I’m honored to bring you today’s guest post by Krista Shirley, owner and lead teacher of The Yoga Shala in Winter Park, FL who brings a wealth of knowledge about how stress affects our bodies and how we can better manage our perception and response to stress.
Many people are stressed nowadays. Parents are stressed about their children, students are stressed about their grades, and citizens are stressed about the economy. Stress can be any external or internal pressure on the body. Stemming from the mind, this uncomfortable feeling has physiological effects such as increased heartbeat, sweaty palms, and sometimes even anxiety attacks. Stressors are abundant in daily life. From the heartache of a break up to the anxiety of sitting in traffic, almost anything can be a stressor. In reaction to such stress, the body is naturally inclined to respond with a “fight-or-flight” reaction. This is biologically beneficial when one wants to swim away from a dangerous current or run away from a predator as our ancestors might have done. However, such a response to every single stressor in the modern times can strain the body.
THE STRESS AFFECTS OUR BODIES
Typically when the mind interprets a stressful incident, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. This sends hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine into the blood stream, resulting in a faster heartbeat, higher blood pressure, and a more focused mind. These are symptoms of the “fight” response. This state often overrides the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for relaxing and calming the body. This is not the ideal response for every instance of stress because it can lead to detrimental effects on the body such as chronic pain, and cardiovascular disease.
Lack of action from the SNS, or reacting with the “flight” response, is not a good thing either. People reacting with the “flight” response often try to avoid possible stressors by running away from hard tasks or difficult situations. In turn, many feel that their lives are unfulfilling and retreat into depression.
“THE CHALLENGE” RESPONSE
The ideal response to stress is what is called the “challenge response,” or a balance of “inner fire and inner calm.” With this equilibrium, one can react to stress with confidence and composure. To determine if the challenge response has been attained, one can measure heart-rate variability. “Heart-rate variability” is the speed in which one’s heartbeat goes from a resting state to an aroused state. People with high heart-rate variability have nervous systems that are not solely controlled by the SNS. Being able to switch rapidly between rest and stress indicates “physical and emotional resilience.” One way to achieve the “challenge response,” or higher heart-rate variability, is through yoga.
THE INFLUENCE OF YOGA
Researchers from Newcastle University took 26 adults and randomly split them into two groups. One group was given an aerobic workout while the other was given a 90-minute yoga regimen two times a week. They found that six weeks of practicing yoga increased the influence of the parasympathetic system without decreasing the effect of the sympathetic system. The yoga group reported achieving higher levels of heart-rate variability while the aerobics group showed no significant change.
If you have been doing yoga for a while, this news should not come as a surprise for you. In yoga, hard poses are just chances to show grace under fire. With devoted practice, what used to be difficult and literally painful, will no longer be an obstacle. Scrunching your face, being frustrated, and grunting loudly during “hard” postures will not help you stay in it. Rather, focus is placed on reducing tension by focusing on deep breathing—especially when it feels like the particular asana is going to break your bones. Slowly, conscious breathing during difficult poses begins to override the pain associated with the posture. With more power given to the PNS, yogis learn to deal with the stressors more effectively.
In another study done by researchers at the University of California, seventeen clinically depressed participants practiced yoga three times a week for eight weeks. By the end of the study, only six of the eleven participants did not fully recover from depression. Recovered patients showed an increase in SNS activity and a decrease in PNS influence.
Many consider yoga to be an activity to help one relax. While this is a benefit of yoga, it is certainly not the only one. Child’s pose is not a reason to run away from every uncomfortable or seemingly impossible asana. Daily practice of the Ashtanga Yoga sequence requires the student to sink into every pose of the sequence with equanimity. Not only will muscles improve after holding the pose, but brain circuits are made stronger because of the decision to accept and stay in the challenge. Even though the sequence might seem to go on forever, one will always end up fine in savasana. By staying in the stress on the mat, the brain is more equipped to respond with the SNS and face challenges off the mat.
Scientific and biological evidence serve to reveal both the benefits of practicing the asanas and an inherent truth found in one of yoga’s principles. Yoga teaches us that everything is passing. Just as the backbreaking poses last only for a few minutes, stressful moments in life are short-lived as well. The initial pain of the break-up cannot possibly last more than five years and traffic jams rarely persist over two hours. With this knowledge, yogis can go into both the comfortable and not-so-comfortable situations in life with peace. They are no longer controlled by their external stressors because of their inner peace. Keep honing the challenge response through regular practice so that the inevitable stressful moments in life will just be a chance for you to show grace under fire.
About the author: Krista Shirley is the owner and lead teacher of The Yoga Shala, located in Winter Park, FL. The Yoga Shala began in 2003, after Krista became certified to teach at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashthanga Yoga Institute in India and was advised by her teacher to return to Central Florida and open a yoga school. The Yoga Shala is traditional Ashtanga Yoga studio offering beginners courses, Mysore practice, led classes, apprenticeships and regular workshops. Learn more about Krista and The Yoga Shala at theyogashala.org.
(Photo: Getty Images)