Yoga is a holistic, mind-body practice that appeals to people for many different reasons.
Yoga develops strength and mobility, increases core strength and spinal stability, lubricates spinal discs, facilitates cartilage and connective tissue health, builds up bone density, expands capacity for breath, helps overall physiological and cognitive functioning, improves circulation, aids weight control, encourages efficient digestion and elimination, assists with drainage of lymphatic fluids, lowers cortisol, improves immunity, strengthens balance, improves posture, and can reduce pain.
The ultimate "goal" of yoga asana (the physical postures of yoga) and pranayama (breath control) is slowing mental chatter. Since we are human and life has challenges, we regularly will move in and out of balanced states. From a Tantric yoga perspective all life states, both "good" and "bad", smooth or chaotic, are part of the Divine. Not every yoga practice will lead to a feeling of bliss. But some do, and the more you practice the more centered and less reactive you will become, allowing you to be more present for the moments of your life. Ultimately, yoga helps us move toward a clearer, more present and connected way of being.
Plasticity of the Brain and the Mind-Body Connection
Recent brain research shows fascinating things. Twenty-five years ago prevailing thought was that when brain cells died they did not regenerate. This has been proven not to be true: our brains are plastic, and we have the ability to build new cells and pattern new neural connections throughout our entire lives. This is an amazing discovery. Old dogs CAN learn new tricks. In addition to the functional benefits, physical things like learning new movement patterns lead to neural changes in your brain, making connections in areas that have to do with movement but also with emotion and creativity. Yoga affords us the opportunity to re-pattern thoughts and behavior patterns that come up on our mat and in our lives that may not be helping us achieve our potential as human beings or have the lives we want to have. To me, this is one of the most powerful, awe-inspiring aspects of the practice.
The more you practice placing focus on your breath or sensation in your body, instead of on the uncomfortable conversation you had with your sister or the paperwork in your office that needs attention, the more space there will become between your thoughts and the less demanding of your focus and energy they will become. Our human minds will always try to grasp onto images of the past and thoughts about the future; it's the nature of our monkey-minds. Our thoughts are going to go elsewhere during our yoga practice and in our lives. And when they do, we have the opportunity to exercise our mindfulness "muscle" by bringing attention back to what's going on in that moment. Mindfulness is powerful in a multitude of ways, and this is a lifelong practice.
Yoga enhances proprioception, our “sixth sense,” the ability of the brain and body to determine our movement and positioning in space. Proprioception is what allows us to drive with our eyes on the road and not on our hands and feet as they navigate the steering wheel and pedals, toss a ball to a friend without staring at our arm, and eventually sense where our front knee is pointing in Warrior 2 while our gaze softly rests on the middle finger of the front arm. Whether we are moving or standing still, proprioceptors continually are signaling muscles to contract and relax. Pretty phenomenal. Genetics, injury and daily habit can lead to less optimal movement patterns that start to feel normal to us. Yoga helps us become aware of our habits (samskaras), both physical and mental, and repattern new, healthy movements in our yoga practices and our lives.
Injuries and Special Conditions
Yoga, under the tutelage of a qualified teacher, is a wonderful tool for helping to heal injuries, prevent new ones, support medical treatment you may be receiving, manage special conditions and enhance quality of life. A teacher with training and talent for the therapeutic aspects of yoga will adapt the practice for injuries and different conditions, and provide you with a practice that helps to support healing and manage things like chronic pain or anxiety. While the right yoga instructor may be highly educated and incredibly instrumental in helping you heal, yoga teachers are not clinicians and cannot diagnose problems unless they happen also to be a doctor, physical therapist or other qualified medical professional. Teachers also may have specialties or more experience in some areas than others, so consider that when you are looking for a therapeutic yoga instructor. See Yoga Therapy for more.
Stress and “Fight or Flight”
Yoga counteracts the “fight or flight” response, an acute reaction to stress that activates our sympathetic nervous system. Physiological effects include accelerated heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, an increase in production of adrenaline and cortisol, ceasing of digestive activity, constriction of blood vessels in the core of the body and dilation of blood vessels in the limbs. Everything in the body is primitively attuned to survival, and the legs are ready to stand and fight or to run. This is great if you are facing a charging animal that could kill you. It’s not so great when you are sitting in traffic on the 405. Many common events in our day-to-day lives can trigger the “fight or flight” response, from running late to an important meeting, to worry about a child, to the unending influx of information sent to our in-boxes. Lack of sleep, illness and an unhealthy diet also can contribute to stress. (I’m not talking about the occasional indulgent meal or the random bowl of ice cream—unless you are lactose intolerant—I’m talking about overall lack of good nutrition and/or excessive intake of substances like caffeine, alcohol and sugar.) Constant stress takes an active toll on our beings, compromising our physiological systems, especially the immune system. Yoga and Yoga Tune Up® help to lower the stress responses and activate the Relaxation Response.
Down Regulation and “The Relaxation Response”
Yoga measurably activates our “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, which elicits the relaxation response. In this state, breathing deepens and softens, heart rate slows, digestion and circulation improve, blood pressure decreases, and muscles relax. The relaxation response may be evoked by many things, including yoga, massage, mindful meditation, deep breathing, repetitive prayer or mantra, and repetitive physical activities like walking, swimming or even knitting and other handwork. When we practice yoga or other similarly calming activities with regularity, we can build up a store of equanimity that assists us during times of pressure. We begin to create space and stillness in our bodies and our minds. Down regulation with self-massage and breathing techniques is a major part of Yoga Tune Up®.
Spirituality is something you can tap into or not in a yoga practice. Personally, I feel spiritually connected through the practice and follow the eight limbs of yoga, but I believe that everyone finds their own spiritual path. I have devout students of various religions, so I focus on mindfulness when I teach, which is universal. Mindfulness, awareness and focus connect us more deeply to the present moment and our selves, which serves to create greater meaning in life and a deeper connection to others and whatever spiritual practice serves us. I weave yoga philosophy into my classes, as much of that is universal and part of what makes yoga yoga. But I consciously create a space where everyone feels comfortable and able to connect to their deeper selves and the spirituality (or lack thereof) that serves them.