For most of us, there is no argument that Yoga is a good practice to incorporate into daily schedules. But why? What happens during all that breathing? How does it work?
Well, some of these answers are not easy to determine. Countless studies have proven that direct yoga intervention results in lessening depression, anxiety, and stress, just to name a few benefits. These results are determined two ways. One is in “self-reporting” which means subjects in a study fill out a questionnaire and report how they feel. It is a useful way to get information, but self-reporting can be subjective. So that’s why there are more objective ways to measure mental and physical health through blood pressure, salivary cortisol, weight, and lipid serum, among other tests and markers
Still, the actual mechanics of how yoga can considered a true therapy are not easily explained. But there is enough known to help nearly everyone make healthy improvements. First though, the physiology of stress should be examined.
The Cortisol Story: Fight or Flight …or Fatigue
When we perceive a threat, our bodies react by triggering the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal area, also known as the HPA axis. The HPA axis sends out the alarm throughout the nervous system, which is really a neat trick. Several chemicals and hormones are released, and instantly our bodies change to become ready to either fight off the threat or run away. The threat could be a mugger in the park, or someone driving aggressively near us on the highway. One of the more interesting of these hormones is cortisol. This glucocorticoid is also known as the “stress hormone” and is really wonderful at potentially saving our lives.
But, since humans for the most part do not have the same real threats our early ancestors did, the need to fight or flee diminishes. Unfortunately, because there are still many stressors – and remember the key phrase above was “perceived threat” – that set off these alarms, cortisol production happens too frequently, with less opportunity to physically take advantage of the temporary hormone-induced power.
And too much cortisol is devastating. It has been linked over and over to many sources of disease. An article in the November 2009 issue of Today’s Dietician lists distressed immune systems, increased blood sugar levels, raised blood pressure, obesity, depression, digestive problems, and fertility setbacks. There is a real “adrenal fatigue.”
5 Proven Steps to Lower Stress
Remedying this over-abundance of cortisol (and other stress by-products) takes a multi-prong approach.
1) Remove sources of stress. No, this doesn’t sound easy to me either. But certain electronics, especially the TV, the Internet, even cell phones are straight up stressors. Politics, economy, heartbreaking charity cases, we are inundated by this kind of information continuously, and it just isn’t good. Also trying to avoid negative people goes a long way in reducing cortisol production.
2) Remember the phrase “perceived threat”? Our mindsets play a huge part here. If someone jumps ahead of you in line at the grocery store, is that really a threat? No. Retraining your way of thinking to view others as just humans – like you – instead of your competition, makes a big difference.
3) Daily Gratitude. The hard luck stories mentioned a couple of paragraphs earlier can cause stress. But if we use them as examples of something we ourselves don’t have deal with, it puts life in perspective. Better yet, doing something small to help another will help our own minds at the same time.
4) Moderate and regular exercise…yoga asana! I don’t think this bit is anything new, but still we just don’t do it enough. It’s not just burning calories in the moment of treadmill running, it’s strengthening the heart, revving the metabolism (so you keep burning calories hours later), and yes, relieving stress.
5) Mindfulness and Meditation through Yoga. More on this below.
Breath of Life (And Much More)
When someone begins a yoga practice, the instructor always starts with teaching proper breathing techniques. One way pranayama (yogic controlled breathing) helps a multitude of issues is that it strengthens the respiratory muscles An article published in The International Journal of Preventative Medicine (July, 2012), stated that, “An increase in inspiratory and expiratory pressures suggests that yoga training improves the strength of expiratory and as well as inspiratory muscles.”
The improved strength mentioned in the article compares skeletal muscles to respiratory muscles, especially the diaphragm. Just as the asanas (postures) help us focus on isometric tightening in skeletal muscles, that increase strength in a calf or bicep muscle, the same muscle strengthening occurs in the respiratory muscles when we practice pranayama. Which equals greater respiratory (breath) capacity ..always desirable!
Why might this be important? On the surface, having improved breath capacity doesn’t really need to be explained. We’ve always been told it’s good, but why? One reason might be related to the vagus nerve. The vagus, the largest of the cranial nerves, originates in the brain and works its way down through the thorax and into the spinal column. It connects with the heart, and with nearly all other organs. And when this nerve receives proper stimulation, it decreases stress.
Good Breath – Less Stress
So as mentioned earlier, during pranayama the slow mindful breathing contracts the diaphragm. Because the vagus nerve runs through the diaphragm, these contractions stimulate it. Then the vagus quiets or “down-regulates” the HPA axis. How this happens is a bit complicated, and might just require a degree in neuroscience to explain it best, but one thing that happens is that the stimulation of the vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine or ACh. This substance was actually called “Vagusstoff”, or “vagus stuff” before the chemistry was sorted out.
Simply put, ACh can help regulate the levels of cortisol and other over-stimulating chemicals. And all this from some pranayama practice! As Christopher Bergland wrote in The Athlete’s Way column for the January 2013 issue of Psychology Today:
“Any type of meditation will reduce anxiety and lower cortisol levels. Simply taking a few deep breaths engages the Vagus nerve which triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol.”
So remember, monitor your breathing whenever you feel even a hint of stress, and save the cortisol for the saber-tooth tigers!