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Yoga and Stress Response: The Brainy-Body Benefits On and Off the Mat

in Science, Thanks for the tip, YD News
Yoga Brain Stress Response

"...it's not magic. It's neurobiology."

Stressed in yoga class? You’re doing it right. Sort of. This article from Alex Korb, Ph.D. at Psychology Today stresses the importance of finding the calm in stressful situations, like twisted triangle and dealing with squares. (see what we did there?)

From what we know about stress it does have its benefits, like when we need that extra boost of adrenaline to power through paperwork (taxes, anyone? oy) or to run from danger. But what we don’t need is that physiological stress response occurring during our normal daily lives. Luckily yoga practice helps us learn how to switch that off, to switch on the relaxation response and to remain calm and focused even when we’re faced with MTA delays and no more almond milk at your favorite cafe.  (is that organic?)

This is a great read and an inadvertently legit response to the whole NYT ‘Yoga Wrecking Your Body’ clusterfluffle, taking a look at the brain-body benefits of a yoga practice. Here’s a bit where Korbmeister talks about the nervous system and yoga:

Interestingly, despite all the types of stressful situations a person can be in (standing on your head, running away from a lion, finishing those TPS reports by 5 o’clock) the nervous system has just one stress response.  The specific thoughts you have may differ, but the brain regions involved, and the physiological response will be the same.  The physiological stress response means an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and elevation of cortisol and other stress hormones.

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.

We love how Dr. Korb points out that yoga need not be done only in a class, and also that just because you’re in class it doesn’t mean you’re doing yoga.

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.

After going back to my Dad’s yoga class a few times, I eventually came to the realization that not only can you practice yoga in real life, but, conversely, you could go to a yoga class and not really be doing yoga.  Some of those hot, tan, thin women around him might just be placing their legs behind their heads, and still not be focusing on keeping their breath calm and steady, or their minds clear (Note: I have removed a lame blonde joke).  They might be focused on something else entirely.  Without the sustained intention of focusing on the present, and calming the mind, going to a yoga class is literally just going through the motions.

Read the whole thing: Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits



15 comments… add one
  • Vision_Quest2

    ” The asana practice challenges you in a specific way, but life itself offers plenty of challenges on its own.”

    Stop right there. At the risk of sounding like a “square” who has to be dealt with, my yoga practice went middle path a long time ago.

    Self-mortification from a yoga class, just adds to my stress response (with the life I have). Stress from a yoga class provokes a cortisol response, which will encourage fat to be stored around your midsection.

    On the other hand, I took some of the kick-butt orientation I learned in class to my home practice. Minus paying the drill sergeant.

  • In trying to re-train your automatic stress response in a yoga asana class that is taught and practiced in an unBalancing way you will actually make it WORSE. MOST yoga classes offered in the West, and even in India, are taught with approaches that are unBalancing on MANY levels. These cause physiological imBalances in the central nervous system, the stress response, the musculo-skeletal system, the metabolic system and the endocrine system… there is NO system of the body that is unaffected when Yoga is practiced with an unBalanced approach.
    THIS is what should be discussed, YogaDork, because it would answer all of the points raised in the New York Times article, AND all points raised by everyone who’s responded to it so far…

  • Hi
    Wow….Great site..Nice blog.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Awesome article, thank you!! I teach in Austin, Tx. & for the past few months my focus has been on students relaxing their faces & it is amazing to see the consistent nervous system response…
    I love this blog & thanks for posting my cow faced pose!!!
    Namaste y’all

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