How Yoga Works: A Scientific Perspective
How Yoga Works?
There are two vantage points from which to approach this question. The first is from a spiritual point of view and other is from a scientific perspective. As you will see in the following however, the two approaches become inextricably connected.
In the last two decades, research work on Yoga has clarified what happens to the body, brain and mind when people consistently practice Yoga poses:
- Although the brain feels the body, that feeling is not a conscious one. During Yoga poses, a person becomes aware of the body and the brain gets a full conscious orientation of it in space and time. With full consciousness, the body moves naturally and without fear.
- Yoga helps us to move from Body-Image to the Body-Actual. Our body image is created by culture, memories and beliefs and does not represent the real body. Many mind-body pathologies are the result of the wrong body image. ‘Body Actual’ is the body’s map in the brain and represents the real body. Living in the Body-Actual grounds the awareness in reality and creates stability. It also saves the body from the artificial manipulation and alteration of body parts that happens as the result of many Body Dysmorphic Disorders. In Body Dysmorphic Disorders, a person is obsessed with the false idea that there is something wrong with the body and its appearance (nose, eyes, face etc.) and tries to correct them personally by mutilating them or opt for repetitive surgical interventions.
- Paying attention to body postures brings the mind and body together. Normally our mind is absorbed in thinking and is distracted while the body is in action. Integration of mind-body creates a state of harmony and results in a sense of well-being.
- Yoga poses have an effect that is similar to acupressure and acupuncture. The mechanism of action is the same in both modalities. A sustained posture stimulates neuro-vascular bundles in the body, which are rich in sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves. Neuro-vascular bundles are the points where a nerve and artery come together. These points in Yoga are called the Marma point and are particularly rich in bio-energy. Neural impulses from these bundles go to the hypothalamus in the brain that controls thirst, sex, hunger and rest of the autonomic nervous system. From the hypothalamus, the neural impulses spread to the other parts of the brain and ultimately to the endocrine and immune systems for optimal functioning and homeostasis of body and mind. Stimulation also goes to the limbic system or emotional brain, where pleasure centers are located. This leads to the release of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, Anandamide, GABA, nor-epinephrine and other neuro-chemicals. Release of these neuro-chemicals, brings pleasure and a sense of well-being.
Stimulation of the Vagus nerve by a yoga pose is one example of this phenomenon. In any pose in which legs are crossed (easy pose, for example), pressure is exerted on the outer side of the upper part of the leg. This presses a Marma point and the stimulation goes all the way to the Vagus nerve center in the lower part of the brain. From the nerve center, neural impulses are conveyed through the Vagus nerve to internal organs in the chest and abdomen to regulate their functions. The Vagus nerve specifically contributes to the enhanced immune function of the body. Many people who present with problems of the immune system are given Vagus nerve stimulation by planting electrodes in the nerve.
- Yoga poses help to bypass the left side and frontal part of the brain and as a result, there is a stimulation of the right side of the brain (which is the creative, intuitive, relaxed and feeling part). This state is known as Hypofrontality.
- In many Yoga poses, the neck is kept slightly bent (as in shoulder stand). This creates pressure on the carotid sinuses in the neck and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps in the rest, digest and healing activities of the body. It also brings emotional calmness and peace to the practitioner.
- During Yoga poses, many endocrine glands are pressed and gently massaged which helps in regulating their hormone production and release. As a result, this also assists in the maintenance of an optimal body metabolism.
- Pressure and massaging of the abdominal organs discharges toxins from them and aids in the detoxification of the entire body. The human gut has its own brain known as ‘Gut Brain’. The Gut Brain is the ‘feeling brain’ and it co-ordinates with the ‘Skull Brain’ to preserve and maintain life. The Gut Brain produces more than 80% of the serotonin of the body. Serotonin regulates mood, appetite and sleep. That is why in Yoga, it’s not only the quantity and content of food (i.e. protein, fat, carbohydrates) but also the quality (creating calming, stimulating or even exciting effects) that are important. Our Gut Brain can recognize the quality.
- Rapid breathing exercises such as Bhastrika pranayama (Bellow breathing), increases the secretion of the hormone Testosterone which helps to revive energy and confidence.
In essence the relationship of Yoga and material science can summarized as ‘as above, so below’. Whatever changes occur through Yoga at spiritual level is reflected at material level. Those changes can be examined, tested and proved by science and made available to the majority of people. After all Truth is not a point but a spectrum. At the one pole of the spectrum is Spirit and at the other is Matter.
How yoga has worked for you?