Study Shows Link Between Yoga and Exam Stress

Midterms,
finals, SATs: Most of us undergo examinations at some point in our
lives, along with the requisite increases in stress. Stress has the
unfortunate side effect of weakening the immune system, as many
sniffling students can attest. A recent study found a 12-week yoga
intervention to protect against the impairment of cellular immunity
and autonomic nervous
system changes
caused by examination stress.

Gopal
and colleagues recruited 60 first-year medical students (all women,
aged 17-20 years) and randomly assigned them to a 12-week yoga or
no-treatment control group. The yoga group practiced 35 minutes per
day. Each practice included yogic prayer (two minutes), Sukshma
Vyayam (physical body
warm-ups, six minutes) and Sthula
Vyayama
(subtle body
warm-ups, four minutes),
asanas (yoga
postures, twelve minutes), pranayama
(breathing exercises,
four minutes), and dhyana
(meditation, five
minutes). The researchers measured self-reported stress and anxiety
in addition to physiological and biochemical markers of stress and
immunity. Participants were assessed before the yoga began (baseline)
and 12 weeks later, while taking medical mid-term exams.

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Participants
in the control group significantly worsened on all parameters during
the exam. By contrast, the yoga group reported significant decreases
in subjective stress and anxiety, while physiological and biochemical
measures of stress and immunity remained stable compared to the
control group.

The
impact of stress on compromised immunity and many other health
problems has been well documented. Because one of yoga’s primary
theorized pathways of action is stress reduction
,
it may serve as a useful tool in the arsenal against a broader array
of stress-related illnesses and conditions than those tested here.
As suggested by this study, yoga may also exert a powerful protective
benefit, effectively functioning as a form of preventive medicine.

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Little
yoga research has focused on yoga’s potential as such, although a
2009 report of a study comparing yoga to physical education in a high
school setting parallels the findings of the study reported here.
Drs. Sat Bir Khalsa and Jessica Noggle of the Brigham and Women’s
Hospital found the yoga group to significantly improve on measures of
anger control and fatigue relative to control subjects. In support of
the notion that yoga may function as preventive medicine, the control
group’s mental health worsened over the course of the study, while
the yoga students either showed minimal change or slight
improvements.

The
implications of these researchers’ results, combined with a growing
body of research literature that suggests yoga may impact multiple
domains of health, is both remarkable and provocative. Imagine if, as
suggested by Dr. Khalsa, all students experienced yoga as a form of
mind-body hygiene (similar to brushing your teeth) in order to
protect against stressors and optimize health. Given that most
lifestyle diseases—the leading cause of death in the US—are
preventable, yoga’s potential to support health and well-being is
considerable.

Have
you found yoga to reduce exam stress or anxiety? Do you get sick
less often when you practice yoga?

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