Stress, Yoga and the Importance of Relaxation
Stress and the Human Body
What is Stress?
In physiological terms a stressor literally means anything that initiates a ‘stress response’ in our bodies.
Stress is an essential part of our lives. Without stressors, or ‘challenges’, we would quickly lose motivation and interest in life. Without the chemical stimuli produced by our natural stress response our bodies would cease to function and we would die!
Problems arise when there is an overload of stressors.
If we feel unable to cope with the many pressures of life, stress builds up inside us like a pressure cooker without a valve. If we cannot relax and let go of stress the result can be physical or mental breakdown.
The stress response – ‘Fight or Flight’
The body’s immediate reaction to a stressful situation is to prepare it for ‘fight or flight’.
Some of the many physical effects of this are:
- Heart rate and blood pressure increase
- ‘Non-essential’ processes such as digestion are inhibited
- Respiration rate increases
Long term stress produces an hormonal response, which causes the body to be in a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’.
The fight or flight response is fine if you are being chased by an anachronistic dinosaur, but it is often an inappropriate reaction to the stresses of modern life.
If the stress response is long term our health suffers :
- Severe strain is put upon the heart.
- Muscles which are constantly tense and ready for action begin to ache.
- The digestive system is inhibited, leading to indigestion and hyperacidity. This in turn can lead to ulcers, IBS and colitis.
- If the body is unbalanced the immune system becomes weak.
- When muscles are tense, breathing becomes shallow and restricted to the upper part of the chest.
To live a happy and healthy life it is essential to find a way of relaxing and letting go of stress.
One of the most effective ways of releasing stress is the practice of Yoga, meditation and relaxation.
Yoga and Relaxation
The body’s natural counter balance to activity and stress is sleep.
If our lives are in harmony, when we sleep we disengage our minds from stressors and the parasympathetic nervous system initiates the ‘relaxation response’:
- Heart rate and blood pressure are reduced
- Peristalsis increases and digestion works normally
- Bronchioles contract which lowers oxygen levels and slows metabolism
- Production of stress hormones ceases
Unfortunately if we are not coping with stress we carry the stress reaction into sleep. It becomes impossible to ‘switch off’.
Yoga is a complete system, which can initiate and maximise the benefits of the relaxation response.
Asana (posture work) helps release tension in the muscles and aids circulation. Aches and pains associated with stress are relieved. When the body is relaxed we can breathe normally.
Breath awareness & breathing exercises encourage healthy, efficient breathing.
This increases energy levels and vitality, making it easier to cope with stress. In Yoga we learn breathing techniques (Ujjayi for example) which are profoundly calming and relaxing.
Relaxation allows us to withdraw from the outside world and ‘let go’ of stress.
In Yoga Nidra the underlying causes of tension can be released.
Meditation calms and quietens the mind, which in turn leads to a state of ease and relaxation in the body. Our meditation practice also brings a greater clarity of mind and a better perspective on the things that make us worried and anxious.
The effectiveness of Yoga techniques in reducing the harmful effects of the body’s stress response is proven.
In Relaxation :
- Active ‘beta’ brain waves of normal consciousness are replaced by slower more rhythmic ‘alpha’ brain waves.
- Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration slow down dramatically.
- Levels of stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisone, in the blood are reduced.
Through Yoga we can learn to stop being victims of stress. Indeed we can learn to use stress as a positive force for change.
“This is the great secret of Yoga relaxation. It is not only a way of coping with stress, it provides a means of transforming and positively utilising tension as a stepping stone to greater awareness, efficiency and achievement in life”.
from Resources, posted March 2020