Yoga insights: How yoga works (part 1)


Counsellor and qualified yoga teacher Maureen has penned the next in the Yoga Insights series: How Yoga Works.  Catch Maureen teaching Mindful Yoga at Oasis.

I love introducing new people to the experience of yoga.  I often recognise the same feeling in them that I encountered 30 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 mental health conditions.  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 2014 with a detailed theory for how yoga works. The answer they suggested is that yoga 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.

Further articles in the same publication in 2018 described the way conventional yoga wisdom converges with contemporary neuroscience. The theory is that yoga benefits us through an integration of what are called “top-down” and “bottom -up “ approaches to self regulation using Poly vagal theory.

Top down approaches include regulation of attention, setting intentions and focused attention through concentration.  Developing these skills can inhibit emotional reactivity, negative appraisal and excessive rumination.

Bottom up approaches include breathing and movement practices which influence the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and nervous system. Bottom- up processing arises through allowing our body sensation to feed into our experience.  This increases our vagal tone which can assist in reducing muscle tension and pain as well as inflammation.

It is in using both of these approaches which allows yoga to decrease our feelings of stress and sympathetic nervous system activity, and make us feel physically, mentally and emotionally relaxed.  For those who love a good diagram this one is a thing of beauty – essentially describing how yoga works.

Importantly the practice of yoga was broadly described to include a range of traditional practices: ethics (yamas and niyamas); meditation; asana; and breathing practices.  We touch on all these elements of yoga in the Tuesday Mindful yoga classes. All are welcome to join.

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