Yoga is an extensively popular form of stress reduction, a way of life, and has been recently classified as a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by the National Institutes of Health. The physical postures, or asanas, forms of meditation, and breathing techniques, called pranayama, are the most popular practices associated with yoga in modern culture. They are known to aid individuals in not only improving physical fitness and cardiovascular efficiency, but also in lowering stress and anxiety levels, as supported by data compiled from multiple research studies in an article published in the International Journal of Yoga in late 2011. In general, yoga practices divert neural signals away from the sympathetic system, which is known to control adrenaline associated with the fight-or-flight response, to the parasympathetic system, which handles relaxation by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. Moreover, yoga helps to increase activity in the parts of the brain linked to pleasure and reward, and lower it in parts like the amygdala, which stimulates anger, fear, and aggression. Patients diagnosed with clinical depression have also benefited from yoga in the long-term as a form of complementary therapy, as it has been shown to not only induce increases in serotonin levels, but also decrease enzymes that process cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.
Many people picture yoga as a posturing practice, but it’s necessary to remember that meditation and pranayama are monumental parts of a complete practice. Meditation has been demonstrated to not only decrease stress levels, but also induce changes in brain physiology. Eileen Luders, a researcher in the UCLA School of Medicine, conducted a study in 2009 that compared the MRIs of 22 meditators, with 5-46 years of experience, with 22 non-meditators, and found that meditators had increased gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with attention, regulating emotions, and decision-making. In effect, meditators were more focused and better equipped to deal with negative or stressful situations and make logical, mindful decisions. Similarly, in 2009, Philippe Goldin, a project director in Stanford University, monitored individuals taking an 8-week course on meditation and yoga. Results from their MRIs showed that subjects had increased brain activity while processing negative statements, yet decreased activity in the amygdala at the same time. In other words, subjects were able to deal with negative thoughts and stress in a more positive and healthy manner, rather than resort to anger or fear. More importantly, participants reported a higher level of self-esteem and showed less stress, anxiety, and self-deprecation.
Although yoga and meditation do not have the same purposes or effects as prescription drugs or counseling, they are undeniably useful as catalysts in lessening negative emotions like stress, anxiety, or even depression; not only psychologically, but also neurologically. If you suffer from any such symptoms, consider yoga or other meditative practices as a form of complementary therapy to aid in starting you on the path towards a healthier, happier lifestyle. Stress reduction is one sure benefit for living a better life.
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