Penetrating postures: the psychology of yoga
Article from Alice G. Watson for Forbes
“The Psychology of Yoga,” looks at the psychological changes that yoga has been shown to bring about.
Judging from the number of yoga mats I’ve seen toted around Manhattan in the last 15 years, I’m pretty sure I was the last person on the island to try it. My relationship with the practice started about six months ago, and I must admit, I fell for it – and hard. I was amazed at the changes it was effecting in my body, and even better, my mind. But the science nerd/Western medicine part of me wondered how, exactly, it was doing this. I could wager some guesses based on what I know about the body, but wanted to talk to some people who actually study this stuff for a living.
Stephen Cope is a therapist and director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts. He heads a program at the Center entitled “Yoga and the Brain,” in which researchers are studying yoga’s effect on the brain with MRI and other clever techniques. Cope explains that yoga brings about measurable changes in the body’s sympathetic nervous system – the one charged with propelling us into action during the “fight or flight” response to stress. However, because our lives today include business emails at 10 o’clock at night and loud cell conversations at the next table, our stress response often lingers in the “on” position at times it shouldn’t. Yoga helps dampen the body’s stress response by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol, which not only fuels our split-second stress reactions, but it can wreak havoc on the body when one is chronically stressed. So reducing the body’s cortisol level is generally considered a good thing.
Yoga also boosts levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, which are responsible for feelings of relaxation and contentedness, and the way the brain processes rewards. All three neurotransmitters are the targets of various mood medications like antidepressants (e.g., SSRIs) and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs. The fact that yoga is linked to improved levels of these coveted chemicals is nothing to sneeze at.
Yoga has another bonus, says Sarah Dolgonos, MD, who has taught at the Yoga Society of New York’s Ananda Ashram. She points out that in addition to suppressing the stress response, yoga actually stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and restores balance after a major stressor is over. When the parasympathetic nervous system switches on, “blood is directed toward endocrine glands, digestive organs, and lymphatic circulation, while the heart rate and blood pressure are lowered,” says Dolgonos. With the parasympathetic nervous system in gear, “our bodies can better extract nutrients from the food we eat, and more effectively eliminate toxins because circulation is enhanced. With parasympathetic activation, the body enters into a state of restoration and healing.”
There is also consensus that yoga boosts immune function, says Dolgonos. This benefit is probably due to the reduction of cortisol, mentioned earlier: too much of the pesky hormone can dampen the effectiveness of the immune system “by immobilizing certain white blood cells.” Reducing circulating cortisol “removes a barrier to effective immune function,” so yoga could help prevent illness by boosting immunity.
So let’s zoom in on yoga’s effects on the body even more (bear with me, this is really interesting). Researchers have discovered that yoga improves health in part by reducing a major adversary of the body: inflammation. Chronic inflammation, even low grade, is responsible for a litany of health problems from heart disease to diabetes to depression.
Paula R. Pullen, PhD, Research Instructor at the Morehouse School of Medicine, studies yoga’s effects on inflammation by looking at what’s happening in the bodies of heart failure patients who enroll in yoga classes. She has shown that after being randomly assigned to yoga or to standard medical care, patients taking yoga have significantly improved levels of biomarkers like C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). If your eyes just glazed over, these findings are quite remarkable because they illustrate that yoga can actually affect the tiniest molecules, the ones that are widely known to predict risk for serious disease. Pullen underlines that reducing the body’s level of inflammation is incredibly important from a preventative standpoint. And yoga can help with this. “Yoga balances the body, the hormonal system, and the stress response. People tend to think of yoga as being all about flexibility – it’s not. It’s about rebalancing and healing the body.”
Though it’s been around for thousands of years, Western science is just beginning to understand how yoga exerts its effects. It will certainly be interesting to follow the research as it continues to reveal just what yoga is doing in the body and brain.
Having explored the nuts and bolts of yoga’s amazing health benefits, it seemed natural to switch from the objective to the subjective, and take a look at what yoga has been shown to do in the mind. After all, many people say that after starting yoga they feel mentally stronger, more relaxed, less depressed and more level-headed than before. Heck, I’m the first to admit it’s the best therapy I’ve ever had. So to discuss how and why these changes occur, I turned to two well-recognized and seasoned practitioners.
Stephen Cope, director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, explains that yoga itself is a form of meditation, and herein lies its power. “Yoga provides attentional training and self-regulation,” he says. “In practicing yoga, we’re training our awareness to attend to the flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations in the body – and to be with these different states without self-judgment or reactivity.”
In other words, yoga teaches a new kind of attention. People who practice yoga learn how to accept all the stress-inducing thoughts that flit around in one’s head – negative self-talk, worries, snap judgments – as just that: thoughts, and nothing more. Since reacting to our thoughts is typically what gets us into trouble, learning to attend to them and accept them nonjudgmentally is key. Then we can let them go, says Cope, and “make wise choices – not based on reactivity to these states, but on our best interests.”
This idea of paying attention to one’s thoughts in a nonjudgmental way is whatmindfulness meditation, or mindfulness training, is all about. This ancient practice has gained a lot of interest from researchers (and regular folk) in recent years. Scientists have studied how mindfulness courses can change people’s reactions and behaviors, and how they can literally change the structure of the brain. Attentional training and mindfulness have been shown to provide major benefits in treating everything from stress and depression to serious addictions. And yoga seems to work in much the same way.
Elena Brower, Anusara® yoga teacher, and co-founder and owner of the Virayogastudio in Manhattan, tells me about the personal changes she’s witnessed in her own mind as she’s practiced over the last 15 years. She starts by explaining the shift in attention that yoga can bring: “We each have two aspects of ourselves; one that is inward-drawn, super focused and alternately afraid; one that is expressive, open, ready, available and downright brave. In our mind, yoga helps us create a patient relationship between those two aspects of ourselves. Yoga brings a level of patience and listening I’ve never found with any other discipline.”
Both experts agree that there’s something powerful and fundamental about syncing the mind and body as yoga does. Researchers, too, are beginning to grasp the depths of the mind-body connection. As Cope explains, “yogis came to believe that the mind and body are linked in every way, and indeed, that the mind is just a subtle form of the body, and the body a gross form of mind.” What we do for the one benefits the other. And as Brower articulates, “when fed and led well, a strong body helps us see the mind’s hilarious machinations more clearly.” Indeed, life is a lot more pleasant when we learn to see our thoughts not as grave realities to be reacted to, but as harmless, almost comical, little clouds that float in and out of consciousness.
Brower also points out that you don’t have to practice for hours on end to reap the mental benefits that yoga can bring. “Even 15 minutes, consistently, shifts my ability to be present. My daily practice consists of 15-20 minutes of asana and 5-10 minutes of meditation, and to keep that promise to myself creates a rich quality of presence in everything I do. And I notice when I don’t do it.”
To people who are on the fence about trying it out for the first time, Brower offers this: “Know that it may take some time to find the teacher who really speaks to YOU in a way that you can hear, but once you do, be prepared to feel stronger, more secure, and, in many cases, ridiculously fortunate and thrilled to know the strength in your body that comes with a consistent practice.”
The bottom line is that aside from its obvious physical benefits, yoga is great for those of us who are in our heads all the time. “When you have a few yoga classes under your belt,” says Brower, “the first thing you’ll notice is the space between your thoughts. Literally, a pause is revealed, through your breathing, that grants you a moment of time between one thought and the next.”
If you’re ready to get out of the tangle of those pesky cogitations, I’d highly recommend giving yoga a try.
From Alice G. Watson for Forbes