I still remember the look I got when I chuckled out loud at the yoga instructor during my first class some few years back. It was an honest laugh – did she really expect me to balance my whole body on just my forearms? That’s a joke.
But the joke was on me. It turns out the old man sitting behind me on his mat was light-years ahead. So was the mother-of-two I had met earlier that morning on my left. Clearly, I had a lot of catching up to do.
That wasn’t all. The more I went to yoga class, the more I saw people of all ages benefiting from its effects. At one point, I wanted to know the science behind the practice. What was making all the difference?
We are reminded of the benefits of yoga all the time. According to the American Osteopathic Association, yoga develops increased flexibility, increased muscle tone, strength, improved energy, improved cardiorespiratory health, and a balanced metabolism. Yet these are just a few out of the long list of benefits. Yoga brings the body back to equilibrium, a state which many of us do not maintain throughout the day (forget the day, try the whole week). It’s no wonder we find ourselves falling sick so often. How do you know when you’re out of equilibrium? When you feel “stressed”.
Stress is the body’s way of letting us know we’re putting ourselves through a difficult environment. But the body would not be as amazing as we believe it to be if it did not come with solutions of its own. The solution to a difficult, stressful environment is the activation of the SNS, or sympathetic nervous system. This system, in brief, is activated by hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn initiate a series of events leading to increased blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. Your pupils dilate, you begin to sweat, and your bronchial passages widen to let in more oxygen. Your muscles also tense up, guarding the body against impending injury and pain. These are protective mechanisms, but under a chronic state of stress, these protective mechanisms end up doing more harm than help. Over long periods of stressful time, your body will show classic signs of maladaptation – which in turn affects all the systems of the body. Respiratory system changes include hyperventilation, possibly triggering asthma attacks in those prone to them. The cardiovascular system takes a beating on its vessel walls, increasing risk of heart attack and stroke. The endocrine system lets us know its suffering when we feel heart burn, nausea, or even develop ulcers. The nervous system, specifically the SNS, needs to be at constant balance with the PSNS, or the parasympathetic nervous system.
And that’s where yoga comes in. The PSNS and SNS are never “shut off.” They are both on, usually working in harmonium. The PSNS is responsible for lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and initiating recovery. Blood flow is redirected towards the intestinal system and other organs that were shunted during stressful circumstances. If we could somehow find a way to activate the PSNS more often, could we not gain more of the benefits from relaxation?
Yes – and the way is yoga. According to Dr. Timothy McCall of Yoga Journal, yoga brings about a deep relaxation that aids in the body’s restorative functions. Practices such as asana, meditation, slow breathing, and imagery increase the activation of the PSNS. With a constant yogic practice we can actually train our brains to develop the habit of responding to stressful environments, well, less stressfully! Neuroplasticity, a concept popular with many neurobiologists and physicians, shows us that the brain is capable of adapting to new coping mechanisms; we can essentially rewire our neural pathways with practice. Remember the article on “Being Better Than Yesterday”? Put anything into practice, and it becomes a habit. Even for our neural systems.
By forming habits that help alter our neural pattern of reaction to stressful environments, we can achieve healthy responses that help us steer clear of a range of things from insomnia to heart disease.
But, I think the best part of what I had learned that year was how applicable the benefits of yoga are to all age groups, all ethnicities. Stress is universal. We all feel it in the same language. So too are the benefits of relaxation. Because equilibrium is not age specific, and achieving it is attainable for anyone.
Anyone. Including that mother-of-two, and that elderly man behind me in class.
Nisha Jani attended the University of Miami for college and graduate school, leaving with a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and Sports Medicine. Currently an athletic trainer in Miami, she is devoted to the study of exercise and kinesiology. Nisha also has a passion for creative forms of expression including dance, design and motivational reading and writing.
Sandhya Pruthi, M.D. and staff. 2015. “Stress management – Chronic stress puts your health at risk.” Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037?pg=1
“The Benefits of Yoga.” American Osteopathic Association. 2015. http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-health/health-conditions-library/general-health/Pages/yoga.aspx
Timothy McCall, M.D. “The Scientific Basis of Yoga Therapy.” 2007. Yoga Journal.
Wilson, Angela. “Why Yoga Works.” Thrive: The Kripalu Blog. 2012. http://kripalu.org/blog/thrive/2012/08/30/why-yoga-works/