You will probably be in one of three camps regarding yoga:
1) You do it, you love it, and you tell everyone they should do it too.
2) You did it once, nothing changed immediately, so you are now "too busy."
3) Never tried it, but wondering: “Can it be that good? Just twisting and bending uncomfortably?”
I will start off by telling you my yoga story before we discuss the details about what yoga actually does to your brain and body systems.
You have probably gathered that I am a science geek from way back, who loves asking “Why?” - So, when my wife suggested that we try out a yoga studio whilst living in London, I just went along for a laugh. At the end of the session the instructor introduced himself and I told him that as a ‘science guy’ I wasn't convinced by all the ‘Chakras talk’. He just smiled and without blinking an eyelid said “excellent. You don’t need to believe anything, but if you do it properly you will feel the changes after one month or so.” I thought that a little experiment would be right up my alley.
But he was wrong. Things started to happen within two weeks.
Let's backtrack a little. I, like around 40% of adults, have always struggled with sleep. Initial insomnia to be specific. Though after just two weeks of yoga, the most bizarre thing start to happen – I would lay down and fall asleep. Unbelievable. I went from 2-3 hours of entertainment from my monkey mind to being out of it within 5-10 minutes. Naturally, I went in search of answers.
For you to understand the benefits of yoga, it may help to first understand stress and what causes it. As a so-called ‘stresspert', let's see if I can explain the complex mechanisms of stress in one simply worded paragraph:
Stress is when your mind and body are prepped for action, jacked up on adrenalin and cortisol (the stress hormone) usually due to a perceived threat. In the driver’s seat is your amygdala (part of your limbic system), with it’s finger well and truly poised over the giant ‘PANIC’ button. Once triggered, your automatic systems domino into action, preparing you to fight or flee.
As cortisol is the primary messenger of stress, reducing its levels in the blood will cause a reduction in feelings of heightened arousal/worry. I believe the official term is ‘relaxed’.
When we talk about practical ways of reducing cortisol there are three primary (non-pharmacological) methods: Breath, Mindfulness/Meditation and Muscle Contraction-Relaxation. Guess what yoga consists of? Yep, All three.
Okay so now for some nerdy science chat around cortisol (stress)?
1) Breath work: Your breath is the only part of your automatic (autonomic) nervous system that you can manually control. It in turn influence the rest of the system that it belongs. If you slow your breath (I prefer the exhale) your heart rate and arousal will reduce. By locating the breath in your abdomen (belly breaths) – a message is sent up your vagus nerve to your brain saying “RELAX”. Activating your parasympathetic (calming) nervous system.
2) Mindfulness/meditation: Although not designed to relax you, the ability to focus on what is actually happening in and around you is almost always less scary than what is happening in your mind. Mindfulness acts to settle your racing thoughts and has also been shown during a Harvard study to reduce the size of participant’s amygdalas (stress driver) following only 8 weeks of daily (27min average) practice.
3) Muscle Contraction/Relaxation (Exercise): I have found that each time I take clients through PMR (Progressive Muscle Relaxation) they almost always report feeling vastly more relaxed. PMR is simply tensing and relaxing muscle groups. The reason this works is because cortisol (and adrenalin) are there to prep your muscles to help you run or battle for your survival (fight/flight). So by giving your muscles what they are prepped to do; the cortisol gets used up to some extent and is lowered as a result.
So, yoga in its most fundamental sense is simply a means of deliberately and reliably reduce stress levels at will. Allowing you to sleep better, be less emotionally volatile, think more clearly and get on with enjoying life. This is why I do yoga every other day. Even when I can’t be bothered; which is more often then I would like to admit. But I go because I know from a science and experiential sense that it does actually work. My sleep remains much improved and daily stressors wash over me more easily than before. There have been many occasions where I have upon finishing a session, turned to my wife whilst we sip our post-yoga green teas and said “I didn’t want to come tonight, but I feel great, I didn’t realize how much I needed that…”
We are all living very hectic lifestyles and yoga is one great way to go from just surviving to actually feeling great both physically and mentally. Because, even if you are a sceptic like me, you can reap the benefits within just a few sessions.
If you wish to discuss these or other practical strategies for stress/anxiety management, then all you need to do is get in touch.