In recent months I’ve had a lot of enquiries from people who want to practice yoga to help them relax. Specifically people who suffer with stress induced high blood pressure, or panic attacks and who have been advised to join a yoga class. The rise of social prescribing means forward thinking GPs are appreciating its potential and importantly, that people who are experiencing stress related issues may be able to avoid taking prescription medications if they can learn simple breathing and relaxation techniques.
So, what is it about yoga that enables people to achieve this wonderful state of relaxation and calmness - physically and mentally. There are some sound scientific explanations behind the very powerful soothing and relaxing effects of yoga:
Deep Breathing (Pranayama)
Yoga places a strong emphasis on conscious and controlled breathing. One of my yoga teachers always says that without a focus on the breath, yoga is basically the same as any other form of gentle exercise. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and alternate nostril breathing work by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering the body's relaxation response. Deep breaths help to slow down the heart rate and reduce stress.
Mindful Movement (Asanas)
The physical postures practiced in yoga, known as asanas, involve a combination of stretching, strength-building, and balance. As you move through these poses with awareness, which comes by combining movement with the breath, the focus on the present moment helps to quieten the mind, promoting a sense of calm and relaxation. Always bear in mind that the asanas each produce a different energetic effect on the body, they can be stimulating and energising, or they can encourage a state of introspection and relaxation. The skill of a yoga teacher or yoga therapist is being able to sequence them, to produce the desired effects of any practice.
Yoga encourages the release of tension and stress held in the body. Stretching and elongating muscles during yoga poses can help alleviate physical tension, while breathing, mindfulness and relaxation practices within yoga contribute to mental stress reduction. The combination of physical and mental release fosters an overall sense of relaxation. At the end of every yoga class we practice savasana or corpse pose, the most important and possible the most difficult of all the postures. Lying still and doing nothing…a complete anathema for today’s wired lifestyles. It’s interesting as a teacher to see how beginner yogis start off finding this extremely challenging, they fidget, find it hard to close their eyes and switch off, they lie down in a closed, rigid way and cant relax. Watch them a few months later and they are the often the ones who drift off to sleep and start snoring!
Mindfulness and Meditation
Many yoga sessions incorporate mindfulness and meditation practices. These techniques involve focusing attention on the present moment, whether through breath awareness, guided meditation, or other mindfulness exercises. This cultivates a state of mental clarity
and relaxation, reducing the impact of stressors. One of my favourite practices is point to point breathing, guiding someone through a journey around their body by focusing on ‘sending their breath’ to a particular place. It’s simple, easy to learn and very powerful.
Scientific studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can lead to changes in the brain including alterations in neurotransmitter levels e.g. gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) - linked to anxiety - and enhanced overall connectivity between brain regions. These changes are associated with improved mood, reduced anxiety, and an overall sense of well-being.
Release of Endorphins
All physical activity, even in the gentle form of yoga, triggers the release of endorphins that act as mood elevators and pain relievers. Consider how you feel after an energising and vigorous vinyasa practice – full of energy and ready for anything. Or how much lighter you feel after a deep stretching and restorative yoga practice. It’s the neurochemical response that contributes to a sense of relaxation and well-being.
Balancing the Nervous System
Yoga works by balancing the autonomic nervous system, particularly by activating the parasympathetic branch responsible for the 'rest and digest' response. This counteracts the effects of the sympathetic nervous system, associated with the 'fight or flight' response, helping the body to relax. Over time, studies have shown that practicing yoga can help a person become more emotionally resilient, because they are able to handle stressful situations more adeptly and switch between the nervous system states. This happens subconsciously and is known as improved vagal nerve toning. Importantly, a regular yoga practice can also help to alleviate symptoms of IBS for the same reasons, by improving the connection between the brain and the gut, which is also influenced by the vagus nerve pathway.
Relaxation and mindfulness cultivated through yoga can positively impact our sleep quality. Many people find that a regular yoga practice helps alleviate symptoms of insomnia and promotes more restful sleep. This may be through improved sleep onset or being able to drop back off to sleep after night time waking. A lot of students tell me they always sleep very soundly after coming to a class and there are many practices specifically designed to help prepare the body for sleep.
Have been coming to yoga for a while? Have you noticed becoming more relaxed as a person? Maybe you don’t get so fazed when challenges arise? Maybe you can drift off to sleep more easily? Or have a deeper sleep generally?
I would love to know.