The greatest misconception about yoga is that it is about fancy postures and complicated twists. Yoga is one of the oldest multidimensional systems of healing in the world. It is a combination of asana, pranayama, dhyana, kriya, bandha, and mudras (physical postures, breathwork, meditation, cleansing, neuromuscular locks, and hand gestures/ seals). While asana gets most of the attention, it would seem shallow and almost superficial to not give due credit to pranayama, meditation, bandhas and mudras. They work their magic at a subtler level in the body which is difficult to perceive because prana or the energy body cannot be physically seen or felt. It is this energy flow inside of us that is the custodian of our physical wellness and well being. It is this prana or life-force, that we need to work on if we want to enjoy health and happiness. If not nurtured, it is also the seat of all psychosomatic illnesses and non-communicable diseases. It is important to understand how to nurture this prana and reap the benefits of energy flowing freely and unobstructed through our bodies. Unobstructed prana can work wonders on our mental health too. It is because of how the physical and metaphysical layers of our bodies are interconnected. Blocked chakras and obstructed prana can affect the intellect and the emotional wellbeing of a human in many ways. This leads to increased stress, anxiety, worries, and disquiet. Pranayama and Dhyana help in a big way to over come mental stress and emotional fatigue.
Stress and its impact on the body
What happens when a person gets stressed? There are two types of stress that the body and mind experience on an everyday basis. They are eustress and distress. Eustress is good for a person. It comes with stressful but exciting prospects like a job promotion, buying a house, having a baby, planning a trip etc. It helps stimulate the mind, motivates the person, improves performance, energises the spirit, and is very much within a person’s coping abilities.
But distress or ‘stress’ as we commonly call it, is harmful to mind and body. The Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) which deals with stress response, is divided two- Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Para-sympathetic Nervous System (PNS). When a person is stressed, the SNS initiates what is typically classified as ‘fight or flight’ responses throughout the body. A surge of hormones are released through the body to combat the stress. Unfortunately the SNS doesn’t differentiate between an existential crisis and day-to-day stress like traffic jams, monetary crunches, a stubbed toe, or an annoying boss. The response is the same.
- The body begins by pumping epinephrine adrenalin throughout the body. This then causes the heart to pump faster so that it can push more blood to vital organs, increasing blood pressure and pulse rate.
- Vasoconstriction can lead to cold-sweats too. Under normal conditions, the PNS is activated when the stressful situation passes and it brings the body back to a state of homeostasis or ‘rest and digest’.
- The airways in the lungs open up wider to receive more oxygen. The surge in oxygen increases alertness in the brain. Sight, sound and other senses become sharper. (Increases anxiety and irritation can be caused by hyperoxia)
- Stored fat and glucose are released onto the blood to provide more energy for a fight, increasing blood sugar levels too (increases insulin resistance and causes type 2 diabetes in the long run).
But with the current lifestyle stress triggers have begun to present themselves every other minute, leading the SNS to be overactive leading to chronic stress. The PNS doesn’t have time to bring the body back to a state of rest. This causes irreversible neurotoxicity and neurodegenerative changes to the brain, leading to chronic depression, Parkinson’s etc.
Yoga to Combat Stress
As I have mentioned earlier, the premises of yoga is a focus on breath-work. Breathing correctly can dramatically and instantaneously bring down stress levels by kicking in the PNS response. Meditative techniques and diaphragmatic breathing activated the vagus nerve to release acetylcholine which helps muscular contraction. This causes dilation of blood vessels and bronchioles, reducing heart rate and blood pressure. It allows blood flow back to the digestive tract, redirecting it from the heart and lungs. This brings back the body from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’ mode. That is why breathing deeply when stressed allows us to calm down.
This should not lull you into believing that only pranayama and meditation will work to lower stress. As a regular practitioner and teacher of yoga, it is my understanding that every asana makes us re-look at our breathing. Staying in an posture requires us to breath evenly and deeply. Restorative asanas like supine asanas and forward folds also make you focus on your breathe and be consistent while breathing. This helps in the long run because it gives your nervous system a break from letting the SNS kick in with its stress response.
Consistent practice of meditation also helps to slow down the mind. Fewer thoughts can increase focus and decreases anxiety about the future.
All of the above practices when combined in the right measure will help a person to weed out unwanted thoughts, focus more, be less anxious, learn to breath right and thereby enjoy better health and happiness.