One of the most common reasons people come to a yoga class is to de-stress. Stress is at the center of our modern lifestyles, so engaging in the physical practice of yoga, as well as the meditation, mindfulness, and breathing that are built into the eight-limbed yoga practice, go a long way to helping us feel better.
But stress affects much more than how we feel. Excessive, constant, and unmanaged stress changes the structure and functioning of our brain.
“When you are stressed, chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol flood your body. These chemicals cause your heart to beat faster, and also cause that “stimulated” feeling you experience under stressful conditions.
Cortisol, in excess, damages the cells in the memory center of your brain. It stops glucose from entering your brain cells. It blocks your neurotransmitter function and causes brain cells to become injured. High levels of cortisol also impact your ability to learn and retain new information (this is called short-term memory loss). As stress and cortisol levels increase, so does your chance of developing memory loss.
What’s worse is that, as you age or if you develop an illness, you naturally have a decreased ability to handle stress and lower your blood cortisol levels. This can ultimately lead to the death of your brain cells—a situation that can affect all areas of your memory, as well as overall brain health.” (Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation)
We know stress impacts our blood pressure, heart health, sleep patterns and more – but there’s something about understanding stress as an issue of brain health that changed the way I looked at stress and created a sense of urgency around mitigating it in my life. Maybe it’s because I’m an academic or because I have seen the impact of dementia up close in family members. Or because I have noticed how stress impacts even the simplest memory tasks of college-aged students. This is important stuff.
It’s easy to think that stress is temporary—that when we finish this concert cycle or finish a looming project, we will get rid of stress and go back to “normal.” But looking at how we live life, we are more likely to discover that we move from one high-stress situation to another, from stressful work lives to stressful personal lives, with very little awareness that our brain is (gulp) shrinking in size and function.
Here’s the good news: brain health is largely influenced by lifestyle factors which means our choices and practices can make the biggest difference in our health and wellbeing, and in our creative work and teaching. Stress management is one of the four pillars of brain health (diet/nutrition, physical and mental exercise, and spiritual fitness, including having a sense of purpose, are the other three pillars).
There are many healthy ways to manage stress though the research shows that the most effective methods involve some form of meditation in order to elicit what Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Harvard Mind/Body Medical Institute, called the “relaxation response.” Yoga has the advantage of combining physical movement with deep breathing and meditative activities, making it a most effective and adaptable tool to mitigate stress. Research into the 12-minute singing activity called Kirtan Kriya is compelling, showing how the articulation of specific sounds activate acupuncture points on the upper palate to create powerful biochemical transformations in the brain, while the use of fingertip action increases blood flow to the motor sensory part of the brain. Check out the links below for more ideas that you might explore in your own life.
Changes in the brain can take place more than 20 years before any signs of cognitive decline appear, so developing healthy habits at any time is important. More good news: research is showing that serious cognitive decline is not an inevitable part of the aging process and that the benefits of stress management can improve brain health for any age. As a teacher of young adult singers, I have found rehearsal to be an ideal place to develop brain-healthy habits and in my next post, I will spend more time talking about strategies we might use that quite naturally fit into our rehearsal structure.
In the meantime, I invite you to dedicate 5 minutes a day to remove yourself from the action to sit well, close your eyes, focus on your breath or a short uplifting phrase, and just breathe. See what happens with this simple, regular practice. I will take my own advice and check in with you in two weeks.
All best and be well!
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) and a certified Brain Longevity® Specialist, a research-based certification on yoga and integrative medicine for brain health and healthy aging. Reach her at:
Source of the ARPF quote and more information on stress management:
Cleveland Clinic on healthy brains:
About the relaxation response:
About Kirtan Kriya:
Kirtan Kriya 12-minute singing practice with research description provided: