One of the top reasons people begin practicing yoga is for better health. The other main reason for taking up yoga is to reduce stress. These two main benefits of yoga are linked and are the main factors on how yoga is a powerful therapy for healing the physical body. Yoga is used as a therapy for cancer, infertility, lung disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, insomnia, high blood pressure, and joint pain. Yet there is very little awareness and understanding on exactly how yoga heals, even in the yoga and medical communities. The key is understanding the relationships between stress, yoga, and disease.
Illness vs. stress
Medical research estimates that as much as 90 percent of illness and disease is stress related. A few of the many diseases and conditions that have been linked to an overactive stress response include cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hypertension some types of diabetes mellitus, some autoimmune diseases, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, reproductive problems, and suppression of the immune system. Thus, a simple way to reduce the occurrence of illness and help heal disease is to actively reduce as much stress in your life as possible.
The fight or flight response
What we feel as stress, is the product of the sympathetic nervous system or the “fight or flight” response: an almost instantaneous surge in heart rate, cardiac output, blood pressure, sweating, shallow breathing, and metabolism, combined with a tensing of muscles. Internally, the fight or flight response shuts down digestion and elimination and reduces blood flow to the internal organs. Short term, this stress reaction is a good thing. The fight or flight response prepares us to respond to any environmental threat by fighting against it or fleeing from it. But long term, continuous exposure to stress is harmful, placing excess wear and tear on the body’s systems and severely limiting the body’s natural maintenance and healing abilities.
Chronic stress can lead to continuously high levels of cortisol. This hormone at normal levels helps to maintain an active, healthy body (including regulation of metabolism and blood pressure). But excessive amounts of cortisol can suppress the immune system and cause sleep disturbances, loss of sex drive, and loss of appetite. High levels of cortisol can also increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and cholesterol and triglyceride levels (risk factors for both heart attacks and strokes). The byproducts of cortisol act as sedatives, which can lead to changes in mood, especially to feelings of depression.
Rest and renew response
Fortunately, the body has a natural counterbalance to the fight or flight response, called the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “relaxation response.” The parasympathetic nervous system becomes activated when the threat or stressor has passed or ended, but it can also be consciously activated by deepening the breath and by relaxing the skeletal muscles.
When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration (the pace of the breath). Digestion and elimination are allowed to be stimulated, and blood is free to travel to the digestive, reproductive, glandular, and immune systems—systems necessary for the promotion of long-term health. The parasympathetic response is also known as the “rest and renew” stage, when the body has the time and resources to heal the body and to respond to illness. Obviously, by increasing the frequency, time, and depth of the parasympathetic mode we not only allow our body to recover from illness and disease, but we also practice preventive medicine by allowing the body to perform all of its essential maintenance tasks.
Yoga decreases stress hormones
Yoga’s emphasis on long, deep breathing and conscious relaxation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes its rest and renew functions. In fact, a recent study has shown yoga to decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. The meditative practices of yoga help to reduce the reactiveness of the mind to stressors and to lessen the intensity of the fight or flight response. Yoga also teaches us to see potential stressors as challenges rather than threats, enabling one to avoid the stress response entirely. Yoga’s cultivation of physical awareness and mindfulness helps one to identify the symptoms of stress right at the start of the fight or flight response. This allows one to quickly take measures to stop and abate the stress response before it becomes toxic to the body.
Other yoga healing mechanisms
Not only does yoga’s ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system reduce stress and allow the body to heal itself, but the practice of yoga also improves the body’s inherent healing abilities. Many of the below processes are often combined in a yoga class to further boost yoga’s healing powers.
- Strengthens the immune system. The inverting, twisting and compressing that occurs in yoga postures enhances the circulation of blood and body fluids. This increase in circulation not only improves the body’s ability to deliver the materials needed to allow healing to take place but also activates the lymphatic system to maintain the normal functioning of the immune system.
- Reduces chronic inflammation. Studies have shown that a daily yoga and meditation practice may be effective at lowering chronic inflammation. If the inflammation response becomes prolonged it can result in cellular destruction and cause inflammatory disorders and non-infectious diseases.
- Reduces aches and pains. Practicing yoga poses improve muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion, all very important for the healing and prevention of back pain and musculoskeletal diseases such as arthritis and osteoporosis.
- Strengthens the lungs. Yoga’s emphasis on deep breathing combined with backbends improves lung capacity and function.
- Cultivates inner awareness. Long posture holds and meditation encourages shifting our focus inward, which cultivates a deeper awareness of what is going on inside us—physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically.
- Improves eating and digestion. A regular yoga practice can reduce your appetite and encourage healthy food choices. Yoga also can strengthen your digestion, and stimulate waste elimination.
- Promotes a healthy body weight. Yoga can be an effective long-term holistic approach to losing excess weight through burning calories and boosting metabolism.
- Yoga improves posture. Most yoga poses can lengthen and help reverse abnormal curves in the spine. The body’s posture has been found to affect every system in the body, yoga’s efficacy in creating optimal spinal alignment will also improve one’s overall health and well-being.
- Encourages emotional release. Unexpressed emotions that are held in the body can create physical tightness, stress, tension, and even pain. Yoga can release emotional tension in the body which in turn encourages physical and emotional healing.
- Reduces negative thought patterns. Excessive negative thinking can damage the neural structures that regulate our emotions, memory, and feelings. Yoga and meditation are powerful tools to physically rewire our brains to experience more calm, peace, and joy.
- Improves mood. Yoga balances the central nervous system and endocrine system and stimulates the release of endorphins – natural mood-elevating neurochemicals. As you practice, your mind relaxes and you’re able to stop dwelling on stressful thoughts and situations.
- Supports a healthy lifestyle. Practicing yoga also encourages one to lead a healthier lifestyle, through developing the self-awareness and discipline required for positive behavior modification.
While yoga possesses such a strong support to the body’s healing mechanisms, it is important to view yoga as an adjunct or complementary therapy, and not relied upon as the only therapy for healing disease.