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Yoga: The Medicine You Didn’t Know You Needed

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Yoga is an ancient Hindu discipline that is centered around holding the body in different positions. While doing yoga, practitioners focus on controlling their breathing, clearing their minds, and challenging their bodies. It brings many people a sense of calm and helps them deal with the anxiety and stress of everyday life.

Many patients with thrombosis are not strangers to stress and anxiety. Both can accompany the many unknown factors that come with being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism. Yoga may be a tool to help these patients take back control over their lives.

“Yoga is like moving meditation. You get to move and clear your head. It’s amazing what an hour class gives you after you leave,” said Jennifer Hedstrom, a yoga practitioner and instructor. “It’s just a sense of new beginning and peacefulness. I notice in my own life that I can take a step back and look at things a little differently.”

Jennifer started out as an avid runner. However, after being diagnosed with arthritis, she needed to find an exercise that wouldn’t harm her joints. That’s when she started doing yoga. As a teacher, she now helps her students to embrace both the benefits and challenges that come with practicing yoga.

Embrace the Challenge

Yoga can be challenging, both mentally and physically.

“It’s challenging for all different reasons,” Jennifer noted. “Some people have a hard time being in an environment that’s really quiet, where they’re alone with their own thoughts in their heads, or listening to other people breathe next to you, or not being able to talk. That’s really hard for people.”

Many people avoid yoga because they tell themselves that they can’t do it. They may feel like they aren’t flexible enough, young enough, or fit enough to practice yoga. However, that isn’t the case. Anyone can do yoga if they just give it a try.

“People get confused. They think that because they’re not flexible or their older or they’re injured, they can’t handle the quicker pace,” explained Jennifer. “That’s the biggest thing to learn, coming out of the exercise gym world and into the yoga studio. First of all, no one cares what you’re doing on your mat. There’s no competition with the person next to you. It’s just learning to listen to your body and not judge what’s going on around you or how you feel that day.”

Although a yoga class can have people of different skill levels, instructors have ways of making the class appropriate for everyone.

“We always ask if there are any injuries,” said Jennifer. As a yoga instructor, she is there to help each student reach a level of yoga that is personally challenging, without being overwhelming. “For everything we do, there are accommodations, such as dropping knees, dropping arms, changing breathes or maybe not holding a pose as long.”

In addition to accommodations, different types of yoga fit different people’s needs. Hatha yoga is a form of yoga that involves slower movements that can be gentler on the body. In comparison, vinyasa yoga is more lively and more movement-intense.

At any point, during any type of yoga class, students can go into a position known as child’s pose. This is when a person kneels on the ground and rests their forehead on their yoga mat.

It’s a restorative pose that is meant to help yoga practitioners rest.

The Science Behind Yoga

Yoga can help thrombosis patients manage their anxiety by causing actual chemical changes in the brain.

It is well known that exercise can help to improve mood and relieve anxiety. Research suggests that yoga could be more powerful at improving mood and relieving anxiety because it leads to an increase in GABA levels in the brain.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that helps brain cells communicate with each other. When GABA levels are low, stress and anxiety can develop.

 In a 2010 study, “Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels: A Randomized Controlled MRS Study,” Dr. Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, and her research team explored this possibility.

The team compared two groups of participants, with each group made up of healthy people with no significant medical or psychiatric disorders. The first group participated in yoga for 60 minutes three times a week for twelve weeks. The second group exercised the same amount, but they spent their time walking. Along the twelve weeks, researchers measured each participant’s mood and anxiety at weeks zero, four, eight, and twelve. Participants also underwent MRS scans.

The study concluded that, “The 12-week yoga intervention was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety than a metabolically matched walking exercise. This is the first study to demonstrate that increased thalamic GABA levels are associated with improved mood and decreased anxiety.” 

“People in the yoga group reported having increased mood and less anxiety over the course of the study than the walking group,” explained Dr. Streeter. However, she cautioned that the value of other forms of exercise can’t be ignored because of the study.

“It doesn’t say that yoga is better than walking,” cautioned Dr. Streeter, explaining that the environment could affect the quality of the participants’ walk. “When you put people in a gym and you have them walk around at two and a half miles an hour…and you have people do yoga in the same gym, in that environment yoga is better. You can’t say that a beautiful walk on the beach is the same. It’s an entirely different animal. There are different factors involved.”

Yoga’s Effect on the Parasympathetic Nervous System

In addition to raising the brain’s GABA levels, yoga also has a large impact on the parasympathetic nervous system, which works to slow the heart and lower blood pressure. The slow breathing and meditation that comes with yoga is known to strengthen the body’s parasympathetic nervous system.

A stronger parasympathetic nervous system helps balance out the body’s reaction to stressful situations, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. The body’s sympathetic nervous system raises blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels during stressful times. This is also known as the body’s fight or flight response.

Patients who experience stress-related issues, such as depression or anxiety disorders, usually experience an imbalance, where their sympathetic nervous system is working more than their parasympathetic nervous system, according to Dr. Streeter.

One study that analyzed the effects of yoga in women with depression and anxiety found that, after attending a two-month yoga class, participants experienced decreased levels of anxiety. Researchers concluded that yoga could serve as a complementary form of therapy for patients with anxiety disorders.

Thrombosis patients who experience anxiety, including anxiety attacks, can manage it better if they have a stronger parasympathetic nervous system.

Getting Started

Finding your local yoga studio is only a Google search away.

Many studios offer different types of yoga, geared towards different practitioners’ needs. Looking to ease into the yoga world? Try a class geared towards beginners or a restorative yoga class. Restorative yoga involves less poses and is meant to be relaxing. Would you rather a more physically challenging class? Try hot yoga, where the room is heated to 80 – 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other forms of yoga include bikram yoga, hatha yoga, and vinyasa yoga. Each is unique and offers its own challenges.

If you think you would like to start practicing yoga or any other exercise, consult with your doctor before getting started.

 

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