It has long been known that Yoga has Ying and Yang properties. Each style, no matter if its restorative or power has an effect on both the mind and body and it works, not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit. For instance for A-Types, Restorative, Yin and Hatha styles can be very mentally challenging and on the other hand for those who find body weight exercises challenging and linking breath with movement (as in Vinyasa, and Power yoga) can find the transitions and posture challenging.

Your brain tends to react to stressors, feeling of  discomfort and disorientation in an automatic way, by triggering the physiological stress response; which results in activating anxious neural chatter between the prefrontal cortex and the more emotional limbic system. The stress response itself increases the likelihood of anxious thoughts, like “Oh man, I’m totally going to pull something,” or ” how long do I have to hold this one legged eagle pose”. And in fact, your anxious thoughts themselves further exacerbate the stress response. One should not give into the speed wobble or what we coaches call “the shake n’ bake,” this is all just a neurological response to the challenge.

Interestingly, despite all the types of stressful situations, both physcially and mentally  a person can be in (inversions, running away while being chased, box jumps at the gym or even finishing your boss’s expense report by 5 o’clock) the nervous system has just one stress response; which should you leave you with some comfort as you just need to learn to feel the signs and then switch on which attitude you wish to combat the stressor with – like a light switch. The specific thoughts you have may differ, but the brain regions involved, and the physiological response will always be the same.

So what does this physiological stress response “feel” like? The physiological stress response can come in the form of an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and elevation of cortisol and other stress hormones, sweating and that feeling of “fight or flight… our primal feelings.

Stress and Mental Health has been a large focus on many health strategies around the world, and Yoga is one of the most beneficial, therapeutic and holistic forms of treatment one can invest in, but of course I am bias. See for yourself…

Yoga & GABA Levels:

The World Health Organization reports that mental illness makes up to fifteen percent of disease in the world. Depression and anxiety disorders both contribute to this burden and are associated with low GABA levels. Currently, these disorders have been successfully treated with pharmaceutical agents designed to increase GABA levels.

According to the researchers, yoga has shown promise in improving symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and epilepsy. “Our findings clearly demonstrate that in experienced yoga practitioners, brain GABA levels increase after a session of yoga,” said lead author Chris Streeter, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at BUSM and a research associate at McLean Hospital.

“This study contributes to the understanding of how the GABA system is affected by both pharmacologic and behavioral interventions and will help to guide the development of new treatments for low GABA states,” said co-author Domenic Ciraulo, MD, professor and chairman of the department of psychiatry at BUSM.

“Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances,” study researcher Dr. Chris Streeter, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, said in a statement. “This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders.”

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons hypothesized that there are certain imbalances in the brain when a person has depression or stress-related conditions. Such imbalances include low activity of something called gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA); low activity of GABA is linked with epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and PTSD, researchers said.

The researchers hypothesized that yoga works to increase the activity of GABA; resulting in amelioration of disease symptoms. This has far-reaching implications for the integration of yoga-based practices in the treatment of a broad array of disorders exacerbated by stress,” the researchers wrote.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Psychology today (Sept 2011):

“The fascinating thing about the mind-body interaction is that it works both ways. For example, if you’re stressed, your muscles will tense (preparing to run away from a lion), and this will lead to more negative thinking. Relaxing those muscles, particularly the facial muscles, will push the brain in the other direction, away from stress, and toward more relaxed thoughts. Similarly, under stress, your breathing rate increases. Slowing down your breathing pushes the brain away from the stress response, and again toward more relaxed thinking.

So how does this all fit together? As I stated before, the stress response in the nervous system is triggered reflexively by discomfort and disorientation. The twisting of your spine, the lactic acid building up in your straining muscles, the uneasy feeling of being upside down, the inability to breathe, are all different forms of discomfort and disorientation, and tend to lead reflexively to anxious thinking and activation of the stress response in the entire nervous system. However, just because this response is automatic, does not mean it is necessary. It is, in fact, just a habit of the brain. One of the main purposes of yoga is to retrain this habit so that your brain stops automatically invoking the stress response

Some people might think that the stress response is an innate reflex and thus can’t be changed. To clarify, the response is partly innate and partly learned in early childhood.. Yes, the stress response comes already downloaded and installed on your early operating system. However, this tendency is enhanced, by years of reinforcement. In particular, you absorb how those around you, particularly your parents react to stressful situations. Their reactions get wired into your nervous system. However, just because a habit is innate, and then reinforced, does not mean it is immune to change. Almost any habit can be changed, or at least improved, through repeated action of a new habit.

To give an example of changing a similarly innate reaction, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you have a gag reflex. This gag reflex gets in the way of many college freshmen as they struggle through the college socialization process of chugging a beer. Most have a difficult time. However, by the time senior year spring break rolls around, many of them have learned how to largely suppress that reflex. Like your gag reflex, just because your stress response is innate and automatic doesn’t mean it can’t be reshaped through sustained, and intentioned practice.

For some people waking up at 6:30AM to go to a yoga class would automatically trigger their stress response. The good news is that you don’t actually have to go to a class to practice yoga. The poses most people associate with yoga are just a particular way of practicing yoga called the asana practice (“asana” translates to “pose”). The asana practice challenges you in a specific way, but life itself offers plenty of challenges on its own. Under any stressful circumstance you can attempt the same calming techniques: breathing deeply and slowly, relaxing your facial muscles, clearing your head of anxious thoughts, focusing on the present. In fact, applying these techniques to real life is what yoga is all about. Yoga is simply the process of paying attention to the present moment and calming the mind. Over time you will start to retrain your automatic stress reaction, and replace it with one more conducive to happiness  and overall well-being.”



Huffington Post:

Harvard Health Publications: Yoga and Mental Health

Pyschology Today:

About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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