A recent small scale study has shown increased quality of life in chronic Ulcerative Colitis sufferers. Those who previously reported a reduction in life quality due to the disease undertook 12 weekly Yoga sessions and subsequently reported greater improvements in their quality of life. Advice from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany states that Yoga is “Safe and Effective” (along with other evidence based interventions) in the “maintenance of remission” for sufferers.
It’s also interesting to read the links now made between inflammation and, not just chronic illness such as asthma, arthritis, diabetes, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, but also depressive episodes and anxiety as reported by Dr’s Irwin & Slavich at UCLA.
So what is Inflammation?
Simply put, it’s our body’s immune system’s response to a particular stimulus. Importantly, in the case of bacteria entering the body, our immune system works to isolate bacteria, in order to stop it spreading. Perhaps an allergen enters the nostrils and the immune system acts to flush it out as mucous membranes produce more fluid. This helpful inflammation we can probably all relate to…
However some immune responses are unhelpful, chronic and cause the immune system to attack the healthy body. What is the stimulus that causes chronic inflammation, Psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis etc? Usually it’s unknown. My own experience is with alopecia areata, where the immune system attacks hair follicles resulting in patchy hair loss. I’ve had two episode of alopecia, both as an adult, and both times they’ve resolved relatively quickly.
Is Stress the stimulus for chronic inflammation?
Well, yes. Stress, defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”, actually changes our immune cell genes, which as we know, lead to inflammation. In acute situations, such as jumping out of the way of oncoming traffic we need stress, to prime our heart, large muscles and prepare us for injury. At the point at which we perceive stress, in whatever form we perceive it, biologically our bodies become primed, ready for fight or flight. This response has the potential to save our lives. But what if a packed tube is the cause of our stress? What if we work for a difficult boss, and spend 8 hours of our day stress primed in their presence? What if there is a daily struggle to find finances in order to eat, or keep a roof over our heads? What if we experience grief and the loss of a loved one? Or what if the demands of raising a family cause stress? Throw in poor quality food choices, weight loss or gain, and the inability for the situation to resolve and we have a recipe for chronic stress, inflammation, disease, anxiety and depression.
How does yoga help?
The point at which we decide to go to a Yoga class, is probably also the point that we decide something has to change. Perhaps subconsciously we want to get fit, claim some time for ourselves or are actively looking for respite from pain or stressful life circumstances. Whatever the reason we find ourselves in a Yoga class though, the outcome is usually the same once the class is over. We may experience a reduction in mental activity, a less tense body. We may feel we can breathe more easily, or that we’ve stretched out tight muscles. Often we sleep better following a Yoga class and have a sense of feeling refreshed. If you came along for respite, you’ve probably found it!
What are we doing in Yoga class to reduce stress?
All good Yoga teachers will lead students to their breath. The breath can be seen as an indicator for stress. When we experience short or restricted breath it can be due to physical tensions, mental stimulation, fear, anxiety and stress. As we connect to the quality of the breath, and begin to lengthen and smooth the breath, our bodies begin to receive the message that we are ‘safe’ and that there is no perceived threat.
With practice comes skill and the ability to bring this message through the breath and in to our Asana (the shapes, and poses we make on the mat) and each pose can bring relief to different parts of the body.
In finding ourselves in new shapes, usually very different to our habitual patterns of movement, we have the opportunity every time we move, to bring the breath with us, and with it the signal that we are ‘safe’ ‘secure’ and doing something restorative for ourselves.
Again, good teachers will lead our bodies to the subtleties of our experience, such as how grounded we may feel, leading us to the effects of gravity and the support of the earth and returning our mind’s focus to the breath often.
And then there’s the ‘let go’ whether it’s the Savasana at the end of the session, a guided relaxation, breathing exercise or meditation. Yoga teaches us how to let go, unload, release ourselves from our day, week, lifetime’s habits or simply from the physical practice we’ve just taken. We practice letting go, and when we first allow ourselves to let go… there is no going back, it’s just too good to not return to!
Reading the emerging research and science relating to inflammatory conditions and how Yoga is proving beneficial is not surprising. I believe my own experiences with stress, Alopecia, and with anxiety and depression have be resolved by acknowledgement firstly, which included a trip to the GP, through CBT and subsequently through a regular yoga practice.
10-minute breathing practice
This short breathing practice is designed to bring awareness to the quality of the breath in the body. And to experience the effects of practicing an extended exhale.
You’ll need to find a comfortable upright seat, either on a firm chair, or sitting cross legged or kneeling either side of blocks, a bolster or a supportive cushion.