What is yoga and how can it help me?

December 30, 2010 Providence Health Team

You are probably familiar with the phrase “fight-or-flight response” but just as a refresher, imagine a caveman a billion years ago out walking in the forest. Suddenly he encounters a saber tooth tiger. Immediately he has to make the decision to stay and fight the tiger or flee as fast as he can. It is this decision to stay and fight or run away as fast as he can that engages the sympathetic nervous system.

What happens when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged?
The stress response is activated and all muscles are primed and ready to go. Heart rate and blood pressure increase and your body starts producing adrenaline. This stress response stops or slows down several processes in the human body, most notably those surrounding urinary and bowel movements, the need to eat and the desire for sexual arousal. If you think about it, it makes sense. That same caveman doesn’t need to be worrying about any of the above while he’s trying to overcome the menacing stare of the saber tooth. Most importantly this stress response diminishes the effectiveness of the bodies immune system. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol interfere with the mission of our white blood cells, the very cells that destroy cancer cells.

How does my body recover from this response?
In theory, once the caveman has either run from or defeated the tiger his body will activate his parasympathetic nervous system allowing his heart rate and blood pressure to decrease; restoring the body’s natural functioning. This period is often referred to as “rest-and-digest” and when the nervous system goes parasympathetic the immune system gets cracking and does its best work to protect your health destroying disease causing cells. A gentle yoga practice teaches you many skillful ways to shift your physiology and optimize your immune function. This ancient system of self care uses deep breathing techniques, mindful movement sequences, intelligent stretching, deep relaxation and meditation techniques to give you a wonderful antidote to the stress response.

What does a saber tooth tiger have to do with cancer treatment?
The domino effect of challenges that a cancer diagnosis requires creates more stress than your body would normally encounter. Chances are the caveman didn’t encounter a menacing tiger every day of the week, meaning his body was always given time to “rest-and-digest”. Unfortunately the fast paced lifestyle of today’s society seems to plant tigers around every corner, just waiting to pounce. Scientists know that when your body spends too much time in a stress response your immune system is suppressed and your body is left open to infections and a variety of stress related illnesses.

This is where yoga comes in. The practice of yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system causing a cascade of physiological changes in the body that supports holistic health. Nearly everyone can benefit from yoga, but at Providence we firmly believe that therapeutic yoga can complement conventional medical care.

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