A while back I wrote a blog about the powerful benefits of viparita karani, legs-up-the wall pose. This pose has helped so many people I know learn to relax and deal with insomnia, stress and adrenal exhaustion. It’s a great pose. I love restorative yoga and, having a busy life, I feel like it’s an essential part of self-care.
So it was interesting to see a recent study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology showing that restorative yoga is actually not as good as gentle stretching in terms of lower cortisol levels and helping people ameliorate the neuroendocrine dysregulation (metabolic syndrome) of chronic stress.
Actually, the results of the randomized controlled trial (RCT), published in November, 2014 make a lot of sense.
Researchers divided participants into two groups – once practicing restorative yoga and the other gentle stretching. After six months, the group that was doing gentle stretching showed decreased salivary cortisol levels compared to the restorative yoga group. Cortisol is the primary hormone that is used to measure stress response. When you have a lot of cortisol coursing through your system, your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA), or stress engine, is in high gear. You need to move in order to lower those cortisol levels.
In my experience working with people with chronic stress, it has become very clear that they are not particularly interested in lying down. How many times have you noticed people leaving class right before s’ava’sana? If you are really stressed out, exercise feels good, but stillness – not so much.
I think more research is necessary – but I am also seeing how this study corroborates Subtle Yoga methodology – helping people work out neuromuscular tension through mindful, repeated poses and progressive breathing patterns is more effective than simply using restorative poses.
Here’s a brief intervention I like to teach for anxiety. Please note this may not be appropriate for people with lower back issues.
Progressive exhales in Uttanasana
1. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, slide your hands down the backs of your legs.
2. Inhale back up to standing.
3. Exhale as you slide down again at the end of your exhale pause for 2 seconds.
4. Inhale back up.
5. The next time you exhale pause for 3 seconds, then 4, then 5.
6. Come back up to Mountain pose, take several long deep breaths and notice how you feel.
We teach principles of sequencing and simple protocols for working with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma in our RYT200 program for Behavioral Health Professionals at MAHEC in Asheville and also in our RYT500 Therapeutic Yoga Teacher Training programs.