By Jon Macaskill and Samantha Parker
We’ve all heard about the healing benefits of yoga. More and more people are becoming aware of similar benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation. However, all these practices can be used to not only support healing after physical and emotional stressors; they can also prepare the mind and body to handle physical and emotional stress before it happens. Put all the practices together and you have a powerful concoction for optimizing physical and mental performance, all while having the tools to better handle the stressors life will send your way.
Yoga and Meditation As A Cure
Yoga is comprised of eight limbs which address the ethical standards of the individual, including our integrity, moral values, disciplines and our behaviors both on and off the mat. Each individual can interpret guidelines differently and many times their interpretation will change as they continue on their yoga journey. Generally, yoga is more about learning about the “who” of your authentic self, learning how to accept and love your authentic self, and letting go of the ego. This yoga philosophy is put into practice throughout a yoga class whether the individual realizes it or not.
The main limbs people tend to think of when they think of yoga are the asanas (poses), pranayama (breathwork), philosophy (yamas and niyamas) and meditation. The asanas, done in different sequences, are beneficial for controlling and managing chronic pain by aiding in muscular relaxation, creating new neural pathways, providing biofeedback and preparing the body for meditation.
According to a study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the movement of the poses stimulates internal organs to aid in performance, efficiently relaxes the muscles, and increases dopamine, serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA is a neurotransmitter produced naturally in the brain to facilitate activity among other brain cells and the central nervous system. Primarily, GABA inhibits the actions of other neurons and acts as a sedative increasing relaxation, reducing stress, improving sleep, balancing mood and even alleviating pain.
When the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) or “feed or breed” system, is activated, the body feels safe, allowing the practitioner to become more mindful and aware of emotional, cognitive stress or anxiety they may be suppressing. The yoga asanas provide the practitioner with natural internal biofeedback. Western medical biofeedback is a form of therapy that puts sensors on the body to help individuals become better aware of how their bodies react and respond to their actions and behaviors.
Biofeedback aids in obtaining a better understanding of the impact our behaviors and actions contribute to our stress, and anxiety. Acknowledging our behaviors and their impact is the first step in creating new neural pathways (a path that neurons travel to get from one place to another to have the body perform movement).
The brain processes an average of 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day leading to around 38 to 45 thoughts a minute. With all of this constant sensory input, it has to decide what the most important things are in that exact moment. Often it will default to previous laid neural pathways so it doesn’t have to “think” as hard. You can think of this concept as going through the motions in your daily activities and then wondering how you ended up eating all of your lunch without even tasting it.
The yoga asanas and pranayama performed in a practice supports the stimulation of the vagus nerve which helps activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and override your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) — commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” system — which is located in the amygdala and ends in the diaphragm. Deep breathing and twisting poses stimulate the vagus nerve, relaying sensory input to the brain in a shorter amount of time. Receiving information quickly aids in relaxing and calming the body and brain, leading to better-informed decisions and actions.
Physical or emotional stress can be challenging to address. When we fail to address the emotional and cognitive stress present in our lives, the body may hold this stress physically, sometimes creating other complications. An example would be an individual having to suppress a lot of anger towards a co-worker. In the process of not dealing with the cause of the anger, they may start to get headaches or migraines. Muscular tension held unconsciously throughout the body and poor posture may create additional tension throughout the back, causing the muscles at the base of the skull to tense and contribute to headaches.
When we practice yoga we become more mindful of how our bodies react to stress and our behaviors as they take place, helping us become more proactive instead of reactive. This aids in preventing additional physical, emotional or mental stress and anxiety from developing. Similar benefits can be found in practicing mindfulness throughout the day and regularly meditating. Fear, hypervigilance, depression, anxiety, insomnia can all be a physical or mental response to stress. Each of these conditions alone can be debilitating but they often occur together to devastating effect.
Despite many of these responses being primal, the good news is we can rewire our brain to respond in better and healthier ways through the practices of mindfulness and meditation.
As we practice, similarly to what happens in yoga, we can actually physiologically shrink the size of the amygdala — the area of the brain that controls our stress. Simultaneously, through regular practice, the prefrontal cortex thickens which helps us increase awareness and concentration, and improves decision making. As this happens, the connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex also weakens, therefore lessening the frequency and intensity of the primal responses to stress. This often leads to an increase in quality sleep (which leads to a host of other health benefits) and a decrease in anxiety, fear, and depression.
Additionally, if stress is the root cause of physical pain, practicing mindfulness and meditation can decrease the perception of pain. Physiologically, the part of the brain associated with the unpleasant perception of pain is the anterior cingulate cortex. With practice, the connection between the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex is weakened and subsequently, the perception of pain is lessened!
Yoga and Meditation As A Preventative Measure
As amazing as yoga and meditation may be in supporting the reduction of stress, pain or symptoms of another ailment, these same practices can also be used to actually prepare you for physical and emotional stress and better enable you to tackle your “daily” tasks. For service members in particular, those tasks can include working on a staff somewhere in the U.S., biking to work in Germany, or running and gunning on the battlefield!
As mentioned above, the deep diaphragmatic breathing practiced in yoga classes is a simple and highly effective practice that stimulates and further develops the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a key component in bodily functioning; it aids in controlling muscles in the throat, helps regulate the heart rate and gastrointestinal tract, and relays sensory information from the internal organs to the brain. It stretches from the brain to the diaphragm and can be thought of as a Bullet Train for delivering messages to the brain. The brain receives all of the sensory input from throughout the body no matter what; but by stimulating the vagus nerve the information will be received faster, providing more time for the brain to process the situation and information for smarter, reliable responses.
If you’ve ever been in a situation that made you extremely nervous, you most likely noticed that taking a deep diaphragmatic breath helped calm the body and mind, even if only a little. Deep breaths have a stimulating on the vagus nerve, kicking the PNS into high gear to help calm and steady your body and mind. While there are many different breathing techniques in yoga, deep diaphragmatic breathing is one you’re able to do in public and not receive too many odd looks!
As for practicing mindfulness and meditation, recent studies of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community members who practice regularly have shown increased attention spans and memory as well as decreased emotional responses to stressors. These effects lead to an increased ability to solve problems, from mathematical problems to figuring out the next move on the battlefield.
“Mindfulness training may help in stressful everyday moments, as well as more extreme life and death moments, by strengthening cognitive capacity that gets readily depleted when the mind is hijacked by anger, fear, worry, and rumination,” says Dr. Amishi Jha, who co-directed the mindfulness study with SOF and University of Miami. “We found that [after four weeks of mindfulness training] they may well be more capable as they deal with humanitarian, environmental, and security challenges that our country and the world face.”
Further studies among surgeons, first responders, and professional athletes — those who deal with unusually high levels of stress and require extreme focus — have had similar findings. Thus, it can be inferred that regular practice of mindfulness and meditation can improve anyone’s response to stressors and even optimize focus, memory, and problem-solving ability!
Combining these powerful practices (yoga, mindfulness, and meditation) can not only help you physically but also help you optimize mental performance and resilience. The best defense against anxiety after a stressful event is being mentally and physically prepared before the event ever takes place. The saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure couldn’t be truer and the practices of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are proven to serve both as prevention and cure. Why would we not practice?
Samantha Parker is a Health and Fitness Specialist at the Member’s Wellness Center for the U.S. House of Representatives and is a certified yoga therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
Jon Macaskill is a Navy SEAL who, while navigating the transition from active duty, found his passion for helping others discover the practices of mindfulness and meditation.
Samantha and Jon have partnered together to introduce the powerful practices of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation to those exposed to stressful situations — empowering them to better handle the situations upfront and deal with the anxiety or depression after.
Sources: The ‘best prospect’ for ensuring success in demanding roles, By Janette Neuwahl Tannen, University of Miami News at the U, https://news.miami.edu/stories/2018/11/ensuring-success-in-demanding-roles.html