We’ve all heard that yoga helps beat stress. Yet yoga is a relatively new phenomenon in the western world. You can find yoga classes that look more like aerobics classes, and you can find ones that look more like mystical rituals. With all the variety in types of yoga, why is it so uniformly sold as a great way to beat stress? As better than walking or other forms of exercise?
To understand why yoga is so good at relieving stress, we first need to understand the mind-body connection. The mind-body connection is something medical practitioners have studied and observed for years. One of my favourite short stories, the last leaf , illustrates this connection in a sad but beautiful story of artists in New York.
In Eastern medicine traditions such as Ayurveda (where yoga comes from!), the mind-body connection was and still is a very important factor in the medical system. However, in western medicine, we tend to follow theories that show the mind and body as separate entities. This has been slowly changing in the last 50-60 years as more research is done in this area. But to a lot of western medicine practitioners the mind-body connection is a foreign concept.
When we talk about the mind-body connection, we usually talk about how the mind affects the body. However, it is a connection that works both ways. For example, if a person is experiencing psychological or emotional stress, it causes the body to release stress hormones and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can cause the body to stop functioning properly, as it ‘switches off’ any unnecessary processes such as digestion or the ability to deeply rest. To use a more simple example, if your mouth waters when you smell a freshly baked loaf of bread, or if you get butterflies in your stomach before you write an exam, you have experienced the mind-body connection.
We also know that the body can affect the mind. For example, exercise releases certain chemicals in your brain that improve your mood. Physical touch, from a loved one or therapist, also can help make you feel relaxed and happy.
Now that we understand the mind-body connection, we can take a look at why yoga is so good at beating stress.
If you’ve taken a yoga class before, you know that yoga is more than just a series of postures. A big part of the class is the breathing and meditation that you do with the poses. So instead of using just a mind technique- such as meditation, or just a body technique like exercise, you are using both of them together to maximise effectiveness. Certain yoga poses may also help relieve stress more than just the benefits of exercise. For example, passive forward bends or poses where your legs are above your heart, can help activate your body’s rest and digest response, which in turn helps reduce emotional stress. Breathing and meditation exercises can also help relax muscles. In short, yoga is designed to help relieve stress and improve your well-being.
Nobody is 100% sure why yoga is better for you than other forms of exercise when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety. However, the best guess of yoga practitioners is the two-way relationship between body and mind. When the mind and body work together, rather than against each other, you can find better results.
Because research in this field is still new, we don’t even know for sure that yoga is good for relieving stress! Yet studies and personal anecdotes lead us to believe that yoga can be a very effective tool for relieving stress.
Understanding the mind- body connection can help us in understanding how and why yoga helps beat stress and heal.