Yoga For Stress Management In Illness
Jnani Chapman, RN
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Yoga offers many practices which individually and collectively activate relaxation and which may help to restore the physical body by providing more healthful and productive responses to stress. The effects of yoga-as stress management which have been documented including parasympathetic nervous system activation which lowers the heart rate and the blood pressure thereby reducing the body's demand (need) for oxygen. Other effects of yoga practices which have been documented include improving digestion, elimination and immune function, increasing the vital lung capacity and tidal volume; and reducing anxiety and depression.
Yoga practices include body postures and movements (stretching), breathing practices, imagery, meditation, and progressive relaxation techniques. Each practice has specific purposes and all combine to help develop a focused awareness of what is happening to the practitioner physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically. Developing an awareness of bodily sensations and feelings, emotional states of being, and mental attitudes and beliefs is the first step to reducing stress and using yoga therapeutically in healing. First we tune into the onset of stressful stimuli and then we are able to initiate practices to prevent or counteract the physiological responses that typically follow. By regular yoga practice, awareness develops and we can extend more and more control over what happens to us physiologically and psychologically. Previously automatic reactions get nipped in the bud before becoming full-blown stress responses. In the face of challenges and threats, we can remain calm and centered, and experience balance and poise.
What is Stress?
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The body is a self-regulating system. There are threats to the body's equilibrium as its environment changes and as the organism grows. These threats can be responded to adaptively, by appropriate action, or destructively, by inappropriate action. The key to self-renewal lies in the level of awareness of threats, and the strategies available for dealing with them. Yoga is a highly effective strategy for stress management.
Stress is often defined as the response of the human organism to any change or demand, be it internal or external, the stress response automatically initiates. Whether the demand is positive or negative (i.e. whether someone gets married and gets a promotion, or someone gets divorced or fired from a job, it's the same physiological response). The stress response is coordinated in the body by the autonomic (or automatic) nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system controls the opposite or, the relaxation response. The endocrine system also releases hormones in response to stressors.
Under stress, the sympathetic nervous system sends messages to muscles, organs and glands which help the body, react. Powerful chemicals (like adrenaline), neurotransmitters, and hormones (like cortisone and aldosterone) are released which have multiple effects on the body. They cause increases in heart rate, in blood pressure, in stomach acid production, in muscle tension, in the circulating levels of blood sugar and cholesterol, and in blood thickness as well as producing abnormalities in immune function.
For the short term, these effects are adaptive and help a person prepare for responding to the stressor. However, these physical reactions can lead to illness. Health professional s state that 80% of all illnesses may be stress related. Stress-related illnesses can include heart disease, insomnia, sexual dysfunction, hyperactivity, ulcers, chronic headaches, backaches and high blood pressure. Aside from the physical effects, common psychological and mental reactions to stress exist, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility and irritability, and decreased ability to concentrate, to remember and to retain information.
In addition, stress often leads to coping behaviors that then increase stress. Under stress, we may end up caught in a vicious cycle: we may find ourselves both inactive and overworked- we may overeat and/or fail to provide ourselves with adequate nutrition; we may feel isolated, sleep deprived and exhausted; we may become dependent or even addicted to substances such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine.
Basic Guidelines for Using Yoga as Stress Management
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Do yoga practices on an empty stomach, preferably in the early morning, and again at night prior to sleep. Let a routine develop. Habits can be good or bad. By choosing a regular time and place to do your practice,you will be creating a habit that you will look forward to and do routinely., Create a quiet, comfortable, well-ventilated place for your practice. This may include asking for cooperation from others to ensure that you will not be disturbed.
Sometimes it takes a while to become comfortable with the attitude of passive attention. Do not push yourself or try too hard. Be gentle and persistent in your efforts. Passive attention is often described as paying attention to the process, rather than the goal. Do not think about getting relaxed, which is your goal. Instead, pay attention to whatever sensation you are having at present in the moment, which is your process. If you experience discomfort, tension or anxiety during your yoga practice be gentle and attentive and discontinue the practice if the discomfort persists. Sometimes in relaxing we become aware of sensations that have been previously ignored, or thoughts and feelings arise into consciousness that have been previously repressed. Consult with your instructor on how to proceed whenever you experience distress.
Remember that yoga is not exercise. Never push or force yourself. Stay in your comfort zone and take it easy. Many people beginning to practice yoga as stress management may feel unsure if they are doing it right. Trust yourself and trust the process and let it develop. Keep your focus on what is happening in each moment. There is no magic here. We are learning how to relax and we are training the body to enter a deep, regenerative state. It takes time. Be patient.
Copyright © 2000 Jnani Chapman, RN
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You are welcome to share this © article with friends, but do not forget to include the author name and web address. Permission needed to use articles on commercial and non commercial websites. Thank you.