If you were asked right now to quickly picture someone who practices yoga, chances are you might envision a very “granola” person, the suburban soccer mom or a preppy Lululemon type of 20-something woman. While these types of stereotypes persist, the reality is more and more people have begun practicing yoga for its physical and mental health benefits.
Increasing numbers of peer-reviewed studies have found that regular yoga practice can be an effective intervention for affective disorders such as major depressive disorder, PTSD and various anxiety disorders in addition to physical ailments such as chronic pain. This is great news considering the stark rise in stress and stress-related illnesses in the United States and around the world.
Yoga may have these effects by increasing the activity of the branch of the nervous system responsible for calming us down, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the opposite of our “fight or flight” response, and not only helps us calm down mentally, but also mitigates some of the negative physiological effects that stress can have on the body. Stress is not just a mental feeling, but rather an entire cascade of events that occurs inside our bodies. Small and infrequent bouts of stress are helpful and are part of the process of learning and growth, but sustained or repeated stress, referred to as chronic stress, takes extreme mental and physical tolls.
Activation of the stress response system, or “fight or flight response,” essentially leads to the release of cortisol, which has lots of different effects on various tissues and organs of the body – including the brain. Chronic stress takes a toll on our mental health by making it easier to activate our stress response system, and shifts our thought patterns from the more logic-based processes to more “stimulus response” reactions — essentially knee-jerk reactions rather than thinking things through carefully. Additionally, chronic stress has been shown to cause immune system suppression, increases in cellular damage and increases in inflammation and reactive oxygen species, which often manifest as physical pain.
Having a regular yoga practice can help mitigate these effects of stress by shutting down the stress response system of our central nervous system. In doing so, we can not only decrease the emotional feeling of stress, but also shut down the physiological stress response that occurs in our bodies, thus minimizing the negative physical effects of stress as well. This is a large claim to make, yet study after study continues to show that a consistent practice of yoga helps decrease stress and mitigate the physical effects listed above. For instance, one recent study found that a targeted regimen of Hatha style yoga significantly lowered ratings of chronic lower back pain compared to the normal medical interventions. Another study found that regular yoga practice decreased symptoms of PTSD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. One study even found that yoga was able to decrease the frequency of seizures in those with poorly controlled epilepsy.
But how do these changes happen? Widely defined, yoga is the practice of physical postures known as Asanas, and the way that you move through these postures differs based on the type of yoga that you are practicing. What is arguably most beneficial about the practice of yoga is the incorporation of mindfulness and breath work in addition to the physical work of moving through Asana postures.
In addition to the endorphins that are released with physical movement, the control over your breath that occurs during yoga practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts to calm you down and shut down the stress response of the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response). The additional component of mindfulness – being consciously and intentionally aware of physical sensations – also helps to bring awareness back to the present moment and pause the stress response. This is one great example of how our brain not only controls our body, but physical bodily actions actually feed back to our brain and can operate as a “reset.” This mixture of concurrent physical movement, breathwork and mindfulness seems to offer a powerful triple whammy way to shut down the stress response, and in turn stop the negative effects of stress from occurring.
Even better, the effects of practicing yoga can last much longer than just the time you are practicing. Some studies found that the positive effects were found up to six months after the completion of a six week yoga program. This is due to the way that pausing the stress response activation interrupts the feed forward loop that usually sustains high levels of stress.
All this goes to say yoga is a wonderful practice – there are many types of yoga and finding one that suits you may be a great way to increase physical and mental wellbeing. In Yin yoga, or relaxation yoga for example, you hold each posture for long periods of time, working to increase flexibility, and paying special attention to your breath and bodily sensations. In contrast, vinyasa style or power yoga can be fast paced and physically demanding while still incorporating aspects of mindfulness.
Conveniently, Wooster offers three different styles of Yoga classes, each occurring weekly on campus in the Scot Center. Rachel David (who also serves as the Health Education Coordinator at the Wellness Center) teaches a beginner-level movement and mindfulness class Thursdays at 11 a.m. in the Hot box gymnasium, Annie Yoder teaches an all levels vinyasa class (well suited for beginners and the experienced alike) Tuesdays at 11 a.m. in the Hot Box gymnasium, and yours truly teaches a vinyasa power yoga class on Sundays at 12:30 p.m. in the aerobics studio in the Scot Center. These are great ways to try out yoga, and any of the instructors would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.