Almost 200 million people in the world practice yoga. In the U.S. alone 36,7 million people are practicing. A staggering 34% of Americans say they’re likely to try it in the next 12 months, that’s 80 million peeps.
You and I all know people who got hooked after trying it for the first time, right?
But what exactly explains the well-being and bliss often reported after a class? What keeps people practicing?
And why do some people credit yoga, as one of the main tools, helping them cope in times of stress?
If you want to understand the psychological mechanisms behind it, just keep scrolling down.
By the way, is there anything better than having neuro, psychology, and yoga all in the same sentence?! (I’m full-on nerd mode here, bear with me, will you?)
Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization.
– B.K.S. Iyengar
Yoga Goes Way Back
Most traditions and schools claim yoga is 5000 years-old. Considered a divine science of life, yoga’s goal was the attainment of the highest meditation state, known as Samadhi.
Yoga was first mentioned in a collection of scriptures called the Vedas, dating back to 2500 B.C., but it’s the later part of the Vedas, The Upanishads that provide the foundation of yoga and the philosophy known as Vedanta.
The central idea of Vedanta is Brahman – the absolute reality or consciousness that underlies the entire universe.
The Bhagavad Gita is the fundamental yoga scripture. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna teaches the warrior Arjuna how to achieve liberation from suffering through fulfilling his duties in life.
However, it’s only in the classic hatha yoga text Hatha Yoga Pradipika that we can find descriptions of the postures (asanas) and breathing exercises, that form what we now call yoga.
Even though most people try yoga to improve their fitness level or health, the benefits reported, go away beyond the physical.
The aim of yoga is to relief suffering and promote psychological, physical and spiritual thriving.
Does this scream positive psychology or is just me?
To understand how yoga produces self-regulation and well-being, let’s look at the different components of yoga.
In ancient yoga scriptures, the yogis are seen sitting in meditation.
It’s only later that the postures (asanas) emerged as a means of physically training to be able to sit for long meditation periods.
The path of yoga, also referred to as a path of liberation (from suffering) is comprised of eight parts:
As you see, meditation is a huge part of it. Most of the research is aimed at this element of yoga.
To understand the mechanisms underlying the benefits of yoga, we need to first understand suffering and stress.
Suffering as a Mental Habit
How often have you heard the expression: people don’t change? But most of us agree that we’re not the same person we were when we were babies or teenagers, or in our twenties.
We build our sense of self by a continuous strand of perception, awareness from our senses, and cognitive appraisal.
So, in fact, we are constantly changing, every 500 milliseconds to be precise. (You can throw this gem of information next time someone blurts out: people just don’t change, see how annoyed they get. Yep, you’re welcome!)
What this leads to is a perception of reality that was shaped by all your experiences, fears, expectations, beliefs and so on.
The sum of that amounts to a biased chunk of reality. Everyone has their own. No one has an unbiased perspective of reality because no one is immune to perception, fears, beliefs, etc.
The question is whether your perception of reality is self-serving or self-hindering? Is it adaptive or maladaptive?
In essence, maladaptive thought patterns come down to a negative bias that keeps being reinforced.
Aaron Beck played a central role in the development of cognitive-behavioral therapy. His cognitive model of depression shows how a negative bias influences the perception of the:
Basically, when the mind is filled with anger, anxiety, and sadness, it continually reinforces a negative self-perception, perception of the world, experiences, and the future.
This shapes both our memory and our imagined future.
Stress Less or Stress Better?
Stress is a state triggered by a psychological, environmental or physiological stressor that affects the stability of our internal environment (homeostasis).
In very simple terms, stress is a response to a perceived threat. Perceived being the key word here. You’ll see why further below.
This response includes physiological changes aimed to help deal with the threat.
Our autonomic nervous system is divided into 2 systems:
- the parasympathetic nervous system – in charge of the “rest and digest” response
- the sympathetic nervous system – in charge of the “fight or flight” response
The immediate response to stress is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This basically prepares our body to respond to the threat either by attacking or escaping. The body does this by mobilizing energy.
The energy is directed towards our limbs, enabling us to react quickly and withdrawing energy from other systems like the digestive. (It makes sense, you’re not gonna grab some guacamole and chips in a middle of a crisis, right?)
In a state of stress, the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis (HPA axis) is activated. The HPA plays an important role in our natural reaction to stress. It includes a group of neuroendocrine structures:
- hypothalamus – is a neuroendocrine structure located above the brain stem
- pituitary gland – is a hormone-secreting gland that sits below the hypothalamus, it releases hormones into the blood stream that can travel down to the kidneys and influence the secretion of hormones from the adrenal glands
- adrenal glands – sit on top of the kidneys and produce epinephrine (aka adrenaline), norepinephrine and cortisol – the mighty stress hormone.
Stress triggers the hypothalamus to release corticotropin-releasing hormones (CRH). This signals the pituitary gland to secrete a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream.
Then the ACTH travels down to the adrenal glands, causing the secretion of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
The release of cortisol triggers multiple changes that help the body deal with stress, like mobilizing glucose so that our body has enough energy to cope.
Epinephrine and norepinephrine promote alertness by increasing blood flow to muscles, making sure they’re ready to act.
When the cortisol levels of the brain are high, instead of signaling the brain to stop releasing cortisol, a negative feedback occurs and more of it is released.
Leading to continuous activation of the HPA axis and excess cortisol release.
With me so far?
In a healthy response to stress, the hypothalamus will signal the brain to stop secreting cortisol.
In a state of depression, the endocrine and immune systems are persistently activated, leading to this continuous negative feedback loop.
In the long term, this can lead to a decrease of reproductive and growth hormones, cardiovascular disease and other pathologies.
Eustress, I Stress, Everyone Stresses Occasionally
Here’s the thing. Not all stress is unhealthy. In fact, we all need a certain amount of stress to get our buns moving, doing, creating and training.
Eustress is a positive and adaptive response to stress that can lead to a sense of fulfillment or other positive feelings.
The difference between eustress (the good kind) and distress (the bad kind)?
Yep, good old perception is really what determines whether or not we get caught in a negative feedback loop or quickly recover from stress.
An adaptive response to stress is marked by a short recovery time. Resilience corresponds to a fast and efficient response to stress.
People who perceive stress as a threat, normally have longer recovery times.
Other people perceive stress as a challenge, allowing their bodies to self-regulate and manage stress in healthy ways.
Stress actually promotes neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to reshape itself throughout life because it can give us an experience of novelty, potentially restructuring our brains to healthier patterns.
The problem is long-term stress and a lack of ability to manage it.
To Perceive or Not to Perceive
Abiola Keller and colleagues decided to test how the perception of stress influences health in a study by the University of Wisconsin. They brought participants in and asked them this:
How much does stress affect your health?
- People who reported stress to have a big toll on their health had 43% increased risk of dying.
- People who perceived stress to have little or no impact on their health had the lowest risk of dying and were the healthiest.
Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.
– B.K.S. Iyengar
Thanks Cat, now how does this all relate to yoga?
It doesn’t, I just wanted to look smart and talk brainy stuff. Kidding!
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class and you’re not a former dancer or super flexible, you’ve probably experienced a whole lot of stress. The good kind that is.
Let’s put it this way, it’s challenging. When I started doing yoga, I could hardly breathe in downward dog.
We’re applying stress to our muscles and using mindfulness practices to cope with that stress.
Disengaging from the stressor and moving quickly towards recovery through stillness and awareness, by focusing more on what our body is telling us and less in our thought patterns.
Awareness is for yoga what perception is for stress: pivotal.
But How Exactly Does it Work?
I’ll start by saying there’s a ton of science about meditation and mindfulness but not so much about yoga.
Dr. David Vago, a neurocognitive scientist, instructor at Harvard Medical School and a long-time yoga practitioner created an overarching framework that allows us to understand how yoga helps transform our sense of self and the way we respond to stress.
Remember the four components of yoga?
- Breathing Exercises
Together they help shape our brains to more adaptive, healthier patterns.
We’ve seen how our sense of self is built and how a stress reaction looks like from a neuroscientific perspective.
Our brain has different networks through which we process information, these networks correspond to different brain regions.
1. Starting at an unconscious level the perceptual-motor system is how our brain lets us know what’s going on around us. It’s the system operating when we plan to move or act (without actually moving), but there’s no conscious awareness here.
2. The central executive network system is the part of our brains engaged in attention demanding tasks. This part is focused on the present, there’s no rumination or worrying here. It’s the awareness without cognitive evaluation.
3. The default mode network is where we spend the majority of our lives. It’s responsible for the self-narrative processes (aka the stories we build), therefore it’s the place of a lot of rumination, worrying and mind drifting. In more adaptive ways it’s also where planning and creative incubation occurs.
4. The frontoparietal control network is where meta-awareness takes place. Meta-awareness is our ability to reflect on our thoughts and patterns. Suffering is a maladaptive thought pattern. And it’s this part of the brain that is activated through yoga and meditation.
Light bulbs anyone?
Benefits Cooler Than Handstands
Yoga acts on a variety of different ways.
1. The ethics component can lead to prosocial and altruistic behavior, facilitating an increase in empathy.
2.The development of meta-awareness is fundamental in order to replace maladaptive thought patterns for healthier ones and it’s one of the key benefits of yoga.
3. The breathing exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest response to stress. Increasing vagal tone and decreasing heart rate. Therefore, modulating a healthy response to stress and decreasing recovery time.
4. The development of body awareness opens a channel of communication between high-level and low-level systems of the brain. In simple terms, your body gives you valuable information, and yoga allows you to develop the ability to attune to that information.
5. It increases active inference over perceptual inference. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you’re going to your first yoga class and you’re obsessing about how unfit you are and how you’re positive you’re gonna embarrass yourself. This is what we call perceptual inference. Then you start class, and the teacher has you focusing on the sensations in your body and on your breath, you switch to an active inference, focusing on what’s going on in your body and not so much to the chatter between your ears.
6. All this allows you to integrate both the cognitive information and the information from your body.
Wrapping It Up
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor E. Frankl
Yoga is more than a bunch of fancy postures or breathing exercises. It’s fundamental life training. What you learn on your yoga mat travels with you and impacts every area of your life.
Most of us heard some variation of this. Now, we understand the neuropsychological mechanisms behind it.
This world is changing so fast that uncertainty and chaos are sneaking in on most of us.
We all have challenges, an ever expanding to do list, goals we want to achieve and the inevitable breakup, epic business fail, profound loss, betrayl, you name it.
I think more and more people are turning to yoga, consciously or unconsciously aware of this. That we need grounding practices when the floor is shaky.
That we need to train these essencial life skills.
That learning to respond to stress and practicing healthier responses is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
And might just be a great contribution for a kinder world.
Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.
– B.K.S. Iyengar
Now we know why.
Next, I’d love to hear from you. Are you practicing yoga? What benefits and changes did you see in your own life? Drop me a comment below.
Gard, T., Noggle, J. J., Park, C. L., Vago, D. R., & Wilson, A. (2014). Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8.
Harvard Health Publications. (2015). Yoga for anxiety and depression. Retrieved here.
Yoga Journal, Yoga Alliance (2016). Yoga in America. Retrieved here.
Shapiro, D., Cook, I. A., Davydov, D. M., Ottaviani, C., Leuchter, A. F., & Abrams, M. (2007). Yoga as a complementary treatment of depression: Effects of traits and moods on treatment outcome. , 4(4), . Retrieved here.