By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“yoga is anti-aging, lowers blood pressure, and is beneficial for treating metabolic syndrome x. Waist circumference, blood sugar, and triglycerides. Yoga has been known to balance the endocrine system and hormones for centuries. Now it is also being recognized as a way to balance blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of diseases brought on by a classically western diet.” – Cheryl Walters
Stress is universal. We are constantly under some form of stress. In fact, if we don’t have enough stress, we seek out more. Stress actually can strengthen us. Muscles don’t grow and strengthen unless they are moderately stressed in exercise. Moderate mental stress can actually increase the size and connectivity of brain areas devoted to the activity. Moderate social stress can help us become more adept in social interactions. Moderate work stress can help us be more productive and improve as an employee, etc. So, stress can be a good thing promoting growth and flourishing. The key word here is moderate or what we called the optimum level of stress. Too little or too much stress can be damaging.
Unfortunately for many of us living in a competitive modern environment stress is all too often higher than desirable. In addition, many of the normal mechanisms for dealing with stress have been eliminated. The business of modern life removes opportunities for rest, working extra hours, and limiting or passing up entirely vacations to stay competitive. Persistently high levels of stress are damaging and can directly produce disease or debilitation increasing susceptibility to other diseases. Chronic stress can produce a condition called distress which can lead to headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping and can make other diseases worse.
It is beyond the ability of the individual to change the environment to reduce stress, so it is important that methods be found to reduce the individual’s responses to stress; to make the individual more resilient when high levels of stress occur. Contemplative practices including yoga practice have been shown to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress. Because of their ability to relieve stress, mindfulness trainings are increasingly being practiced by individuals and are even being encouraged in some workplaces.
In today’s Research News article “Heart Rate Variability, Flow, Mood and Mental Stress During Yoga Practices in Yoga Practitioners, Non-yoga Practitioners and People with Metabolic Syndrome.” See:
or see summary below. Tyagi and colleagues investigate the ability of yoga practitioners to respond to and recover from stress. They recruited yoga practitioners who had been practicing for at least 6 months, comparable individuals who did not practice yoga, and individuals with metabolic syndrome. They had the participants relax in a reclining position and then challenged them with a stressful mental arithmetic task. During this time, they were measured for mood, flow, respiration, and cardiac activity with an Electrocardiogram (ECG). Flow is a “desirable state of positive arousal caused by the perception of subjective control with maximum physiological efficiency and the down-regulation of functions irrelevant for task fulfilment.”
They found that the yoga practitioners had greater flow and were in a better mood even before the stressful task and showed greater improvement in flow and mood after the task than the other groups. These included flow, total mood, and the mood components of tension, depression, fatigue, confusion, anxiety, and vigor. They also found that the yoga practitioners had lower heart rates and respiration rates than the other groups, had greater increases during the stressful task, and more rapid decreases afterward.
These are interesting results and replicate many previous results that the practice of yoga in general improves flow, mood, and physiological responses. This is not surprising as exercise in general is known to do this. What is new and significant is that yoga practice appears to improve resilience; that is, it results in vigorous responses to stress, but rapid recovery. Both of these responses are adaptive. By readying the physiology to cope with the effects of stress, it positions the individual to better withstand these effects. But, yoga also improves the recovery afterward preventing the stress effects to be prolonged and potentially damaging. As a result, yoga practitioners appear to better able to respond to and cope with stress, quickly and efficiently, without unnecessary prolonged physiological reactions.
So, practice yoga and be resilient to stress.
“Regular yoga practice creates mental clarity and calmness; increases body awareness; relieves chronic stress patterns; relaxes the mind; centers attention; and sharpens concentration. Body- and self-awareness are particularly beneficial, because they can help with early detection of physical problems and allow for early preventive action.” – Natalie Nevin
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Tyagi, A., Cohen, M., Reece, J. Telles, S. and Jones. L. Heart Rate Variability, Flow, Mood and Mental Stress During Yoga Practices in Yoga Practitioners, Non-yoga Practitioners and People with Metabolic Syndrome. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback (2016). doi:10.1007/s10484-016-9340-2
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and respiratory sinus arrhythmia are directly associated with autonomic flexibility, self-regulation and well-being, and inversely associated with physiological stress, psychological stress and pathology. Yoga enhances autonomic activity, mitigates stress and benefits stress-related clinical conditions, yet the relationship between autonomic activity and psychophysiological responses during yoga practices and stressful stimuli has not been widely explored. This experimental study explored the relationship between HRV, mood states and flow experiences in regular yoga practitioners (YP), non-yoga practitioners (NY) and people with metabolic syndrome (MetS), during Mental Arithmetic Stress Test (MAST) and various yoga practices. The study found that the MAST placed a cardio-autonomic burden in all participants with the YP group showing the greatest reactivity and the most rapid recovery, while the MetS group had significantly blunted recovery. The YP group also reported a heightened experience of flow and positive mood states compared to NY and MetS groups as well as having a higher vagal tone during all resting conditions. These results suggest yoga practitioners have a greater homeostatic capacity and autonomic, metabolic and physiological resilience. Further studies are now needed to determine if regular yoga practice may improve autonomic flexibility in non-yoga practitioners and metabolic syndrome patients.