Yoga: An Antidote to Stress,by Christina Geithner
Stress is a Fact of Life and its Management, a matter of Life and Death and much in between
Stress is a fact of life and its management, a matter of life and death and much in between. Stress is defined as a physiological response to a perceived threat, be it physical, cognitive, emotional, or social or some combination thereof. A stressor, or perceived threat of any type, stimulates or sets off an entire cascade of physiological events. You might recognize these and perhaps more frequently than you would like to.
Acute or short-term responses to stress include increases in heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to muscles, muscle tension, and pupil dilation in response to the release of adrenaline by the adrenal glands, which are anatomically situated superior to the kidneys. These acute responses to stress help ready the body for either ‘fight’ – confronting the stressor – or ‘flight’ – removing yourself from, or escaping the stressor. Generally, the body’s acute responses to stress dissipate with time and physiological functions return to normal. However, if there are repeated and/or sustained encounters with a stressor or stressors, the stress becomes chronic and the responses have great potential for negative health outcomes.
Stress can be considered as lying on a continuum from positive stress or ‘eustress’ to negative stress or ‘distress’. Examples of eustress are the stress at the beginning of a competition or race, the stress of having equal or better performers to compete against, the stress of striving for excellence and the efforts entailed, the stress of various types of challenges as long as their demands don’t exceed our abilities or reserve capacities. These types of stress tend to have positive outcomes such as achieving a higher level of effort and/or improved performance, developing new skills or coping mechanisms, improving strategies or finding ways to work smarter instead of harder, developing greater self-awareness and understanding. When the demands imposed by a stressor exceed our capabilities to respond, the effects tend to be negative are more serious the more extended the duration of the exposure to the stressor and the greater the severity or perceived severity of the stressor.
For example, if one bout of exercise leaves you with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or achy joints, these are fairly easy to overcome with rest, ice, NSAIDS, etc. If exercise bouts are extended (increased frequency and/or duration) or increased in intensity (harder efforts, more muscles recruited, etc,) – let’s say doing too much running on hard surfaces (concrete vs. asphalt or dirt trail) with insufficient preparation (insufficient distance base) and/or rest between exercise bouts or poor footwear (insufficient cushioning, support, motion control, etc.) for the job, then a stress fracture might result. This response to a chronic stress takes more recovery time, which can also be a stressor!
Exercise, both short- and long-term (a.k.a., training) is a form of stress. Depending on the frequency, intensity, duration, and mode, exercise can serve as a type of eustress – having positive effects on fitness, mood, and function in multiple domains; or as a type of distress, examples of which are seen in overtraining and related injuries and declines in performance.
In this article, Yoga is proposed as an antidote to stress – as a means of stress reduction and management.
Yoga can also play a key role in improving overall health (see Physiological, Cognitive and Psychological Benefits of Yoga) and a significant role in improved performance in a variety of sports as well as arenas outside of sports (see Yoga Helps Athletic Performance).
The Need for Stress Management
Given today’s 24/7 kind of work and live world and greater expectations in less time that our work, families, and ourselves place on us, the need for stress management (eliminating or reducing stressors or managing the effects of stress through countering practices (such as meditation, yoga or other mind-body exercise, etc.) is clearly evident. The alternative is to risk the likelihood of suffering chronic effects of stress ranging from minor emotional upset and physical illnesses (e.g., headaches, stomach upset, fatigue, frequent colds or infections) to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Many stress management strategies are available for use and entire stress management programs have been developed for organizations and corporations that help people understand the stress response and provide information regarding and tools for stress management. If you are reading this, you probably already know, consciously or subconsciously, that exercise is one of these stress management strategies. Exercise is effective in reducing stress because it provides an alternative or distraction to a stressor, it provides another mental focus and an outlet for reducing of muscle tension, it elevates mood through the joy of participation and through physiological means such as endorphin (natural opiate-like substance) release with extended duration exercise of sufficient intensity (e.g., the “runner’s high”), and because when we engage in exercise, we know we are doing something good for ourselves.
Yoga as an Antidote to Stress
Modes of exercise that have been found to be particularly effective in stress reduction are types of mind-body exercise such as yoga, Pilates, T’ai Chi, Qi Gong, and various forms of meditation and martial arts - basically any type of exercise in which there is a conscious or deliberate focus on the connection of mind and body or mind-body-spirit. Mind-body exercise has been shown in well-controlled research studies (randomized, controlled, clinical trials) to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, to reduce muscular and mental tension, to improve endothelial function (the function of the inner membrane or lining of the blood vessels, which is related to better cardiovascular function and health), to improve a sense of personal control and self-efficacy, particularly in clinical populations such as individuals with cancer.
Yoga is one of the most widely practiced forms of mind-body exercise today, and classes are readily available in most communities and around the world. “Yoga is a mind-body practice in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) with origins in ancient Indian philosophy. The various styles of yoga that people use for health purposes typically combine physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation or relaxation” (National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2009, p. 1). Yoga was originally designed as a way to achieve greater self-awareness and enlightenment through the development of physical discipline through the practice of asanas, or physical postures. “The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one's attention on, to use and apply” (Iyengar, 1995). Yoga brings together the mind and body or mind, body, and spirit by incorporating movement with the breath (inhalations and exhalations) and with mental focus. Hatha Yoga combines more aggressive or Sun/Ha energies and practices with more yielding or Moon/Tha energies and practices. In this way, yoga offers us opportunities to be more whole, more complete. Many practitioners of yoga (yogis and yoginis) would enthusiastically attest to the balance that a regular practice can provide – a balance between effort and surrender, between strength and flexibility, between awareness and acceptance and action.
Yoga helps develop Mindfulness - Non-Judgmental Awareness and Acceptance - and learning to be Present in the Moment
Yoga is also an excellent tool for developing mindfulness – non-judgmental awareness and acceptance - and learning to be present in the moment - not worrying about the past or future, but totally concerned with feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the Now. Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (See Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, 30 Years of International Distinction), an eight-week intensive training in mindfulness meditation, based on ancient healing practices, which incorporates yoga as a key element.
MBSR programs are offered in over 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics around the world, including some of the leading integrative medical centers. See Mindful Living Programs: What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction? Much research has been done on the medical and stress-reducing effects of MBSR and shows that coupling yoga mindfulness meditation can provide a host of benefits. Yoga benefits also include greater energy and enthusiasm for life, improved self-esteem, and an ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations. In turn, this translates into improved quality of life and enhanced performance.
Christina A. Geithner, Ph.D., FACSM, ACSM H/FS is a Professor in the Department of Human Physiology at Gonzaga University. She is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a certified ACSM Health/Fitness Instructor®, and a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200). Tina was a member of the U.S. Diving, Inc. Talent Identification Committee (1991-2004) and has been involved in data collection and analysis relating to talent identification and profiling of elite athletes in women's ice hockey at the University of Alberta since 1999 with colleague Michael Bracko, Director, Institute for Hockey Research. She has designed and facilitated team building and leadership courses for graduate students in business, accounting, and organizational leadership; and has designed and facilitated team building and strategic planning programs for corporate and educational organizations. Tina has a B.S. in Health, Physical Education and Recreation from West Chester State College, specializing in Recreational Outdoor Pursuits Education; an M.A. in Physical Education from the University of Maryland; and a Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin. Email Tina at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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