Why after a yoga session do you feel rejuvenated, more relaxed, and even happier? Here’s the science behind stress and what practicing regular yoga can do to lower your stress levels.
What is stress?
To help us understand how yoga helps us de-stress, we need a background on our natural stress response. In normal conditions, the body produces a healthy amount of the hormone, cortisol. You may think of cortisol as a problem, but it is actually beneficial in healthy amounts. It’s responsible for helping the body to stabilize blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, and even reduce inflammation.
But in a stressed state, the body can produce too much cortisol. This happens when over-exercising, you experience a traumatic event, or just an overall buildup of stress accumulating over time. High cortisol levels tells your body it’s in a state of emergency. This would be extremely helpful, if it were actually in an emergency. However, the way most of us experience stress these days is not from life-threatening events, and more from work pressure, relationship problems, or simply just too much multitasking. Persistent stressful triggers can lead to a condition called “chronic stress,” which has been shown to cause weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, lack of sleep, mental health problems, and the list goes on (1).
Fortunately, there are little things we can do each day to lower this stress response. You don’t need to change your entire life to get your cortisol levels back to where they need to be, although for a lot of us, it sounds quite appealing to move to the mountains where there are no traffic jams and a slower paced life.
How does yoga help de-stress?
Luckily for us, researchers have tested out what yoga can do to our stress levels. It does the opposite of what cortisol does in putting your body in a fight or flight state. Instead, it supports our parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the counter-stress response. This is partially responsible for deep breathing, but also practicing mindfulness and not judging yourself and others around you.
Scientific studies have shown practicing yoga for 10-16 weeks improves measures of tension and anxiety for people who experience mild to moderate stress (2). It’s even been compared to cognitive behavioral therapy for stress reduction (3). Just 3 times a week for 4 weeks has been shown to improve stress, mood, and fatigue levels (4).
Easy poses to try from anywhere
This pose is known as one of yoga’s staple poses. The easiest way to start is on your belly. Bring your hands right under your shoulders and your feet hip width apart. Push yourself into a high plank (you can use your knees to assist you with this) and move your hips all the way up and back until your arms and legs are straight. Spread your fingers wide, and make sure your back is straight. If you have tight hamstrings, a slight bend in your knee can be helpful.
Start on your hands and knees, spread your knees wide with your big toes touching. Reach your hands out forward with straight arms. Send your hips back until they are resting above your heels. If your hips are very tight, you can always keep your legs closer together. Allow your forehead to come to the floor and keep your palms spread out facing down. Take several rounds of deep inhales and exhales.
Start in a lunge and lower your back knee to the ground. Make sure your shin is vertical and your knee is right above your ankle, not out in front. Raise your arms above your head keeping them in line with your ears. Take a few rounds of breath and switch sides.
While there is solid science showing that yoga can improve stress levels, it’s up to you to see how it works for your body and lifestyle. Some people become even more stressed when they think about how much time it takes to drive to the nearest yoga studio and paying membership dues. If you’re one of those people, it might be worth it to try out some simple videos from home. Whatever you decide, the benefits yoga provides certainly are worth it.
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- Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response. Accessed March 22, 2019.
- Smith C, Hancock H, Blake-Mortimer J, Eckert K. A randomised comparative trial of yoga and relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. Complement Ther Med 2007;15:77-83.
- Granath J, Ingvarsson S, von Thiele U, Lundberg U. Stress management: a randomized study of cognitive behavioural therapy and yoga. Cogn Behav Ther 2006;35:3-10.
- Malathi, A. and Damodaran, A. Stress due to exams in medical students–role of yoga. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol 1999;43(2):218-224.
- Saoji AA. Yoga: A Strategy to Cope up Stress and Enhance Wellbeing Among Medical Students. North American journal of medical sciences. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4866479/. Published April 2016. Accessed March 22, 2019.