Yoga Therapy for Stress & Cardiovascular Health

Stress is a response to a stimulus or event that requires us to attempt to adapt to change or pressure.

It is not the stressor itself but how we perceive it and handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress.

When you perceive something as stressful, the body responds via the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates various systems in your body, and activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Essentially, this branch (SNS) of your nervous system is responsible for speeding things up in the body.

Hormones release into your bloodstream to heighten your senses and prepare you for action. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase because it needs to send blood to the large muscles in the arms and legs to fight or flee.

This response is a survival mechanism. Its design is to keep us safe. Unfortunately, when the threat does not require action, and you internalize your stress reaction, you do not get the resolution that fight or flight provides. There is no peak or release of the physiological conditions. Instead, you carry the stress hormones and states around inside of you. Our emotional states cause variations in our blood pressure.

The other branch, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), slows everything down. It can act like a break. Yoga therapy uses techniques such as mindfulness, movement, and breathing exercises that help you apply the brakes during stressful situations. This approach combines cognitive and physical tools to increase self-regulation.

Yoga therapy acts as stress management by allowing one to face whatever is unfolding in the present, appraise it, and choose how to respond so it is wise and healthy. We can affect the balance between our internal resources for coping with stress and the stressors that are an unavoidable part of living.

As soon as you intentionally bring awareness to what is going on in a stressful situation, you have dramatically changed that situation and opened the field of adaptive and creative possibilities by not being unconscious and on auto-pilot. When you observe, instead of engaging emotional circuitry, stressful emotions dissipate. How you relate to sensations, your awareness to recognize fearful anticipation, and your ability to perceive and let go are the tools yoga therapy will give you for self-regulation.

Self-regulation through yoga therapy reduces the allostatic load in stress-response systems to restore optimal homeostasis. That means that it reduces the wear and tear prolonged stress has on the body by returning the body to equanimity, so no systems are overworked.

Resilience occurs by correcting the under activity of the PNS and increasing vagal tone by giving you control to apply the brakes when needed. The SNS and PNS are balanced and improve cardiovascular health. Heart rate variability (HRV) increases because of vagal stimulation, which is a sign the heart and lungs are working together in a state of health. Reflexes that modulate blood pressure (BP) are brought into harmony, reducing heart rate, resting heart rate, and BP. Yoga postures increase circulation and improve baroreflex sensitivity (with poses that lower the head below the heart). This cascade of positive changes reduces the risk of vessel blockages, premature blood clotting, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Yoga therapy provides us with the skills and tools to respond instead of react to stress preventing prolonged stressful states and enabling a faster recovery.