I started practicing yoga with one very specific intention in mind, and that was simply to attain spiritual enlightenment. No joke. I was dead set on being enlightened in this lifetime and I saw yoga as one way to speed up that process. That was over 15 years ago. I genuinely had no interest in the poses, their effects on the body or how I looked in my yoga attire, or all the other popular reasons we do yoga. Needless to say I’m still not fully enlightened (not even close, to which I’m sure my closest friends and family can attest!). However, I’m absolutely certain that without the practice of yoga and meditation over all these years, I’d be a lost soul in the world with no anchor, no connection to my deeper self and without the health and vitality I am blessed with today. And I’d be totally stressed out. Totally. I’ve explored some of the science behind why we are compelled to continue our yoga practice, and the connection between stress relief and yoga.
At one point I suffered a severe injury from my hard, physical yoga regimen, and had to stop practicing altogether. At around the same time I began teaching a very gentle form of yoga geared specifically for the purpose of “stress management.” I began to feel great after these sessions and wondered why.
Today, I teach yoga, meditation and other techniques in the Dean Ornish Heart Disease Reversal Program through Ekahi Health System. My class is specifically called “Stress Management” and not “yoga,” although I teach classic and authentic yoga and meditation techniques. In this class I teach Yoga Nidra, an ancient yogic practice where you consciously relax the entire body part by part, finally resting in the depths of your own being and in the stillness and peace within where healing and deep restoration happens. The participants in this program take this “Stress Management” class after either having heart disease or some kind of heart trauma or heart surgery, or having had several risk factors related to heart disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, stroke and possibly a family history of heart disease. Science shows that many of these diseases directly result from chronic stress in the body. I’ve found that these participants are especially motivated to manage their stress because otherwise, their conditions could get worse, and in some case become life-threatening.
So what is the connection between chronic stress relief and yoga? When practiced consciously, yoga has healing and stress relieving properties. No matter how young, healthy, and spry we once were (or currently are) “life” happens to all of us. No one is immune to aging. We all go through some form of pain and suffering during our lives. The stress that builds up from the conscious or unconscious factors of our busy lives contributes to the breakdown of our physical, mental and emotional well-being. This is a very big reason so many of us turn to yoga. So here’s some of the science behind all the perceived, felt, and subtle effects of yoga that keep us hooked and coming back for more.
Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to fear or stress as part of the fight or flight mechanism of survival. The two types of stress are “good stress,” or eustress, and “bad stress,” or distress, and what I’ve been calling “chronic stress.” Eustress is the kind that gets you pumped about a goal or the day ahead, and once the task is complete or the day is done, the cortisol level in the body returns to normal.
Distress however, is the free-floating anxiety that keeps us in unnecessary fight-or-flight mode. And when there is no outlet for the cortisol to be released from distress, the levels of cortisol in the blood remains high. High levels of cortisol in the blood is linked to all kinds of chronic diseases and mental conditions including lower immune function and bone density, increased blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and depression.
How does one relieve distress? This is where yoga asana comes in. Engaging in intense physical activity is known to release cortisol build-up; thus a high-cardio style such as Vinyasa yoga can do wonders to undo stress. Once the tension in the body has been released in a positive and healthy way, cortisol levels return to normal. The proverbial “yoga glow” feeling is largely a result of this release. Maintaining that sense of calm leads us to the science behind pranayama and mediation, and the vagus nerve connection.
The vagus nerve is the largest cranial nerve in the body. It starts at the base of the skull, extends throughout the whole body, and plays a major role in our respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. It helps to regulate all our major bodily functions including heart rate, breath, and digestion.
Good digestion, optimal heart function, and stable moods are all effects of a toned, well-functioning vagus nerve. By having “high vagal tone” we can shift easily from active and sometimes stressful states into more relaxed states. We handle life and all its difficulties better with a properly functioning vagus nerve.
If the vagus nerve is not functioning properly, resulting in “low vagal tone,” the heart rate increases, digestion is sluggish, and moods can become out of control and challenging to manage. Low vagal tone is correlated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy. Yoga has been found to improve these conditions. The hypothesis is that a regular yoga practice promotes vagal stimulation.
Ujjayi pranayama, also called “oceanic breath,” and a form of resistance breathing in yoga practice, has been found to increases the relaxation response, as well as heart rate variability and vagal tone. By comparison, studies show that playing a wind instrument, singing, chanting and listening to a gentle female voice also tone the vagus nerve.
Low-intensity yoga such as the gentler Yin, and restorative Yoga Nidra practices can also positively affect the nervous system. Gentle yoga practice has been found to stimulate the Golgi tendon organs, which specifically sense changes in muscles tension. A slow, restorative practice has been found to produce a deep reduction in excess sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nerve activity. This in turn allows the vagus nerve tone to increase significantly. If that’s a lot of science to take in, simply breathe deeply and practice your yoga with more kindness and awareness toward your beautiful and amazing body, knowing you’re doing it justice by reducing unhealthy stress levels. Furthermore, meditation with a focus on the slow, deep, and mindful breath can do wonders for calming the mind and significantly sending down any distress response .. And whether your yoga is high intensity or low intensity, feither practice is extremely effective in reducing stress.
Though I am still working on that elusive “enlightenment” factor, yoga has taught me about the deep and integral connection of the body, mind and spirit. Yoga has helped me cultivate and maintain my well-being, as well as pave my way towards spiritual awakening — a conscious evolution, if you will. By managing stress effectively, in a way that’s enjoyable for us, we are ultimately loving ourselves. And when we love ourselves first, we can share that love with others.
Salina began the practice of Hatha yoga under master yogi Bharat Das, who teaches yoga outdoors in Kapiolani Park. She received her 200-hour certification from renowned yogis Nicki Doane and Eddie Modestini of Maya Yoga Studio, and is a registered yoga teacher (RYT-200). Salina teaches Ashtanga Yoga, Yin Yoga, Yoga Nidra, and Hatha Yoga classes in Honolulu.
Check out Salina’s teaching schedule and bio here.