Yoga Is Neuroscience

Yoga is gaining popularity in the scientific literature as a complementary and alternative therapy for a variety of physical and mental health problems. There are studies on the benefits of yoga for chronic back pain, cancer side-effects, mental health disorders and stress-related symptoms (fatigue, insomnia, musculoskeletal pain, etc.), to name a few. Outside of hospitals or clinical studies, yoga studios are packed with people practicing yoga on a regular basis and others who give this discipline a try in the hopes of getting some positive health results.

Yoga is said to be a mind-body discipline, and to me this becomes particularly clear if we understand how the nervous system is organized. In many ways, the body is connected to the mind through the brain, which is part of our nervous system. The brain, together with the spinal cord, forms the Central Nervous System and consistent with it’s name runs along the centre of the body. On the other hand, there is the Peripheral Nervous System, which consists of the nerves that branch off of the spinal cord into the most remote places in our body, in other words, into the periphery. These nerves allow us to receive information from inside and outside the body, move our body voluntarily, control body functions (such as organs and glands), and allow us to sense internally and externally. Much of these actions within the peripheral nervous system is directed by the brain and connected through the spinal cord connections. Essentially, everything that we experience (including thoughts and emotions) and perceive is possible thanks to the connection among our mind, body, and brain. Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are possible thanks to the biological bases of our mind: the brain. Our brain allows us to communicate with other brains and to form relationships and, for some of us, it can also make us feel more connected to nature, the universe or other ways of describing spirituality.
I have been particularly interested lately in learning more about why people practice yoga and the benefits they experience from their own practice. Is this just a fad? Or are there some real perceived health (either mental or physical) benefits? When reading the scientific literature, I learned there are only a few recent articles in which yoga has been studied in healthy people (i.e., not people diagnoses with some illness, condition, or disease). Two studies published in 2013 were of particular interest: They aimed at understanding why people start or return to yoga classes and how yoga influences their perception of health. 

The first study, a survey of yoga practitioners, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, showed yoga improved several important aspects of well-being including: happiness (86.5%), energy (84.5%), social relationships (67%), sleep (68.5%), and weight (57.3%). Researchers also found that the more the people practiced yoga, the more they believed yoga improved their health. The second study was published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, and this time, the survey was done before and after participants took a 4-week beginners yoga program. Before the 4-week yoga program started, most of the people in the study viewed yoga primarily as an exercise activity (92%), or as a spiritual practice (73%), while some others thought of it  as a way to manage health conditions (50%). After the 4-week yoga program, the majority of participants said they now practiced yoga to improve general wellness (81%), as a physical exercise (80%), and for stress management (73%). It’s interesting to learn that people begin to experience benefits of wellness and stress management within only 4 weeks! 

I have also done my own casual survey among friends who practice yoga, asking them why they practice yoga. Some of their responses are grouped in the table below. Along with their responses, I have included some information on how those experiences relate to functions performed by different parts of the nervous system in order to highlight the mind-body-brain connection present in yoga. For example, when someone reports practicing yoga to get into shape or for stretching, they are referring to the physical practice of yoga, which happens thanks to the a division of the peripheral nervous system know as the  voluntary nervous system. The voluntary nervous system allow us to do what it says: move our body freely,  voluntarily. People who say yoga makes them feel relaxed, stress-relieved, or even more energetic, are experiencing functions of their autonomic nervous system, another division of the peripheral nervous system, which regulates the stress response.  Those who report feeling happier (like in the first study), better at controlling their mood, or even more spiritually connected, are experiencing various functions of their brain (i.e., part of their central nervous system). 

To summarize all this information, and most important, make you think about the benefits you are already experiencing from yoga, please refer to the table below. Or, for those who have not yet experienced the benefits of yoga you might consider the realm of possibilities that activate your mind, body, and brain!  The table below groups some of the most commonly reported yoga benefits according to how the nervous system is classified.

To make all this more relevant to your own mind-brain-body, I encourage you to write down what you experience after a yoga class, whether it’s your first one or you’re a regular practitioner, and then try to classify each experience using this table. In this example, we have someone who is practicing yoga for its physical (i.e., musculoskeletal) benefits (flexibility, body alignment, etc.), as well as to feel calmer and relieve stress, but also experiences happiness and manages mood swings better. 

We experience feelings of happiness and general wellness thanks to our brains, and yoga has the potential to improve these positive experiences. By practicing yoga we strive for optimum health for our body, mind, and brain, and for our entire nervous system. All the benefits people report from taking yoga are manifestations of their nervous system. So, I encourage you to consider how yoga is a practice in understand your own nervous system and a way for you to know your brain!