We all know that exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, but what is it about yoga in particular that gives it that edge against stress? Put your safety goggles away and step into our virtual laboratory.
Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System: Nuts and Bolts
The Autonomic Nervous System- our involuntary nervous system (ANS) is comprised of two major branches: The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS: Fight or Flight) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS: Rest + Digest). These systems work much like the gas and brakes on a car; the SNS is our gas pedal and the PNS is our brake pedal. The main function of both systems is to preserve the body. In response to environmental stimuli, the Autonomic Nervous System makes a choice to activate your Fight/Flight reaction or your Rest/Repair reaction- whichever is in the best interest of your survival. In times of danger, the SNS (gas) is active- ready to spur to action and carry you out of harms way!. In times of peace, your PNS (brakes) is active- taking care of longterm projects such as fighting inflammation, properly digesting nutrients, and taking inventory of aches and pains to establish a plan for repairs.
Let's say you are a zebra living out your days in the Sahara Desert. As you graze in the tall grass, carefree and doing your zebra thing, the PNS is prominent. You might chew some food, relax, digest your food, watch your kids frolic, etc. Your body is tending to all of those side-projects that keep you at your peak wellness: repairing that scratch from the thorn bush yesterday, digesting that delicious flower you found an hour ago, making sure joints are lubricated and in working order. Suddenly, you sense danger- it's a LION. The SNS kicks into high gear and floods your body with fight or flight hormones to fuel your great escape and away you go! You exert all possible energy reserves to sprint across the desert in search of refuge from the life threatening beast chasing you! Absolutely nothing else matters but fueling your flight out of danger; your PNS goes to the backburner until you can be sure safety and peace has returned.
Now, imagine you're not a zebra...you're a human doing your thing, trying your best to live your happiest life. You jump in the car to head to work, plenty of time to get there. The radio plays your favorite song, you had a good breakfast, and your PNS is busy keeping your breath calm, digesting your delicious banana smoothie, and working on any little projects that keep you in your best wellness. Suddenly, you come across some roadwork and now you are stopped. You get nervous that you'll be late for work, your heart flutters a bit, the SNS response is tapping at your door but you breathe through it knowing you gave yourself plenty of time. Your anxiety builds and your shoulders tense with each passing moment. Finally you get through the jam, but you've only got a few minutes before your boss calls wondering about your whereabouts, again. Heart-rate rises. Fight or flight hormones flood your system. You skirt into the parking lot and a coworker cuts you off for the last parking spot. Your emotions rise and you feel like ripping their head off or yelling at the top of your lungs. Your PNS system takes a backseat and lets the SNS do it's thing, preparing you for battle with that evil coworker. But you don't fight your coworker, you just silently swear to "get even" and create a grudge right then and there. Unlike the zebra after a wild chase, you can't find your peace, and you continue through your day in a heightened Sympathetic State- the gas pedal stays on. You repeat this skit over and over, day after day, and rarely find the time to sink back to that Parasympathetic State. Over time, we call this chronic stress, and as you can imagine, it wreaks havoc on the body.
Tone More than Muscle
While many will tout the physical benefits of yoga, there is more to it that toning and strengthening the muscles. The major pathway of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (remember me? Rest + Digest) is through the Vagus Nerve. This pathway twists and turns throughout the body, activating all of our major internal organs. When the Vagus Nerve is healthy, our PNS can do its job: restore the body to its healthiest state. We refer to the health of the vagus nerve as Vagal Tone. A toned Vagus Nerve is indicative of proper liver/kidney/lung/heart function, healthy digestion, and a strong PNS response. If you refer back to our example in the parking lot, high Vagal Tone would enable you to take a deep breath and forgive your coworker, allowing you to continue your day in peace. In other words, Vagal Tone increases our resilience in the face of stressful situations. One of the most direct ways to strengthen Vagal Tone is to practice deep, smooth breathing as we often do in yoga. Exhales are associated with the PNS, our brakes, and by emphasizing the brakes, we can increase Vagal Tone and our nervous system's ability to come back to peace again and again.
Stress can be thought of as a simple formula: The number of stressful episodes/Ability to cope.
If we accept this formula, then there are two ways to eliminate stress from our lives; either reduce the number of stressful episodes or increase our ability to cope. Yoga can help with the latter. An overactive SNS response (fight or flight) can quickly become a vicious cycle; you experience stress, apply the gas, create more stress, apply more gas, create more stress, etc. Soon, even small events can trigger a catastrophic response: you experience the same level of stress as our zebra running from the lion in response to small stressors like clogging the sink or missing your bus. Though we can't promise to rid your life of stressful situations, yoga can help increase your ability to cope- thereby managing stress.
Intrinsic Value of Community
Harder to study with scientific significance is the stress-reducing value of community. Many yogis will agree that there is a special something about coming to a public class, especially in a full room. As a teacher, the energy in the room is palpable and we often change our plans for the class simply by observing the vibes of the population that day. While hard to prove in research, there is undoubtable value in human connection, even when we don't speak a word to one another. In a public yoga class, we have the opportunity to observe the inner dialogue of the mind while receiving silent yet powerful support and encouragement from others around us. Simply linking the breath can create a powerful message to one another that we are not alone in our stress, we are not alone in our journey. Without using words, our need to be seen is met each time we let a loud sigh bubble out from the throat. We hear our neighbors do the same and witness them the way they have witnessed us. In some cases, this witnessing can be even more powerful than a fiery venting session with a friend. The ego wants to be right, the soul wants to be seen.
In today's world, there are 1000 ways to stress. Stress is an underlying culprit in a plethora of other chronic diseases that modern healthcare is failing to support. The US is ranked 37 in the world in health outcomes and we are getting sicker than ever. 1 in 2 Americans have a chronic disease, causing an astonishing 70% of all deaths...most of which are preventable and/or treatable by lifestyle and nutrition. What is more, the US account for just 5% of the world population, but 75% of the world's opioid prescriptions. We are getting sicker and sicker, and a major part of our chronic illness traces roots to the inability to cope. Stress is a long, hairy disease that plagues our system by stifling the PNS- our body's innate healing mechanism. By strengthening our PNS, improving Vagal Tone and general resilience, imagine what our bodies could do to prevent chronic disease from taking hold. Trust in your body, trust in the yoga.
A Special Note on Anxiety
Though stress and anxiety often go hand and hand, it is important to know that they are indeed different. While yoga can be equally (or more-so) beneficial for managing anxiety, that goes beyond the scope of this article. Be on the lookout for future articles on the subject, or share your experience in the comments below!