Most people go to a yoga class initially because they want to improve something about their bodies: to become more flexible in their legs, to build a stronger core, to gain more endurance strength. These and many other intentions can become a realistic outcome of the physical practice.
But what is on the other side of the physical results of yoga? We know that our bodies can feel better, but is there MORE to yoga? The answer is an astounding yes. As yoga continues to penetrate the mainstream, more and more people are delving into the experience and reaping its rewards.
Another reason people are starting to flock to their yoga studios is because of one simple word: stress! Although it's a simple word, it's a big problem. The notion is getting around that yoga can actually help with stress. Let's take a look at stress and how particular styles of yoga can help reduce stress.
Stress is a normal physiological response in the body that one may experience when there's is a set of perceived negative changes in the environment. These responses may present themselves physically, mentally, and even emotionally. It's important to remember that the stress response is actually a good thing: it's a way the body signals to you that there is a potentially dangerous situation and you need to act. In these circumstances, you may be required to flee, fight, or freeze. In that preparation to act, your heart rate increases, you may get sweaty palms, and your muscles become tense among other things.
Unfortunately, many situations may trigger this response, even seemingly normal ones (i.e. going to work, paying bills, writing an essay, studying for a test). It's not too uncommon to hear people say that they are stressed most of the time; it has become a "normal" state of being! If that is happening, your body is constantly in that fight or flight mode. That is not particularly good for your body or your brain.
There is a hormone in the body that is introduced into the bloodstream when the stress response kicks in; it's called cortisol. When released into the body, it triggers those stress-responses mentioned earlier: increase in heart rate, increase in blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension. Some other symptoms to watch out for when you're under a lot of stress are: fatigue, headaches, teeth grinding, stomach upset, dizziness, and more. In addition to this list, when cortisol floods the bloodstream, it temporarily suppresses other bodily functions like digestion and reproduction. (This could make healthy eating, dieting, and sexual drive a concern to some people.) Chronic stress can actually kill brain cells; this can lead to outcomes like memory loss, hypertension, and heart disease. Continuous stress can change the chemistry and functionality of the brain. It turns out that the one bodily response that is supposed to help you in a life-threatening situation can actually be life threatening!
So now that you know more about the damage that stress can create, what can you do to remedy these outcomes and feel better? This is where yoga can play a significant role in self-healing. The simple act of going to a yoga class allows your mind to focus entirely on the physical practice while removing the distracting thoughts that often lead to stress. As a yoga instructor provides detailed instruction and direction in a yoga class, your intention is to merely pay attention; your mind is directed to the present moment. As you listen to the directions and move your body from pose to pose (or even hold a posture) your focus remains on yourself: the flow of the body and the breath. During a yoga class, past and future thoughts become non-existent. This is a great way to relieve the body and mind of stress.
When you practice yoga, cortisol is less likely to enter the bloodstream, there is no life-threatening circumstance to face. Instead, another set of hormones are introduced: dopamine and serotonin, to name a few. These endorphins are associated with feeling happy; they can also trigger receptors in the brain that help reduce the perception of pain. When your body engages in a healthy physical activity, the body releases these endorphins often creating a feeling of "euphoria." Regular exercise, or the regular practice of yoga, can actually reduce stress and ward off feelings of anxiety and depression.
Unfortunately, meditation sometimes receives a "bad rap." It may not be the most accessible of yoga practices, but it can be a very effective tool when managing stress. Here is how meditation can affect the brain. There is a section of the brain called the amygdala; this is the area that is responsible for the stress-response and the release of cortisol. When this area over fires, particularly in the case of stress, this part of the brain actually increases in size potentially creating more damage to the brain and body. In addition to this, another part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, subsequently shrinks. The pre-frontal cortex is associated with higher order brain functions such as concentration, thoughtful decision making, and concentration. Research suggests that activities like regular mindfulness meditation contributes to the shrinking of the amygdala (the opposite effect of too much stress) and the pre-frontal cortex grows. When you participate in activities that positively contribute to higher brain functions, you're more like able to deal with and manage stressful life situations.
In a mindfulness meditation yoga practice, you focus your attention on one thing; this may be your breath (i.e. the sound, pace, or quality of breath), a set of repeated words like a mantra, or an object like a candle flame. In the practice, it brings your attention to the present moment, just like a moving yoga practice. When your mind actively focuses on a candle flame, for example, it keeps you from being distracted by thoughts of the past or future. As a result, your mind and body settle; they calm down. Mindfulness meditation is a higher brain (pre-frontal cortex) function. And as mentioned earlier, triggering this type of brain function, stimulates pre-frontal cortex growth, more endorphin release, less cortisol release, more happy feelings, and, of course, less stress. And to strip away the intimidation of meditation, you can make this practice very simple; it can be an accessible practice. There is no need, especially if you're new to meditation, to sit for hours on end in complete stillness and silence. You can have a very effective practice by only taking a few minutes (literally 3 or 4 minutes) to focus on your breath or mantra. Even a short meditative practice performed consistently over time can have a positive effect on your brain, body, and overall well-being.
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