What are the mechanisms that reduce stress when we do yoga?
Research Study At A Glance
The Research Question Asked
How does yoga reduce stress?
Type of Study
Review paper and theoretical modeling
The researchers conducted a two-phase search using the PsychINFO database, first using the search terms yoga and stress, and then using the search terms embodiment and yoga. The results and conclusions of these studies were combined and summarized to allow the researchers to form broader theoretical models for how the embodiment aspects of yoga asana practice contribute to reduced stress.
The embodiment aspect of yoga asana practice may positively affect both the amount of perceived threat from a stressor and the ability to cope with the perceived stress.
The embodiment aspect of yoga asana practice may contribute to reductions in stress response. Further research is needed to uncover what mechanisms lead to reduced stress.
Yoga is often recommended as a good tool for reducing stress. There are both anecdotal and research reports which indicate that yoga does help reduce stress. What remains unknown is how yoga reduces stress. No one has yet identified the mechanisms that result in a reduction in stress responses after a yoga practice. In the research paper that I summarize here, the researchers discuss specific aspects of the stress response and then examine studies that propose several different theories for a connection between the embodiment that happens when doing yoga postures and those aspects of the stress response.
How does yoga reduce stress?
The researchers used the PsychINFO database to search in a two-phase process, first for papers that included the keywords yoga and stress, and then for papers that included the words embodiment and yoga. The two-phase search method was used because a preliminary search resulted in papers highlighting the potential connection between aspects of embodiment through yoga and reduced stress. The researchers then chose to focus more specifically on the embodiment aspect of yoga and its potential connection to reduced stress, so they completed a second search. Papers were included in the review if they met the keyword criteria and were published within the last 10 years.
This review of the literature suggests that there are several ways in which yoga postures potentially contribute to reduced stress. Models indicate that embodiment through yoga postures may affect both the amount of perceived stress and the ability to cope with the perceived stress.
The theoretical models described include:
- Yoga causes changes in perception, senses, and musculoskeletal system that may mediate stress.
- Yoga changes cognition, and therefore changes how we think about an event, which can change the degree to which we perceive it as stressful.
- Expansive movements in yoga may influence a more positive state or reduce the intensity of a negative state.
- Increased overall awareness of nuances in experience, as a result of increased body awareness from yoga, may increase the ability to respond with reduced reactivity to stressors.
Why is this relevant to yoga practitioners?
One of the most popular reasons that people report for starting a yoga practice is to reduce stress. While there does seem to be evidence that yoga has the potential to reduce stress, we don’t know how that happens. Based on this review of research conducted by those that have begun to study that question, it seems likely that there are multiple ways in which yoga can contribute to reduced stress. Some of those mechanisms may be related to the effects of the embodiment that happens when we do yoga postures.
However, it’s important to continue exploring this question as the variables involved can make it especially difficult to study. Much of the yoga research that has been published on yoga postures fails to describe what postures are used in the study, in what order they’re performed, how often they’re done, etc. Similarly, research on stress often fails to define stress and specifically what aspects of stress are being evaluated. In order to continue learning more about how yoga reduces stress, and therefore have the potential to refine practices to make them more effective for this purpose, we need to be specific about what we are studying. Specific musculoskeletal effects of different yoga practices vary so it’s likely that effects on other systems vary too. While this review of research on yoga and stress offers some possible reasons for how yoga reduces stress, more research is still needed to fully answer that question.
Francis, A.L. and R.C. Beemer. 2019. How does yoga reduce stress? Embodied cognition and emotion highlight the influence of the musculoskeletal system. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 43:170-175.
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