempted by the concept but not quite ready to make the plunge. Part of this reticence is because new experiences are simply intimidating and part of this is because we simply don’t buy into the “yoga-cures-all” approach. So, to the latter point, this post certainly does not argue that yoga cures all, but it does make the case for the data backing yoga’s ability to beat back anxiety.
So….. why is it that yoga is “good” for many of us?
Interestingly, yoga and meditative practices have been in the spotlight of therapeutic neurological research for years – and the outcomes are pretty fascinating.
For starters, most of us are aware that we ‘westerners,’ are really good at maintaining nutty, round-the-clock schedules (author included). And while some of us prefer busier schedules, the flip side is that our relatively faster paced life styles (i.e., gigantic “to-do” lists, scheduling every hour of the day, etc) impact our endocrinological/neurological functioning quite significantly.
In other words, the revered “type A” lifestyle that many of us subscribe to sends our body internal cues that maintain on-going arousal of the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” nervous system. This results in a sustained state of something many of us are quite familiar with – stress. As Americans we’re kinda hooked on it. The American Psychological Association reports that the majority of Americans experience some degree of stress-induced symptoms over a given month.
The more taxed we are (with high cortisol levels and hyper-aroused nervous systems), the trickier it can be to regulate our moods, reactivity levels, or other aspects of our wellbeing. These impacts can range from increased blood pressure, to lessened ability to regulate emotional responses (particularly with loved ones), to increased levels of anxiety and/or depression (as well as other symptoms/risk factors). To counter balance the impacts of chronic stress, we may need some physiological checks and balances.
To accomplish this, we may need to move away from maintaining a constantly triggered amygdala (which in turn triggers the hypothalamus and activates our “fight or flight” stress system) — toward putting the cognitive “brakes on.” To do this, we have to calm ourselves – physiologically – to engage higher operating parts of our brains (such as the pre-frontal cortex) and recruit the parasympathetic nervous to kick in. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system (and engaging parts of our brain in different ways) help us regulate reactivity and affect – thus “slowing” down the stress-response cycles.
But in real life, how do we do this? Well, in a perfect world, we’d benefit from having stress resilient lifestyles – i.e, healthy interpersonal relationships, balanced diets, enough sleep each night, supportive work environments, a weekly exercise routine, lots of laughter, overall work/life balance, etc. That said, lets take a moment to acknowledge that most of us, at any given moment, are likely lacking in one or more of these areas, and may need other “tools” to help engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This is where yoga/mediation come into play.
An increasing body of research is pointing to the notion that yoga and meditation can shift the neurological pathways in adults’ brains – particularly when practiced regularly. One caveat here, is that most the research is being done on slower, more mindful forms of asana and breathwork (as opposed to “work-out” yoga, which certainly have benefits, but may not have the same calming physiological impacts).
For example, yoga therapy researchers note that, “anxiety and depression may be linked to lowered levels of neurochemicals in the brain, including dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA),” and that yoga can help shift those imbalances. In one pilot study, results indicated that a simple 60-minute (hatha) yoga session demonstrate, “promise in improving symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, and epilepsy. These disorders are associated with low GABA and are effectively treated with pharmacologic agents that increase the activity of the GABA system.”
In other words, the outcomes from yoga, while clearly not exact replications of the pharmaceutical interventions, did have positive outcomes along similar lines. For many people managing moderate levels of stress/anxiety – yoga and meditation may provide as a powerful tool. (That said, if you suspect your stress/anxiety/depression is acute, speak with your doctor or therapist about options suitable for you.)
In addition to the above findings, a group of psychiatry researchers found that participation in a mindfulness-based stress reduction course resulted in changes in the brains in areas that govern learning, memory, emotional regulation and perspective taking.
So, if you’re wanting to give it a whirl, I recommend starting with a slower hatha or vinyasa based yoga class. If you’re a newbie, just be sure to flag that to the instructor (and most yoga teachers are quite welcoming of new folks). In terms of local studios I recommend checking out: Infinite Bliss, Eternal Health Yoga, and Yoga East. This is list is not exhaustive, there are a LOT of excellent studios in town, so try a few out and decide on one that clicks with you.