Yoga involves postures (called ‘āsanas’) and regulated breathing exercises (called ‘prānāyāmas’). Various studies suggest that breathing coupled with conscious movement can balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS), reduce cortisol levels and provide a sense of wellbeing.
The ANS contains the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When you’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones, which can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response, causing an imbalance in the ANS. But research carried out by the Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and Columbia University, found that yoga has the potential to decrease stress by balancing the ANS.
In yoga, your breathing must be controlled, and by breathing slowly and deeply you can increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which can help you feel calmer. Breathing deeply sends an activation signal to the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the ‘rest and digest’ response, which counteracts the effects of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
A 2019 study in Australia found that another benefit of yoga is connectedness; a shared experience and a safe space to connect with oneself and others. Other benefits, such as improvements in attention and memory, are backed by science, but to combat stress, conscious breathing is a crucial element.
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