What once started as a trend, yoga has now evolved into a lifestyle that more and more people practice. The benefits of yoga stream from experiencing more flexibility in tight muscles, gaining more strength in weaker regions of the body, and a new sense of calm and relaxation because of the de-stressing nature of the practice. And as more people continue to seek out yoga classes in their local gyms, stand-alone local yoga studios, and recreation centers, these benefits were mostly spoken anecdotally. That is, yogis shared their stories with others about how yoga has helped them. They have raved about how the practice of yoga has improved their lives: mentally, physically, and spiritually. But not only do we have the stories of satisfied yogis to prove the benefits of yoga, science and research into this ancient practice has also served to be a reliable source of information recanting how yoga is a positive lifestyle to lead.
Let's look specifically at stress; a condition that most people have experienced in some capacity during the course of their lives. It is a biological response that, for some, can be a debilitating disorder. Others experience stress and anxiety in mild forms, but in any case, it can be an uncomfortable circumstance if not managed and treated properly. How can yoga help with this human condition?
There is a chemical in the body that is introduced into the bloodstream when you find yourself in a stressful situation: your heart beats quickly, your palms sweat, your muscles constrict. The chemical is call cortisol and one of its functions is to help the physical body when faced with a crisis. Cortisol heightens some functions in the body (like heart rate and pulse) while shutting down others (like digestion and reproduction) so that you can remove yourself from the dangerous situation. But in this day and age, many situations that may be considered 'normal' for some, are highly stressful for others causing this "fight or flight response." However when there stress levels are high, that means more cortisol is released into the bloodstream. Too much of this hormone can be damaging to the brain and body over time. It can lead to loss in memory, an increase risk for heart disease, and dysfunction of other systems in the body.
So, how can something like yoga help with this condition? Let's take a look. There is a stress-responding region of the brain called the amygdala. It is associated with the management of fear and pain. If one is in a constant state of stress, this area of the brain can over-fire, increase in size, and impair other important brain functions. Remember, when under stress the bod produces too much cortisol shutting down other vital brain functions. In particular, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is effected, it fires less when the body is under stress. The purpose of the pre-frontal cortex is to assist with higher-order brain functions like concentration and decision making. But when stressed, this section of the brain can shrink.
Yoga, more specifically, the mindful meditative aspect of yoga is a higher-order brain function. If one consistently practices meditative yoga, for example, the pre-frontal cortex increases and thickens. Research has stated that as a result, the amygdala shrinks allowing one to manage future stressful situations in a calm, thoughtful, and meaningful manner.
This is just one example of how research has designated yoga as a reputable practice that can help individuals with certain conditions like anxiety. Science continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of the many facets of yoga. Publications, in addition to the anecdotal stories from practicing yogis, will continue to declare how this ancient philosophy proves inspiring and helpful to many individuals.