I was introduced to yoga back in the ’70s when Eastern body and mind practices were first coming onto the scene of American culture. It was the time of hippies, tie-dyed tee shirts, musical artists like The Who and Janice Joplin, and Eastern spiritual Gurus spreading their philosophies and spiritual practices in America. My best friend’s older sister lived on an Ashram in Boulder, Colorado, at the time. When she would come back home to visit, she’d share stories of her life there. Her mesmerizing counter-culture tales of making candles, doing meditation and yoga daily, and making meals from her organic garden, alongside her cute boyfriend Jimmy, seemed magical to me. From that point forward, I was hooked—on yoga! Little did I know back then how much this form of exercise that seemed at first to be just another form of gymnastics to me would work to evolve me emotionally and spiritually through the years.
Yoga has come a long way since the ’70s. Today, a yoga studio is as common a town feature as a local Starbucks. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and body treatments like Reiki are now part of mainstream culture and are here to stay. So, don’t think just because they get lumped into a health and therapy category called alternative health practices that they are less important to your well being.
Yoga and Mental Health
There is a growing body of research to back up yoga’s mental health benefits. Yoga increases body awareness, relieves stress, reduces muscle tension, strain, and inflammation, sharpens attention and concentration, and calms and centers the nervous system.
Yoga’s positive benefits on mental health have made it an important practice tool of psychotherapy (American Psychological Association). It has been shown to enhance social well being through a sense of belonging to others, and improve the symptoms of depression, attention deficit and hyperactivity, and sleep disorders. Also, yoga can improve symptoms of schizophrenia when it is done alongside drug therapy (Yoga and Mental Health, Huffington Post 2013).
Also, yoga has been shown to increase the level of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a chemical in the brain that helps to regulate nerve activity. This is especially relevant to people who have anxiety disorders in which GABA activity is low (Yoga and Your Mood, the Ultimate Yogi).
Yoga also improves the mood, behavior, and mindfulness of high school students taking yoga classes in addition to PE than students taking PE alone (yoga classes helps highschool students). It has been shown to improve workplace well-being and resilience (The Effectiveness of Yoga for Well Being in the Workplace).
But, let’s not stop here. Yoga’s benefits extend to adult caregivers who experience lower life satisfaction, depression, and stress and high levels of biological markers for inflammation. One study found that practicing a 12-minute daily eight-week program of yoga exercise resulted in reducing markers of inflammation in adults taking care of loved ones stricken with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia (UCLA’s Late-Life Depress, Stress and Wellness Research Program).
Clearly, mind and body practices, like yoga, meditation, deep breathing and prayer help to reduce stress and improves stress-related nervous system imbalances (Psychological Benefits of Yoga). But, how do they do this? Is there one main mechanism at play here?
Researchers say it is the relaxation response that accompanies these mind and body practices that lead to the many improvements to physical and mental health. A new study from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) finds that the deep, physiological state of rest induced by such practices produces immediate positive change in the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion (Genes and Physiological Pathways Altered in the Relaxation Response, Science Daily, May 2013).
What is a deep state of physiological relaxation? It is a change in calm and relaxation that takes place on a neurobiological level. Even having a good time out with friends or family is not enough to relax your biology on a cellular level. It takes a certain amount of brain and body stimulation to laugh, animatedly move our faces and bodies, and to listen and respond effectively to social cues. We need enough adrenaline pumping to our brain, heart, and muscles to do this. So, you see, even socializing, playing an enjoyable game of tennis or golf, or shopping with a friend is actually a state of biochemical tension. For the body to relax at the nerve and cellular level, we need to alter body processes that shift us biochemically from a state of excitement and tension to a state of calm, deep rest and relaxation. Only deep breathing that accompanies mind-body practices like yoga can do this.
The Physiology of Yoga
How could the holding of a physical pose, like dolphin pose, neurobiologically relax you and also strengthen the mind and body?
Yoga practice changes the firing patterns of the nerves and chemical makeup of the body’s fluids and blood gases that activates a relaxation response. By concentrating on carrying out the specific body posture and alignment of a pose and then holding it as you breathe deeply, the body starts to shift from a state of biochemical arousal and tension to calm and relaxation. Relaxing yourself deeply into a yoga pose through deep breathing lowers the brain’s response to threat. The body starts to turn off arousing nerve chemicals, like adrenaline and stops dumping fatty acids and sugar into the bloodstream for brain, muscle, and motor energy. Also, sodium leaves the inside of the body’s cells. This slows down the rate of nerve firing and further relaxes your brain, heart, and muscles. This state of biochemical relaxation oxygenates the blood, restores blood acidity and alkalinity balance, and reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and motor activity.
Yoga postures work on all systems of the body. Besides strengthening and elongating muscles, yoga postures tone up glands, internal organs, and spine nerves. Additionally, increased blood flow helps the digestive system to better extract nutrients from the foods you eat and the lymphatic system to eliminate toxins from the body.
Yoga: To Join and Unite
Undoubtedly, yoga practice improves quality of life. We learn to note differences between tense and calm body processes so that we can implement a change through yoga postures and deep breathing. But, the practice of yoga over time also has psychological and spiritual benefits.
In Sanskrit, yoga means to unite. As you grow in your ability to sense the relationship between your mind and body, you become more aware of dualities that exist in experience. The practice of yoga brings you to the awareness that there is a relationship between two ends of one phenomenon. You are body and mind. There is never a point in which you are just one or the other. Too, you are ego and spirit, tension and relaxation, pain and ease, balance and unsteadiness, love and hate, and separated and united.
What does this awareness do for you? When you realize that opposites are only different expressions of the same phenomenon, your treatment of them changes. At the simplest level, you see that when you treat the body you are also treating the mind. At a deeper level, you start to live in an integrated way. You are not just a social identity, a personality—you are a public, relational, psychological and spiritual self. You begin to make choices that nurture and support your whole being. Is this food, relationship, lover or job good for me wholly? Do my choices positively affect and grow my whole being? These are the questions you begin to ask when you start growing in this overall awareness.
What is more, when you start taking responsibility for the whole of you, you stop locating problems as starting outside of yourself. You give meanings to experience that opens up choice, lets you problem solve, and allows you to keep growing.
Take A Yoga Stand, Today
Health is a state of complete harmony of body, mind, and spirit. When one is free of physical disabilities and mental distractions the soul opens. B.K.S. Iyengar.
There’s no better time than right now to take a stand for yoga. Yoga classes can vary from gentle and accommodating to strenuous and challenging. You want to choose your style of yoga by physical ability and personal preference. I’ve practiced a yoga approach by guru B.K.S. Iyengar for 25-plus years. It is a less common style of yoga done today. Hatha yoga is the most common type of yoga practiced in the United States. It combines three elements that include physical yoga poses called asanas, controlled breathing practiced in conjunction with the asanas, and a short period of deep relaxation.
But, not all yoga is relaxing. There are trendy forms of yoga today that emphasize nervous system activation rather than relaxation. Hot yoga (Bikram Yoga) is one of these yoga systems. Bikram Choudhury synthesized this system of yoga from traditional Hatha Yoga techniques. A Bikram Yoga class runs for 90 minutes, consists of the same series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises, and is ideally practiced in a room heated to 105°F (≈ 40.6°C) with a humidity of 40%. I know many people who swear by this form of yoga. But, as you can imagine, hot yoga is not meant for beginners or especially for people whose physical or mental conditions make them especially sensitive to changes of temperature. Hot yoga and intense power yoga classes actually activate the excitatory nervous system (sympathetic nervous system) and induce a stress response in you. However, this response is theoretically followed by a deeper state of relaxation than if the nervous system had not been activated to a high point of stress and arousal at the start. The idea here is that the higher arousal, the deeper the relaxation at rest.
Yoga is most definitely a business today. The upsurge in the popularity of yoga has created a demand for competent, trained, and certified yoga instructors (Yoga Alliance). Thus, make sure the studio you visit offers you the best in trainer certification, safety, and respect for individual differences in physical and mental health.
Choose a yoga class that fits with your physical ability and mental health needs. There are yoga classes for beginners and the advanced. There are also classes designed specifically for pregnant women, people experiencing pain from chronic physical or mental health illnesses, and the overweight or physically disabled.
As you can see, I’m a great fan of yoga for enhancing physical and mental health. Through the years, I’ve seen yoga benefit my life in many ways. I encourage you to take a yoga stand, today. You’ll be happy you did.
I hope you liked my post today. Do all you can to live well. As they say in yoga: Namaste, friends. Bow to the lord inside of you. Warmly, Deborah.