YOGA is a 5,000 year old Ancient Indian practice developed to integrate or “yoke” (yoga) the mind, body, and spirit. In the West, it is largely identified as a physical practice with a series of bodily poses that are performed in conjunction with breathing techniques and meditation. It is, however, more accurately considered an entire eight-limbed lifestyle that includes codes of ethics, morals and behaviors, dietary restrictions, and more. It is perceived to be a “science” and technology for living by its practitioners.
There are many different schools of yoga that focus on different body postures, sequences, and aspects of the practice, where some consider their practice to be more physically oriented and others more spiritual. Yet, the fundamental concept throughout all yoga is to become more mindful, self-aware, and “awakened” to the richness and fullness of the present moment, which transcends personal dramas, negative thinking, and negative self-perception.
As Yoga International suggests, yoga has profound effects on healing the mind and body through improving “brain-body communication.” This means that it facilitates the “bi-directional” transfer of neural information from the brain to the body and vice versa, including both “top-down” cognitive process (brain to body) and “bottom-up” psychological input (body to brain). During the practice, information is transmitted in a feedback loop from the body to high and low level brain networks and from those brain networks back to the body. This loop is thought to facilitate self-regulation, which is an important component of stress relief and psychological well-being.
Yoga International explains that through yoga, we learn to balance the body’s stress response and strengthen the regulatory response as we practice. We also learn to manage the physical, emotional, and psychological tensions experienced while practicing various postures, breathing, and meditative techniques, which strengthens our ability to maintain balance in other areas of our lives. It is this feedback sent as we practice that facilitates this process of self-regulation and control over our emotions.
Studies show that yogic movements can have profound physical benefits for enhancing endurance and flexibility as well as preventing sickness and disease, promoting hormone balance, increasing circulation, supporting weight loss, and boosting the immune system. Yoga also strengthens emotional characteristics such as compassion, contentment, and greater self-control and self-regulation. Additionally, it is scientifically shown to have profound effects on mental illness, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, emotional pain, and self-reported feelings of mindfulness. As such, it can be considered a complementary therapy for effectively reducing the effects of generalized anxiety disorders.
It is shown to measurably and effectively reduce stress through reducing the stress hormone cortisol and improving the mood. It also decreases physiological arousal -- reduced heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration, which contributes to stress release. Evidence shows that yoga helps increase heart rate variability, which is an indicator of the body’s ability to handle and respond to stress healthfully. Additionally, it is shown to strengthen pain tolerance, physical and emotional resiliency, and reduce pain responses.