Yoga has long been believed to be the most comprehensive whole body fitness regime around. But it is the beneficial side effects that are of real value to the individual. Practicing yoga tones the body, stimulates the nervous system to work more effectively, aids digestion and increases flexibility. However it also works on a deeper level by creating a new mindfulness that leaves the individual feeling calm, relaxed and more at ease.
Society today is very different from 100 years ago. Modern technology, poor dietary and fitness habits coupled with a fast paced lifestyle can take a toll on the human body. What is not commonly realised is that stress can affect your body in many different areas, causing conditions that may be seen as usual or normal but are in fact directly related to how your body handles pressure.
There are several hormones and chemicals within the body that are linked to stress. Most of these originate from one area- the adrenal gland. The most important and well known hormone is cortisol. This hormone can alter the immune system’s response and also suppress the digestive tract, normal growth processes and the entire reproductive system.
Another familiar hormone is adrenalin. Most people go to great lengths and spend large amounts of money to experience the rush they feel as it is released into the bloodstream. This increase in heart rate and energy also temporarily cuts off blood supply to your skin and increases your blood pressure. Other hormones like aldosterone are affected by stress. When aldosterone is over stimulated it can result in edema which is swelling due to fluid retention. This can occur over many parts of the body but most commonly will be experienced in the limbs.
Stress can also lead to emotional and mental issues. It will negatively impact one’s emotions and can lead to depression and other mental imbalances. It has been shown to cause moodiness, irritability and general unhappiness. Those that experience high stress levels often report feeling overwhelmed, lonely and isolated as well as unable to physically relax. This can lead to insomnia and a complete body crisis.
It has been seen to cause several issues within the body’s reproductive system, reducing sperm count, ovulation and even sexual desire. Other physical symptoms of stress can manifest as skin issues, general aches and pains, nausea, dizziness and a compromised immune system. As the body is under barrage from stress a person may experience the side effects from this in a domino effect resulting in problems with memory, concentration and judgement and constant ‘monkey mind’ where anxious thought patterns never cease and leave the individual seeing and feeling only the negative aspects within and without himself. Many people will experience the same behavioural symptoms. Some of these are common and widely recognised like eating and sleeping issues and self-induced insolation.
The causes of stress are many and may vary from one individual to another. This is because people cope with different situations with varying levels of ability. What may stress one person may not stress another. Externally stress may result from work issues, a challenging financial situation, family or other relationship conflicts. It may be a combination of some of these. Many people find the greatest cause of stress is that there is too much to do in too little time. However some people stress due to internal conflict. This is any situation that deals with how an individual feels about himself and his ability to cope in certain situations.
The longer an individual endures a stressful life, the more problems that will arise physically and emotionally. High blood pressure, a suppressed immune system and the inability to cope mentally will soon leave the individual feeling ill and depressed. In order to cope with both the causes and effects of stress an individual must develop techniques to relax. Yoga is a comprehensive mind, body and soul workout. It is almost impossible to not activate the body’s relaxation response during a yoga session. This was proven recently at an Australian university where after a six week study, participants who undertook a yoga program that consisted of pranayama, asanas and yoga nidra were found to have lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Those in the control group that did not practice yoga showed no change. Those who did practice also reported higher levels of growth in their spiritual experience.
Practicing yoga gives your body a designated time to relax in what can often be a hectic life. It improves muscle strength as well as blood circulation which in turn works to detoxify the body’s major organs. The calming effect brought on by deep breathing and the meditative state often experienced throughout and almost always at the end of a yogic session stabilises the autonomic nervous system which works to bring about more balance within the body. Not only will yoga work to balance the body and combat the effects of stress but it may also expand the individual’s consciousness allowing them to see where they can prevent further stress within their life.
There are many asanas that can be used to combat stress. Some, like the bridge pose or Setu Bandhasana, improve circulation and work to calm the brain and central nervous system. It is a rejuvenating pose that relieves anxiety and stimulates and clears the mind which is very therapeutic for those feeling overwhelmed and under prepared for what life may throw at them. The bridge pose is also handy for dealing with the symptoms directly related to stress. It works to aid digestion, strengthen the back and reduce aches and pains throughout the body by stretching the spine. By working to relax the individual this pose can relieve insomnia, anxiety and fatigue.
The full boat pose, or Paripuna Navasana, works in much the same manner as the bridge asana. By stimulating the organs and strengthening and stretching the spine and hips, this pose supports stress relief as well as improving the sense of balance. Another asana that focuses on healthy balance is the extended triangle pose or Utthita Trikonasana. By opening up the chest and shoulder area it works to release pent up emotions and relieves backache and shoulder stiffness. This can help as stress can lead to tight, taut and painful muscle tension.
While many asanas work to relieve the symptoms of stress as well as focus and clear the mind it is important to realise that yoga is a whole system that benefits the whole physical, mental and spiritual aspects of an individual. This is especially seen in the practices of pranayama and meditation. Mindful breathing and thought release are both important aspects of yoga that help to calm, relax and relieve mental stress. Asanas focus on improving respiration, the individual’s level of fitness and sense of balance. They can help relieve pain and create a stronger body. Yet the body is only a vehicle for the mind and soul. It must be tuned but it is not all there is to the individual.
Mentally, yoga works on helping the individual to relax, using breathing techniques to effectively quiet the mind and bring the focus to holding an asana, not worrying over anything else but the pose and the execution of it. So mindfully yoga teaches one to focus positive energy. Becoming more mindful of situations gives an individual the ability to choose how he or she may perceive a stressful situation. On one hand, it may be something to become anxious over, on the other it may be seen as an opportunity to grow and learn.
By focusing on the internal struggle and becoming more aware of the body, it’s feelings and responses to certain situations an individual can discover not only how to combat the effects of stress but how to avoid stress and see it as an opportunity for personal growth. This is the spiritual side of yoga. Practicing yoga has been said to promote interdependence between the mind, body and spirit. This of course is related to the whole oneness theory.
Besides the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of Yoga espoused by Yoga practitioners and devotees Western medicine is now jumping on the bandwagon. With many studies now coming to light, like the recent Deakin University Study conducted in Melbourne, Australia, doctors are now referring patients in need of lifestyle changes to local Yoga studios in the hope that Yoga, not pharmaceutical drugs, can assist them in relieving the symptoms of stress. Many parents are also now advocating the practice for their children, where it has been introduced into many schools as a sporting activity and to help children learn to focus and calm their minds prior to exams and other stressful situations.
Yoga has many documented benefits and of the many, stress relief seems almost the least important. And yet, it is the reason so many people turn to Yoga. It provides that individual time set aside just for them to turn off their minds and concentrate purely on themselves and the practice. In today’s busy world, the ability to completely focus and just breathe is one that must be recommended for all. It is within this unity that peace lies.
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Brooke Olive is a certified yoga teacher. She teaches yoga sessions in Yanchep, Western Australia.