“I’m not flexible enough to do yoga!” In my 12 years as a yoga instructor, this is the excuse I have heard most often for why people aren’t practicing yoga. My initial response is usually, “That’s exactly why you should be practicing yoga!” However, I am also an assistant professor of physiology, and I know that the benefits of yoga go far beyond flexibility. Participating in yoga regularly imparts a number of benefits— from weight management to stress reduction—to our physical and mental health.
One very important side benefit of yoga that is linked to both physical and mental health is breath control. Slow, deep, conscious abdominal (belly) breathing, especially during difficult poses, trains us to use the same type of breathing in challenging scenarios off the mat, such as giving a presentation, taking an exam or performing a difficult task.
Why do deep, yogic belly breaths help us through stressful situations? Recent studies suggest that this type of breathing can decrease firing of the sympathetic nervous system while increasing activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. The spike in heart rate and blood pressure, sweaty palms and voice tremors you might experience when you speak in front of an audience, for example, are due to activation of your sympathetic nervous system—the “fight-or-flight” response. This nervous response is great if you are running from a bear in the woods. But in real life these changes can lead to short-term memory problems and high anxiety levels that may interfere with giving a presentation or taking a test.
If you approach stressful situations with abdominal breaths, however, you help shut down the fight-or-flight reaction and increase the parasympathetic nervous response. Called a relaxation response, your heart rate slows down and your blood pressure returns to normal. Once you’re relaxed, you can approach the task at hand in a calm, collected way.
Many types of yoga incorporate physical movements with deep abdominal breathing. The physical demands of these movements have the potential to cause the fight-or-flight response, but by combining these poses with yogic breathing, we learn how to control our breath in seemingly stressful situations. So the next time someone tells me they are not flexible enough to do yoga I will ask them if they can take a deep breath. If they say yes, then I know they are ready to go!
September is National Yoga Month. Check out a yoga class or festival near you.
Audrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an associate professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is a former volunteer editor for the I Spy Physiology blog.