Stress Reduction and Yoga

When stress becomes chronic, it may lead to physical illness or emotional difficulties. Head Start staff and parents who are experiencing stress may find that yoga is a possible way for them to manage it. This Head Start Bulletin article provides an introduction on how yoga reduces stress.

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by Beverly Gould

What Is Stress
What Is Yoga
How Does Yoga Promote Wellness

What Is Stress?

Yoga is an effective way to release stress because it stimulates both the mind and the body.

Until recently, when most people thought about yoga, they had images of being bent into a pretzel. However, the ancient practice of yoga, with a history of 5,000 years, is more than convoluted exercises. It improves our physical and emotional health. Movie stars, models, athletes, politicians, as well as everyday people, attest to its benefits. Furthermore, research affirms that yoga is a stress reducer.

Stress is our reaction to something in the environment or a social situation that poses a real or perceived threat. In order to ward off the threat, the individual has to mount a physiological, physical, or psychological response. Some stress can be positive, useful, and even necessary as motivation in everyday life and emergency situations.

The danger comes when stress is chronic or unmanageable because a person's responses may be inadequate. Intense stress can lead to physical illness, emotional problems, or interpersonal difficulties. Many Head Start staff and families experience challenging and overwhelming stress, including financial pressures, community and domestic violence, divorce and other losses, substance abuse, physical illness, and homelessness. Yoga is an effective way to resolve stress because it works on both the mind and body, reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed and burned out by life's circumstances. Yoga stimulates the natural healing resources of the mind and body so that the individual is better able to cope with stress.

What is Yoga

Yoga is a combination of exercise postures, breathing exercises, and a philosophy about the way one lives life. The different yoga postures, called asanas, are specifically designed to stretch and relax certain muscles and stimulate various organs and glands to balance them for optimal health. Stephen Cope (1999), psychotherapist and yogi, states that the body records and holds the memories of how we were touched, held, soothed, or traumatized and frightened from birth. When tension becomes locked within the fascia, or connective tissue of the body, emotional and physical reactions to stress can cause painful symptoms.

Muscles that are tightly held can result in shortened or chronically contracted muscles. Stress is then put on the opposition muscle groups. They may become weak and flaccid from under-use. With regular practice, the stretching, relaxing, and stimulating yoga postures bring a sense of well-being, a feeling of ease within the body and the emotions.

In conjunction with the asanas, one needs to practice breathing exercises. Yogis believe that breath is life—the life force that exists between the boundary of the body and the mind. The breathing exercises, called pranayama, induce relaxation in the parasympathetic nervous system. Prana means the breath; yama means to pause. When we bring our awareness to our breathing, we may notice that the breath is chronically held in a shallow and restricted way. Pranayama is the practice of regulating irregular and hurried respiratory processes without using excessive restraint or force. Breath that is fully open, deep, relaxed, and slow without constriction in the lungs, in the diaphragm, or in the muscles of the chest and rib cage, allows for a full emotional experience.

The third component of yoga is its philosophy. The central principle is ahimsa, meaning nonviolence in attitude as well as behavior. This principle is applied to the way one performs the asanas as well as the way that one lives one's life. There is no competition among yoga students; we only strive to be the best we can be on any given day, listening to the sensations, messages, and wisdom of the body. We are also charged with looking at how we make life difficult for ourselves, push ourselves, judge ourselves, and create an inner environment of violence against ourselves.

How Does Yoga Promote Wellness?

The philosophy and practice of yoga offer many insights about the way that the mind and body work. In 1982, the National Institute of Health established the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM). In 1998, this became the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The Center is funding research about yoga and its role in promoting wellness. Preliminary findings suggest that yoga helps to prevent, heal, or alleviate conditions such as heart disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, symptoms of menopause and many chronic disabilities (Lipson 1999). Yoga is also becoming increasingly popular as an adjunct therapy for HIV/AIDS (Kaiser 1998).

Yoga's focus on the correct alignment of the body is useful in assisting with musculoskeletal and joint problems. In a small, controlled study, Professor Steven Hawkins from the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at California State University, Los Angeles (Sparrowe 2001 ) found that women who did certain yoga postures in class twice a week and practiced on their own three times a week showed notable increases in the bone density of their spine. His findings support the notion that women of all ages can enhance their bone health through yoga.

Yoga also aids in weight loss. The breathing exercises oxygenate the body, increase lung capacity and help the metabolism to function at a higher level. The postures bring increased body awareness and an inner quiet that allow a greater exploration of the emotional issues buried by overeating. Yoga increases the energy level and improves circulation. More and more insurance companies are willing to reimburse for yoga treatment because they recognize that yoga is a relatively inexpensive, but effective form of treatment and rehabilitation for some chronic illnesses (Lipson 1999).

Yoga can benefit most of us. Yoga exercises are helpful during pregnancy (Teasdill 2000). Gentle yoga is offered to the geriatric population and the chronically ill. Recently, yoga has been used with and without traditional therapy to improve the attention, respiration, and motor capacities of children with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, and learning disabilities (Sumar 1998). At all ages and under many different health conditions, the ancient science of yoga helps to quiet the mind, focus attention, and relax the body.

For more information, see the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Web site at http://nccam.nih.gov.

References

Cope, S. 1999. Yoga and the quest for the true self. New York: Bantam Books.

Kaiser, J.D. 1998. Healing HIV: How to rebuild your immune system. Mill Valley, CA: Health First Press.

Lipson, E. 1999. Medical proof yoga works. Yoga Journal, 149: 6-12.

Sparrowe, L. May 2001. Good to the bone. Yoga Journal, 160: 106-171.

Sumar, S. 1998. Yoga for the special child: A therapeutic approach for infants and children with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. Buckingham, VA: Special Yoga Publications.

Teasdill, W. 2000. Step by step yoga for pregnancy: Essential exercises for the childbearing years. New York: Contemporary Books, McGraw Hill Professionals.

Beverly Gould is working on her Post Doctorate in neuro- psychology at Emory University and was a 2000-2001 Head Start Fellow.

See also:
    Adult Health, Head Start Bulletin #75 [PDF, 6.48MB]

"Stress Reduction and Yoga." Gould, Beverly. Adult Health 2003. Head Start Bulletin #75. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2003. English.

Last Reviewed: February 2010

Last Updated: August 31, 2015