Yoga can help give your stress a break
As we age, our bodies change, and subtle differences in our skin start to become outwardly apparent. Youthful skin is typically associated with fullness, even color, and a “glow,” whereas aging skin begins to lose elasticity and sag, wrinkle, and develop markings from sun and irritant exposure.
These effects are accumulations of “wear and tear” over the years, including exposure to UV radiation as well as toxins in our food and environment, the accumulation of which can lead to changes in our cells which leads to loss of elasticity and “suppleness” in the skin as well as changes in pigment.
However, recent work has shown the connection between psychosocial stress and skin aging, as well, citing a balance between the nervous system, immune system, and skin—the details of which are still being put together. There appears to be a relationship between the stress response and inflammation, possibly contributing to diseases of inflammation from eczema to depression. Measures such as avoiding excess skin exposure, eating a plant-based diet, as well as stress reduction, may all combine to combat the cycle of aging in skin.
Yoga is an ancient meditative practice which has recently been systemized and packaged in such a way to appeal to a worldwide audience. Millions of people around the world are beginning to utilize the practice of yoga for strength, flexibility and stress reduction. The many facets of the practice and touted benefits by regular practitioners have garnered the attention of medical professionals, who have found improvements in multiple conditions such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, epilepsy and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).[4-6]
Yoga is a multifaceted practice, so its healing benefits are more difficult to tease out. For instance, yoga involves postures, or asanas, which are intended to strengthen and open every muscle in the body, including the face. Although “facial yoga” has yet to be developed, poses such as “Lion’s Breath” have practitioners stretch and tense the muscles in their face which, over a 20 week period of intense practice, leads to hypertrophy of the facial muscles and an overall effect of increased facial fullness.
Yoga is also a breathing practice, and it incorporates various techniques of altering the breath in order to cultivate fuller, deeper breathing in our everyday lives. These techniques include but are not limited to slow, purposeful breath which makes use of the diaphragm to fully expand the lungs. Such diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs directly through the muscle and is the chief mediator of the parasympathetic immune system. Breathing in this way ques our bodies’ “rest and digest” response over “fight or flight,” and this has profound effects on all our body systems including, but not limited to, the immune system.
When we are in “flight” mode, our bodies divert their resources to avoiding danger and thus systems like the immune system are thrown into disarray. It is posited that increased stress in the modern environment may be contributing to the rise in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases in Westernized civilization.
The effect this has on skin is multifold, where generalized inflammation at its most extreme manifestation may manifest as autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis or more commonly as acne, redness or flushing (a consequence of the dilation of our blood vessels in response to stress), and the damage wrought by inflammatory cells which can, over time, damage healthy cells through free radical-mediated oxidative stress.[10,11]
Damage to our cells over time from this pathway may be behind phenomena such as sagging and wrinkles. A final point is on the role of lymphatic drainage on tissue architecture. The role of lymph is to drain fluid and waste products, maintain normal tissue pressure and mediate the immune response.
Lymph flow and consequent drainage can be achieved through activities that constrict the surrounding musculature as well as invert the normal pressure differential. The physical practice of yoga not only includes inversions whereby the heart is elevated above the head (aiding draining to nodes which normally have to work against gravity) but also incorporates movements for the facial musculature which could also aid in lymphatic flow.
Many aspects of skin aging—including sagging, wrinkling, puffiness or discoloration—are manifestations of overall wellbeing. Interventions that increase blood flow and reduce stress can not only improve energy and vitality but can also promote health, including that of skin. Therefore, adding tools like yoga may be beneficial in slowing or preventing some of the outward appearances of aging, thereby augmenting aesthetic. Along with other health-promoting interventions like diet and avoiding excessive sun exposure, yoga may improve dermatologic appearance and quality of life.