Relaxation can be a learned behaviour, although it is inbuilt, we don’t always know how to access it. To relax is not simply lying down and doing the right breathing technique, it takes time, practice and the opportunity to let the body know that it is safe to do so. So how does yoga help the body relax?
What is the relaxation mechanism?
Very often we are told to relax by taking an in breath and then releasing a long slow out breath. The reason this doesn’t always work is because the body does not feel safe. To simply focus on the breath and try to breath more slowly may cause anxiety, even distress if a person is not used to doing this or relates it to trauma, they may have experienced.
We need to appeal to the very basic survival mode of the brain and let it know that we are safe. How can we do this?
· Grounding movements like taking off our shoes and feeling the connection with the floor, taking time to slow down and feel the stability this brings to the body
· Slow flowing movements such as gently raising and lowering the arms, the brain receives messages from the body and translates them to feelings of safety and security
· Connecting movement to the breath, another way for the brain to translate that the body is in a safe and stable place
· Being in the moment and allowing the senses to rest within the body, feeling the muscles, ligaments and tendons moving the body through different shapes
· Slowly taking the eyes from side to side as the head moves in a ‘no’ movement, the eyes are directly linked to the brain and quickly relay messages of safety
These aspects can be included in a yoga class and then be transferred to individuals daily home practice. Yoga classes are available in some areas of the UK using Social Prescribing. This model allows GPs or other primary care personnel to liaise with Link Workers who are knowledgeable about local classes and clubs.
Exercise referral schemes and their role in encouraging people to try yoga
Lots of people have been referred, via their primary care team, to the exercise referral schemes that exist across the country. The article in the BMC Public Health(1) talks about exercise referral schemes and mental health. It asked whether these referral schemes helped people with mental health conditions. Increased physical activity is a common lifestyle recommendation and has been demonstrated to improve overall health outcomes. Mild exercise is seen to have the greatest impact on anxiety Dr Chatterjee Podcast #242 (2).
Physical activity has been shown to be effective for stress 8, clinical depression and anxiety 9. The paper goes on to say that those individuals who don’t regularly have physical activity are twice as likely to display depression and anxiety symptoms 19. The study also states that people were more likely to attend yoga classes because of the more mindful and meditative nature of yoga makes it more appealing than standard gym sessions. In addition, increasing age is correlated with an increase uptake of exercise referral schemes 38, 39, 40. Overall, the report found that the approach to exercise referral schemes for people with mental health referrals needs to change.
When people experience mental health problems and they are advised to seek out more physical exercise they are looking for a situation where they can decide for themselves their level of participation. They want to know beforehand what to expect and that the activity could be adapted to their needs. A supportive atmosphere is also vitally important. It seems that the exercise referral schemes need to be tailored, individualised and personalised. Yoga has these aspects at its core.
Yoga is a useful preventative tool to help with anxiety and depression working alongside primary care. Yoga works well as it widens the ‘Window of Tolerance’, a term developed by Dan Siegal. Yoga meets the 4 key principles of his theory. The first is practicing and practicing, in other words repeating the same movements and practicing them with a stable and grounded base. The second is practicing with awareness, enabling the mind to feel each movement. The third is practicing with passion, really enjoying the experience. The fourth and final is novelty, so although we practice the same movements, we make small changes. These could be lifting the arms with the palms up and the next time with the palms down. Introducing novelty throughout the practice.
Slow, mindful yoga helps to wash away the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. It also reduces emotional reactivity, so we increasingly tend to be able to stand back and think about a problem. Deeper breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and reduces our heart rate also shunting blood away from our muscles and into our digestive and reproductive systems. This is also known as ‘Rest & Restore’. Whenever we move our body we release beneficial neurochemicals like dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins and serotonin. Wendy Suzuki describes this beautifully as a ‘bubble bath of neurochemicals that act to the destress you and reduce hostility and anxiety’.
Stress is a big part of our daily life now. It would be good to learn how to destress, to relax. This will be different for each of us and it would be good to learn some basic practices that help us unplug quickly. The more we practice, the quicker we relax. The quicker we relax means that we will spend more time in a relaxed state. Let’s get going.
(1) Evaluation of the uptake, retention and effectiveness of exercise referral schemes for the management of mental health conditions in primary care: a systematic review | BMC Public Health | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
(3) Wendy Suzuki Prof of Neural Science & Psychology Book: Good Anxiety