I think there are four components that really make yoga what it is. One of these is, of course, is the most obvious one which is the physical postures, stretching, exercises, movements, breathing techniques, and relaxation techniques. These are an important component that is working with the body to affect our global functioning.
Another critical area is the idea of self-regulation. The ability to control our internal stress response to control our emotional response. This is basically reflected as resilience to stress and equanimity in the face in the face of emotions. And that leads to phycological self-efficacy.
One other area is the spiritual benefits of yoga. The cultivation of mind-body awareness. The sense of being able to experience whats going on in the body and also to experience what’s going on mentally. Being able to observe the flow of thought. This kind of cultivation of mind-body awareness leads to increased mindfulness that can change behaviors in a positive way.
The final component that is really reflecting the traditional origins of yoga is the idea of experiencing these deeper states. These spiritual states, transcendent states. Even if they are short term these kinds of experiences you get in deep meditation can be very transformative for people and bring them to have a positive lifestyle and have positive goals in life and to improve and enhance their life meaning and purpose.
Those who have experienced the benefits of yoga for themselves don’t need any evidence or research to convince them that yoga can help. However, there are others who like a little more robust scientific systematic way of looking at what’s actually going on, rather than look at the anecdotal evidence that so many people give.
Some scientists are researching the field of yoga for depression and anxiety disorders. The most significant result that they found was the reduction in measures of depression. They compared a group of people that were doing yoga over six weeks while a controlled group was continuing with their regular treatment. They saw a significant difference between the two groups. There was a thirty-three percent reduction in the group of people who were doing yoga practice and saw a reduction in levels of anxiety, overall psychological distress and saw an increase in resilience, which is an important measure in mental health. They also saw increases in the frequency of positive experiences that people were reporting. There was also a reduction in the frequency of negative experiences.
The average amount of yoga that people were doing was 12 minutes on a regular basis, most days of the week, over 6 weeks.
Two of the most important measures were the reduction of anxiety and depression scores, but each of the other measures gives a much more overall picture of the improvement in mental health.
The evidence supports the whole idea that if people do something that includes movement, breath, mindful attention and relaxation, using the framework of yoga a little it each day, it really does bring about some significant results.
the most important scientific principle of the old philosophy rests, is space. I’m sure you’ve heard this term very often “give me some space”. But actually, we need to create that space in the body. We need to create that space in the mind. So when your mind clogged with thoughts you need to flush them out, remove them and that is what meditation is all about.
Similarily in the body when we’re doing asanas, we are stretching out the body by creating that much-needed space. So we need to get this intercellular space and when space is there, prana flows. And when there is prana there is space.
The most important thing that I see in terms of yoga on the physical level is to establish connections and the connections come to the channels that are in our body which in yoga are called Nadis. And what moves through these channels is information and energy which in yoga are called Prana and Chitta. Physically these channels are blood vessels, nerves lymphatic vessels and acupuncture meridians just to name a few. And prana is things like heat, electrical, electromechanical energy flooding through the different channels in the body and also energy-carrying molecules like glucose ATP. There is, of course, informational Chitta which is the information that might flow through the nerves and also electromagnetic energy that flows through the body carrying information and also information-carrying molecules such as hormones and neurotransmitters. And so physically and energetically we have energy information flowing through the body and to enhance the flow of energy information through these channels in the body, which is one of the most important things to make yoga happen in the body.
One thing I like to say to people is that yoga has obviously proved itself over thousands of years but it is important for a lot of people to truly have that belief in yoga, that they have an understanding of it from a western scientific point of view and model.
In terms of the evidence that’s there for the psychophysiological effects that yoga practices. Historically even going back to the 50s, there’s a lot of research that shows the ability of these practices is to enable people to manage their stress response. This is one of the major reasons why people practice yoga. Its to help them cope with stress and emotion and in a big way its one of the main reasons why people come to yoga.
Breath is the most powerful tool that everyone has within their reach to bring vast stress response right under their control. The most direct way of doing that is by taking fewer breathes within a period of time and trying to fill your lungs and expand your lung volume with every single breath an trying to increase that as far as you can from one breath to the next.
When we look at studies of people that perform yogic breathing were they prolong every breath so they breathe less frequently and deeper we find that its possible to reduce blood pressure by controlling breathing. Blood pressure is governed by the sympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system is the messenger of the stress response. So you can see what we are doing to the stress response simply by modifying breathing.
Within the yoga postures as we go from one posture to another, were creating a challenge that our mind constantly has to deal with, so if your standing on one leg our muscle is contracting were having to bring our thought right back one of the things we can do to help ourselves is to control our breathing because as the prefrontal cortex and parts of it are working to redirect attention were also trying to get to grip with the stress response and calm ourselves down and using breathing as a tool adds to this. So breathing plus the effect of regulating your thoughts both enhance the par sympathetic signal and bring the sympathetic nervous system signal down.
Hence moving out of the yoga studio, reflects our life in general so when we’re faced with a stressful situation, we remember to do exactly the same thing we did in the yoga room. This is to control the breathing and redirect attention using our mind, using part of the prefrontal cortex. So breathing is a powerful tool that can be both applied within and outside of the yoga room and we can practice it with every yoga posture.
Yoga strengthens the power of the mind and the more control that we have on our mind in a sense of the conscience mind, actually controlling sub-conscience programs that take us off track The more power we have in that mind, the more power we have in our life. Not only to control our physiology but where we are in the world and how we connect with the world because it is all through the nervous system.
New science is all reveling that the mind is the ultimate controller of our health and biology and we have been looking at genes. And it turns out only one percent of illness is related to genes. ninety percent of illnesses related to stress and what is stress? Its the mind working in a sense of fear and being lost in the world of so many things going on and Yoga brings it into a focus.
I think that yoga really has the capacity to change the brain, and if it changes your brain it changes your neurology, your nervous system and could potentially change anything inside of you that might need changing or transforming.
Two areas of research that are really cutting edge currently, one of them is neuroimaging. Large machines that can peer into the brain and look at very discrete areas of the brain and look at different areas of activity and structure. What we are finding is that meditative practices can indeed bring a change. When you focus your attention, you change brain activity in a discreet way.
Not only that, over time, you actually change brain structure through whats called brain plasticity. That means you end up with the brain that is conducive to the benefits and the practices that come along with meditative practices like yoga.
You can see changes in the stress system as reflected in the nervous system. And finally, the other cutting edge area of research in yoga is the molecular biological approach. This is looking at the action of neurotransmitters, looking at the action of the actual molecules in the brain. For example, there are studies that show a major neurotransmitter is effected after a single yoga class. There are other studies that show the expression of our DNA, the activity of our genes is actually reflected and changing with these practices. You actually change gene activity, enhance gene activity that’s good for you. The immune response is improved and you downregulate gene activity that is sometimes bad for you if you are under chronic stress such as inflammation.
These are the two cutting edge areas that are bringing yoga into the biomedical world. We are starting to see that yoga is not just a hobby that you practice on the side. This is real biological stuff. You’re really changing the activity of neurons in the brain, the function within the body at the cellular and even the molecular level. So it is very exciting and the research is really exploding at this point in time. It is also very exciting to see validation of what we’ve experienced on the behavioral level now manifested in scientific research.
What would be great to see is a recognition in medicine and in science that there’s something worth looking at more carefully. I wouldn’t say it a simple instant outcome but it would be great if medicine saw yoga in this way but it’s important that medicine and other research recognize that there is something in here that’s worth investigating.
There’s an enormous amount we can learn through biomedical research on yoga. In fact, biomedical research is evolving to be able to allow us to peer into the body and the brain in ways that were inconceivable only decades age.
So as this modern science evolves, it will allow us to use these tools to evaluate how yoga is working and that is going to proceed in an exponential way. Each week there is a new publication coming out on the biological effects of yoga and yoga as a clinical intervention.
Yoga began as a reaction against the urban environment and the enslavement and exploitation of animals, damming of rivers. About 10 thousand years ago when we human beings shifted from living in beside and in harmony with nature to wanting to control nature there was a group of us that said, I don’t know if this the way that’s going to bring happiness. They held back and as more and more cities developed, those people we call yogis now retreated into the forests, jungles and mountains to see if there is a better way to achieve happiness, bliss and the knowledge of who we really are.
Yoga has a great capacity to help people heal and overcome challenges. But I think its also important we don’t get it stuck there because ultimately it’s about self-realization. So let us use it to heal but then let’s keep going with yoga, to really get the juice of yoga, which is really to know the truth of who you are. Still, its great western science is bringing people more people to the practice because it’s giving them a language they need in order to enter.
A lot of the teaching of yoga is about invisible realities that have been seen by deeper faculties. This is where modern science isn’t quite seeing what yoga is seeing. What they are seeing is interesting, but they don’t see that there are other faculties of seeing. The word Bheda which yoga comes means to see and gives us video and what a guru or teacher gives is darshan which is a vision that might not have been obvious at first.
The tremendous transformative power of yoga offers these techniques to move through emotional, mental blockages and challenges and really allows you to find your true secret power, the sense of yourself.
It integrates the mind the body and the spirit so people reconnect with their soul and purpose. It clarifies things in people’s lives. It helps people fulfill their destiny.
Its a deep spiritual and emotional practice while at the same time, its this beautiful and physical practice that creates wellbeing.
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