Dispatch from Dr. Sutherland for Spacious Minds...
Stress takes a horrible toll on our mental and physical health. Stress is not just a state of mind—it’s a physiological state as well. Risks associated with stress continue to pile up, including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mood disorders, fatigue, chronic pain, and increased inflammation. And reports of long-lasting (and even inter-generational) stress-induced alterations of the brain are changing the way we view this toxic state.
For many of us, the workplace is the primary source of stress in our lives. The costs of work-related stress continue to rise—not just for workers but for employers as well. In response, some companies have begun to address the issue right in the workplace. This month, for instance, several studies show that specially designed yoga practices could be used to reduce stress right in the office. A study from Wolever et al. published in The Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (funded in part by Aetna, Inc.) randomly assigned the health insurance company’s employees to a twelve-week program in yoga or mindfulness, or to an assessment-only control group. Some participants learned Viniyoga, a therapeutic, breath-centered style of yoga. Viniyoga emphasizes adapting the asana postures according to the needs and goals of the individual. In weekly one-hour sessions, employees learned a sequence of movements specifically designed for the study by the American Viniyoga Institute. Subjects receiving the “Mindfulness at Work” training participated either in person or online in weekly hour-long sessions and a two-hour practice intensive at week ten. The mindfulness practice was developed for the workplace by eMindful, Inc., a company that also partially funded the study. Both mind-body methods significantly improved self-reported levels of stress and perceived sleep quality. A physiological measure of autonomic balance also improved, demonstrating that the practices impacted the nervous system. Both Viniyoga and the mindfulness practice reduced workplace stress, but the Viniyoga subjects reaped greater benefits in some measures. While mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs abound in clinical and therapeutic settings worldwide, the study shows that more embodied mindfulness practices like Viniyoga are at least as effective at combating office stress.
Importantly, many of the harmful effects of stress are mediated through over-activity of the sympathetic nervous system, and specifically of the HPA axis, formed by the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. With ongoing stress, chronic activation of the HPA axis results in sustained physiological stress on the body and brain. An Australian team of researchers writing in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine report the immediate physiological effects of yoga and mindfulness. The authors measured physiological indicators of stress in people who had received just 15 minutes of yoga, mindfulness meditation, or work as usual. The yoga instruction emphasized deep breathing and used chair-based postures; the guided meditation was delivered in an mp3 audio file. Just after the 15-minute yoga or meditation, participants reported they were less stressed, and their physiology indicated they were more relaxed state with less sympathetic activity.
Notably, the authors hypothesize that the benefits of both practices may arise from a reduced breathing rate (which was also seen in the Aetna Viniyoga study). Their analysis of the physiological data also supported the idea that a physical yoga practice—some form of asana—might help prepare the mind for meditation, perhaps increasing benefits to the nervous system. In any case, the practices likely have brain benefits on top of relaxing the body’s physiology. Future study might shed light on what deeper aspects of neurophysiology are affected by breath and meditation used in concert with body movements.
In a report from Noggle et al. in The Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, high school juniors and seniors took either a normal physical education (PE) class or a Kripalu yoga class, another breath-centered yoga practice that also emphasizes self-awareness. School-aged teens benefited from yoga training—that’s no big surprise. But could it work? The authors also determined that the yoga instruction in a high school PE class was feasible and appeared to improve psychosocial measures of well-being in teens.
Take Home Message: To protect our body-mind, we all need to reduce our stress however we can. And while many of us discovered years ago that yoga is a great way to do it, now the data show it too.
(To learn more about Dr. Sutherland’s work as a yogi and a science writer, click here.)