Yoga is more popular than ever. As of 2016, there are nearly 37 million yoga practitioners in the U.S., compared with 20 or so million just four years earlier, according to the most recent Yoga in America Study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance.
Beyond the physical aspects of yoga - and there are many - this mind-body practice can offer other forms of support. The top four reasons for starting yoga, according to the survey, are split between mind and body equally: flexibility (61 percent), stress support (56 percent), general fitness (49 percent) and support for overall health (49 percent).
Those motivating factors align with recent research into yoga. A regular practice has been linked to a healthy mood, healthy adaptation to stress (especially when practiced long-term) and support for occasional pain and better breath control. Yoga is increasingly being seen as a useful tool for weight maintenance, offering behavioral, physical and psychosocial support.
Yoga can promote and teach balance, which is crucial to healthy aging, and it can support low back health. Yoga can also become part of an active rest program for athletes. Even one session has been shown to attenuate the normal soreness that happens after a tough workout. The practice has been linked to support for a healthy stress response in caregivers, students and older adults.
What is Yoga?
Knowing all that, it may or may not surprise you to learn that yoga is not simply a mode of exercise. What we call "yoga" in the West is asana, one of eight limbs of the practice of yoga. Asana, the physical movements of yoga, is actually the third limb, after yama and niyama (ethical standards and self-discipline, respectively) and before pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment).
As you may have been reminded during a yoga class, yoga is not what happens on the mat. Holding the mind and body steady through difficulty prepares us for challenges off the mat. In that way, yoga holds up a mirror to our lives. When you get flustered in a yoga pose, how do you react? It is, most likely, the way we also respond in our daily life. At a recent conference, the American yoga pioneer Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., spoke about how adaptability is more important than flexibility. That is, it doesn't matter that you can put your foot behind your head or if you can't touch your toes. It matters how you react and adapt as you try.
Yoga means "to yoke" or find unity, between mind and body, breath and poses, the self and the rest of the world. Yoga allows us to find balance in the literal and metaphysical sense, allowing us the time and space to reconnect with the cycle of our breath and even with nature. It reminds us that we are all part of something greater, this cycle of plants and people. It teaches us to steady the mind when life throws us curve balls and our stress response fires up.
How Yoga Supports a Healthy Stress Response - and How Herbs Do, Too
Stress happens, and it's a normal part of life. We have to learn to adapt to it, with yoga or other stress-supporting techniques that can promote healthy function of the adrenal glands. (After all, these little walnut-size glands are in charge of your stress response.)
The group of herbs called adaptogens can also help, functioning like preprogrammed thermostats for the body, dialing up or down to maintain balance as the natural stress mechanisms are triggered.* Two in particular come to mind as herbs to complement a yoga practice: Ashwagandha and Holy Basil.* Both of these herbs have a rich history of use in Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, and they're still quite commonly used today.
Ashwagandha, it is said, turns the "worrier into a warrior." It is among the adaptogens that are regulating, calming and restoring. It works on the body to balance adrenal function, restoring the body's nighttime circadian rhythm. A tonifying herb that also supports the immune system, Ashwagandha promotes the body's ability to cope with stress and conserve energy.*
Holy Basil "keeps you in the eye of the hurricane." Also called Tulsi, it's a physically and emotionally supporting. Holy Basil supports your body's ability to naturally protect against daily stressors, supporting your daily circadian rhythm.* Also called "the incomparable one," it translates to "balance," which is symbolic of its most common modern use.* The leaves of Holy Basil support a healthy response to stress, while nourishing the mind and elevating the spirit.*
Yoga's impact on stress is partially linked to the conscientious, slow breathing that accompanies the physical practice. While rapid breathing triggers the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, your rest-and-digest system (the parasympathetic nervous system) kicks in when the breath is slow and steady. By engaging the nerves that slow down the body - chief among them the vagus nerve that controls your heart rate and serves as the connection between the gut and the brain - you can begin to return to a sense of calm. The limb of yoga we mentioned earlier called pranayama is dedicated to this breath control as a way to channel energy (prana) in the body.
Yoga offers immediate biofeedback and helps people create "the self sense," says Janelle Railey, a mind-body psychotherapist and Ashtanga yoga teacher in Asheville, N.C. When we're in fight-or-flight mode, "your body can feel like this other foreign entity." By putting you in control of your breath and movement, yoga allows you to explore how the body holds onto sensation, and it allows you to move into or away from that sensation, she says.
Communication between the brain and the gut is called interception, while neuroception is how the body evaluates risk, using information from the senses. Yoga helps develop those, and when they do, Railey says researchers have found that we develop more empathy.
"We learn to understand ourselves from the inside out," she says. "We start to notice the nuanced ways we can explore ourselves."
Yoga as a Living Laboratory
We get to experiment, she says, with emotions, reactions and stressful situations. Within the perimeters of your yoga mat lies a safe haven for exploring. How do you react when your usual tools are taken away, such as not having your arms to balance and steady you in a pose like virabhadrasana (warrior) 3? What emotions arise when you stay an uncomfortably long time in a pose like utkatasana (chair), when you can feel your legs starting to burn? If a pose is beyond your physical limits, do you treat yourself with compassion or shame? Yoga holds up that mirror to our lives, allowing us a real view of our patterns and habits. Exploring them and dismantling them on the mat lets us, in theory and with hope, react with more grace, balance and empathy in the world.
The next time you flow through stress - on the mat or in the office - consider this advice from American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: "...feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we're holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we'd rather collapse and back away. They're like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we're stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it's with us wherever we are."