The occurrence of stress and awareness of stress is now widespread. Most of us feel stress of varying degrees at some time in our day. Stress is a natural process of our human physiology, and one which we need. Stress helps us to adapt to our changing environments and plays a necessary role in helping us cope with danger.
Our bodies respond perfectly to stress by creating a chain reactions to release various hormones – most notably epinephrine (“adrenaline”), norepinephrine, and cortisol – from the adrenal glands above each kidney. These hormones increase the heart rate, increases respiration, increases the availability of glucose and thus regulating metabolism. They also act as anti-inflammatory hormones, influencing memory formation, controlling salt and water balance, influencing blood pressure and they help in development of the foetus.
Because these responses take a lot of energy, cortisol simultaneously tells other costly physical processes – including digestion, reproduction, physical growth, and some aspects of the immune system – to shut or slow down. When occasions to fight or flee are infrequent and threats pass quickly, the body’s stress thermostat adjusts accordingly: Cortisol levels return to baseline (it takes 40-60 minutes), the intestines resume digesting food, the sex organs kick back into gear, and the immune system resumes fighting infections.
As a yoga teacher I notice so many people are ‘running on stress’, moving too fast the whole time and not allowing the body to recoup and relax. Its clearly at the detriment of their physical and mental health. Prolonged exposure to cortisol inhibits the growth of new neurons, and can cause increased growth of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that controls fear and other emotional responses. Stress hormones also inhibit neuron growth in parts of the brain that’s essential in forming new memories. In this way, stress results in memory impairments and impairs the brain’s ability to put emotional memories in context.
Yoga is the perfect antidote to stress. Yoga has hundreds benefits, one of which is soothing the sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for the stress response. Yoga allows the parasympathetic nervous response to become dominant, which lowers the heart rate, reduces blood pressure and improves the immune response. Yoga encourages us to move from a space of intelligence rather than panic and confusion. Yoga – with the exception of rocket, power, fast vinyasa and some ashtanga – should calm the nervous system. If taught properly a yoga class will always have a focus on the breath – if it doesn’t, find a better class. The breath is magical, it has super human powers which can improve your mental clarity and broaden your awareness.
As you move through yoga poses, being mindful of the breath to elongate, deepen and soften into poses you will find your body opening and yielding in a delicious way. After a yoga class you should feel vibrant, grounded and nurtured and in no way exhausted. Yoga shouldn’t be about stressing the body more. Don’t be mistaken in thinking that by going to a fast class you are getting a better work out. Potentially you are delving deeper into your stress conditioning and serious health problems, such as –
- high blood pressure
- adrenal fatigue
- skin changes (bruises and purple stretch marks)
- muscle weakness
- mood swings, which show as anxiety, depression or irritability
- increased thirst and frequency of urination.
You are much wiser to choose a hatha, iyengar, jivamukti or slow vinyasa class if you feel at all stressed out. Work intelligently with your body, for without your health what are you left with?
If you’re not sure how to approach yoga, drop me a line and I’ll give you some advice.