In this busy world of constant distraction, social media, apps for everything and too much to do, couldn’t we all use a little more zen in our life? Neuroscience research is steadily backing up the advantages of calming our nervous system through yoga, breath work and other mindfulness practices. Consequently, you may have noticed a recent buzz about yoga, mindfulness & meditation. So how does it work?
Here is a little breakdown of how yoga helps to reduce stress, making us calmer and happier:
Yoga improves self-regulation.
Self-regulation is our ability to manage our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Essentially self-regulation helps us to be able to “respond” instead of “react” to what is happening in our lives. Yoga gives us many tools to begin to calm our mind, creating more space between us and our thoughts so that we have a lot more say so in how we deal with challenging life situations.
Yoga calms the nervous system.
When we focus on our breath & the sensations in our body, we strengthen our relationship with the present moment, where anxiety and depression cannot exist. By slowing down our nervous system we decrease the amount of thoughts bombarding us but also begin to access our parasympathetic nervous system, our “rest and digest” function. Conversely, when we are constantly stressed or having fearful thoughts, our nervous system goes in to overdrive, activating our fight, flight or freeze response. When our nervous system becomes overactive, there are many health problems that can develop as a result.
According to an article by Joe Miller, yoga works by turning off the sympathetic system and turning on the parasympathetic, giving your heart and circulatory system a break. Yoga practice lowers your heart rate and blood pressure. It improves heart rate variability – a marker of cardiovascular health and a sign of increased parasympathetic activity. Stress plays a role in insulin resistance and diabetes – another risk factor for heart disease. Yoga lowers blood glucose levels and reduces your risk of diabetes.
Yoga helps us to be more mindful.
Mindfulness, very simply, is being open and aware to what is occurring in the present moment, WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. Through being mindful of the sensations we are experiencing on the mat, we learn to be more aware of what is happening to us off the mat. The key difference is we develop a sense of awareness without moving on to judgement or old stories about ourselves and our perceived limitations and flaws. Practicing mindfulness can happen anytime and anywhere but it is a practice. Yoga helps us learn to apply mindfulness in all areas of our life.
Yoga teaches us how to breathe through discomfort.
In my yoga classes I often give the comparison that if we can learn how to breathe through the discomfort of a yoga pose, we can use that same skill to breathe through challenging situations in our life. Learning how to create space in a situation with our breath helps us calm down so we can be more intentional instead of habitual. Using breathing to pause in a challenging situation stops the wash of stress hormones that happens in our bodies when we encounter danger, either real or perceived.
Yoga helps you to connect with & listen to your body.
Yoga helps us to be aware of how our bodies feel in different poses, what our bodies like and what they resist. In opening up this mindful dialogue with our body we increase our chance to be able to listen to its signals before it is screaming at us.
Whether it is a three minute meditation, taking five minutes to breathe, or attending a yoga class, these things reduce stress which helps to create a happier body and a more satisfying life. Take a little step in the direction of yoga and your body will thank you. Namaste.
Written by: Alice Huff, LCSW, RYT, University Health Center Counseling & Psychiatric Services