The Science of Yoga

I went to take a friend of mine’s class a while ago, on a full moon. She talked about how humans are made mostly of water, and the moon pulls the tides, so therefore it must have an effect on how we feel. She finished her spiel with this line: “But I’m not a scientist. I’m a yoga teacher.”

Not all yoga teachers are known for being very grounded in reality. I know a few who get loopy after a few too many kombuchas, and some who think they are probably aliens. We are not scientists. We are yoga teachers.

Yet in recent times, Western science has been catching up to some “hippie” realities and proving us kombucha-swigging aliens true. Well, maybe not about the aliens. The kombucha is definitely good for you.

Now I’m going to do the thing where I drop some science on you. Remember that I am a yoga teacher.

Yoga Science Example #1: Brainwaves

In my recent edition of Scientific American Mind, Evangelia G. Chrysikou explains that the key to your creative mind is in quieting the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that “regulates your decisions, thoughts, and actions.” When this area is fired up, we are in a beta brainwave state. Researchers found that people were able to come up with new ideas when they were in a state of “relaxed wakefulness and diffuse attention” or alpha brainwave state. This is what you feel after a good sweaty vinyasa class. Hippies like to call this state “yoga brain.”

This is partly why I teach workshops on yoga and writing. Try journaling immediately after a vigorous Vinyasa practice and you might be surprised at what your brain comes up with: It’s likely to be quite different from the way you normally think day by day, and helps you to expand your consciousness and creativity in your everyday life.

Yoga Science Example #2: Gut Feelings

Scientists have also begun studying what’s now known as the “second brain:” the digestive tract as a source of independent intelligence. In the December 2011 edition of Psychology Today, Dan Hurley talks with Michael Gershon, “a guru of intestinal intelligence.” The enteric nervous system, or ENS, has more of its own neurons than the spinal cord. The gut can send signals to the brain that can directly influence mood, learning, and decision making.

The gut and the brain are constantly interacting. When we get a “gut feeling,” the brain has sent a message to the ENS, which then responds with sensation. Sometimes the gut is responding to a thought that we can’t quite access in the conscious mind, so when we pay attention to these sensations, we can get more information about our own reactions.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should make decisions by gut alone. When we are faced with a decision, a lot of conscious and unconscious information starts flooding in: past experiences, assumptions, expectations of self and others, insecurities, hopes, fears, and triggers. Some of this information is useful, and some of it is not. When we can hear the analytical brain (that tricky prefrontal cortex) and measure it against our gut reaction (subconscious feelings and thoughts), we will probably end up making better decisions.

Yoga Science Example #3: Meridians

In the past 20 years or so, anatomists have started studying a material in the body called the fascia. This material is a crystalline web that wraps around muscles and works in patterns that Tom Myers calls “anatomy trains.” The fascia is mostly water, and one of the things it can do is conduct energy. Fluid and electricity is intended to flow freely through these trains. When we have knots in the fascia from tension, stress, or injury, the fluid can’t move easily. When we release a knot through yoga, massage, or acupuncture, we can release the entire anatomy train.

There is an increasing body of research that shows that the lines of energy laid out in Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture match up uncannily well with the lines of energy detectable in the fascia. Studies have shown that acupuncture really seems to work, but no one really understood why until we started to see it in the fascia. Until about 20 years ago, anatomists studying cadavers simply stripped the fascia off the muscles and threw it away. Acupuncture has been around since before people were even doing autopsies, and only now are we discovering that there is something real and testable about fascial conductivity and health.

All these examples just show that Western science is finally catching up with what humans have known for a long time when they sat around and thought about it for a while. Literally this “ancient” knowledge came from regular humans, just like us, who sat in meditation, paid attention, and experimented. Our instincts and our curiosity taught us a lot long before any positive proof could be created.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every instinct and idea you have or that the ancients had is going to be right. I’m pretty sure we are not all actually aliens. Still, you never know, and when we can bring researchable, testable science and an open but critical mind to the hippie science table, we can really start to evolve.

But, you know, don’t take my word for it. I’m not a scientist. I’m a yoga teacher.


Yoga and mindfulness can be tools to living a richer, more meaningful life. Explore with Julie...
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