Unlearn Fear and Rediscover Balance
Learn the surprising ways yoga can help us find relief from chronic stress and even PTSD.
Yoga teachers and practitioners love to talk about yoga’s benefits, always eager to share why we think every single person should roll out their mat and get moving. In fact, given half a chance, we will recite a litany of physical and emotional challenges we believe can be soothed or even healed by doing yoga. Skeptics are not so sure. How can yoga “fix” depression, anxiety, fear and grief, and also claim to manage chronic pain, heart disease, digestion, or even epilepsy? How is that possible?
Turns out, there’s science to back up those claims. We asked Kristy Manuel, the director of YogaFit’s 900-hour HealthCare program, to fill us in on the details.
The skeptics have a point. Can yoga really do all of these things?
Yoga actually does have the potential to affect pretty powerful changes to our physical and emotional being. I know the list sounds a bit far-fetched, but if we focus on what these challenges have in common—chronic stress—it’s pretty easy to see why yoga works.
We’ve known for a long time that stress causes the body to be more susceptible to disease. But neuroscientists have also discovered that stress impacts our ability to sustain relationships, making us more prone to anxiety, irritability, depression, and PTSD.
So how does yoga do all that?
We already know that yoga helps calm the nervous system. But it’s a bit more specific than that: According to a well-cited 2012 study from Boston University School of Medicine, yoga increases the body’s ability to successfully respond to stress by stimulating the vagus nerve, the body’s “air-traffic controller.”.
Tell us more about the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve—the longest nerve in the body—starts at the base of the skull and “wanders” throughout the body, checking in with our nervous, digestive, and respiratory systems. Some researchers even suggest that the vagus nerve may be the link between the body and the mind, providing early warning signals that something is amiss. That means that pretty much everything we do—the way we breathe, the way we take in and “digest” experiences as well as food, the way we feel about ourselves—is touched by the vagus nerve.
People with high vagal tone are more resilient; they bounce back easier from stressful situations. Chronic stress can cause the vagus nerve to lose tone. Those with low vagal tone have trouble letting go of stress and, as a result, they may suffer from digestive issues, anxiety or depression, even PTSD, and have trouble in relationships.
Do all forms of yoga work?
The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system. So, practices that encourage students to listen to their own bodies and make compassionate decisions in the moment work best.
YogaFit offers a workshop called Restoring Balance: Training the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which explains how to combine postures, breath work, and meditation to relieve stress and find balance. It’s part of the YogaFit Warriors program, but it really applies to anyone with chronic health challenges or unrelenting stress.
What else besides yoga can stimulate the vagus nerve?
Oddly enough, immersing your face in cold water, putting gentle pressure on your eyelids, or massaging your carotid artery are things you can do at home to increase the parasympathetic response.
When is the next opportunity to take your Restoring Balance training?
If you hurry, you can join us February 15th and 16th at the Arlington MBF conference. We’re also offering the workshop in at YogaFit’s Chicago MBF on March 11th and 12th.