The Science Behind Yoga
Modern-day science confirms that the practice of yoga has tangible physical health benefits that include improved brain function and denser bones, as well as immune health, improved nervous system functioning and strength. Over 36 million Americans practice yoga and enjoy the benefits of a stronger body, calm mind, increased happiness and reduced stress.
Yoga instructor and physician, Dr Loren Fishman uses yoga in his medical practice to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis and others. In an interview with LiveScience he said many recent studies show the amazing effects yoga has on the brain, central nervous system and immune system.
“It thickens the layers of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher learning, and increases neuroplasticity, which helps us learn new things and change the way we do things.”
The Science behind Yoga and Stress
The neuroscience behind Yoga can help explain why regular Yoga is so effective in reducing stress and creating balance in the body. It can also help you deepen your Yoga practice and increase focus on elements that you might otherwise overlook. Dr. Mithu Storoni, a medical doctor, neuroscientist, and yoga teacher, explains the fundamental principles of the Science behind Yoga and Stress.
“There are two functional parts of the brain that play a key role in stress. These serve the functions of emotion and cognitive function. So I am calling them the ’emotional’ brain (amygdala and its connections and medial forebrain structures including the medial prefrontal cortex) and the ‘logical’ brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, other parts of the prefrontal cortex, parts of the cingulate cortex and parts of the hippocampus). The emotional brain is able to initiate a ‘stress response’ via the sympathetic nervous system which culminates in adrenaline and cortisol racing through our circulation.The logical brain is always trying to ‘turn-off’ this stress response and it is also trying to restrain the emotional brain. The stronger our logical brain, the better it becomes at doing these two things. When the stress response is ‘turned off’, our parasympathetic nervous system signal is ‘turned on’. This signal ‘relaxes’ the body. So a strong logical brain goes hand in hand with relaxation.”
Dr. Storoni says the stress response and ‘relaxing’ signals travel through the body along a particular route and parts of this route have little ‘switches’ which we can physically manipulate to turn the signals on or off. The neck is an example of where such switches are located.
“Yoga is training this entire stress circuit at two levels. First, every time we are ‘holding’ a posture, staying very still to concentrate or trying to balance, our logical brain is being activated. When we are bending forwards, our ‘relaxation’ signal is being turned on through the ‘switches’ in the neck. So bending forwards and concentrating at the same time is triggering both the logical brain and the relaxation signal at the same time.”
Yoga alters the chemical structure of your brain
Yoga involves the mindful and controlled entry into a pose- or asana- holding the pose in stillness, and then a controlled release. Dr. Storoni says that as you go through this workout, it takes strong prefrontal cortex activity to maintain your concentration and stillness. “As you hold a posture, your prefrontal cortex is countering the raised sympathetic signal as it keeps you focused. This is how you train your mind to keep your stress signal under control. As your mind learns how to do this, you get better at doing this even outside of the yoga room. Eventually, with practice, you will be able to maintain self-control in most stressful settings”.
Yoga boosts brain chemicals that promote a sense of wellbeing. it increases the levels of the brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, the happy chemicals responsible for feelings of relaxation and contentment. These neurotransmitters are targeted by the drugs for medicating mood, such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Yet yoga has long been shown to successfully reduce and heal anxiety and depression.
Yoga balances the Emotions
Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming us down. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system, starts the process of restoration and healing in the body. Blood is directed toward endocrine glands, digestive organs, and lymphatic circulation. Blood pressure and the heart rate are lowered, nutrients in food can be absorbed more easily and toxins are released from the body due to enhanced circulation.
Dr. Tiffany Field, a leading authority on touch, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, shows how yoga has wonderful benefits on anxiety and depression, pain, cardiovascular, autoimmune and immune conditions and on pregnancy and has written a book collating a variety of research on the benefits of yoga.
Yoga Therapist, Dr Farzhana Siraj says yoga is a great curative tool. “We need to create space in the body and the mind. The most important scientific principle on which the whole philosophy of yoga rests, is prana with space. Just as in the mind you need to flush out thoughts to create space, it is similar in the body. We are stretching out the body and creating that much needed space. Even two plants can’t grow if you jam them together. They also need space. So what about the cells? We need to give this intercellular space. When space is there, prana flows. Where there is prana there is wellness.”
Yoga as a tool for healing trauma
Yoga is increasingly being used as a tool to heal trauma and has successfully been used with PTSD. Psychologist, Richard Miller, the founder of iRest, a synthesis of modern day psychology and the thousand year old practice of Yoga Nidra, delivers classes of iRest to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). “These are severely injured and often profoundly depressed veterans who are receiving treatment as inpatients for six to nine months or more. … We know that one of the effects of PTSD is that it leaves people to feel disconnected from themselves and from the world around them. During Yoga Nidra, these folks start to feel reconnected to themselves and the world around them and experience the feeling of finally coming home from the war, to themselves, their families, and daily life.”
Yoga teacher Dominica Dawning works with refugees. She says the thinking that’s really missing in psychology is the body. “In my work with refugees, torture and trauma survivors, the body becomes an even bigger part because of the experiences they’ve had, often associated with physical injury, torture and violence. As well as the strong effects on the nervous system, yoga really helps with this and a lot of the really early stuff we do is around pranayama and breathing and introducing the breath as the life force and this thing that can really bring some relief. You can see immediate physical changes, they sit up taller, they are more relaxed, more animated, pay better attention, without being drawn back to these memories of the past.”
Yoga is the fastest growing movement of our time. In four years, the number of people practicing yoga in the US has nearly doubled.
Yoga is so popular and fundamental to so many people’s lives and wellbeing, that there is now an annual World Yoga Day which is recognised by the United Nations. The potent day of the solstice, June 21, marks the day of celebration for this remarkable ancient practice that enhances the lives of so many across the globe.
UPLIFT has put together an extraordinary movie celebrating and marking the journey of yoga, from its ancient roots in India, to its globalisation and acceptance by modern science as a cutting edge tool for physical health. The Science Behind Yoga film is a scientific exploration into the healing benefits of yoga, featuring interviews with leading scientists, doctors and renowned yoga teachers. This free film is part of a unique online event, the Yoga Day Summit, where you can listen to Indian sages and saints, contemporary yoga masters, scientists and wellness experts as they explore the life changing path of yoga. Featured presenters include: Pujya Swamiji Chitanand Saraswati, Seane Corne, Shiva Rae, Janet Stone, Sharon Gannon, Kia Miller, Tommy Rosen, Ana Forest, Radhanath Swami, Danny Paradise, Saul David Rae and many more.
Yoga teacher, Vedic Healer and Ayurvedic expert, Laura Plumb says Yoga is first and foremost, a science. “Yoga is the first and most important of the Vedic sciences. It is the science of self realisation. All of the other Vedic sciences like Ayurveda which is the science of health and wellness, support this primary science. It is a divine science and a cosmic science. A science that understands how the world operates and how we can operate within the world. It is for not just health and wellness but for a real sense of who we are and why we’re alive.”
More and more mainstream medical practices are using yoga therapy, as growing research shows how it aids recovery, especially from stress-induced conditions, and improves overall health and vitality. The field of Yoga Therapy is rapidly growing and hospitals are beginning to open integrated health care departments, adding yoga therapeutics as part of their complementary approaches to health care. In recent years it has made news for the huge benefits that children with autism and special needs are experiencing, through yoga therapy. It is being used to treat a broad range of physical ailments, with great success and is quickly growing as a complementary modality alongside other treatments.
Yoga crosses all barriers, it is accessible to and practised by the aged, teens and children, Hollywood stars, in corporate settings, nature retreats, enormous festivals, from Bali to Goa and is truly a global phenomenon. Who wouldn’t want greater happiness, peace of mind, mental clarity, vitality, physical health, creativity, purpose, spiritual connection, confidence and strength? Anyone can practise yoga and instantly feel the benefits, both physical and mental, but also emotional and spiritual.
Find out more by watching our New Film, ‘The Science Behind Yoga’ for FREE HERE