In my search for a topic for this investigation, I was initially at a loss as to what I would like to explore and write about. However, after much thought, I decided to investigate yoga. I took my first yoga class last summer, and at first I was a bit skeptical about how it would help me be more fit. But after one class, I found that I was much more relaxed, optimistic, and energetic, and even though my muscles would ache, I found that I didn’t mind it as much, simply because my mood and energy were lifted. I also think the peaceful music that is often played during yoga sessions contributes to these positive feelings and relaxation. Overall, I have found it to be very beneficial both physically and mentally, and there’s definitely a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Although yoga has a spiritual side and is ingrained in religion, you don’t have to be particularly religious to appreciate the calming effect that yoga has on both the mind and the body. Though in order to achieve this calming effect, you must first learn to stretch and flow into different poses – starting from the basic to the more physically strenuous ones. Yoga is definitely worth practicing, and it can have a major positive influence on one’s lifestyle. It won’t provide a miracle change and there is some risk involved in injuries, but it’s worth attempting – one small stretch at a time.
As seen in this article, yoga has been found to improve symptoms of mild depression, sleeping problems, schizophrenia, and ADHD in affected patients, all without drug treatments. Benefits were also found for mental health illnesses. And of course, the physical side of yoga is beneficial as well. You get both a physical workout and a mental balm – what could be better than that? Although the results are promising, the article does not deny that more research is needed in order to confirm these results with larger samples of patients. (If you wish to read the original medical study, here it is.)
A book about the underlying science behind yoga has recently been published, and I fully intend on buying a copy for myself (if you’re interested, it is called “The Science of Yoga” by William J. Broad). For now, however, here’s a basic explanation of how yoga works from a biological perspective. (As well as from a psychological perspective!)
In our day-to-day lives, we often find ourselves with busy schedules, jobs, school, etc. and a lot of stress. As a result, the body’s stress response is constantly working (i.e. cortisol levels are high). Yoga helps relieve stress by reducing the body’s cortisol levels. Yoga also promotes relaxation and positive feelings by increasing our body’s levels of certain neurotransmitters – GABA, serotonin, and dopamine – all three of which are the common targets of antidepressants and other drugs that affect an individual’s mood. In addition, yoga has been found to help the immune system, reduce body inflammation, and assist the body in relaxing and healing itself. Interestingly enough, because it lowers stress levels, yoga stimulates what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response that we know as stress.
This system is one of three parts of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and is also called the “rest and digest” system. Stimulation of the PNS results in a slower heartbeat, lower blood pressure, constriction of the pupils, increased blood flow throughout the skin and organs, and peristalsis of muscles in the GI (gastrointestinal tract), which promotes food digestion. (Source: “Penetrating Postures: The Science of Yoga”). Here is an additional article that further discusses the role of yoga in activating the PNS.
From a psychological perspective, as I mentioned earlier, yoga has been found to have many positive effects on mental health.
First and foremost, yoga is a form of meditation that promotes the development of being able to pay attention to your own thoughts and accepting them without judgment before letting them go instead of instantly reacting to them. This form of meditation – or “mindfulness” – causes a shift in attention, and yoga helps facilitate this shift in addition to balancing it with our normal selves. It helps develop a link between your mind and body. And according to Elena Brower, a yoga teacher, you don’t have to practice for hours on end to gain the mental benefits that yoga offers. She claims that even 30 minutes of yoga every day – including mediation – makes a noticeable difference.
Understanding the underlying science behind yoga and its benefits only serves to increase my positive attitude towards yoga, and the desire to keep practicing it in order to help reduce my daily stress and keep my body physically active. I have seen many students around campus with yoga mats, and it makes me happy to see others finding the benefits of yoga out for themselves. I think that increased awareness about yoga’s benefits as well as its possible risks is equally important. Yoga isn’t for everyone, but I found my skepticism to be unfounded after only one class. Like they say: don’t knock it until you try it!
Pfefferle, E. “The Benefits of Yoga on the Parasympathetic Nervous System.” Healthy Living. Web. 1 March 2013. http://healthyliving.azcentral.com/benefits-yoga-parasympathetic-nervous-system-1519.html.
“The Peripheral Nervous System.” 2 March 2011. Web. 1 March 2013. http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/P/PNS.html#parasympathetic.
Walton, A. G. “Penetrating Postures: The Psychology of Yoga.” Forbes. 22 June 2011. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2011/06/22/penetrating-postures-part-ii-the-psychology-of-yoga/.
Zorlu, G. “Frontiers publishes systematic review on the effects of yoga on major psychiatric disorders.” Eureka Alert. 25 January 2013. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-01/f-fps012213.php.