The Health Benefits of Meditation and Yoga for Stress Reduction: turning on the parasympathetic nervous system

It all starts with the breath. Conscious deep breathing relaxation, an element of pranayama, is a method of powerful stress relief. Meditation is conscious deep breathing coupled with a silent mind. No thoughts, just pure presence of mind.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) engages when the human body is free of stress. This happens in a state of complete rest, meaning free of all mental, physical, and emotional stresses. Yoga is an extremely effective way to turn on the PSNS, but we must understand that the asanas are preparation for meditation. And it is after asana exercise, when we are completely still and consciously breathing in meditation, that the PSNS engages and begins to regenerate the body, mind, and soul.

Stephen Cope, director of the Kripalu Yoga Center in Massachusetts, conducted scientific research on the nervous system, which triggers the body’s fight or flight response. The research shows that daily stresses from our environment keep our cortisol levels abnormally high. Yoga asanas are preparation for meditation.

Yoga can also trigger releases of the serotonin and dopamine which are hormones that make us feel content and relaxed. However, it is very important to understand that the main keys to accessing this simple relaxation technique is pranayama (using conscious breathing for relaxation) and meditation. Just doing the asana exercise is not enough. Then we are just being gymnasts. To turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, we must allow our body to become completely relaxed and our mind to become completely clear. In this state of consciousness, one begins to notice the measurable health benefits of meditation.

Again, the practice of yoga asanas is a preparation for meditation. It get us aware our bodies and into the present moment. Once we have practiced the asanas, we are ready for meditation. And this is when PSNS engages and our bodies begin to relieve stress.

Dr. Sarah Dolgonos of the Yoga Society in New York, states that yoga suppresses the body’s stress response and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. When the PSNS turns on, the blood flow “is directed toward endocrine glands, digestive organs, and lymphatic circulation, while the heart rate and blood pressure are lowered…our bodies can better extract nutrients from the food we eat more effectively, and more effectively eliminate toxins because circulation is enhanced…the body enters into a state of restoration and healing.”

When we are in a meditative state of complete rest, mentally and physically, the PSNS engages. The physical asana workout of yoga is preparation for meditation. The asanas and pranayama are the gateways to meditation and natural stress reduction.

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posted: 1/12/12

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