Ever since the 70s, yoga has been studied as an alternative to refresh our minds and help us relax. It didn’t have such high popularity in the beginning – but recently, there has been a boom in medical journals about it. Countless Harvard articles also suggest that yoga is efficient for anxiety and depression, and these are not the only sources telling us that. That said, in order to properly understand how yoga reduces stress, we need to also learn about the basics of yoga. Some of us may practice yoga but may not completely understand how it affects us deeply. This article should give you a better understanding of how yoga reduces stress.
The Basics of Yoga
Yoga is a mind-body practice that brings mental and physical discipline together. The purpose of yoga is to practically achieve peacefulness of your mind and your body. This way, your body should be better able to manage stress. Keep in mind that anxiety is an aftereffect of stress. If you allow your stress levels to go too high, then you risk spiraling into anxiety. Stress can be controlled, but anxiety is quite difficult to keep under control. So, by reducing stress, you are also preventing the apparition of anxiety.
Yoga comes in various shapes and styles, for different levels of practitioners. For example, hatha yoga is quite a popular choice for managing your stress levels. It is also one of the most common and low-impact types of yoga, which is why it is the go-to for beginners. That being said, almost any style of yoga, though there are exceptions, is great for any person, regardless of your personal preferences.
Yoga can help reduce stress and prevent the apparition of anxiety.
Hatha yoga (or pretty much any kind of yoga) has several components that allow you to align your mind with your body. These components are:
The yoga poses, also referred to as “postures,” are a group of physical movements designed to increase the flexibility and strength of your body. Poses vary, depending on their purpose. They may go from lying on the floor on your yoga mat, completely relaxed, to more complicated movements that were made to challenge your core strength.
The plank exercise, for instance, originating from yoga, is a very common strength training exercise. The healthier your body is, the healthier your mind will be as well. Also, the original goal of yoga poses was to strengthen the body so it was able to sustain longer meditations.
Yoga poses can help improve the immune system, all thanks to the combinations of movements. It has been proven that there is a link between your stress levels and your immune system. So, if you practice yoga regularly, you should be able to relieve your stress by strengthening your body.
When you try to relax, you breathe. Inhale, exhale – you are trying to bring your body to a point where it is not feeling as stressed. When you’re breathing, your body reaches that stage of controlled balance – which is also an essential part of yoga. During a yoga session, you will be taught that it not only gives you control of your body but also quiets your mind.
Here we are led to “pranayama,” which is quite an important part of yoga. Also referred to as “breath work,” it increases your awareness and will bring you into the “now.” Generally speaking, you are not noticing when you are breathing, as it is an involuntary action. However, by focusing on your breathing, your mind is taken off the things that stress you out – making you feel better and less stressed.
Since it has a rather psychological effect on the nervous system, breathing can help relieve stress by activating the hypothalamus. Since the hypothalamus is directly connected to your pituitary gland, it releases neurohormones capable of inhibiting the stress hormone. A relaxation response is triggered instead, relieving you of stress.
- Relaxation and Meditation
When you are practicing yoga, you may also incorporate relaxation and/or meditation. Some may say that they go hand in hand, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, they are practiced separately. That being said, meditation may help you be more aware and mindful of what is going on around you – all without bringing judgment into the mix.
Meditation, combined with yoga, can help relieve stress by making you more aware of your present. When we are stressed, the cause is generally rooted in the past or the future – so when we anchor ourselves to the present moment, we no longer feel as stressed.
Sometimes you may find that the exact same room you use for your yoga practice doesn’t work quite well when you are meditating, overall at the beginning of your meditation journey. If you have considered upgrading your yoga/meditation room to make it more supportive, here is a nice guide to get you started.
You can still relax while doing breathing and relaxation exercises with yoga.
How Yoga Reduces Stress Psychologically
We now know the theory behind why yoga is a good tool for reducing stress. We have the breathing part down, and we know that certain poses and techniques can further relax the mind. But the more we know, the better we will be able to keep sensitive conditions at bay.
Yoga is a very powerful tool that attacks three different aspects of yourself: your body, your mind, and your soul. So, regardless of your anxiety root and its manifestation (i.e. constant or temporary), yoga can help you bring everything to a balance. For a better life, you need to be able to calm your nervous system down – and yoga can help you in that regard.
When you are struggling with stress, the best thing to do is to control and lower it rather than allowing it to spiral into anxiety. Keep in mind that the more relaxed you are in the morning, the harder it will be for events throughout the day to make you feel stressed.
This is why many experts recommend that you start your day with some yoga and some meditation. Yoga is to be done first, as it will prepare you for the meditation process – all while stretching out your body after you have just woken up.
Slow poses will stretch your body, releasing any stress that has been accumulating in your body throughout the previous day. You might want to focus more on stretching your hips, as anxiety generally likes to stick in your hip creases – also referred to as the “muscle of the soul.”
To put it simply, when you feel stressed or startled by something, your brain releases epinephrine in the body – a stress hormone that is often stored in the psoas. Because of this, you start feeling a rather chronic tension. This tension remains there unless you release it with certain movements.
Last but not least, yoga also has a mood-lifting ability, as it can boost our serotonin levels. Serotonin is the “feel-good” hormone that makes us feel happy. And the more serotonin we have in our body, the happier we will be. This will increase self-compassion – something that will allow us to give ourselves a break. This eventually will help us focus more on the present, which is why yoga is a very efficient stress reliever.
Yoga can lift your mood and boost your serotonin levels.
Yoga and the Positive Physical Effects on the Body
There have been countless sources claiming that physical exercising and an overall active body can help treat stress and the associated anxiety. The healthier you are, the more you should be able to keep stress at bay – not only because it physically improves your health status, but because it keeps your mind from diving straight at the thing that is making you stressed. It takes it off your mind, making you think only of the exercise.
The same thing applies to yoga. Considering that many of the poses from hatha yoga (and any other kinds of yoga) involve challenging your core strength and balance, your physique will also be affected. Here is only a small list of benefits that yoga brings to the table – all of which are generally responsible for your stress levels:
- Improves sleep
- Reduces levels of cortisol in your body
- Lowers blood pressure
- Lowers heart rate
- A general sense of well-being
- Reduced tension in the muscles
- Increased flexibility and strength
Let’s say that your overall heart rate is higher than normal. It’s nothing life-threatening (unless it goes past the tachycardia levels), which is why many people do not even give it a lot of consideration. However, a quick heart rate can also indirectly increase your anxiety levels. Have you noticed how you suddenly feel more anxious after drinking a cup of coffee? The same thing applies here as well.
With your heart rate growing bigger and bigger, your anxiety is circulated more and more throughout your body. The more adrenaline is formed, the more this process will continue. That being said, since yoga contributes to your heart health (like any physical exercise), your heart rate will also be improved.
The feeling of stress is pretty much a chemical reaction in your body – sometimes caused by deficiencies in your body and other times natural. Yoga balances those chemicals within the body, allowing you to have an overall better physical health – and therefore, easing the chemical release into your mind.
The other effects are also very important for your body. The better you sleep, the less stressed you are. The better you generally feel, the less you have to beat yourself over. When your body is feeling good, your mind will as well.
The more you exercise, the less your mind will dwell into stressful things.
Yoga is quite an efficient way to help improve your stress levels – not only because it heals your body, but because it heals your mind as well. The more you practice yoga on a regular basis, the more you should be able to see improvements in your anxiety levels as well.
Each person’s body is different, but overall, this is how yoga reduces stress. So, find your perfect type of yoga, grab your yoga mat, and start doing your exercises. Depending on the poses, you might have to do some modifications – but remember that the goal here is not to lose weight, but to lose stress. Ideally, you should go to a good instructor, as they will efficiently start you on the path of being a yogi.
Co-founder of MB Zen, digital nomad and freedom seeker. Loves developing projects that improve people’s lives. Functional training, yoga, and healthy eating define his lifestyle since he got his back injured. Fell in love with Yin yoga from the very first session though he won’t say no to any other kind of yoga.