I love introducing new people to the experience of yoga. I often recognise the same feeling in them that I encountered over 20 years ago after my first class- it works! Yoga can simultaneously energise, and calm the body and mind. It doesn't make stressful situations go away, but it does help us deal with the various challenges, be they physical or emotional. But how does it do this?
More and more studies on yoga are being conducted, many of which show the benefits for various conditions from rheumatoid arthritis, to cancer recovery to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Other researchers are curious about why - what actually happens in our brain and body through the practice of Yoga? The Journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published a study in September last year with a detailed theory for how yoga works.
The simple answer is that it increases our capacity for self regulation. The ability to self regulate allows us to moderate stress and overwhelming emotions as we develop the capacity to monitor how we automatically respond to situations.
The really interesting thing I found about this theory is that they talked about the way yoga helps us self regulate through both a top-down and a bottom-up approach (see their diagram below). A top -down approach used in yoga is the use of focused attention through concentration. Bottom- up processing arises through allowing our body sensation to feed into our experience, such as when we practice asana and feel into our body.
The practice of yoga was broadly described to include ethics (yamas and niyamas); meditation; asana; and breathing practices.
Breathing practices in particular are known to affect the nervous system. Slow breathing can influence the Para Sympathetic Nervous system and is interpreted by the body that we are safe and secure. Many specific breathing practices, and various postures or asana also stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System, which can shift low moods and lethargy.
I find this theory of how yoga works, by being both top-down and bottom-up fascinating because the Yogi's of old have always known this. Yoga was described as:
The uniting of consciousness in the heart, where we can abide in our true essence of joy (1.1,1.2) (Based on Yoga Sutra translation by Nicola Devi).
The sutras also go on to tell us:
Enthusiastic practice, self enquiry and acceptance of life as it is enhances our inner awareness and guides us to liberation (2.1, 2.2)
In other words- regular practice of the tools of yoga- postures, breathing, meditation and ethics will help us self regulate and have better control over our reactions. Its great to have scientific language to help explain what the ancients have always known- Yoga works!