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Published on: May 6, 2014
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Chronic stress, and the persistently high levels of cortisol it produces, wreaks havoc on our entire body. Chronically high cortisol has been linked to high blood pressure, increased abdominal fat deposits, heartburn, gastric ulcers and compromised immune system functioning. It has also been linked to shrinkage of the hippocampus (the part of our brain responsible for retaining new information) and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Clearly there are many good reasons to do whatever it takes to reduce chronic stress in our lives. This is especially true for caregivers of loved ones with dementia, who often experience high levels of stress over long periods of time. When someone with dementia relies on you, the burden can be overwhelming and it can feel like there is no way to avoid stress.
Chronic stress is so rampant in our culture that it seems normal. When everyone around you is stressed out, it can feel like that’s just the ways things are, making it tempting to resign ourselves to lives of hectic unbalance. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you believe there is no way for you to reduce the stressors you face, you can incorporate stress management tools into your life to help you handle the stressors better and reduce the negative health effects of exposure to chronic stress. Yoga is one such tool.
Yoga Provides Numerous Benefits
Because yoga incorporates multiple practices – physical postures, breathwork, and meditation – it is a comprehensive approach that is ideal for stress management. Studies have shown that practicing yoga is associated with numerous physiological and psychological benefits including positive effects on cognitive activity, lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and improvements in depression.
There’s a Style of Yoga for Everyone
There are many different styles of yoga to choose from and there is wide variation among teachers of any given style. Some classes are vigorous with flowing movement or long holds. Some classes are moderate in intensity, while others are extremely gentle. For people that have mobility challenges, perhaps being unable to get up and down off the floor, there are even chair yoga classes.
“Yoga is growing in popularity but it’s unfortunate that there are misconceptions about yoga that keep some people from trying it,” says yoga instructor, Stephanie Hahn, based in Waterloo Region. “For example, some people perceive yoga as being for women, while other people claim to not be flexible enough to do yoga. I believe that there is a style of yoga for everyone – men and women, and especially for people lacking flexibility. Someone wise once said that saying you’re not flexible enough to do yoga is like saying you’re not dirty enough to take a bath.”
“Try out a variety of classes with different instructors to find one that you enjoy so that you are more likely to do it regularly,” advises Hahn. And regularity of practice is important. You will certainly benefit from practicing as little as once a week, but research shows that multiple sessions each week, or even daily sessions, are likely more effective at providing therapeutic benefit.
“Going out to a class can provide structure and motivation, and teach you to practice yoga safely, which is especially important for beginners. After attending classes for a while, many students have picked up a lot that they can then practice at home between classes,” explains Hahn. Many yoga instructors offer private sessions, if you’d prefer not to learn in a group environment. There are also many great books, DVDs and online content to support a home yoga practice, making it convenient and affordable.
Meditation Can be an Effective Tool on its Own
While meditation is often done as part of a comprehensive yoga practice, there are many people who practice various forms of meditation on its own. “Meditation is one of the most effective ways to rapidly induce a deeply restful state. It can be integrated into anyone’s life since it can be learned quickly, doesn’t have to take much time, and doesn’t require mobility or physical fitness. It can be learned under the guidance of a meditation teacher in a group class or a private session, or it can practiced at home using audio recordings,” explains Hahn.
Several studies have shown improved cognitive function among regular meditators. One example is research by H.G. Yucel in 2001 with elderly persons, showing that meditation had beneficial effects on their memory. In addition to the direct impact meditation can have on the brain, there are many additional benefits for brain health through reduction of risk factors for dementia such as blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and depression.
Types of Meditation
There are different types of meditation, which can be divided into two broad categories:
Concentrative meditation directs your attention to a single unchanging or repetitive stimulus, to help you let go of thoughts and quiet your mind. Examples include repeating a sound in your mind (mantra), watching your breath, or gazing at a candle flame. Transcendental meditation is a well known form of mantra meditation.
Non-concentrative meditation cultivates mindfulness, the ability to bring a nonjudgmental, sustained awareness to your thoughts, simply observing what comes into your mind without reacting to it. This type of meditation is also referred to as ‘insight meditation’ or ‘Vipassana practice.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program is a well known and extensively studied example of mindfulness practice.
Give Yourself the Gift of a Guilt-Free Pause Every Day
Most people in our fast-paced culture do not allow themselves the “luxury” of a rest during the day. Meditation practice offers a structured form of rest with numerous health benefits. “It’s important to realize that meditation is not the same as resting with your eyes closed. Research has shown that the physiology of meditation differs from that experienced with ordinary rest. It’s been called ‘falling awake’ in recognition of the fact that even though your body is relaxed and your mind is calm, there is still an active component to what’s going on,” explains Hahn. “It’s time that our culture redefines rest, understanding it is a necessity each day, not a luxury, so that everyone can discover the power of a guilt-free pause every day – whether they choose to practice meditation or yoga.”
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