The significance of yoga to relieving stress and improving mental as well as physical health has markedly been recognised in recent years. A report by the Associated Chamber of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM India) says that the demand for yoga instructors is likely to increase by 30-35 percent in the coming few years. Initiatives like the International Day of Yoga and increased recommendations by doctors and health experts have led to a rise in yoga learning in the country. The advantages of its practice are manifold, especially to stress management. It uses a combination of controlled breathing and meditation with physical poses to release tension.
When your mind is constantly occupied by work, family and other pressures, you will surely feel frustrated, exhausted, irritable or sad, all of which are reactions to excessive stress. But yoga puts you in a deep state of relaxation, psychologically. You focus on your breathing, turning attention away from the causes of stress and thereby calming your mind. It essentially gives your brain cells a break from continuous exertion.
When we perceive a threat in our surroundings, the hypothalamus at the base of the brain activates an alarm system. Adrenaline along with cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is released to help you react appropriately in such a fight-or-flight situation. This stress response system usually returns to normal once the threat has passed but if you continue to feel under attack from stressors, then the hormones will be produced in excess, altering regular body functions. This can lead to anxiety, depression, headaches, heart diseases, digestive problems, sleep troubles and more. Yoga gives rise to the relaxation response which controls the effect of the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight process and stimulates the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system or the rest-and-digest system. It lowers high blood pressure, controls heart palpitations (which are triggered due to adrenaline) and reduces cortisol levels, helping you deal with stress better.
A comparative study on the impact of walking versus yoga on mood and anxiety found that people who practiced yoga had higher GABA levels, a chemical produced in the brain. Its lower presence is associated with anxiety and depression. Similarly, another study by Harvard medical researchers established the ability of yoga to improve gene expressions related to energy metabolism and insulin secretion, which helps in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood.
The effect of yoga on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients is also being researched. Military personnel or people who have endured severe trauma like physical or mental abuse are sometimes unable to recover from the initial reactions and continue to experience fear and flashbacks. But according to a publication in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, since existing evidence suggests that prolonged stress response can be controlled with the practice of yoga, it could help with PTSD as complementary treatment. Additionally, yoga can even work towards preventing the onset of mental illnesses, especially in teenagers and young adults.
Moreover, yoga’s stress reducing properties help boost brain power. It clears your mind and improves concentration as well as memory capacity, making it easier to enhance performance on the daily tasks. A research at Illinois State University showed the participants to have greater mental focus after a yoga session as opposed to those who went for a jog.
Practising yoga is indeed beneficial to your overall mental well-being. It acts as a natural antidepressant, and even a simple breathing exercise can make a considerable difference.