yoga to keep calm as new research links brain activity, stress & heart disease


Today research findings provide anther reason to support the value of practising yoga.  Please read on.

Yoga can improve your life. If you’re lucky to be healthy, happy and calm, yoga helps maintain our wellbeing. If our health and wellbeing isn’t where we’d like it to be, yoga is proven to help on a number of levels, physically, mentally, emotionally, therapeutically and spiritually.  Yoga views us holistically: as the whole person we are.  Yoga has long been a great way to manage stress levels and help with anxiety and depression.

Perhaps you’ve seen the BBC’s article (12 January 2017) announcing that researchers say they have identified how stress can lead to inflamed arteries. A study in The Lancet has suggested that the effect of constant stress on a deep-lying region of the brain, called the amygdala, explains the increased risk of heart attack. In a study of 300 people, those with higher activity in the amygdala were more likely to develop cardiovascular disease – and sooner than others.

US researchers from Harvard Medical School have said stress could be as important a risk factor as smoking and high blood pressure and that heart experts say at-risk patients should be helped to manage stress. Emotional stress has long been linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (affecting the heart and blood vessels), although how this happens has not been properly understood.  This study indicates heightened activity in the amygdala (part of the brain which processes emotions, eg fear and anger) helps to explain the link.  Research suggests the amygdala signals to the bone marrow to produce extra white blood cells, which in turn act on the arteries causing them to become inflamed. This can then cause heart attacks, angina and strokes.  As a result, when stressed, this part of the brain appears to be a good predictor of cardiovascular events.  However, more research is needed to confirm this chain of events.

There are many reasons why we get stressed: excessive workloads, fear of losing our jobs, low income and the worries it bring, difficult relationships, the inability to cope with all kinds of situations we find ourselves in, the inability to switch off from 24 hour living (eg the never ending emails or that on-line activity that we just cannot ignore). The list is endless and we all cope with things differently, so the things that may stress one person may not bother the next, and vice versa.

What happens when we are stressed?   Our body and mind are on high alert and we are likely to be unable to calm down and relax, constantly worrying.  This can affect how we deal with daily life and its challenges, our ability to think clearly, make decisions, relate to other people and think about ourselves. Our ability to focus and concentrate will be compromised, making any spiritual endeavours, such as meditation and self-enlightenment, highly unlikely.    If such tensions and stress are not released, health issues can follow, as demonstrated by the research study above, and indeed a large percentage of illness in the Western world begins with stress.

However we can learn to help ourselves. Yoga can help us do this.  When we are stressed, it’s easy to forget that we have the ability to affect our responses to various situations by altering the tone of our nervous system.  When stressed, we often perceive people and situations differently and potentially more negatively than if we are more relaxed.

Getting technical for a moment, the body’s nervous system controls all organ systems, maintains their balance and responds to external changes. When we see danger, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and our “fight and flight response” kicks in. Our stress and pain responses are heightened, so our body is on “high alert” to deal with danger.  However, when that danger has gone, the parasympathetic nervous system needs to be stimulated to release us from that state of high alert.  If you are constantly stressed and you’re unlikely to be able to calm down, never mind relax. If our nervous system is constantly stressed, we are likely to be tense, anxious and unable to relax, clearly not a healthy situation.

Yoga practice works to calm the sympathetic nervous system and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, it works to calm the body and, in turn, calm the mind. Then, perhaps, we can establish a connection with our inner self.   All thought and action starts in the mind; this affects our body and mind.  Only when we physically relax and let go of tension can the mind quieten down and relax.  This gives us the opportunity to reduce the stress and anxiety levels we all face in today’s hectic life, re-charge, overcome the fears and anxieties that hold us back in life and see things differently.

If yoga’s not a part of your life right now, perhaps now is a good time to set an intention to find out more.

© Sarah Swan (12 January 2017)

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