Stuck In A Stress Cycle? Yoga Might Just Save Your Sanity . . .

“Yoga doesn’t take time, it gives time.” — Ganga White

I’ve been doing lots of reading lately on the ways that our mind and body work together . . . or don’t, particularly around how we react to work and stress.

With full days and mile-long to-do lists, it’s easy to get stuck in a spin cycle of “go go go” that doesn’t spit us out until our body cries burnout.

Yoga is one of the best ways I’ve found to counter the effects of intense stress (and prevent it in the first place) — and that’s just one of its many benefits. I find it’s one of the only activities I do that truly integrates my mind, body and spirit in a way that is physically challenging, mentally stimulating, and deeply calming. It’s been my sanity-saver and anti-depressant for almost ten years now, and I’ve loved sharing the benefits with beginners as a teacher for the last three.

Read on for how yoga can help you unwind, prevent disease, and even boost your brain power — and don’t worry, it’s not just for bendy yoga chicks! If you’re interested in trying yoga in a non-intimidating way, check out some of these short beginner tutorials from Tara Stiles, or leave a note in the comments and I’d be happy to answer your specific questions.

A Primer On Stress And The Parasympathetic Nervous System

In the book Mind Over Medicine, author Lissa Rankin describes how our “fight or flight” response, triggered by the autonomic nervous system, happens for many of us an average of 50–100 times a day.

What’s the big deal? Every time that response is triggered, our body goes into “OMFG, flee from the crazy tiger chasing me!” emergency mode and STOPS working on activities related to long-term health care and prevention.

When this form of stress is triggered constantly without any relaxation response, our bodies get hit with adrenal fatigue, which is when your nervous system burns out from chronically working too hard. It’s why we get sick immediately after finals or a big work sprint. From Lissa:

“This was one of the most shocking things I discovered while researching Mind Over Medicine. Only when the relaxation response is in effect do the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms function properly! It makes sense. When your body is preparing to fight or flee, it needn’t worry about preventive maintenance. Why bother eating up cancer cells or repairing broken proteins when you’re about to get eaten by a cave bear?
The stress response exists to protect you. It’s meant to get you out of harm’s way when your life is in danger. But these days, the average person has 50 stress responses per day. It’s no wonder chronic illnesses are at epidemic levels.
Every time you have a stressful thought, belief, or feeling, your brain spits out harmful, disease-inducing stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine that shut off your body’s self-repair mechanisms. On the other hand, every time you have positive thoughts, beliefs, or feelings, you release healing hormones like oxytocin, nitric oxide, dopamine, and endorphins that shift you to the relaxation response, where your body can get to work repairing what’s broken.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), responsible for “rest and digest” activities, can be activated in a number of ways — nature, meditation, breathing, calming music, and . . . you guessed it . . . yoga! There are many other ways to activate it too, of course, but yoga has proven to activate the PSN in a variety of important ways.

This article sums up the benefits:

“Many yoga practices including gentle breath-based vinyasa and slow, diaphragmatic breathing activate the PNS, or the “rest and digest” mechanisms of the body. Parasympathetic activation is the base state of the body, brain and mind. PNS activation reduces blood pressure and slows the heart and breathing rates after a stressful event. Additionally, blood flow is redirected to the digestive and reproductive organs, and the endocrine and lymphatic system, those parts of your body that aren’t needed in order to survive.
Dr. Sarah Dolgonos describes how the body is better able to extract nutrients from the food you eat and more effectively eliminate toxins because of the increased blood circulation. A yoga practice encourages you to pay attention to the sensations in your body and your reactions to those sensations.”

Bonus: Boost Your Brain With Just 20 Minutes Of Yoga

That’s right — in addition to relieving stress, yoga might even make you smarter too. A recent study on the relationship of yoga to executive function found that just 20 minutes of yoga improves your brain power:

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” according to study researcher Neha Gothe (via Huffington Post)

Author Dean Radin even believes it will give you superpowers (I agree!). So . . .

What can you do TODAY to ignite your relaxation response? What might you build into your ongoing routine, even at just one hour a week?