Probably you have already heard about the positive effects of yoga for our body, mind and spirit. But do you know what exactly is happening in our bodies and brains to make us feel this way? One of our yoga teachers, here at La Crisalida, researched this topic in-depth. We were curious what chemical and physical changes happen in our brains and bodies when we step on a mat.
1. Reduces our stress level.
Many studies have shown that practicing yoga lowers our stress level. And we can confirm it from our own experience, but how it does it happen? One leading researcher, Stephen Cope used MRI to investigate changes in the body´s sympathetic nervous system – this is the part of the body that responds to stress as “fight or flight”. Other researchers have shown that yoga reduces cortisol – the hormone that triggers our stress reaction – which helps to reduce our stress response and level. If you are chronically stressed the body produces more cortisol than is needed, which plays havoc on our bodies and on our health. So reducing our cortisol level is generally considered a good thing.
2. Boosts our immune system.
Another impact of having high levels of cortisol in the blood is to reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. In yoga, as we come in and out of yoga postures, the muscles contract and stretch in many different ways and the organs move around. This movement increases the drainage of lymph (a viscous fluid rich in immune cells), which helps the lymphatic system fight infection, destroy cancerous cells, and dispose of the toxins and waste products.
Furthermore, researchers have discovered that yoga can help to improve health because it reduces inflammation. For example, one researcher (Paula R. Pullen) studied heart failure patients: one group were enrolled in yoga classes and the other group followed to standard medical care. In her research, she found that the group of patients taking yoga classes had significantly improved levels of inflammation biomarkers. Inflammation in the body, particularly if it is long-standing, is often a sign that the body is unwell; so having lower levels of these biomarkers shows that inflammation had decreased; a calming of the body.
3. Increases the flexibility of our bodies.
Often, when we start yoga many people can not touch their toes, or do a backbend like cobra. But with practice, a gradual loosening of the body happens, and eventually, the seemingly impossible poses became possible. And, with regular yoga practice, aches and pains start to disappear. There is no coincidence! When our muscles and connective tissue (fascia and ligaments) are not flexible, we can have poor posture, which leads to aches and pains in various parts of our body. Tight hips, for example, can strain the knee joint due to improper alignment of the thigh and shinbones. And tight hamstrings can lead to a flattening of the lumbar spine, which can cause back pain. By practicing yoga you will find a general all-over loosening of the muscles and connective tissue and you can start to enjoy life without pain!
4. Builds strength.
Going hand in hand with flexibility, is strength. Here at La Crisalida, we talk alot about balance. Imagine, if you just went to the gym and lifted weights, you might build strength, however this might be at the expense of flexibility. Regular yoga practice helps to build strength and brings balance to the body; in some of the asanas (poses) we learn to hold our own body weight. Strong muscles do more than look good; they also protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain.
5. Improves blood circulation.
Yoga gets your blood flowing. In twisting poses, the twist motion squeezes out blood from internal organs; once the twist is released fresh oxygenated blood then flows back in, improving blood circulation and also helping to release toxins and waste products. Inverted poses, such as Sirsasana (Headstand), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and “legs up the wall“ encourage blood from the legs and pelvis to flow back to the heart, where it can be pumped to the lungs to be freshly oxygenated. So, if you have poor circulation in your legs, and suffer swelling or pain, these inverted poses are good to practice. Yoga also boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues.
6. Lowers blood pressure.
Regular yoga practice can help to reduce blood pressure. One study published in The Lancet, investigated the effect of (i) Savasana (Corpse Pose) versus (ii) simply lying on a sofa, among people with hypertension (high blood pressure). After three months the group practicing regular Savasana had on average a 26-point drop in systolic blood pressure (the top number) and a 15-point drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number)!
7. Increases our feelings of relaxation and contentedness.
If you practice yoga, you probably will have noticed that after a yoga class you feel more energized and more relaxed and happy? The reason for this is chemical! Daily yoga practice boosts levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin and gamma aminobutyric acid, which are responsible for creating feelings of relaxation and contentedness. Antidepressants and other mood medications produced by pharmaceutical companies target these three neurotransmitters, so, instead going first to the doctor for a tablet, consider taking up yoga to try things the natural way first.
8. Restores balance and promotes healing.
Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the body system responsible for calming us down and restoring balance. When the parasympathetic nervous system switches on our blood is directed toward the digestive organs, endocrine glands, and lymphatic system. And better functioning in these areas means that our hormones become more regulated, our bodies can better extract nutrients from food, and more effectively eliminate toxins. So when we are on a mat our body naturally enters into a state of restoration and healing.
9. Builds stronger bones.
As mentioned above, in some asanas we work to lift our own body weight. Many researchers have shown that any form of weight-bearing exercise strengthen bones and help ward off osteoporosis. In yoga, asanas like Downward- and Upward-Facing Dog help strengthen the arm bones, which are particularly vulnerable to osteoporotic fractures. One study conducted at California State University showed that regular yoga practice increased bone density in the vertebrae. Moreover yoga’s ability to lower our cortisol levels may help keep calcium in the bones.
10. Improves our brain function.
In yoga, as in meditation, we learn to focus on the present moment. This helps to improve our ability to solve problems and to acquire and recall information better. Research has also found that regular yoga practice improves coordination, reaction time, memory, and even IQ scores.
More and more research is being published all over the world that shows regular yoga practice brings many benefits to the body. So, maybe now is the time to start a regular yoga practice? Enjoy!