At first glance, this story might seem like a no-brainer. Yoga and meditation help to reduce stress? That's obvious. But what's fascinating is that a new study has shown how several key biological markers linked to stress and inflammation were improved after a daily regimen of yoga and meditation.
For the study, researchers recruited participants in an intensive three-month yoga and meditation retreat and collected blood and saliva samples as well as subjective data about each participant's perceived stress levels. They measured three key markers of stress in the body: brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), cortisol awakening response (CAR) and inflammation.
BDNF is a protein found in the blood that plays an important role in learning, memory and the regulation of processes such as inflammation, immunity, mood regulation, stress response and metabolism. Previous research has found that decreased levels of BDNF have been linked with conditions such as anxiety, depression and emotional exhaustion.
CAR refers to the body's release of the hormone cortisol at its peak, which is around 30 minutes after you wake up. Cortisol is released in response to stress, with levels fluctuating throughout the day. But by measuring participants' CAR, researchers were hoping to assess each person's baseline stress levels as well as their body's variation in the release of cortisol from day to day.
The third stress marker that the team measured was inflammation. Decades of research has shown that high levels of inflammation are linked with a number of health issues, including depression and anxiety. Inflammation is a good thing when the body is responding to an infection, but it's a bad thing when the body remains in an inflamed state day-in and day-out.
Researchers found that after three months of daily yoga and meditation practices, participants had higher levels of BDNF, lower CAR scores, and reduced levels of inflammation. In other words, they were less stressed and better equipped to handle stress when it occurred. Of course, any kind of three-month retreat from life might help to reduce stress, but a retreat that clearly focused on mental and physical well-being was sure to be an added bonus.
Yoga to reduce stress
That's no surprise to Jennifer Reis, a yoga therapist at the Kripalu School of Yoga, who told MNN, "Yoga postures allow you to go inward to discover that peace and comfort is already here within you."
Those of us who can't make it to a three-month retreat can still reap the benefits of daily yoga and meditation. If you really want to focus on reducing stress, Reis recommends the following yoga postures.
Crab Pulses with Hara Breath. Release tension by shouting it out! From a seated position place your hands behind you and your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Exhale "Ha" from your belly as you swiftly lift your hips into the air, as though you were tossing a ball from your belly high up into the sky. Make the "Ha" sound sharp like a karate-chop-kick sound. Inhale and lower buttocks almost to the ground, then repeat 5-10 times.
According to Reis, the Leg Up the Wall yoga posture is one of the best poses for reducing stress because resting on the ground allows the ‘thinking mind’ to take a break. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Reis)
Legs Up The Wall. Lie on your bed using a pillow to cushion your hips and run your legs either straight up into the air like two candlesticks, or with your hips close to the wall, rest your heels against the wall. Place arms open out to the sides with palms upward facing to open the chest.
Double Supine Pigeon. Lying on your back, cross your left thigh over the right thigh, gently squeezing your thighs together. Then wrap your arms around your knees and pull knees toward your chest to stretch the hip-buttock area. Rock gently side to side to explore sensation for a few breaths. Then do the other side.
Supported Fish Posture. Use a cushion or bed pillow as a support. Lay over the support with your shoulders at the top of the pillow and your head off the pillow. Place a folded blanket or towel under your head, especially if your chin is sticking up. Tuck chin gently towards chest. Position arms 45 degrees from your body (or hands about 2 feet away from hips) with palms face upward. Breathe deeply with long exhalations through the nose. To come out, draw your knees into your chest, then roll to your side and rest. Remove pillow and lie flat on your back to feel the effects.