Posted by: WillowSource on 07/27/2017

How Yoga and Other Mind Body Movement Practices Relieve Stress

How Yoga and Other Mind Body Movement Practices Relieve Stress

by Aimee Hughes, ND


Yoga is, by far, my absolute favorite form of mind-body movement. I’ve been practicing it nearly every day---for 20 years. While I still have anxiety from time to time, and even a full blown panic attack once in a blue moon, most people I know would describe me as a pretty darn calm person---a person that doesn’t sweat the small stuff or get overly stressed out by everyday events. 

I know in my heart of hearts that the primary reason for my “healthy” response to stress is due in large part to my regular yoga practice.

As you probably know, yoga’s not the sole form of movement that has the capacity to greatly reduce stress. There’s also qi gong, tai chi, Pilates, certain forms of dance, and many other meditative movement practices that work with the breath, energy, control, and present moment awareness.

All of these movement practices have the ability not only to keep our bodies and minds healthy, strong, and supple. They also have the capacity to reduce stress---an essential part of living a long and healthy life in this overly stressful day and age. For stress is the primary factor behind a majority of modern day disease processes.

So how do practices like Pilates, dance, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong help us lighten our stress response?

Well, neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Institute have discovered how these mind-body movement practices work to reduce both mental and physical stress responses. The study, which was titled, PNAS: Neuroscientists find networks linking cerebral cortex to adrenal medulla, was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health.

In this study, researchers have found which neural networks connect our cerebral cortex to our adrenal medulla. Now, it’s important to note that the adrenal medulla is partially responsible for our stressed out fight or flight response---the rapid way we often react during overly stressful situations, or situations that we perceive to be stressful.

Rather than finding just a couple areas of the cerebral cortex that control the adrenal medulla, these neuroscientists found several. Which means there are several different neural networks that play a part in our stress response. Interestingly, the areas of the of the cerebral cortex having the most influence on the adrenal medulla were the areas involved with motor movement, cognition, and affect.

What’s this mean for us?

There’s a reason why the findings of this particular study are so profound and timely. Rather than having to respond in limited ways when stress arises, these different areas of the cerebral cortex give us options. We don’t have to “fight,” nor do we need to take “flight” in certain modern situations that cause us stress. We can even choose our best response. In other words, we’ve evolved and progressed in our stress responses throughout the ages as our brains have grown more neural networks than our more primitive ancestors.

Pretty cool, huh?

Here’s another cool thing:

The motor parts of the cerebral cortex associated with movement inform the adrenal medulla in a fairly substantial way. One area in particular is linked to posture and axial bodily movement. The information that this part of the cerebral cortex relays to the adrenal medulla may very well provide us with the answer as to why movement practices like Pilates, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and also dancing within a small space, all have the ability to reduce stress and help us respond to stress in a more calm and some might say---virtuous way.


Well, every one of these forms of movement call for flexibility, coordination, and good skeletal alignment. They are associated with the areas in the cerebral cortex that directly affect the adrenal medulla.

In conclusion

Knowing of this connection, we now have evidence as to why these forms of movement make us less stressed out people than those of us who’ve never touched a sticky mat or followed a tai chi video. If we want to continue to evolve our way out of stress, we should continue (or begin) to commit to a regular movement practice like yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or qi gong. For the benefits are well worth the effort if we want to live long, happy, and relatively stress-free lives!

Aimee Hughes, ND has penned hundreds of health and wellness articles. She's the author of The Sexy Vegan Kitchen: Culinary Adventures in Love & Sex (available on Amazon), and senior staff writer for Tao 'N' Zen Botanicals.

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