Yoga for Stress Reduction in Students
This paper seeks to determine whether or not yoga is an effective technique in reducing stress in students. Stress is a major problem among college students. Being a college student and experiencing this stress myself, I decided to look into yoga as a technique for stress reduction in students. Through research of current literature written and studies conducted on the subject as well as my own personal experiences both in and out of my Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice class, I wanted to take a look at various aspects of the practice while incorporating eastern and western ideas and theories in yoga in relation to reducing stress. Through my research, I was able to determine that many people agree, and have found data to support, that yoga can be an effective technique in reducing stress levels in students.
Yoga has been around for thousands of years. Some say the earliest writings date back to around 1500-1200 BCE (Parker, 2007, p. 62), while others believe the beginnings can be traced back to 2500 BCE (Chapple, 2008, p. 71).
Today, it is estimated that fifteen million Americans practice yoga regularly (Chapple, 2008, p. 71). It has become a new exercise sensation in the Western world, creating a huge new industry targeting people who strive to get that “perfect body” while also becoming a “better person” spiritually and mentally. It is important to understand the beginnings of the yoga tradition, though, and realize how much it has been Westernized here in America.
Being a part of this Western culture and being immersed into its American views of yoga, it has become obvious to me that many people believe practicing yoga will reduce a person’s stress levels. Stress is a problem across the globe, but stress levels in America are increasing at alarming rates. According to the American Psychological Association (2012a), an average 21% of American adults said they experience extreme stress, 44% said they experience moderate stress, and 34% said they experience low stress (p. 2). They also state that people age 18-33 and 34-47 report the highest levels of stress (American Psychological Association, 2012b, p. 1).
The 18-33 age group is the most common within the population of college students and much research has been done on the stress levels of college students. With this high level of stress, especially prominent in college students, and the idea that practicing yoga can reduce one’s stress levels, I think that yoga should be looked at as a possible technique for reducing stress levels in students. A college student myself, my stress levels have reached an all time high. As a result of these statistics, brief readings on the topic, and my own personal experiences, I have chosen to take a more in-depth look at the research behind yoga as a method for stress reduction in students. I hope to gain insight on the current research both supporting and opposing the view that yoga can reduce stress levels, discover the gaps where research is missing within this topic, and also relate this idea back to the theory, culture, and practice of both traditional and modern yoga.
What is Stress?
Stress is a broad concept that can encompass a variety of symptoms. There are many definitions for stress, but for the purpose of this paper I will use the following,
[Stress is] a state of physiological or psychological strain caused by adverse stimuli, physical, mental, or emotional, internal or external, that tend to disturb the functioning of an organism and which the organism naturally desires to avoid (TheFreeDictionary, 2013, p. 1)
Another useful definition of stress is, “stress is a demand made upon the adaptive capacities of the mind and body” (Parker, 2007, p. 4). This latter definition will be important when looking at the effects of yoga’s theories of mind and body in relation to stress in students.
Although stress can sometimes be a good thing (such as in the case of the fight-or-flight response) it often causes a number of negative and harmful effects in humans. Stress can cause disruptions in both the sexual response and digestive systems, which are a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, and repeated and prolonged stress can cause a suppression of the immune system, making sufferers more prone to illness and infection (Parker, 2007, p. 24).
Basics of Yoga
Yoga is difficult to define because there are such a wide variety of practices that have stemmed from the original theories. Strauss (2004) says, “Yoga can be defined in many ways – as an attitude, a philosophy, a set of practices, a way of being in the world . . . Yoga offers an excellent example of the inseparability of mind and body” (Strauss, 2004, p. 2). This idea of yoga as an example of the intertwined relationship of mind and body is important in relation to the idea of yoga as a stress reduction technique. Stress can be caused by a number of things, including internal and external stimuli acting physiologically and psychologically. In order to help combat stress, one needs to take both components into consideration – physiological and psychological, body and mind – because of their inseparable relationship. Yoga recognizes this inseparable relationship between mind and body and embraces it in order to help someone heal; something that many people, especially within Western culture, do not consider today.
Yoga is an ancient practice. One of the oldest and most famous texts on yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, states that there are nine obstacles that are encountered in life which include physical illness, tendency of the mind to not work efficiently, doubt or indecision, lack of attention to pursuing the means of Samadhi (which is a higher level of concentrated meditation, also known as dhyana), laziness in mind and body, failure to regulate the desire for worldly objects, incorrect assumptions or thinking, failing to attain stages of the practice, and instability in maintaining a level of practice once attained (Patanjali, translated by Bharati, p. 12). These obstacles Patanjali states seem to have resemblance to factors that I would perceive as relating to stress. These nine obstacles then result in four consequences; mental or physical pain, sadness or dejection, restlessness, shakiness, or anxiety, and irregularities in the exhalation and inhalation of breath (Patanjali, translated by Bharati, p. 12). These consequences Patanjali lists have a lot of similarity to current conceptions regarding stress. This leads me to believe that yoga may be an effective stress reduction technique.
Another well-known text, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, translated by Swami Muktibodhananda, outlines the basics of hatha yoga. In this book Muktibodhananda writes, “The flow of the breath in alternate nostrils indicates the state of balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems” (2011, p. 15). When I talked about the negative effects of stress previously, I discussed how it could negatively affect the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is a part of the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the unconscious regulation of organs and glands. This includes sexual and digestive response systems, both of which can be affected by stress. In relation to the quote from Muktibodhananda above, breath is a very important component in yoga practices – especially in that of hatha yoga. This would lead me to believe that by controlling the breath in this way that Muktibodhananda suggests, one can then help balance the effects stress has on their parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga as a Stress Reduction Technique/Modality for Students
Through researching articles and studies that have been done regarding yoga as a stress reduction technique for students, I hoped to find data to support my belief that yoga can reduce stress. Though there was not much research on the topic of yoga for stress reduction as I thought there would be, many of the studies I found agreed with my view that yoga can be used as a successful modality for reducing stress in students. The studies I have reviewed include a variety of yoga practices as treatment options, but many found that an integrated approach to yoga (including mindfulness and/or spirituality components) yielded more successful results in reducing stress in comparison to yoga practices that only look at physical aspects and components of yoga. Smith, Greer, Sheets, and Watson (2011) introduce this topic well by writing, “Meditation, for example, has been associated with diminished stress and worry and decreased anxiety and depressive symptomology in diverse populations, including medical students, residents of inner city neighborhoods, and college students” (p. 22).
Smith et al. (2011) researched the holistic benefits of hatha yoga in their study to discover whether or not it can be used as a helpful tool in enhancing physical and psychological well being in college students (p. 22). They took a look at a comprehensive method of yoga, defining this as including a “meditation and ethical/spiritual component in addition to an exercise component”, which they believe to have more benefits than exercise alone (p. 22). They go on to explain this belief by saying,
There is reason to believe that a more comprehensive hatha yoga practice may have benefits beyond that of exercise alone. Meditation, for example, has been associated with diminished stress and worry and decreased anxiety and depressive symptomology in diverse populations, including medical students, residents of inner city neighborhoods, and college students. A sense of spiritual well-being, derived from the ethical teachings, is correlated with aspects of hopefulness (Smith et al., 2011, p. 22).
To determine if, in fact, a comprehensive approach to yoga has a greater impact on students’ physical and psychological well-being, including their stress levels, Smith et al. conducted a study to compare comprehensive yoga, yoga as exercise, and a control group. After their study, they concluded that both the integrated yoga group and the yoga as exercise group saw a decrease in stress symptomology (Smith et al., 2011, p. 27-28). Further more, only the integrated yoga group saw a continuous decrease in anxiety symptoms throughout the study – symptoms that are often associated with stress (Smith et al., p. 27-28).
An article by Milligan (2006) demonstrates how a yoga program implemented at a college as a stress management program helped decrease stress in students by “increasing self- awareness and self-acceptance and by teaching stress-management skills” through yoga (p. 182). Milligan (2006) also includes the idea that East Indian cultures have used yoga to help those with those with mental, emotional, and physical problems for centuries (p. 182). She states that she used a mix of asana and pranayama practices combined with “eastern psychology, mindfulness, meditation, and traditional stress-management principles” (Milligan, 2006, p. 182). These ideas and practices are similar to those used in the comprehensive approach to yoga in the study conducted by Smith et al.
I am glad to see an example of more eastern ideas of yoga being used to reduce stress in students in the west. Throughout my time in the Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice class, I have learned the practices and ideas of the traditional roots of yoga as opposed to the Westernized versions that are being “sold” in America. Eastern practices do not focus on getting a perfect body or selling expensive yoga clothing, but rather they focus on the interwoven relationship between the mind, body, and spirit and how to become more self-aware and in control of these components of oneself. I think that in order to truly reduce stress, it is necessary to look at yoga from this mind-body-spirit perspective rather than the westernized focus on the physical body practices.
Human services students and trainees. Being a student at Lesley University where there is an emphasis on the human services professions, finding specific articles on mindfulness and yoga as a way to reduce stress for students within these professions was very interesting and relevant to me. Through reading research done specifically on yoga as a way to reduce stress in human services students, I hoped to find more data supporting the benefits of continuing to practice yoga throughout my time in college. As an art therapy student I, too, have gotten a taste of the enormous stress that can accompany training to work in this field.
Christopher and Maris (2010) state, “In addition to burnout, mental health professionals are at high risk for ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘vicarious traumatisation’. These kinds of stressors not only impact seasoned professionals, they can deeply impact counseling students and can hamper clinical training (p. 114). While training to work in this field, the importance of self-care is highly emphasized. Christopher and Maris chose to look at mindfulness as a possible technique for self-care in human services students. They focus more on the mindfulness/meditation techniques of yoga as opposed to physical, hatha yoga. Christopher and Maris found that students taking part in their mindfulness-based class overall reported an improvement in their stress and overall lifestyle and well-being. Christopher and Maris (2010) say,
As students began to become more sensitive to the way that stress manifested in their body, such as tense shoulders or necks, they reported being able to check in with these areas of their body to get feedback on their current psychological state. The awareness of how stress and tension manifested in their bodies gave students a means to monitor and then change their stress response (p. 120).
This is a statement that perfectly supports the idea of yoga as stress reduction, especially in students. One student even went on to say they were able to re-center themselves and focus on things in the present, rather than stress out about the things in their past or future, which then allowed them to focus on the real and right-now instead of letting the stress consume them (Christopher & Maris, 2010).
Shapiro, Brown, and Biegel (2007) conducted a comparable study, yielding similar results. They used the same idea of mindfulness as a stress reduction technique in students training to work within the human services professions. Shapiro et al. (2007) state that in their study participants reported “significant declines in stress, negative affect, rumination, state and trait anxiety, and significant increases in positive affect and self-compassion” (p. 105).
Mindfulness and meditation are key components for the basis of traditional yoga practices. Although more research needs to be done to make an official correlation between mindfulness yoga and stress reduction, these studies have shown these components to be successful in reducing stress in students training to become a human services professional. In America, many people seem to have forgotten this mindfulness and spirituality piece of yogic practice and are only focusing on the physical portions. Physical beauty has become so engrained into our society that many people are only viewing yoga as a way to enhance that beauty. I think that it is important for more people to become aware of the original theories and culture of yoga in order to see the healing and stress reducing opportunities instead of only the physical benefits to the practice.
Missing Research/Filling in the Gaps
I have discovered many gaps and a general lack of extensive research on yoga as a technique for reducing stress in students. Smith et al. (2011) made a good point by saying,
Most Western research on yoga has focused only on the physical benefits of the practice, finding benefits similar to those of moderate exercise. However, a comprehensive Hatha yoga practice involves an exercise component along with breath control, meditation, spiritual, and ethical components. There is limited research on the effectiveness of Hatha yoga when practiced in a more comprehensive way, ie, with a meditation and ethical/spiritual component in addition to an exercise component (p. 22).
In our Western view of things, many people are very focused on only the physical aspects of yoga, such as losing weight to build that so-called “perfect body”. That is not to say that everyone in the West views yoga in this way, there are many that choose a more spiritual and meditative yoga practice, but it seems as though the focus on the physical aspects of yoga are becoming the “norm” in America.
As I have learned throughout my time in the Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice class at Lesley University, there is much more to yoga than this physical aspect. I think this is why there is such a lack of research on the effects of yoga on stress reduction in comparison to other topics regarding yoga, such as yoga’s ability to help people lose weight or tone their body for example. People are only researching the physical portions of yoga practice and not taking the entire mind-body-spirit philosophy into consideration. This may also be, in part, due to the fact that the physical aspects are easier to research and measure than the spiritual aspects. The physical is tangible and can give us results that we can truly see, whereas the meditative and spiritual aspects are more of a measure at a deeper, mental level. Yoga for physical benefits can have some minor influences on stress levels, but the meditation and spiritual aspects of the practice have been proven to be much more effective in reducing stress levels.
For further research on yoga as a stress reduction technique in students I would suggest many more experimental studies, such as the ones Smith et al., Christopher and Maris, and Shapiro, Brown, and Biegel conducted. These studies allow a researcher to gather concrete data proving the positive effect yoga can have in reducing stress. Through the help of more of these studies including more people within the population, it would allow for a researcher to more accurately generalize the results to an entire population.
Being a current college student, I can vouch firsthand for the stress that students face. A typical college student’s life sets the stage for producing many negative side effects associated with stress: the pressure of keeping up your grades in school while juggling working, family situations, financial stressors, and many other events in one’s life is intense. I have never been one of those students with good time management or stress reduction skills and that definitely has not changed since starting college. I often find myself extremely stressed and overwhelmed. Through my time at Lesley University I have developed a strong interest in the holistic approach to healing modalities, which include alternative ways of healing a variety of problems without western medicines. I decided it was time to change my stress reduction skills once and for all.
I chose to take the Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice class to not only learn the history and ideas behind yoga, but also to learn about and experience the techniques for myself. I have discovered that yoga has, in fact, had a positive influence on the reduction of my stress. It has helped me to learn how to better control my mind. I often find myself thinking about events I have no control over and become overwhelmed by these thoughts, but with the help of yoga I have learned how to better control these invasive and negative thoughts. The power of pranayama has also shown itself to me. When I feel my anxiety level rising and my heart begin to race, I do a few calming three-part breathes to refocus my mind and steady my body’s reactions.
It is easy to read articles and studies and say that they are telling the truth, but being able to actually experience what the researchers and authors are reporting for yourself makes the ideas and concepts come to life. A few years ago, I may have even disagreed with the idea that yoga could be a stress reduction technique. Now, through my research and my own experiences, I thoroughly believe that yoga can reduce stress and should be implemented more as a holistic approach, especially within college settings.
When looking at yoga as a way to reduce stress in college students, it is crucial to also understand the history and theory of the yogic culture. Western culture has greatly changed the views of yoga from how the practice originally began. I think that as a culture we need to take a step back toward the original roots of yoga. Many of us are slowly moving away from the mindful, spiritual part of yogic practice and only focusing on the physical components. In order to better reduce stress levels through a yoga practice, we need to include the full mind, body, spirit components with which yoga began.
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