The practice of yoga has endured for thousands of years and is noted primarily for its ability to increase bodily flexibility and focused awareness. This focused awareness, achieved through breath work and bodily attunement, is a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing attention on the present moment without judgment. Thus, yoga is a dual practice of body and mind work. The key to yogic benefit is to perform a well-formulated sequence of postures, called asanas, with long hold times.
Yoga has been shown to have a number of health benefits. Yoga can enhance weight loss and help maintain weight over time. Because yoga increases mindfulness, mindfulness promotes a better relationship with food where food is savored and urges for emotional eating can be better managed. The inner focus associated with yoga can promote a healthier body image that is less encumbered with critical evaluation. Decreases in blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lower blood glucose (sugar) are the cardiovascular benefits associated with practicing yoga. The overall fitness benefits of yoga include increased endurance, muscle strength and balance.
Yoga also has neuroscience benefits that only recently have been explained. For simplicity sake, let’s divide the brains response to stress along two reactive systems – the emotional reaction and the logical reaction. The emotional reaction to stress is the activating response that turns on the body’s emotions (fear, anger, etc.) and stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol). The logical reaction to stress does the opposite. It tries to turn the stress signal off and relax the emotions and body. The pathways of both these systems are located in various parts of the body.
Yoga activates both of these pathways through the engagement of postures or asanas. When a posture is held, the logical system is activated as one focuses on the position. When the body bends forward, relaxation is ignited through bodily nerve pathways. So, bending forward while concentrating forces the logical brain to increase at the same time relaxation is increased producing enhancement of both. When the body bends backward, the logical system is engaged but the contracted muscles produce a stress response. Now, the logical system is challenged to overcome the stress response. The process of overcoming the stress response strengthens the logical system in the presence of stress, thus improving overall and long-term stress reduction. Practicing yoga regularly helps rewire the brains circuitry to improve and increase the connections to the logical system making it easier to manage stress. In terms of behavior, this means that negative thinking is better controlled and minimized and negative mood states (anxiety and depression) are reduced. For these reasons, yoga has successfully been used in the treatment of trauma and is being explored for its use in cardiac and cancer treatments, all of which are affected by stress.
Submitted By Holly Houston, PhD. Licensed Clinical Psychologist