Sarah Jane Wilson is the editor of Spectrum, the official magazine of the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY). The BWY is a voice in the UK, dedicated to promoting yoga teachers, students and members within a professional and inspiring union. The BWY is recognised by Sport England as the National Governing Body for Yoga. For 50 years it has promoted the practice and enjoyment of yoga for all those who are interested, whether they are students or teachers.
An Overview of Yoga
Good health is all about balance: getting the right mix on your plate; taking the best supplements when you need them; having a positive mind and an active body.
However, being active is not always easy.
The government launched the #thisgirlcan initiative earlier this year to encourage more women to try different sports. There are so many on offer it merely scratches the surface. How do you choose what’s the right sport or activity for you, or what to recommend in clinic?
The only way is to experiment. However, one activity that is definitely worth trying, and persevering with, is yoga.
Yoga is not about getting thin or being bendy. It is about balance. A balanced mind and body.
A Background to Yoga
Yoga, including the “bendy” bit (postures, or ‘asana’) can, depending on the class, also feature gentle stretches, meditation, breath awareness, discussion, relaxation (yoga nidra), and yes, some do offer chanting as well.
Yoga is a system of philosophy, originating in India 5,000 years ago, and means ‘union’ or ‘join together.’ This is because it focuses on the joining together of mind, body and spirit through three main practices: postures, breathing and meditation.
It is built around the 8 Limbs of Yoga:
- Yama: attitude to others
- Nyama: attitude to self
- Asana: physical practice
- Pranayama: breathing
- Pratyahara: steadying the mind/ control of the senses
- Dharana: intense focus
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: oneness.
Yoga is about embracing yourself as an individual and doesn’t preclude specific physical conditions – in fact, it welcomes them! It can also help with mental conditions, such as stress, anxiety or depression. It can improve concentration and help you sleep better, as well as the physical side (improved posture, strength, flexibility). Think of yoga as a well-being toolbox: it will build up your collection of tools so you can deal with different things – you can’t fix a whole house with a hammer!
Unlike a lot of activities it only really requires a yoga mat (Yoga Matters offers a great range), comfy clothing, and a blanket for relaxation.
Different styles of yoga have developed over the years, often because of a teacher, and their lineage. Try to experience a few different classes before fixing on one as they can vary enormously. Ensure your teacher is well-qualified too, such as a BWY teacher, and ask around for personal recommendations. Some teachers may blend different styles – below is just an example of some of the variants you may encounter:
- Hatha: this is the most widely taught type of yoga in the UK. Emphasis on postures with breathing and relaxation. Ideal for beginners.
- Vinyasa flow: Teachers lead classes that flow from one pose to the next without stopping to talk about the finer points of each pose.
- Lyengar: Emphasis on postural alignment. Is physically demanding and aims for posture perfection. Uses props to help achieve this.
- Ashtanga: A fast flowing, dynamic sequence of 75 poses, each held for only five breaths and punctuated by a half sun salutation to keep up the pace.
- Kundalini: Yoga of awareness, to awaken energy in the spine. It means ‘the curl of the lock of hair’. As well as postures, breathing and meditation, it includes sound and chanting.
- Bikram or Hot Yoga: Gained popularity recently, it is yoga poses but in a heated (hot) studio.
There’s a raft of other yoga crazes, including laughter yoga, dog yoga, face yoga….
Research on overall conditions
Yoga can be particularly beneficial for many specific conditions, both physical and emotional. Research conducted in 2013 by ScHARR at the University of Sheffield, in conjunction with the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) explored the therapeutic effects of yoga for health and wellbeing. The team at ScHARR reviewed a number of studies on healthy adults and yoga for people with common health conditions. The focus was directed towards the most common mental and physical health issues to ensure the widest application for the report.
Their findings suggested that yoga does have positive effects on some of the conditions affecting adults aged between 25 and 65. Within the report there is sufficient evidence to suggest that yoga can effectively improve osteoarthritis of the hand, improve some subjective symptoms in asthma suffers as well as reduce the risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease in healthy people.
The report also finds that yoga can be a beneficial treatment for chronic low back pain and some of its side effects, and proves effective for suffers of cancer, depression, some eating disorders and stress.
In addition, there is positive news for women where yoga can help during pregnancy, labour and improve cognitive function and perceived stress during the menopause.
Focusing on a Specific Condition: Stress
Worryingly, it is estimated that over 80% of us are under constant low-grade distress all the time. The Health and Safety Executive’s statistics show that:
- The total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 487,000 (39%) out of a total of 1,241,000 cases for all work-related illnesses.
- The number of new cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 244,000.
- The total number of working days lost due to stress, depression or anxiety was 11.3 million in 2013/14, an average of 23 days per case of stress, depression or anxiety.
- The industries that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety (three-year average) were human health and social work, education and public administration and defence.
Stress has numerous detrimental effects on our body, but particularly our nervous system and psychological stress has been linked to deleterious effects on the immune system, while anxiety has been connected to coronary heart disease, decreased quality of life, and suicidal behavior.
BWY yoga teacher Alex Yates states: “When the body detects stress the hypothalamus reacts by stimulating the body to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, both of which are fine in small bouts, but have much documented ill effects over time.”
However, more and more research is showing the positive effects that yoga specifically (not to mention mindfulness) can have on stress reduction. For example, the aforementioned 2013 research by ScHARR and BWY also found that: “Yoga and relaxation are both effective treatments for stress in the short term. Yoga appears to be more effective in the short term at improving overall mental health. [Yoga also showed] Improvements in social function, mental health and vitality.”
A Yoga Practice
Many people are rightly drawn towards yoga and its associated practices when feeling stressed, however, it is sometimes hard to gain perspective when you’re in the eye of the stress storm. Having an established yoga practice can give you a toolbox to deal with stress when it emerges in life.
The Science Of Yoga writer William Broad assessed yoga’s ability to improve our mental health.
He concluded: “The portrait that emerges from decades of mood and metabolic studies is of a discipline that succeeds brilliantly at smoothing the ups and downs of emotional life. It uses relaxation, breathing and postures to bring about an environment of inner bending and stretching (as well as outer). . .the current evidence seems to suggest that yoga can reduce despair and hopelessness to the point of saving lives.”
Yoga has been shown to help stress in a number of ways:
- Reducing workplace stress: a team of researchers working at Bangor University found that a six week programme of Dru Yoga reduced anxiety and fatigue, while increasing emotional well-being and resilience to stress. In addition, the yoga group reported feeling more life purpose and satisfaction, and greater self-confidence during stressful situations.
- The effects of yoga on anxiety and stress by Li, Amber W. Goldsmith, Carroll-Ann W.
Of 35 trials addressing the effects of yoga on anxiety and stress, 25 noted a significant decrease in stress and/or anxiety symptoms when a yoga regimen was implemented.
- One recent study compared levels of the amino acid GABA in those who practise yoga regularly compared to those who do an equivalent amount of walking — considered to be a similarly strenuous form of exercise. GABA is vital for a well-functioning brain and central nervous system and helps promote feelings of calm inside the body. Low GABA levels are associated with anxiety and depression. Scientists found the GABA levels were significantly higher in those who did yoga also they also reported lower levels of anxiety and better moods than the walkers. However, the researchers say that: “the possible role of GABA in mediating the beneficial effects of yoga on mood and anxiety warrants further study”.
- Clinical psychologist Deborah Khoshaba, of the Hardness Institute in California, says being in a deep state physiological relaxation even affects you on a neurobiological level — your very cells take a break. For the body to relax at the cellular level, we need to shift to a state of deep rest and calm. Only mind-body practices such as yoga, with their emphasis on deep, restful breathing, can do this.
Since stress is often a big factor in depression, part of yoga’s effectiveness comes from its proven ability to release tension and lower cortisol levels — people who are depressed tend to have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Alleviating Stress with Yoga
Below are some specific measures that can help to ease stress:
1) Postures (asana): Asanas strengthen and tone the body and improve the flow of energy, helping to regulate the physical systems of the body and breath, and stilling the mind for meditation.
Attending a regular yoga class and developing your own personal practice, as the research suggests, will really benefit you and reduce stress. To find your a local teacher visit the British Wheel of Yoga website. Once you have developed your practice, some of the following are excellent for stress reduction: Simple Supported Back Bend, Mountain Brook Pose, Tree Pose and Half Moon Pose.
2) Breathe: how often do you pay attention to your breath? In yoga, pranayama (‘prana’ meaning ‘energy ‘ or ‘life force’) is controlling our breath, which deepens our relaxation and benefits our entire body. As an experiment, try just taking lots of really short breaths for a few seconds and notice how you feel – nervous, heightened? Now try lengthening your breath (counting in for three breaths, out for three breaths) – how does that feel instead?
Breathing is controlled automatically by a respiratory centre in the brain. A nervous impulse sent from the brain causes us to inhale, breathing in essential oxygen as well as Carbon Dioxide (CO2). As soon as the CO2 reaches a certain level in our bodies an automatic reflex causes us to exhale. Human beings are unique in having a degree of control over their breathing. Automatic breathing allows us to be able to sleep; controlled breathing allows us to sing, talk and laugh.
Lack of exercise can result in a loss of mobility and elasticity in the thoracic (chest) muscles and in the diaphragm (large muscle below the ribs which is important in helping to breathe in and out). Poor posture, physical tension, emotional upheaval and unsuitable environments can also impact on our ability to breathe deeply. Shallow and restricted breathing results in less vital oxygen being drawn into the body. The majority of people regularly utilise only 25% of their breathing capacity. Yoga helps us to learn to exercise control over our breath. This not only increases vitality but also improves digestion, tones the nervous system and calms and concentrates the mind.
3) Meditation: Many meditation practices will have the objective of stilling the mind by focussing your awareness on a single object – the movement of the breath, an image or candle, a sound or chant. Meditation, contrary to popular belief, is not about “emptying the mind” – that’s impossible! Instead it allows us to just ‘be’, to look at our thoughts and emotions, accept them, and move on. Breath awareness is at the heart of meditation. Not all teachers will include meditation within a class.
Information from our brain and bodies is intergrated by the insula. Advanced meditators have a highly developed insula. It means that they can perform better under stress (source: Switch On: How to ignite your creative spirit with the new science of breakthrough by Nick Seneca Jankel). They also develop an enhanced vagus nerve, which helps them perform better under stress – this is why it’s important to have a system already in place (proactive) and not just be reactive.
Just a few minutes of meditation each day can have a really positive effect: it gives you clarity, a chance to stop. Good resources include the apps Headspace and Buddhify.
4) Letting go (Vairagya/Non-attachment): being aware of what we’re attached to, be it emotionally or physically (such as possessions), is the first step to reducing stress. We often turn a bad experience around and around, over and over, in our heads – but you need to stop, breath, and ask yourself: what can I do about it? Often the answer is nothing and it is at that point that letting go should happen – a visualisation of ‘it’ in a balloon, drifting up into the sky helps some people.
5) Gratitude: Counting your blessings for each day – I find before going to sleep – can also help to foster a calmer attitude and outlook. It can be as simple as: “I’m grateful for my delicious lunch” or “spending time in the fresh air”. Doing this practice before bed can really help to settle the mind after a busy, stressful day.
6) Sleep: Stress often has a detrimental effect on one’s sleep. Again, by focusing on the breath, or even listening to a relaxation CD or app, or an audio book (Eckhart Tolle’s readings of his book The Power of Now: a guide to spiritual enlightenment on Audible is excellent). A regular yoga practice will improve sleep quality.
Suggested products to combat the side-effects of stress:
5-HTP Plus – This nutritional food supplement contains 5HTP in a bio-effective form – this is a safe precursor to Serotonin. It also contains the nutrients necessary for the conversion of 5-HTP to Serotonin. Made from the natural shrub Griffonia Simplicifolia, with added Magnesium & Vitamin B6; 60 capsules.
Cytoplex – A broad spectrum Food State multivitamin and mineral particularly high in B vitamins – especially vitamins B1 and B2. This supplement is Ideal for people who are just starting off taking supplements, and for those who are particularly mentally tired and stressed.
Biofood Magnesium – Biofood Magnesium tablets are effectively an organic matrix form of magnesium, complete with natural amino acid carriers to ensure transport to sites of need within the body. Magnesium can contribute to a reduction in tiredness and fatigue.
By making yoga a part of your daily routine, you may become aware of subtle changes in your approach to life. In your yoga class you may well begin to glimpse a state of inner peace…your true Nature. In our hectic modern world many people are taking time out to practice yoga. Whatever your objectives, there are yoga classes that can meet them.
With many thanks to Sarah for this fantastic article. If you have any questions regarding this article, any of the health topics raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Amanda) by phone or email at any time.
Amanda Williams, Cytoplan Ltd
firstname.lastname@example.org, 01684 310099