The following is a guest post from my Friends at Inner Fire Yoga, located in Madison, Wisconsin. Cassidy Cooper, a yoga instructor at Inner Fire, hits the nail on the head with her research into why yoga is good for your body and your mind. You can learn more about Cassidy and the yoga she teaches at https://www.innerfireyoga.com
The Psychology of Yoga
By Cassidy Cooper
A regular yoga practice will undoubtedly produce physical benefits -- strength, flexibility, and balance to name a few -- but when you leave the studio in a state of “yoga bliss,” it becomes evident that the benefits reach far beyond the physical aspects. There have been plenty of studies done on the psychological benefits of yoga and these include stress relief, increased focus, and decreased symptoms/mood states associated with depression and anxiety. In a similar manner to asanas interacting with muscles, joints, etc. to produce the physical benefits of yoga, our yoga practice interacts with our brain in a way that produces these positive psychological effects as well.
Much of these psychological benefits can be attributed to the autonomic nervous system. Two major subsections of the autonomic nervous system are the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Simply put, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for “fight or flight” while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for “rest and digest.” Through the breathwork, asana, and meditation that takes place in a yoga class, we are activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This parasympathetic arousal occurs when we relax, bring attention to the body, and withdraw attention from stress-inducing thoughts. When we allow ourselves to relax as such, the parasympathetic nervous system is aroused, releases the neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric Acid), and in turn elevates mood, decreases cortisol (stress hormone), and increases psychological well being. Lower levels of GABA have been correlated with poor mental states, whereas regular increases in GABA have been shown to improve well-being substantially. So do more Yoga -- your mental well-being will thank you.
Knowing that the relaxation, stillness, and mindfulness aspects of a yoga practice produce psychological benefits through parasympathetic nervous system arousal, it poses a question: Why do people practice yoga strenuously (physically challenging classes, hot studios, etc.)? When we challenge ourselves through a strenuous yoga practice, we are activating the sympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for the fight or flight response. Just think about it: the heart rate increases, breathing becomes heavier, and we sweat similarly to how we might in fight or flight scenarios. However, after we activate the sympathetic nervous system... we relax. Activating the sympathetic nervous system followed by parasympathetic arousal allows us to actually relax even further into the parasympathetic element. This being said, savasana is truly the most important posture in our yoga practice, allowing us to relax and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, in turn producing the psychological benefits of yoga.
Not only does yoga produce psychological benefits through the nervous system, but practicing yoga will affect the endocrine system as well, producing even more benefits for the practitioner. The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones responsible for many functions in our bodies such as growth and development, metabolism, mood, and sleep. The hormones secreted by the endocrine glands have a profound effect on our mood. In our yoga practice, we strive to balance the endocrine glands. In fact, the chakras are almost directly aligned with the endocrine system and when we strive to balance the chakras through our yoga or meditation practice, we are facilitating the balancing of the endocrine glands to aid in positive physical and psychological benefits. For instance, the thymus gland is located under the breastbone and is responsible for keeping our immune systems strong and this gland relates to the Anahata (heart) chakra. The Anahata chakra is responsible for our capacity for love and connection. When we target this area in our yoga practice, such as through heart-opening postures or sound therapy, all of these elements come together and we experience immense benefits. In yoga, specific poses held for specific periods of time put sustained, alternating pressure on the endocrine glands and help them to function better through facilitating blood circulation.
Yoga clearly produces psychological benefits through activating the parasympathetic nervous system and the endocrine glands, but that’s not all. Studies have also found yoga to increase neuroplasticity, our ability for the brain to change and evolve throughout our lives, and executive function -- sets of cognitive processes that control behavior. EEG studies have shown that meditation strengthens the pathways between the prefrontal cortex, the center of happiness, concentration, rational thinking, and more, and the rest of the brain. Meditation has also been shown to reduce gray matter in the amygdala, which is linked to fear and anxious thoughts.
There have been countless studies performed on the psychological benefits of yoga and I would urge any student of yoga to look into these studies further. Understanding the powerful psychological impacts of yoga can allow us to appreciate this practice even deeper and know the bodily processes responsible for that blissful feeling we experience following a yoga class. Whatever reason you enter the yoga studio for, know that you are doing an incredible favor to your body, your brain, and your overall well-being.
To learn more about Inner Fire Yoga and the art of creating a great yoga practice for yourself, visit https://www.innerfireyoga.com