The Science Behind The Mental Health Benefits Of Yoga
Unless you’ve renounced all aspects of modern life and run off to live in the mountains, chances are you experience some level of stress from time to time. Stressors are everywhere, from colossal life changes that throw us off balance to everyday annoyances like people cutting us off in traffic.
While we may not be able to avoid stress altogether (nor should we seek to), we can change how we perceive and react to it. Now, I’m not talking about bubble baths, bottles of wine, or Netflix marathons. Sure, those things can reduce stress temporarily, but they do not have a lasting effect.
However, self-care and mindfulness practices like yoga can change how we see stress. While becoming a yogi may not always make you “zenned out” all of the time, ” it will make a noticeable difference in how you handle challenging situations. And we’re not just speaking from personal experience; science proves it too.
So how does coming to your yoga mat each day lower your stress levels? And what are the best yoga poses to stay calm and collected? Let’s find out!
How Does Yoga Reduce Stress?
The stress-reduction benefits of yoga are partly due to the practice’s calming effect on the nervous system and mind.
When we cultivate a regular yoga practice, our nervous system shifts from the sympathetic nervous system branch (fight or flight mode) to the parasympathetic (rest and digest mode). When the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, our mind understands that we are safe and, in turn, sends signals to our body to relax.
Nowadays, our nervous systems often remain sympathetic as we are constantly on the go and always have something to worry about. Thus, doing yoga every day can bring more balance to our system, which helps ease our worries.
In addition, the stillness that yoga practice promotes gives us a much-needed “slow down” in our modern, fast-paced lives, preventing burnout and chronic stress.
The Science Behind Yoga For Stress
The link between stress and the nervous system is well-known in the medical world. However, there is also specific research on yoga and its effect on the nervous system.
For example, this study reveals that yoga can correct the under activity of the PNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and GABA systems by stimulating the vagus nerves, which are the main pathway to the “rest and digest mode.”
In addition, numerous yoga-based interventions have been carried out and recorded positive changes in stress levels after practicing yoga.
For example, 105 clinically stressed adults participated in a study where they practiced Yin Yoga and mindfulness for five weeks. The researchers compared this control group to one that did no yoga and saw a much more significant reduction in stress among the yoga practitioners than the non-yoga practitioners.
The researchers found these results by measuring the Plasma Adrenomedullin levels of each participant before and after the program. Adrenomedullin is the cardiovascular response our body has when exposed to stress. Typically, the more stressed a person feels, the higher the levels will be. At the end of the study, researchers noted that the plasma ADM levels of the yoga control group had dropped significantly, suggesting their stress levels had greatly diminished.
What is the Best Yoga Style for Stress Relief?
While yoga, in general, can help to lower high-stress levels, certain styles of yoga and specific poses can be particularly beneficial.
Many yogis find slow styles of yoga, like yin and restorative, to be the most calming and soothing. This is because they promote stillness and have more mindfulness and meditative aspects.
Still, other people find Vinyasa and Ashtanga beneficial as the dynamic movement helps to move stagnant energy from the body while clearing negative thoughts from the mind. So it’s worth trying different styles to see what works best for you.
Yoga Nidra (an ancient yogic practice similar to a guided meditation) is also scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety. Aside from rebalancing the nervous system, it lowers cortisol levels and reduces physical symptoms of stress like tension and chronic pain. Plus, as Nidra is an entirely passive practice, it is accessible to all.
Best Yoga Poses For Stress Relief
When it comes to asanas, choose calming poses like forward folds rather than energizing ones like backbends. Here are five of the best stress-busting yoga postures:
- Child’s Pose – As one of the most nurturing asanas, the child’s pose feels like the earth is giving us a big hug and telling us everything will be ok.
- Standing Forward Fold – This pose allows us to (physically) hang loose, prompting our mind to do the same. As you let go of tension in your spine, shoulders, and hamstrings, you also start to feel your mental anguish melt away.
- Reclined Bound Angle Pose – Bringing a gentle stretch to the hips and chest, this heart-opener creates space in the body and the mind. Plus, placing a bolster under the spine creates a supportive sensation, allowing you to let go entirely.
- Supine Twist – This reclined twist helps release tension in the back and shoulders, where stress commonly appears. Plus, as this pose often signals the transition into savasana, our attention naturally turns inward, and our minds settle.
- Legs Up The Wall – This restorative inversion breaks up stagnating energy in the body while improving your circulation and lymph flow. As fresh blood flows to the brain, the fuzziness, exhaustion, and headaches diminish, leaving us calm and rejuvenated.
Although the postures above may have the most calming effect, no yoga poses will increase stress, so feel free to practice whichever asanas you prefer. When it comes to stress reduction, any type of yoga practice is better than none!
The same goes for the duration. If you don’t have one hour every day to spend on your mat, don’t worry. Focus on short but consistent practice rather than long but irregular sessions.
Final Thoughts On Yoga For Stress
Regular yoga practice reminds us to slow down, breathe and connect to the present moment. With a more mindful approach to life, we become less affected by the many minor stressors that occur every day.
So if you’re among the 77% of the population that feels regularly overburdened, allow yoga to relieve your everyday stress and alter your reaction to future stressors too!
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