Sometimes a good book, a bubble bath, or an episode of your favorite show is all you need to unwind. Lately, those might not be enough. If your go-to stress relievers aren’t working or you’re feeling more overwhelmed, consider a deeper way to relax with something both your mind and body will appreciate.
Yoga is an ancient meditative practice combining exercise and breathing techniques that many people practice for health and fitness. From the Sanskrit word yuj, yoga means “to yoke” or “to unite” because of the mind-body connection it creates. Growing research is now showing that yoga is more than just a workout — it can actually reduce stress. What better time to learn about this restorative practice than September, which is National Yoga Month!
The Science of Stress
Stress is a natural stimulus that prepares us for either flight or fight. When we encounter danger or feel under pressure, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones increase our blood pressure and heart rate, compelling us to stay focused and alert in the face of challenging circumstances.
This physical response is generally a good thing, but when stress is too frequent, too intense, or lasts for a long time, it may cause problems that could manifest as irritability, sleeplessness, or digestive upsets. Stress can also aggravate or even trigger chronic diseases.
Stress and our response either way can lead to unwanted health problems. Prolonged, uninterrupted, unexpected, and unmanageable stresses like the ones so many of us are facing these days can be most damaging.
How Yoga Helps
Research has been conducted on the efficacy of yoga for stress relief. An exploratory study from 2017 uncovered that yoga slowed cellular aging in just 12 weeks. Researchers also found lower levels of inflammation and significantly decreased levels of cortisol in participants who practiced yoga five days a week.
In another recent study, a three-month yoga retreat was associated with enhanced stress resilience and well-being. Participants reported feeling less anxious and depressed and more mindful. Researchers also found lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers and a threefold increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — a crucial protein for creating new brain cells and improving brain function.
The benefits of a yoga practice involve more than just poses by including breathing and meditation for relaxation. Studies like these suggest that yoga can help lessen the harmful effects of stress on our brains and bodies.
There are many simple yoga techniques you can do at home for as little as a few minutes a day to lower stress. In this video, yoga and fitness expert Sara Fowler, RN, demonstrates some of her favorite stress-relieving poses to try for yourself.