Yoga for Managing Stress and Preventing Chronic Illness
According to a study conducted by Medibank, Australians are feeling more stressed than ever. In 2007-2008, 3.7 million Australians stated their health was being impacted by stress; and in less than 10 years, this number spiked to 4.9 million in 2016-2017. This is a staggering figure, particularly when you consider the impact of stress leading to chronic illness.
Out of “Fight or Flight”
Most of us are aware of the body’s “fight or flight” response. It’s a state in which our body’s nervous system reacts to stress or danger, and is also known as the “sympathetic nervous system”. Our prehistoric ancestors’ “fight or flight” responses would have kicked in quite often, when running away from lions, tigers and bears, as the body needed to make physiological changes so as to prepare their bodies for action.
Your body’s stress responses include:
- Heart rate increases
- Body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormone)
- Pupils dilate
- Muscles tense up
- Energy is redistributed to essential functions like the legs for running
Into “Rest & Digest”
So when our bodies are in “rest and digest” or the “parasympathetic nervous system”, it basically has the opposite effect. Our bodies are in a state of homeostasis- we are calm, our body’s functions are in balance and tissues can repair themselves.
Your body functions better when you are free from agitation:
- Heart rate slows
- Body is able to eliminate toxins
- Pupils constrict
- Muscles relax
- Digestive enzymes are released and the stomach is functioning optimally
Even though modern life presents little or no need to run away from life or death situations, the “fight or flight” response still gets triggered in times of stress and over-stimulation. This puts an incredible amount of strain on our adrenals and causes spikes in cortisol, the main culprit of the dreaded muffin top. Eating whilst stressed or distracted (like eating in front on the TV), contributes to weight gain, because our digestion is compromised when in “fight or flight” mode.
Not All Yoga is Created Equal
All forms of yoga can be beneficial to our mind and bodies, however intense forms of vinyasa or heated yoga can actually add to existing physiological and psychological stress. The Chinese concept of Yin-Yang, beautifully captures how everything in life is about balance. When we are stressed, we have an influx of fiery yang energy, which means any active and dynamic practice will only add to the yang, tipping us out of balance.
In times of stress, our bodies need more cooling yin energy and to be nourished with passive practices like yin and restorative yoga.
How Yin and Restorative Yoga Can Help
In addition to the benefits outlined in my previous post, yin and restorative yoga practices are also great for cultivating awareness. It is through this awareness that we shape a path towards mindfulness.
In a study conducted in 2013, by the University of California, they found that restorative yoga can actually help people to lose subcutaneous fat! Sounds counter-intuitive, right?
Whilst restorative yoga is by no means a replacement for aerobic exercise, the research indicates that the likely reason restorative yoga is so useful for weight loss is because it decreases the stress hormone- cortisol. If you struggle with weight loss (especially belly fat), despite eating well and exercising regularly, then there is a high likelihood that your cortisol levels are out of whack.
One of the simplest ways for us to combat stress is to slow down. It may be a simple concept but it is by no means easier to do. As with everything else in life, progress comes with practise. The more you are able to connect with the feelings of comfort and ease on the mat, the more likely you will be able to tap into this energy in all other parts of your life.
Make a commitment to yourself today and learn ways for you to decrease the stress in your life. You can start right now by closing your eyes and only focus on taking deep healing breaths.
Om shanti preach.