Stress is the most common root cause of many health issues. Stress is triggered by everyday environmental hurdles like traffic and crowded trains, our jobs, exams and school work, and even managing relationships. Yoga is a popular form of stress management that works on balancing the autonomic nervous system, activating the rest and digest response, and much more. Physically, it improves relaxation, eases pain and stiffness, and improves blood circulation and oxygen supply.
In fact, breath is the strongest and most powerful tool which helps us release stress. Breath helps control the mind and calm down the nervous system. Yoga practices activate the parasympathetic nerves. And, breath keeps them active and balanced so tension and tightness is released, making us feel less stressed or anxious. Breath also draws our attention to the present and makes us more aware and mindful. This awareness helps us control how we react in a fight or flight situation.
Research on How Yoga helps You Manage Stress
Over the years many studies have been conducted to look deeply into the impact of yoga for stress. Yoga and stress research goes to show the benefits are multifold. In a Stress & Health article, authors tested yoga’s beneficial effects on stress due to five psychosocial mechanisms: Increases in self-compassion, mindfulness, spiritual well-being, interoceptive awareness, and self-control. The results showed that perceived stress and stress reactivity were correlated with each other and with lower mindfulness, self-compassion, and self-control. As the intervention progressed, participants reported experiencing less perceived stress (e.g., saw life as more controllable) and less stress reactivity (e.g., found it easier to relax). It was found that yoga’s immediate and largest benefit is increased awareness and attention to bodily sensations and internal states.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, yoga was an effective practice that helped manage stress-related problems as well as maintain the well-being of individuals. The study looked at 668 healthy adults during 4-10 weeks of lockdown. This consisted of a few groups - yoga practitioners, other spiritual practitioners and non-practitioners. Results revealed that yoga practitioners significantly differed in the perception of personal control, illness concern and emotional impact of Covid-19. Yoga practitioners also significantly differed in the cognitive reappraisal strategy for regulating their emotions than the other two groups. Interestingly, it was found that beginners -those who had started practicing yoga only during the lockdown period reported no significant difference for general wellbeing and peace of mind when compared to those practicing for some time. Thus, evidence showed that yoga is an effective self- management strategy to cope with stress, anxiety and depression, and maintain wellbeing during COVID19 lockdown.
It was also found that yoga practitioners had lower depression, lower stress, lower anxiety, higher wellbeing, and higher peace of mind than the other spiritual practitioners and non-practitioner group. Another study with 52 women with a mean age of 33.5 ± 6.5 showed that stress, anxiety and depression significantly reduced after 12 sessions of regular hatha yoga practice. They, thus, concluded that yoga is an effective practice and can be used as a complementary medicine in managing stress, anxiety and depression.
A study explored the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life and reduce stress. The results concluded that consistent yoga practice improves depression and can lead to significant increases in serotonin levels coupled with decreases in the levels of monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters and cortisol.
Yoga’s impact on stress and psychological health among employees also showed significant reductions in stress and all psychological health measures (within a yoga group over 16 weeks). When compared to the control group, yoga practitioners showed significant decreases in stress, anxiety, and general psychological health, and significant increases in well-being. The group who did not practice yoga showed significant decreases in stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia after they crossed over and practiced yoga for 8 weeks.
Harvard Health published an article in their Mental Health Letter that addressed how yoga can blunt the harmful effects of stress. It said:
Yoga appears to blunt the harmful effects of heightened stress by influencing the body's response to stress. This is reflected in slower heart and breathing rates and lower blood pressure, all of which are good for the body. There is also evidence that yoga helps increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body's flexibility in responding to stress.
For example, in 2008, researchers presented preliminary results from a study of yoga and pain. Their subjects were 12 yoga practitioners, 14 people with fibromyalgia (a condition many researchers consider a stress-related illness that is characterized by hypersensitivity to pain), and 16 healthy volunteers. When the three groups were subjected to external pain (pressure on a thumbnail), the yoga practitioners had the highest pain tolerance and the lowest pain-related brain activity on a brain scan.
A 2012 National Health Interview reported that 94% of people who practice yoga in the U.S. do so for wellness reasons. Respondents said yoga encourages them to exercise more, eat healthy, improves sleep quality, reduces stress levels and motivates them to reduce alcohol and smoking.
More and more scientists are learning how yoga lowers stress levels. Persistent surges of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, may damage blood vessels and elevate blood pressure. Practicing yoga regularly lowers cortisol levels, perceived stress and reduces pro-inflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation. There are many more studies and research that goes further to show how lower stress levels reduce the chance of anxiety, depression and other psychological problems. Even in children, yoga helps manage stress from peer pressure, studies and exams, and much more.
Useful yoga practices for better stress management
The most useful yoga practices to manage stress are Pranayama, meditation and relaxation. While yoga postures reduce stress hormones, relax the mind and body, and release tension, breathwork and meditation improves oxygen supply, blood circulation, focus, awareness and mindfulness. They release toxins and blockages in the body. Meditation and Yoga Nidra help you balance your thoughts and perceptions. Regular practice improves cardiovascular functioning and reduces activity in the limbic system - the part of the brain dedicated to emotions, thus, reducing emotional reactiveness to triggers. Effective breathing practices include Alternate Nostril Breathing, Oceans Breathing, and Humming Bee Breath.