188
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Common sense tells us that yoga helps to manage stress by promoting
relaxation and holistic well-being. But understanding the science behind the
calming power of yoga can empower us to take a more proactive approach to a
less stressed life, which enables us to achieve more positive health outcomes.
STRESS
Q
How does stress impact my health?
and how does yoga help?
We tend to think of all stress as
bad, but healthy levels of positive
stress—eustress—can help us
perform at our best. However, too
much negative stress is associated
with mental health imbalances and
chronic pain, along with many of
the industrial world’s major killers,
including heart disease, stroke, and
cancer. It’s important to recognize
that stress doesn’t necessarily
cause these diseases. Research
suggests that the greatest predictor
of whether or not you will suffer
from these diseases is not how
much stress you experience,
but how you deal with and think
about stress. Those who have
more negative emotions amid
stress are more likely to experience
negative health outcomes. Yoga is
an effective tool for managing stress
because it helps us regulate our
emotional response to stressors by
teaching us to become the observer
of our thoughts and feelings, and
through improving our mind-body
connection (see right). As a result,
yoga can lead to more positive
health outcomes.
Yo ga helps us manage
stress both in terms of how
we view it and by activating
the relaxation response and
decreasing cortisol. Yoga
practitioners are also more
likely to make healthy lifestyle
choices, such as exercising.
BREAKING THE CHAIN
Yoga can stop stress from
affecting our physical well-being
by helping us deal with stress
more positively and by encouraging
healthier life choices.
STRESS
LIFESTYLE
CHOICES
poor diet
inactivity
tobacco use
alcohol
CHRONIC DISEASE
heart disease
lung disease
diabetes
cancer
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189
Enhancing
your mind-body
and body-mind
connection
increases your
ability to self-
regulate and
improves your
resilience.
Q
How does an improved mind-body
connection help me manage stress?
Because yoga includes practices
that engage both your mind and
body, it helps you to regulate your
system through both top-down and
bottom-up pathways. Enhancing
your mind-body and body-mind
connections increases your ability
to self-regulate and improves your
resilience (your ability to bounce
back after stress via homeostasis,
the bodys self-regulation of internal
conditions). This all occurs partly
due to the complex workings of your
vagus nerve (see pp.190–91).
NEUROCOGNITIVE
(MIND-BODY) PATHWAY
1
Meditation, mindful
movement, and
intentional living based
on the philosophical
teachings of yoga increase
your attention
2
Increased attention
regulates your nervous
system and helps you
maintain homeostasis
more efficiently
NEUROPHYSIOLOGICAL
(BODY-MIND) PATHWAY
1
Yoga practices such
as asanas, mudras,
and pranayama, give you
internal body awareness
(interoception)
2
This interoceptive
information affects your
autonomic nervous system
(ANS), which changes
your thoughts and neural
pathways, building your
brain and improving
self-regulation
Did you know?
Hans selye coined the term
“stress” in 1936 to describe the
body’s response to change. he
identified two types of stress:
eustress, which is beneficial
stress, such as an engaging work
project; and distress, which is
real or imagined stress that puts
more pressure on your system.
Continued
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190
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q
How does stress fit into traditional
yogic philosophy?
A 2018 article in Frontiers in
Human Neuroscience aligns the
ancient wisdom of yoga, particularly
the gunas, with the role of the vagus
nerve in our physiological response
to stress and relaxation.
The vagus nerve is the only
cranial nerve that leaves the
head and neck area. It is mainly
responsible for your relaxation
response: telling your heart to slow
down, improving your digestion, and
encouraging social connection.
Rather than an “on/off” switch, the
stress and relaxation responses
work more like a dial or dimmer
knob. This allows adjustment to the
perfect blend of electrical activity
from each branch of your autonomic
nervous system (ANS) for the
situation (see below).
According to the Polyvagal Theory
proposed by American neuroscientist
Stephen Porges, PhD, the vagus
nerve is split functionally in a way
that helps us adjust effectively.
Researchers have explained this
neural adaptability in terms of the
gunas. Gunas means “thread” or
quality. The three gunas—sattvic,
rajasic, and tamasic—are the three
essential aspects of nature that
weave together to create what we
observe as the reality of the material
world (also known as prakriti) with
its ever-changing conditions. Each
of the gunas is associated with
a state of mind and certain
characterstics that map against
the different functions of the vagus
nerve (see below).
SHUTDOWN
VAGUS
(freeze)
SYMPATHETIC
NERVOUS
SYSTEM
(fight or flight)
Worry
Courage
Panic
Compassion
HopelessnessFun
DissociationIntimacy
SOCIAL
VAGUS
(love and
connection)
Tamasic: a dull
state of mind. Its
characteristics are
fear, depression,
and stability
Rajasic: an agitated state
of mind. Its characteristics
are anger, anxiety, activity,
and creativity
Sattvic: a calm
state of mind. Its
characteristics
are contentment,
connection, and clarity
POLYVAGAL THEORY
AND THE GUNAS
The adaptable responses
of the vagus nerve to
stress can be understood
in terms of the gunas
(sattvic, tamasic, rajasic).
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191
Q
Should I be calm and under the
Social vagus or sattvic state
all the time?
No. Yoga does teach our bodies
to go into the sattvic state more
often and more efficiently. This
helps us to find balance in a world
dominated by extremes of rajas
and tamas. However, there is a
misconception that yoga should
make you perfectly calm all the time
and that if that doesn’t happen, you
are bad at yoga. Constant calm is
not the goal.
Your nervous system dynamically
fluctuates, as do the gunas,
throughout the day and over the
course of your life to help you rise
to the challenges your environment
presents. Through yoga, you
cultivate the capacity to be a non-
judgmental observer of the constant
changes so they don’t control you.
The ultimate ideal of this higher
state of pure consciousness
(also known as Purusha) is self-
realization: finding meaning and
connection amid the experience
of inevitable stressors. Increased
consciousness of any level
represents increased resilience.
Q
How can I recognize and rebalance
the negative gunas?
The first step is to notice the
signals of stress and the negative
gunas in your body. These signals
are different for everybody. Does
your chest tighten or gut churn in an
agitated, rajasic state? Do you tend
to slouch or disassociate from
sensations in a dull, tamasic state?
Once you can recognize, identify,
and observe your signals effectively,
you can use the tools of yoga—
including physical poses, mudras,
breathwork, and meditation—to
activate the relaxation response.
Many yoga practices can be done
discreetly throughout the day: no
one will know that you are elongating
your exhales to calm down,
adjusting your posture, or taking
fuller breaths for more energy.
Through yoga,
you cultivate the
capacity to be a
nonjudgmental
observer of the
constant changes
so they don’t
control you.
Did you know?
80 percent of the vagus nerve’s
fibers send information from the
body to the brain. This makes it a key
pathway of interoception (internal
body awareness) from your heart
and gut to your brain. Yoga can
improve your interoception and
vagal function.
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