Yoga is all about killing stress

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Relax, breathe and let go of stress. That is part of the focus in yoga class. Sure, the class is about building flexibility and getting into better physical shape, but yoga goes much deeper than exercise.

It is about linking mind, body and spirit so that there is a balance in our lives. That is why I came to yoga and why I practice it regularly. It is also, I find, what students in my yoga classes desire.

What is the value of learning to release stress and tension?

Well other than the fact it makes you feel better, the scientific community is finding that holding on to stress is even more harmful than first thought.

In fact, according to a story in The New York Times, what they learned is that stress changes the brain.

“As though it weren’t bad enough that chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, heighten the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease and make one a very undesirable dinner companion, now researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that promote its sinister persistence,” wrote Natalie Angier.

In other words, once the stress program starts running in the brain, it gets into a loop that keeps it running — unless a new program overrides it. Researchers discovered this watching the behavior of stressed rodents.

“Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” said Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal. “I call this a vicious circle.”

Another researcher, Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist studying stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said knowing this about rats helps humans understand why they get into a rut, and then dig themselves even deeper into that rut.

While the stress response is a good thing if you are in the jungle trying to escape from a tiger about to eat you, in our modern world things are out of balance and the stress response kicks in, in situations that are much less than life-threatening. Unlike animals which react in flight or fight mode and then once the dangers passes calm down, humans keep thinking about things until they are in never ending loop.

And once those thoughts get going, they feed on themselves increasing stress levels. There is, however, good news in the reports about the effects of stress on our lives. Researchers found reducing stress in the rats allowed their brains to return to pre-stress conditions. In other words, we can at least partially delete the stress program if we choose to do so.

That brings me back to yoga and relaxation. I found that simply learning to breathe and giving myself permission to relax changed my life. It helped me see more clearly that I could let go of the stress — even if only for a little while initially.

And yoga is only one option, there are lots of ways to reprogram a busy brain so that it stops running the stress-loop that keeps us in our ruts. If researchers’ reports about what stress does to our brains and our bodies isn’t enough motivation to make a change, consider this quote by novelist Ellen Glasgow.

“The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”

That is enough to inspire me to grab my yoga mat and make relaxation a priority.