Whether it’s a looming deadline, missed bill payment or family conflict, stress is everywhere. According to a 2012 study by the American Psychological Association, about 80 percent of those surveyed said their stress level had increased or stayed the same over the past year. And finding ways to cope with it is a constant challenge.
“As a society, we don’t have effective stress-reduction techniques. As the pace of life is increasing, so too does stress,” explains Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, assistant professor of medicine and associate neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide’s “Your Brain on Yoga.”
The impacts of stress are far-reaching, from non-physical symptoms such as irritability and anger to physical symptoms such as fatigue and weight gain, which is why researchers like Khalsa are studying the effects of regular yoga practice as a method for controlling stress and other negative emotions.
“Research has validated that yoga can help individuals cope with stress more effectively and can provide an uplifting effect on mood,” says Khalsa. The evidence isn’t just anecdotal, as Khalsa and his team have used brain imaging to see the physiological changes in action.
He says the primary mechanism for these changes is the practice of mindfulness, a ritual exercise of focusing attention on your breath and your body. “When you do a meditation task, whether it’s a mantra or focusing on breathing or a sensation, you are controlling your attention,” he explains.
This is counter to how the brain responds when it’s uncontrolled. Known as mind wandering or ruminating, it tends to produce negative content, says Khalsa, making individuals particularly vulnerable to anxious or depressive thoughts. “You’re usually not thinking about how great life is in these moments,” he says. “Your mind is working in a stressful survival mode, which releases stress hormones into the body.”
Instead of trying to eliminate stress – an impossible task in modern society – a consistent yoga practice can help develop resilience to it. While some may argue that you’re either born Type A or you’re not, Khalsa argues that it’s a skill that can be developed: “The brain is plastic, and meditation is no different than learning how to juggle. You don’t just change your behavior; you actually change the structure of your brain.”
Laura Malloy, a licensed clinical social worker and certified yoga instructor who is director of yoga programs at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, sees this change occur firsthand with students who attend her classes. Both patients of the Benson Henry Institute and medical professionals at the hospital, they are particularly susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression.
“These people are experiencing a lot of stressors, whether it’s an illness or a demanding job as a caregiver to those who are sick,” Malloy explains. “Yoga is really a mind-body practice that tries to bring focus back to breathing and mindfulness to the present moment, and it really helps them refresh and be less reactive.”
So how much yoga is needed to see a benefit? According to Khalsa, there are both short term and long term benefits. The short term can occur after a class or even a set of yoga postures, allowing for a temporary sense of calmness and elevated mood. The long term can occur over weeks or months of consistent practice, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day. This is when changes are established in your brain and you develop resiliency to stress – so the reduced stress response will continue even after your practice ends. Malloy deems this the “carryover effect,” and she says her students report that it occurs after between two and six weeks of consistent practice.
Like all things that need practice, says Khalsa, it really matters how much time and level of effort you invest to receive the greatest benefits. The good news is that the meditative component can be practiced anywhere. “You just need to focus (or meditate) on what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be with your eyes closed,” he says.
Malloy, a self-described “recovering Type A personality,” says that when she began her yoga practice about 20 years ago, she worked on relaxation when stuck in traffic. “I recognized parts of my body being tense, having negative thoughts and holding my breath,” she explains.
“Through weekly practice, I started relaxing my shoulders more and just allowing the thoughts to leave my mind for that period of time.”
For those interested in starting a full yoga practice, Malloy suggests they go to a class to learn the proper form for the poses. “You have to learn what unconscious pattern you have of holding your body. We’re always so focused on doing, thinking and producing that we don’t realize that our shoulders are up to our ears,” she says.