Yoga & Stress
How is it that some rise to a challenge and demonstrate grace under pressure while others wither at the slightest obstacle?
Our fight-or-flight mechanism is a natural response to perceived stress. Our perceptions trigger our mind to decide whether an event is a danger. If so, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks into gear and releases hormones - adrenaline, noradrenaline and glucocorticoids such as cortisol - to respond. The fight-or-flight mechanism makes us mentally and physically alert and responsive to a short-term stress, but chronic stress where stress hormones remain constantly in circulation take us out of homeostatic balance and are a contributing factor to serious health issues including heart attacks, strokes, weight gain/loss, diabetes, gastric ulcers, inflammatory bowel syndrome, sexual dysfunction, sleep deprivation, memory loss, depression, and autoimmune disease.1
Due to genetics, epigenetics, pre- and post-natal development, early childhood development, and trauma, our fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in at different rates, intensities, and durations. Demands of self, family, work, and society can bring incessant stress.
Yoga is a wonderful spiritual path which enables the practitioner to feel inspired, mentally clear and blissful. One feels connected and in harmony with the environment, so perceptions are less likely to trigger a stress response. There is a feeling of resiliency where one responds to challenging circumstances from a creative, intuitive state rather than a reactive, defensive one.
Yoga provides an efficient means to reset the fight-or-flight mechanism to where the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system counterbalances the sympathetic branch and restores all bodily processes to a state of equilibrium.
Stress can create knots (granthis) affecting our vitality, our emotions, and our thoughts, leaving us feeling fragmented. Yoga has tools to mitigate the stress in each of these human domains, to loosen these knots for energy to flow and feel whole:
For vitality, there are physical postures called asanas and breathing exercises called pranayama. The postures increase range-of-motion through stretching and reinforce joint stability through strengthening. The effect of both is to reduce stress on a muscular-skeletal level, but yoga postures also have an effect on endocrine glands responsible for hormonal output which brings one into homeostasis - equilibrium on a biological basis - and on the neurotransmission of the nervous system which can actually influence the degree to which we feel pain.
Yoga postures stimulate sensations which are conducted by sensory neurons to the brain. The sensations occur in the present moment, so one's consciousness is drawn to inner sensory experience and one's mind becomes more concentrated on that present experience rather than drawn into dwelling on unresolved past events that sustain a stress response. The postures rebalance the practitioner's energy system bringing a feeling of well-being. Thereafter, breathing techniques heighten one's sensitivity and deepen one's sense of calm and centeredness. One is less likely to be emotionally thrown off-center by external circumstances.
The respiratory system is the only system that operates under both involuntary and voluntary control. States of worry, anxiety, depression, fear, and anger produce an involuntary pattern of breath that is counter to our natural breathing. By voluntarily interceding and breathing in a prescribed way according to yoga, one can reverse those states, return to one's natural state, and perceive reality more simply and clearly.
Meditation is another practice to detach oneself from a situation in order to take a more global and objective view. It uses sustained concentration in a relaxed state to look deeply into a situation where creative solutions can arise more spontaneously. Scientific studies of Tibetan monks who have spent 20+ years meditating have shown that actual structures of the brain develop differently. The angular cingulate is consistently well-developed in Tibetan monks. It is a structure in the pre-frontal cortex which is considered to be the interface between the executive function and the limbic system, the "emotional" brain. It serves as our impulse control, keeping us out of trouble from pursuing impulses that our executive function recognizes as bringing us into danger.
We recognize that many are simply looking at yoga as a light, enjoyable and safe way to exercise. At Yoga La Source, we honor and preserve its ancient roots by teaching it in a way that brings one into a deeper relation to the present moment where one feels not only light enjoyment but fulfillment. While we instruct students into the requisite practices, we teachers at La Source are very attentive to the degree of concentration and the level of relaxation of the students and therefore modulate the instruction to find the sweet spot that allows students to experience a divine state, free of worldly concerns and full of renewed vitality and energy!
1 Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 2004.