Frequently we hear about the benefits of yoga for stress relief. But why does yoga have such a reputation? Although yoga practitioners have known for thousands of years that the practice gives deep health benefits, the science world has been studying the physiological processes that are affected by yoga, supporting claims that it’s truly a stress-reliever.
Fight or Flight
“All stress – whether a screaming toddler or being chased by lions – triggers the body’s stress hormones,” explains Dr. Heather Bartos, of be. Women’s Health & Wellness. “This is nature’s survival mechanism, which is why we commonly call it the “fight or flight response.”
The stress response begins in the emotional part of the brain. A message gets sent to the center that controls functions such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. The “fight or flight’ side provides a burst of energy to avoid that oncoming tiger. The body then activates the brain and adrenals, which helps to keep the stress response moving. Experience enough stress, and cortisol—the stress hormone—is released continuously.
Rest and Digest
When the perceived threat passes, cortisol levels fall, bringing the body back down to the “rest and digest” state where it can recover and go about normal bodily functions. “The less perceived stress the body feels, the better it can perform its functions that keep us alive, including regulation of blood pressure, sugar levels, and hormone levels…preventing daily “wear and tear” on the body,” says Dr. Bartos.
Chronic Stress Prevents Restoration
Chronic low-level stress keeps the “fight or flight” activated, which can contribute to health problems including persistent surges in epinephrine that can damage blood vessels; increased blood pressure and risk of heart attack or stroke. Chronically elevated cortisol can lead to buildup of fat tissue, weight gain, and eventually chronic exhaustion.
Yoga Helps Improve the Stress Response
Yoga requires the body to go into both the sympathetic “fight or flight” mode (hold a warrior pose for two minutes–your legs feel like they will collapse, your heart rate climbs) as well as the renewing parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode where the body readjusts and comes back to calm (you take a meditative forward bend on the floor, the heart rate lowers, and breathing returns to normal). Dr. Bartos clarifies, “All yoga poses are considered restorative in some fashion, simply due to the varied benefits of doing them; stretching and strengthening your body; improving breathing; inverting the body to help with lymph drainage; hormone regulation; immune system strengthening, and the list goes on.” If you are looking for the optimum mind-body workout—this one’s for you.
Heather Bartos MD owns be. Women’s Health & Wellness, which offers ob/gyn services as well as aesthetics and wellness and yoga classes in the clinic. Evening classes are now available! Class schedules are online at BeAGreatWoman.com.
3 Restorative Poses
- Reclining Cobbler’s Pose
Your prop should be firm, not squishy (a stack of three or four firm blankets folded to the width of about 12 inches, or a yoga bolster; add another blanket as a pillow). Sit just in front of the support. Once you lay back, if the low back isn’t happy, move the prop a few inches away from the back and settle back in.
- Supported Child’s Pose
Use a stack of 3 or 4 blankets folded to about 12 inches wide (make the prop higher if you are not comfortable at this height). Kneel on the floor, and make the legs wide enough to pull the blanket stack all the way to the inner thighs. Lean forward, getting as much of your tummy on the prop as possible, so your entire upper body is supported. Allow the seat to sink down toward the heels. Rest the arms wherever they are comfortable.
- Legs Up the Wall
Caution: If you are menstruating or have high intra-ocular pressure, don’t do “Legs Up the Wall”.
This one can be a bit awkward to get into, but it’s totally worth it! Set the 3-4 blanket stack about 5 inches from the wall. Once you’re settled in, the blanket stack should be helping to open your chest/heart area up and outward. The legs can be in a variety of positions; to keep them up the wall, use just enough leg muscle to keep them from bending.