Yoga is the oldest known practice of self-development. As yoga exercises involve stretching the body, forming different poses while keeping the mind with the breath, the body and mind become relaxed and energized. In today’s highly competitive and stressful world, people from all walks of life are looking to relieve stress through Yoga.
We all do suffer from mild anxiety from time to time, but chronic anxiety takes a toll on the body and mind leading to a constant state of stress. Yoga helps one to access inner strength that allows us to face the fears, frustrations, and stress of everyday life.
Stress is a response to a physical threat or psychological distress or environmental change that generates a negative emotional state with associated chemical and hormonal reactions in the body. Stress, whether brief or chronic, affects the various body systems such as the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous and the immune systems.
The Immune System is the body’s defense mechanism. It consists of a network of glands, nodes, and organs that work to protect the body from bacteria, viruses, fungi and other harmful agents. This system is on a constant vigil and hence requires a constant supply of energy and nutrients for proper functioning.
Toxins (from food & environment), poor diet, lack of or excessive exercise and stress (via hormonal/neural pathways) affect the proper functioning of the immune system and disturb its activity. Efforts to manage stressful conditions often lead to alcohol or drug abuse or changes in sleeping and eating patterns that further modify the immune system’s response.
Influence of Yoga on stress-related changes of immune response Yogic exercises involves Asanas or physical postures, Pranayama or breathing exercises and Dhyana or meditation.
Asanas stretch, twist and strengthen different parts of the body. The movements help in massaging and improving blood circulation to the internal organs, glands and immune system, lubricating the joints, stretching the muscles and ligaments. Each asana aims to have different effects. Some are stimulatory; some develop coordination and concentration while others have a calming effect on the body and mind.
Pranayama encourages deep and rhythmic breathing thereby gently releasing tension and flushing the body and brain with fresh blood, carrying oxygen and essential nutrients and increasing feelings of well-being.
Learning to gently focus on the breath while inhaling and exhaling rhythmically, effectively helps one to switch from a feeling of anxiety to a feeling of relaxation. Observing cancer patients have shown that pranayama reduces stress and improves the immune status.
Dhyana is known to increase melatonin secretion from the pineal gland. The hormone melatonin is an antioxidant with strong anti-inflammatory action. It plays an important role in learning and memory and regulates the biological rhythm and sleep-wakefulness cycle. Melatonin also reduces serotonin level, one of the major stress hormones in the body. Meditation connects us with our inner resources and increases self-awareness. This can lead to self-healing which means less dependence on medicines and a free and happier life.
Autonomic Nervous System
The well-being of the mind and body is solely under the control of a part of the nervous system known as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). ANS is beyond conscious control and consists of two divisions: (a) Sympathetic system and (b) Parasympathetic system. Both these systems remain balanced and coordinated in health.
Stress whether acute or chronic produces an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems that affect most organ systems negatively especially if there are any predisposing or genetic factors, such as diabetes and hypertension.
The ANS maintains many rhythms in our body, such as blood pressure, blood flow, respiration, metabolism, hormonal function and the circadian rhythm also known as the ‘biological clock’. The biological clock is the most important and yet the most disturbed rhythm in our modern lives. As mentioned earlier, melatonin is one of the hormones regulating the sleep-wakefulness cycle and is also strongly related to immunity. Irregular sleeping habits disturb the circadian rhythm which leads to stress. Chronic stress leads to an imbalance in the two divisions of the ANS causing an excessive secretion and action of adrenaline that has harmful effects on most systems.
Yoga brings about important physiological changes in the nervous system. Certain areas of the brain, such as the hypothalamus and the limbic cortex are responsible for all the emotional experiences and expressions like rage, fear, love, pleasure, and aggressiveness. The limbic cortex is also involved in memory and learning functions. Yogic practices have been seen to inhibit areas of the hypothalamus and limbic system; which lowers cortisol (stress hormone) levels thereby reducing the stress response. Yoga also practices repetition, a form of learning which sets up pathways between emotional-psychological-behavioral patterns teaching self-control and bringing about calmness of the mind.
One of the remarkable findings in recent science has been the physiological coordination between breathing pattern-heart rate-blood pressure and blood flow to the vital organs, especially the brain. Dhyana or meditation and certain asanas help to achieve this coordination.
Most meditative practices emphasize awareness of breathing patterns, such as deep and long breathing (chanting “OM”). Some practices teach fast and shallow breathing. Since breathing is under autonomic control, stress which leads to changes in the breathing patterns affects the ANS. Being under continuous stress, most of us most of the time forget to breathe normally or sometimes breathe at all. Pranayama helps to balance the ANS by training us to breathe correctly. It is very central to yogic practices.
The Respiratory or breathing center in the brain controls the rate and depth of breathing by sensing the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), oxygen (O2) and the acid levels in the blood. When we exercise the CO2 and acid levels rise and the O2 level falls in blood and tissues. In stress situations, the autonomic control of breathing is lost.
Pranayama corrects the breathing technique by creating awareness and teaches concentration which helps to bring back the balance in the ANS thereby calming down the body and mind and relieving stress. The word ‘prana’ embedded in Pranayama-means life force or energy. Respiration supplies O2 to the body, the source of all energy, to run the physiological functions properly.
However, slow breathing pranayama (diaphragmatic, nasal, deep and quiet) activates the parasympathetic nervous system and offers the most physiological benefits, while fast breathing techniques, though may be beneficial in some aspects, is contraindicated in certain respiratory diseases, like asthma, Traditionally originating from India, yoga has now become popular all over the world and people who practice yoga report that they sleep better and feel much less stressed whether at work or in their personal lives.
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