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But according to a new study published in the February issue of Stress & Health, a regular yoga practice has one benefit that puts all others to shame. The researchers suggest the single biggest—and most immediate—positive side effect of yoga is its ability to provide relief from stress. Now, researchers at the University of Connecticut think they know why this is.
Researchers recruited 42 volunteers who participated in a 12-week Kripalu program for stress relief and management to gauge how well they reacted to different types of stress: “perceived stress” and “stress reactivity,” the latter defined as feeling agitated or having difficulty relaxing. The Kripalu program lasted eight weeks and included sessions on yoga philosophy and practices including breathwork and meditation.
The study authors wanted to test whether yoga’s beneficial effects on stress are due to five psychosocial mechanisms: increased mindfulness, interoceptive awareness, spiritual well‐being, self‐compassion, and self‐control. In other words, they wanted to see which, if any, could explainwhy yoga is such a dang good way to relieve stress.
See also Style Profile: Kripalu Yoga
How yoga reduces stress
While the study participants reported enhanced feelings for all of the above stress-relieving mechanisms, the one that had the biggest impact on stress was interoceptive awareness, which is at the heart of many mindfulness practices, such as following your breathing patterns or performing a body scan.
Increasing your awareness of the sensations in your body and your internal state may explain yoga’s most immediate and largest benefit, per the researchers.
“Interoceptive awareness,” explains the study, “[is] the awareness of inner body sensations, including receiving, accessing and appraising signals of the body’s internal states, [and] has been suggested as a related potential mechanism of action for body‐based mindfulness interventions, particularly those with a strong physical basis such as yoga. Improving awareness of one’s internal states may provide opportunities to engage in mind-body skills that allow yoga practitioners to consciously intervene in their own stress reduction.”
What this means for you
This study suggests that changes in psychosocial resources (e.g., increased interoceptive exposure, increased mindfulness) are likely behind yoga’s stress-relieving benefits. However, the exact mechanisms involved in stress reduction might depend on the type of yoga practiced.
Kripalu yoga, for example, emphasizes techniques that reduce stress reactivity (as opposed to stress perception), including self-compassion, non-judgmental acceptance, and using asana poses to manage the effects of stress. A yoga practice that helps you reframe events as less stressful would probably lead to a greater reduction in stress perception than reactivity.
“Our results suggest that Kripalu yoga may have beneficial effects for positive psychological resources such as interoceptive awareness, mindfulness, spiritual well-being, and self-compassion,” concludes the study. “Experiences of stress reactivity appear to decline significantly over the course of a mindful yoga intervention, suggesting that Kripalu yoga may be especially beneficial for individuals experiencing marked arousal and overreactions to stress exposure.”