DEAR DOCTOR K:
I know yoga has a lot of physical benefits, but is it true yoga can help reduce stress as well?
Many people initially come to yoga to become physically fit, but they soon discover the psychological benefits. In addition to being great exercise, yoga is one of the best antidotes to the stress of modern living. I won’t go as far as saying it is a fountain of youth, but I will say it can be a fountain of calm and equanimity.
The first person I ever knew who regularly practiced yoga was an intense and ambitious young doctor. Any conversation with him was short and difficult; he completed your sentences for you and interrupted you at will. He was very smart and had a lot of valuable things to say, but that didn’t mean you looked forward to talking with him.
Then something odd happened. I had a conversation with him in which he didn’t interrupt me. A few weeks later, I had another. What was going on? I learned from his wife that she’d suggested, strongly, that he try yoga — and he loved it.
In addition to physical postures and exercises, traditional yoga incorporates breath control, deep relaxation, meditation, concentration and mindfulness. These mind-body practices counteract stress by evoking the relaxation response.
When we feel stress, our bodies enter “fight or flight” mode. We release stress hormones that put our brain and body on high alert. This “fight or flight” response was of great help to our distant ancestors when they were running from a lion, and it’s also of great help today when we face an urgent and dangerous situation. It can even help in dealing with a sudden stressful situation that really isn’t dangerous — like talking your way out of a speeding ticket. But over time, stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health.
The relaxation response is essentially the opposite of the stress response. It lowers heart rate and blood pressure and decreases the production of stress hormones. Practicing yoga leads to changes in the mind and body that promote feelings of tranquility and well-being.
My friend Dr. Herbert Benson, a famous meditation researcher here at Harvard Medical School, described the following exercises to elicit the relaxation response. Give them a try to see if they help you to feel more relaxed:
- Select a word, mantra, prayer or thought. Focus your attention on it in a relaxed manner.
- When other, everyday thoughts intrude, let them go. Refocus your attention on step one in a relaxed and patient manner without frustration or judgment.
Start by doing this for five minutes. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend on the exercises.
To learn more about the physical and mental benefits of yoga, you can read a short new e-book called “Your Brain on Yoga” by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Sat Bir Khalsa, with Jodie Gould. You can find it on Amazon.com.